Impeachment is currently the talk of Washington, and as the American (and global) public tune in to weigh the conduct of the polarizing US President, it is worth remembering that the proceedings are the direct result of the Trump Administration’s approach to foreign policy.
Under the “America First” banner, President Trump has largely broken with American foreign policy orthodoxy. Launching trade wars, questioning the value of long-standing security alliances, and withdrawing from global treaties.
President Trump’s decision to refocus US foreign policy towards unilateralism and even isolationism has brought on a seismic shift in the rules-based international order. America no longer seems willing to expend as much effort to support and uphold the global structures, institutions and norms that do not lead to a zero-sum win for the US. The concept of mutually beneficial deal making seems to be a thing of the past with respect to American foreign policy.
That being said, Trump’s unconventional approach has yielded some optimism that the US can conclude a transformational trade agreement with China, which is needed to reset the relationship of the world’s two greatest powers. While these moves have the potential to be ground-breaking, they are primarily motivated by the President’s desire to confirm his image as the dealmaker in chief and cement his legacy.
This extreme shift in foreign policy has had a demonstrable impact on the perception by global audiences of the US, with the US registering its lowest ever ranking in Portland’s fifth annual Soft Power 30 report. The report highlights the importance of deploying attraction and persuasion to achieve foreign policy objectives while providing a framework for comparing nations’ respective soft power resources.
Soft power is useful as a foreign policy tactic, facilitating a simpler and more amicable path for other nations to adopt your policy agendas without creating a culture of animosity. But it is not an approach that the President cares for. Trump has paid little attention to public diplomacy, seeking to militarize US foreign policy by increasing defense spending and implementing budget cuts on the diplomatic corps.
Since the beginning of the Trump presidency, the Soft Power 30 index has reported a year-on-year decline of America’s standing, falling from first place in 2016 to third, fourth and now fifth place in 2019.
Our polling data suggests that the “America First” doctrine has not won hearts and minds abroad and this trend continued in 2019 with a general perception that the US is not the stalwart and trusted partner it once was for many. Some global leaders are vocalizing these sentiments. Last month, French President, Emmanuel Macron, described NATO as “brain dead” as a result of America’s unilateral approach to global affairs.
Can the US improve its soft power standing under the current administration?
The US still holds significant soft power assets that exist completely independent from the federal government.
American culture continues to draw in audiences across the world with its ubiquitous entertainment industries reaching every corner of the globe. Home to the highest number of top universities, the US continues to attract more international students (about one million) than any other country. The US is also home to giants of the tech industry, including Amazon, Apple, Tesla, Google and Microsoft – all making outsized contributions that drive innovation and progress. With trust in the American government eroding – both at home and abroad – these non-state sources of American soft power are left to uphold an otherwise crumbling international reputation.
Foreign policy is rarely a decisive issue in a presidential election, but there are plenty of calls from the Democratic field of candidates to restore America’s position as the leading voice for defending democracy, upholding international order and promoting human rights. A Democratic president is more likely to restore both funding and a renewed sense of purpose to the State Department. Moreover, they will likely return America to its traditional foreign policy moorings.
For Trump, a second term is likely to continue the same course, with a preference for hard power over soft power, disruption over stability and unilateral action over multilateral partnerships. The result is likely to be further deterioration in American soft power, and possibly even traditional allies working to balance against a rapacious United States.
Measurement and evaluation