Donald Trump's Abandonment of American Soft Power Politics
Trump Focused on Hard Power Politics
Since the fall of the USSR America has sustained its global hegemony through selective use of both hard and soft power politics. Hard power politics, which include coercive policies such as military interventions and economic sanctions, have always underpinned America's global preeminence. With the largest navy, army and nuclear arsenal, the United States has time and again relied on both military action and the threat of engagement to shape global affairs. However, given the American involvement (to be kind) in the protracted conflicts in the Middle East and the expansion of global terrorism, the U.S. has been forced to rely on the dominant soft power cultural and social prowess of the United States to repair the damage caused by faulty hard power practices.
Soft power is defined as a government's ability to shape policy abroad through attraction and co-option rather than coercion (Nye 1990). While not always successful in military encounters, America has remained unmatched as a soft power hegemon since the end of the Cold War, particularly when compared to competing world powers. Soft power, when utilized correctly, can be a far more efficient and less obtuse tool for promoting the global political and economic favored by the United States than hard power alternatives.
Central to America's soft power prowess has been its promotion of democratic institutions and values throughout the latter half of the 20th and the early 21st century. Stewed in rhetoric promising to liberate the masses burdened by the inability to voice their personal and collective concerns, the popularity of both democracy and the United States soared throughout the 1980's and 1990's. In just twenty years, the number of democratic states recognized by the Polity IV democracy database more than doubled from 37 in 1980 to 80 by the turn of the century (Marshall 2014). With this expansion of democracy, U.S. cultural and academic exports also became more abundant. From Hollywood films and hip-hop music to the literary works of Mark Twain, the "American Dream" became a global phenomenon. Within this exuberance the U.S. was able to control much of the world's financial and political assets without much resistance from even its greatest historical rivals.
Following the tragedy of 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, President George W. Bush oversaw a steady decline in foreign perceptions of America and its values. While the election of President Obama mended some of these broken fences, his expansion of the U.S. drone strike program and his inability to close Guantanamo Bay, amongst other failures, left America in need of further rebranding.
Instead America got Trump.
European Opinions of US Candidates and Presidents
With the election of the alt-right sympathizer, foreign perceptions of America have taken a nose-dive. President Trump has taken no time at all to signal his intent to rely upon coercive strategies over more nuanced and sustainable soft power policies. In the Americas alone, Trump has already offended the U.S.'s closest neighbors. In Canada Trump holds a 16-percent approval rating (Erickson 2017). In Mexico his approval rating stands at just 2-percent (Toosi 2014). In Mexico this abysmal rate is less surprising given Trump's push to construct a border wall between the two countries, which again he has attempted to enforce through threat of sanctions rather than through more diplomatic soft power strategies. Beyond the immediate geographic proximity of the U.S., the election of Trump has already provoked riots not only throughout the United States, but also in cities as distant as Auckland, Rome, Prague and Nairobi (BBC 2017). His stance on nuclear weapons, which he has levied to increase production of for the first time since the end of the Cold War, has frightened America's closest allies, as have his continual statements regarding the obsolescence of NATO.
Worse still, Trump has done his best to damage both American and global democracy: the U.S.'s most powerful soft power weapon. Having previously claimed the domestic electoral system is a sham, citing illusory voter fraud, Trump has gone so far as to suggest that little divides the American political and judicial systems from those controlled by Russian Premier Vladimir Putin (Tatum 2017). While the current administration may see no problem abandoning soft power politics in favor of hard-line actions that cost more and do less, the damage being done by the current administration to both national and global democracy will require generations to repair.
The number of global democracies has already begun to decline, with this downward trend likely to continue throughout the Trump presidency. Despite his promise to "Make America Great Again," the country benefiting most from these hard power tactics is the country best positioned to rival America for global economic, military and political supremacy: China. Though the U.S. currently holds distinct advantaged over the autocratic state in all three of these categories, China's is a rising tide. In the past, though both China and the U.S. have had a foreign presence throughout the developing world, the U.S. has managed to retain its position as global superpower in large part due to the attraction America presents. Without the allure of the American Dream for potential immigrants, put off by Trump's harsh demands, China may very well become the next best option. China President Xi Jinping recently declared his country's intent to invest nearly $60 billion in Africa, far more than the U.S., while China's recent dialogue with South American states may be a precursor to China enhancing its stance in America's own backyard (Benabdallah and Robertson 2016).
Democracy and America were once synonymous. For over two and a half centuries the American Bill of Rights has stood as defining document in the advancement of democracy over monarchy, autocracy and oligarchy. Though cultural exports from the U.S. are still popular throughout the global south, the U.S. Government cannot afford to lose sight of the benefits of soft power political strategies. Neither during his campaign or short tenure in the White House has Donald Trump shown any effort to expand the fledgling democratic institutions present throughout the world, instead he has relied on a myopic domestic focus that has prioritized gaining votes over both domestic and international stability. While hard power politics are at times an undesirable necessity, distancing America from fundamental democratic values, such as free speech and governmental transparency, helps America's enemies more than it benefits its people.
Democracy has a number of endemic problems, but it also possesses inherent strengths capable of preventing warfare, minimizing poverty and empowering individuals that are vital to both the survival of American hegemony and the continuation of international political and economic cooperation. Hopefully Trump will realize sooner rather than later that even he can't afford to abandon soft power politics completely.
Which should be prioritized by Donald Trump?
Benabdullah, L. and Winslow Robertson. (2016). Washington Post. "China pledged to invest $60 billion in Africa. Here's what that means." https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2016/01/07/china-pledged-to-invest-60-billion-in-africa-heres-what-that-means/?utm_term=.b1312498db81
BBC. (2017). "Donald Trump protests attract millions across US and world" http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38705586
Erickson, A. (2017). Washington Post. "Here's How Canadians Want Trudeau to Handle Trump" https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/02/10/heres-how-canadians-want-trudeau-to-handle-trump/?utm_term=.d95337767f56
Marshall, M. (2014). Polity IV Index. http://www.systemicpeace.org/polity/polity4.htm
Nye, J. (1990). Soft Power. Foreign Policy, (80), 153-171. doi:10.2307/1148580
Tatum, S. (2017). CNN. "Trump Defends Putin: So you think our country's so innocent?" http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/04/politics/donald-trump-vladimir-putin/
Toosi, N. (2016). Politico. "Why is Enrique Peña Meeting Trump?" http://www.politico.com/story/2016/08/why-is-enrique-pena-nieto-meeting-trump-227586
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.