For much of the last century, the United States has sustained its status as a global superpower by tempering its military might with the promotion of democratic values and the strength of American culture around the world.

That hearts and minds approach, or America’s soft power – the ability to achieve objectives through attraction and persuasion – has been essential to effective foreign policy and successful global trade. But according to two leading global surveys, America’s ability to be influential without wielding a big stick is being tarnished by changes that put the U.S. at odds with traditional allies. 

Results of both surveys found that people around the world feel significant unease about the U.S., a feeling that is putting the global trading system we know today into flux and is changing the face of America’s global diplomacy.

“According to new research, America’s ability to be influential without wielding a big stick is being tarnished.– Click to tweet

Confidence in President Trump Remains Low 

Respondents in each survey cited significant concerns about America’s role in world affairs and changes in U.S. global policies, which indicate that the U.S. is no longer interested in taking the lead. Each of the annual reports said that America’s image in the world continues to slide after an initial dip in 2016. 

Soft Power 30: A global ranking of Soft Power 2018 is an index designed to rank countries according to their global influence. It concluded that the strength of America’s soft power is being eroded under the banner of ‘America First.’





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“According to Soft Power 30,  the strength of America’s soft power is being eroded under the banner of ‘America First.’”– Click to tweet

The second survey, a poll covering 25 nations by the Pew Research Center, showed that America’s global image, which took a big hit in 2017, continued to deteriorate in many countries in 2018, particularly in Europe. Pew Research found that frustrations with the U.S. in the Trump era are particularly common among some of America’s closest allies and partners. 

In Germany, where just 10% have confidence in Trump, three in four people say the U.S. is doing less these days to address global problems, and the share of the German public who believe the U.S. respects personal freedoms is down 35 percentage points since 2008. In France, only 9% have confidence in Trump, while 81% think the U.S. doesn’t consider the interests of countries like France when making foreign policy decisions.

What is Soft Power? 

What the business leaders, lawmakers, and citizens of another country think about your country is important. 

Political scientist Joseph Nye Jr. pioneered the concept of soft power in the late 1980s. For Nye, power is the ability to influence the behavior of others to get the outcomes you want. Soft power – getting others to want the outcomes you want – is about attracting and co-opting people rather than coercing them.Or as one social psychologist said, “Coercive power forces people to do things. Soft power inspires them.”

Coercive power forces people to do things. Soft power inspires them. Is America losing its ability to inspire?”– Click to tweet

The Soft Power 30 report concludes that while "the Brexit and Trump election results were the headline grabbing events of 2016,” in reality “they serve as the standard-bearers for a much wider trend that constitutes the first threat to the liberal international order: the rising tide of populism in Western states." 

Indeed, there are other factors that change a country’s soft power quotient. As Nye wrote, “A country’s soft power can come from three resources: its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority).”

In a Foreign Policy article,The Rise and Fall of Soft Power, Eric X. Li, a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai, argued that soft power is actually very fragile and easily changed. “For a good couple of decades, soft power, compounded by the internet and social media, really seemed unstoppable,” Li explained.  “When the West was confident of its soft power, it cherished the belief that the more open a society, the better. But now calls for censorship are routine.”

In a 2017 research paper, three business academics from China identified a shift in the impact of soft power on global business. In A Study On The Impact Of Soft Power On International Investment, the authors described how national image, native culture, control of international rules, and influence on international organizations have a significant impact on international investment. 

The growing impact of these characteristics, the authors wrote, illustrates a slight shift from the primary importance of industry advantage, scale advantage, location advantage, and organizational advantage. “The country's soft power is difficult to be perceived and measured, but it means a lot to the success of the investment.”

Zero-Sum Game

There may be multiple factors that influence soft power, but the Soft Power 30 and Pew Research reports clearly singled out a change in the U.S. foreign policies, which some allies say indicate that the U.S. is doing less than in the past to address global problems.

The authors of Soft Power 30 said ‘America First’ rhetoric is “firmly anchored in a populist-nationalist mindset that views every conceivable international engagement in zero-sum terms. There must be a winner and a loser in every transaction.” 

Pew Research also found that many people around the world believe that the U.S. “is doing less to help solve major global challenges than it used to” and that the U.S. doesn’t take into account the interest of other countries when making foreign policy decisions.  

“According to Pew Research, many people around the world believe that the U.S. ‘is doing less to help solve major global challenges than it used to.’– Click to tweet

The Soft Power 30 authors drilled down to explain how the U.S. government is impacting the country’s soft power. They pointed specifically to damage done by three significant changes in U.S. foreign policy: 

  • Abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)
  • Withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement
  • The unilateral exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – better known as the Iran nuclear deal

The authors concluded, “Taken together, these shifts in policy create an inconsistent and unpredictable U.S. foreign policy that gives America the paradoxical look of a great power in retreat.” 

All is Not Lost 

Although the U.S. took a hit on its government-influenced soft power, both reports talked about the benefits of America’s long history of strength on the global stage.

The Soft Power 30 index ranks countries by six sub-indexes: digital, enterprise, culture, education, engagement, and government. The U.S. fell from No. 12 in 2017 to No. 16 in 2018 in the government sub-index. But it ranked No. 1 – indicating a high degree of soft power – in three sub-indexes: digital, culture, and education. 

Soft Power 30 authors explained these strengths: 

  • American cultural and creative influence has had unrivalled global reach for decades. Art, film, music, sport, and tourism have all helped to sustain the soft power influence the United States around the world.
  • Education has also long been a key part of America’s soft power strengths. The U.S. boasts the highest number of top universities in the world, attracts the largest number of international students, and contributes significantly to academic research. 
  • And more recently, the influence and innovations of America’s tech giants is being credited for the country’s strong performance in the soft power of digital diplomacy – the use of digital tools to help achieve diplomatic objectives.

“The U.S. ranked No. 1 – indicating a high degree of soft power – in three sub-indexes: digital, culture, and education.– Click to tweet

Joseph Nye explained the differences between government and non-government influences on soft power. In a Foreign Policy article about how soft power is often cultural power, Nye said that while governments could control and change foreign policies they can only promote – not control – popular culture. “In that sense,” Nye said, “one of the key resources that produce soft power is largely independent of government control.”

Regaining Soft Power 

In 2017, the Soft Power 30 warned of a sizable upswing in geopolitical volatility and underlined a global rebalancing of power. The 2018 report confirms that concerns were justified and threats to global order are real.

On balance, the Soft Power 30 authors said they still see cause for cautious optimism – but to maintain that optimism, soft power will need to carry the day.

They offered a suggestion about how soft power might do that. “The best hope for American soft power is for non-federal government actors to take up a bigger role in engaging the rest of the world. Mayors and governors need to get serious about taking on active diplomatic roles, and circumventing the federal level structures.”

They added that American business, universities, and “civil society” could step up and take leadership roles in maintaining strength in soft power. They concluded: “In doing so, they can stem some of the self-inflected bleeding to Brand America.”

NOTE: The Researchers 

The Soft Power 30 index is compiled by Portland, a London-based PR firm, together with the University of Southern California (USC) Center on Public Diplomacy, and Facebook, which provided data on governments’ online impact. This is the fourth year they have published the annual report. Researchers looked at a combination of objective data and polling data, with a sample size of 11,000 people in 25 countries.

Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world. It does not take policy positions. The Center conducts public opinion polling, demographic research, content analysis and other data-driven social science research.

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