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Recommitting the United States to Soft Power Strategies


August 2, 2018


In the late 1980s, political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. first described the concept of soft power. Whereas hard power relies on inducements (carrots) and threats (sticks), soft power gets others to want the outcomes you want without the threat of coercion. Soft power is determined by the attractiveness of a country’s culture, domestic values, and the substance of its foreign policy. Historically, the United States used its soft power to strengthen its cultural and moral appeal abroad. During the Cold War, America used the power of attraction to bolster its image as the leader of the free world and a superior alternative to Soviet authoritarianism.

In recent years, America’s soft power has waned. In 2017, President Trump’s Budget Director Mick Mulvaney announced a “hard power budget,” cutting 30% of the State Department and USAID budgets. Funding for public health, food security, women’s rights, and other aspects of America’s non-military influence overseas, has been critically weakened.

In a Pew Research poll, 50% of individuals surveyed across 33 nations held a positive view of the United States, trailed by China (48%) and Russia (35%). America’s prestige declined most significantly in Asia. Another Pew poll found that South Korea and Japan, America’s most reliable Asian allies, experienced a 71% and 54% drop, respectively, regarding trust in the American president’s judgment. These statistics depict a blow to America’s global prestige and an increasingly positive perception of authoritarian states.

Over the last few years, China has made great strides to strengthen its soft power capabilities, or “wenhua ruan shili.” Beijing’s efforts are best exemplified by their aggressive economic investment in the developing world. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative will span 0ver 60 countries and allow it to project influence across Eurasia. Beijing’s use of economic coercion makes countries and companies wary to confront Chinese illiberalism and revisionism. As a result, American allies and partners are growing less willing to cooperate with the United States on diplomatic, economic, and security issues.

In terms of soft power, Russia has relied more on cultivating a perception of renewed strength to garner international prestige. Hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup framed Russia as a resurgent world power. Their soft power efforts are contrasted by Putin’s decision to annex Crimea, wage a shadow war in Eastern Ukraine and support the genocidal Assad regime in Syria. Vladimir Putin has been unofficially dubbed “everyone’s favorite despot,” calling into question whether he and Xi Jinping are challenging America’s soft power advantage with sharp power strategies.

President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy is straining America’s global alliance structure and enabling bad behavior from authoritarian leaders. His strategy risks forfeiting America’s moral authority and post-war commitment as the chief promoter of human rights and democracy. Perceiving America to be opportunistic and unreliable, economist Adam Posen argues that countries will increasingly bypass the United States to construct a “post-American world economy.”

Sustainable soft power comes from character-driven leadership and a system of government and values worth emulating. Eurasian strongmen offer a facade of toughness and order, but their soft power lacks what America’s promises: Freedom, human rights, democracy, and equality. If the United States wishes to remain the bedrock of the liberal international order – albeit ensure the sustained existence of this order – it must recommit itself to strengthening its soft power capabilities.

DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute is a nonpartisan organization that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.

Publish Date
August 2, 2018