Fri, Feb 09, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Donald Trump and the decline of US soft power

By Joseph Nye

Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views, or based on a narrow conception of national interests can undermine soft power. For example, the steep decline in the attractiveness of the US in opinion polls conducted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 were a reaction to then-US president George W. Bush’s administration and its policies, rather than to the US generally.

The Iraq War was not the first government policy that made the US unpopular. In the 1970s, many people around the world objected to the US war in Vietnam, and the US’ global standing reflected the unpopularity of that policy.

When the policy changed and the memories of the war receded, the US recovered much of its lost soft power. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Iraq War, the US managed to recover much of its soft power in most regions of the world (although less so in the Middle East).

Skeptics might still argue that the rise and fall of US’ soft power does not matter much, because countries cooperate out of self-interest, but this argument misses a crucial point: cooperation is a matter of degree, and the degree is affected by attraction or repulsion.

Moreover, the effects of a country’s soft power extend to non-state actors — for example, by aiding or impeding recruitment by terrorist organizations. In an information age, success depends not only on whose army wins, but also on whose story wins.

One of the greatest sources of the US’ soft power is the openness of its democratic processes. Even when mistaken policies reduce its attractiveness, the US’ ability to criticize and correct its mistakes makes it attractive to others at a deeper level.

When protesters overseas were marching against the Vietnam War, they often sang We Shall Overcome, the anthem of the US civil rights movement.

The US, too, will almost certainly overcome. Given past experience, there is every to hope that the US will recover its soft power after Trump.

Joseph Nye, a former US assistant secretary of defense and chairman of the US National Intelligence Council, is University Professor at Harvard University.

Copyright: Project Syndicate 2018

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