After Nixon’s notorious Watergate scandal, his Vice President and eventual successor, Gerald Ford, uttered this optimistic line in his inaugural speech, “our long national nightmare is over.” Present-day America is currently facing many “national nightmares,” and neither a new year nor a presidential inauguration will put an automatic halt to America’s current international infamy.
America’s international reputation has suffered considerably since Trump’s inauguration in 2017, hitting a present pitfall after the historical insurrection of the United States Capitol on January 6th. Overall, America’s image is relatively tarnished, according to Pew Research Center’s most recently released statistics (2020).
“In several countries, the share of the public with a favorable view of the U.S. is as low as it has been at any point since the Center began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago […] For example, in France, only 31% see the U.S. positively, matching the grim ratings from March 2003, at the height of U.S.-France tensions over the Iraq War.”
Other countries which held a declining favorable view of the United States during the Trump administration according to this source include the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Canada, and Australia.
Diplomats attribute the decline in positive international image to a loss of soft power among America’s allies and enemies. There is a stringent difference between soft and hard power, the latter which Trump has built considerably, while the former has statistically dwindled under the Trump administration.
According to the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, “Power in international relations has traditionally been defined and assessed in easily quantifiable ‘hard’ terms, often understood in the context of military and economic might. In contrast […] soft power describes the use of positive attraction and persuasion to achieve foreign policy objectives.”
In March 2017, just a couple months after Trump’s inauguration, Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, implemented a “hard power” budget by decreasing the State Department’s funding by 30%, according to the USC Center on Diplomacy.
Trump officials often argued that soft power is irrelevant as a defense for their actions, yet unfolding events point to a striking rebuttal of this statement.
One of the most profound examples of diminishing American soft power with severe consequences is NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a party which has primarily sided with the United States prior to Trump’s presidency, switching allegiances. This is mainly due to a shrinking regard for America’s perspectives.
The most recent example of this switch is Germany and France concluding the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China on December 30th, 2020, despite deep opposition from Biden’s nominee for secretary of state Antony Blinken. This agreement was formed to resolve issues such as intellectual-property theft, yet falls short in countless areas.
A complete shift from soft to hard power has done little to conserve, nevermind elevate, America’s influence.
“The United States is the indispensable military power, but this seldom translates into genuine gratitude and more often than not slides into open anti-Americanism, as history has illustrated time and again,” according to The Diplomat.
As far as soft power is concerned, reputation and credibility work hand-in-hand to increase a country’s standing in world affairs. While reputation requires long-term defamation, credibility can be tarnished in the short term due to one widespread, essential, 21st century advancement: easily accessible technology. According to the Global Digital Overview, there are currently over four billion people online (close to 60% of the world population) and this number is rapidly growing.
The technological boom society is currently experiencing has resulted in a myriad of public information with limited time to cycle through feed. Credibility brings certain news to the forefront, and thus Trump’s social media accounts, which tend to include multiple factually incorrect statements, are one of the many factors contributing to America’s reduction in soft power.
Accurate information, such as factual news reports covering the horrific insurrection on January 6th, can also lessen a country’s soft power if said information sheds a negative light on matters.
After domestic terrorists overtook America’s capitol building, both friends and foes released statements condemning the event.
India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, a Trump ally, said on Twitter: “Distressed to see news about rioting and violence in Washington DC. Orderly and peaceful transfer of power must continue. The democratic process cannot be allowed to be subverted through unlawful protests.”
Others were more aggressive in their condemnations.
Venezuela, which is under U.S. sanctions, said the events in Washington show that the U.S. “is suffering what it has generated in other countries with its politics of aggression.”
When the January 6th tragedy occurred, a loss more consequential than America’s soft power materialized. The concept of democracy lost some of its soft power, worldwide, as well.
President Biden taking office will not automatically rebuild America’s soft power to a pre-Trump standing. Even believing that a shift in presidency will act as a circumstantial band-aid is a stretch. On January 9, 1790, George Washington said, “The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness.” America is Democracy’s grand experiment, an experiment heavily reliant on soft power, and its success or failure is in the American citizens’ hands.