The Trump Administration has left long-lasting scars on U.S soft power in its four years of presidency. While history and the father of the concept of soft power argue that the U.S will bounce back under the Biden administration, this piece refutes that claim and discusses that it may take more than one administration to restore U.S soft power.
So what is Soft Power anyway?
Soft Power is the term coined by Harvard University’s Joseph Nye in the late 1980s and popularized in his 1990 book: “Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power”. Soft Power was defined as a country’s ability to influence foreign populations using its values, culture, policies, and institutions instead of the traditional method of hard military power. The United States has been the world’s leader in Soft Power exports since the birth of Voice of America in 1942 and the Marshall Plan in 1948, to counter the spread of communist ideals into western Europe.
Hollywood and the U.S music industry also played significant roles in spreading the American way of life and the American Dream. After watching the 1955 musical "Singin' in the Rain", British director Terence Davies was quoted as saying: “When you grew up in a Liverpool slum and you saw these American films, that’s what you thought America was like. Everyone was rich, everyone was beautiful. There was no want, no poverty; it was always summer. That’s very potent, it’s as potent as religion.”
The Soft Power Rollercoaster between the Bush and Obama Eras:
The American Attractiveness albeit being one of the United States’ strongest 21’st century weapons, faced a sharp decline during the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq. The realist-centered approach of the Bush Administration ignored the prime importance of soft power and public diplomacy. The decline in U.S soft power during the Bush era, however, was not linked to the American way of life, or American ideals, rather it was associated directly to the Bush Administration and its foreign policies. This association created the important distinction between opposition to policy and opposition to a state in general.
Throughout his presidential campaign in 2008, Barack Obama testified to the importance of the U.S soft power, and pledged to “restore the American moral standing so that America is once again that last best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom...”  Obama’s Presidency was largely successful in restoring the U.S soft power, mainly through the foreign policy approach, and the increasing levels of U.S foreign aid to third world populations, which positively shaped the image of the country among these populations.
What Happened to Soft Power under Trump?
American Soft Power took a serious hit under Trump’s presidency. The approach the president took on issues such as foreign policy, development, and international cooperation caused declining confidence in U.S leadership around the world. The 2019 Gallup Survey, polling 134 countries, and regions in the world, showed a dramatic drop of almost 20 points in favorable views of the U.S in comparison to the Obama Administration, with only thirty percent of the polled participants holding favorable views.
One can attribute the decline of U.S. soft power under Trump to five main reasons:
1. The poor management of International Cooperation as the U.S withdrew from a large number of international organizations and treaties in addition to disregard for international norms and rules;
2. The adoption of a “Hard Power” approach throughout the presidency and shifting the focus to hard resources (the U.S. Military);
3. The undermining of the U.S democratic system during both the 2016 and 2020 elections;
4. The shift in foreign policy that adopted preaching the ideals of unilateralism; and
5. The immigration policies that changed the narrative of the U.S being the place where one goes to make dreams come true.
Can the U.S Soft Power Possibly Recover?
For Joseph Nye, the father of the concept of Soft Power, the U.S Soft Power can indeed recover under the Biden Administration. In his 2021 article “American Soft Power Will Survive Donald Trump”, Nye argues that the U.S is resilient and has enough capacity to reform and rebuild the lost influence it once had. Nye compares the Soft Power situation under Trump to the situation in the 1960s when racial protests were spreading all across the country, followed by the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Nye continues to say that the reforms passed by congress at the time, and the honesty of Gerald Ford coupled with the Human Rights of Jimmy Carter and the Optimism of Ronald Reagan restored the U.S Attractiveness across the globe.
Nye’s argumentation assumes that the world is waiting for the U.S to switch leadership, for things go back to their natural course. However, this does not seem to be the case, at least for now, as all other countries including U.S allies are becoming more independent. Countries are looking at new ways to safeguard their national interest and cooperate in a world without U.S leadership. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in her first comment after President Biden’s inauguration, said: “Do not expect us to agree on everything anymore, Germany and Europe will be fighting to take on a bigger role in the world.”
Nye continued his article by addressing a message to all those who prematurely mourned American Democracy saying: “..the 2020 election saw an unprecedented turnout of voters who were able to unseat a demagogue.” However, while his argumentation is correct, it is important to note that a record number of people voted for the reelection of President Trump, which begs the question of social antagonism in the U.S and makes it unrealistic to count on one administration to restore order.
History has shown that U.S soft power always bounces back, Nye is right to assert, but it is unlikely for the Biden Administration to be able to restore soft power to its pre-Trump levels on its own, considering the many challenges the President faces both nationally (Polarization, the economy, national security…) and internationally (Restoring U.S credibility in the International Community, the Iranian Deal, China...).
About the author
Houssein is a first year Master of Public Policy Candidate at the Willy Brandt School, specializing in Conflict Studies & Management and Non-Profit Management & Social Entrepreneurship under the DAAD Helmut-Schmidt Scheme. Before coming to the Brandt School Houssein worked as an Arbitrator for International Disputes and Diplomatic Consultant at the council on Arab Economic Unity at the League of Arab States. Houssein holds a Bachelor’s in Political Science International Affairs and Minor in Conflict Analysis and Resolution from the Lebanese American University, which included a year abroad module at the Paris Institute of Political Science (Sciences Po), where he specialized in American Soft Power and Public Diplomacy.
~ The views represented in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the Brandt School. ~