July 16, 2021
It’s true… with former President Donald Trump out of the White House, America is losing.
(Actually, not really – at all… but more on that below.)
America still leads in the world in a lot of arenas – like in the number of billionaires, pet dogs, and McDonald’s. But now, after the exit of President Trump – and, mostly because of him – the United States is no longer the world leader in “soft power.”
That’s the ability of a country to influence the behavior, preferences, and actions of other nations – and companies, communities, and cultures – through attraction… rather than through forcing, compelling and strong-arming them.
“Hard power” is bullets and bombs and bullying and what helps prevail in war. But it’s soft power that secures the peace while winning hearts and minds. Hard power can create an empire – but it’s soft power that keeps the empire intact.
And according to marketing consultancy Brand Finance, which puts together an annual index of soft power, America’s standing nosedived last year. It fell from its previous position as “the only soft-power superpower” – the global No. 1 soft power by far – to a dismal No. 6 in 2021.
That means that the U.S. is ranked behind supposed “soft power” powerhouses Germany (the new No. 1), the United Kingdom (No. 3), and Switzerland (No. 5).
Of course, it’s easy to dismiss this as a (British) marketing company’s way to get a few headlines and poke Uncle Sam – and to highlight the shortcomings of the Trump White House. But there’s a lot more to it. Soft power matters, and the decline in America’s ability to influence the world is real.
The Economist recently exemplified it this week, noting the “crushing defeat” of the United States in its 20-year, $2-trillion war in Afghanistan. It was a military disaster. And it was also a soft-power defeat because America failed to instill a different vision for the tortured country by winning the hearts and minds of the people (which even the most casual observer of Central Asian history would argue was an impossibility in the first place).
But failure in Afghanistan – and Brand Finance’s ding – notwithstanding, the good thing is that the decline of American soft power isn’t terminal. There are plenty of things – four in particular – that America can do to turn it around.
Explaining Soft Power
In 1990, legendary political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” to explain a realm of foreign policy not encompassed by the more traditional avenues of influence.
He defined soft power by how a country’s ideals and values are conveyed, transmitted, and spread… how a nation’s government, companies, and people treat their friends and enemies… and how it does business around the world.
The skinny, dorky kid with glasses, who’s the most popular dude in the school and gets all the guys (or girls)?… To get to where he is, he’d have to innately understand soft power, and how to be a leader of people. Soft power is what attracts people and makes them want to work with you and be on your team. It’s how Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer got everyone else to paint the fence white.
In contrast, hard power is the currency of the bully. He doesn’t inspire loyalty, though he gets his way – at least, in the short term.
Countries that “win” find the right mix. The empires that endure use a combination of soft and hard power…
The British Empire was on top of the world for so long because it was the preeminent military power. It was also the home of industrialization and the home of the currency that everyone wanted in their pocket.
Today, of course, the British empire is a tiny shell of its former self. But Britain still punches way above its (hard power) weight, thanks to – for starters – the world’s best reality show in the royal family… the author of the foundation of all of mankind’s greatest stories, in Shakespeare… and the fact that it’s the cradle of the language that 1.5 billion people are actively trying to learn.
And then there are the Romans. Countless hard power empires from antiquity are historical footnotes. But the Romans built 50,000 miles of road and pioneered the notion of citizenship. We still quote their philosophers… and, of course, use the Roman alphabet. Without that, we’d probably think about the Romans as often as we do the Hittites (who?… yes, that’s the point).
America’s Soft-Power Power
And it has been America’s rare blend of soft power and hard power that has enabled it to remain on top of the world for the past century or so.
The United States has the world’s biggest military… and economy… and the world’s go-to currency (for now, at least). American geopolitical influence is virtually uncontested.
And through the soft power of government, business, and trade, it has projected the ideals and values of independence, diversity, generosity, opportunity, and equality.
Not to be forgotten, American culture – through entertainment, sports, and its universities, for starters – conveys similar concepts. The sitcom Friends has done far more to spread the gospel of the American way than the past half dozen wars.
As Nye recently explained…
… historically America gained the soft power of attraction from our culture, our values (when we lived up to them), and our policies (when they were seen as legitimate because they were framed with some humility and awareness of others’ interests). How our government behaves at home (for example, protecting a free press), in international institutions (consulting others and multilateralism) and in foreign policy (promoting development and human rights) affects others by the influence of our example.
But – as indicated by Nye’s parenthetical caveats in the quote above – lately, things have gone awry.
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What Happened to America?
In recent years, the U.S. has been a hard-power bully – and walked away from soft-power easy wins. It ignored or abandoned long-held security and multilateral arrangements and commitments – like its wavering support for NATO, leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, and ending funding for the World Health Organization.
It turned trade negotiations into weapons of mutual destruction and approached economic relations like they’re one-off deals… rather than an opportunity to build long-term relationships. And America barred immigrants of particular religions and ethnicities and put the children of would-be immigrants in cages.
Despite all of that, as of 2019, the U.S. was still top of the soft-power mountain. And then the pandemic hit.
Cue the non-winning of the United States in the global soft-power sweepstakes: To establish the world’s soft-power pecking order, Brand Finance surveys tens of thousands of people (from the general public, as well as specialists in a range of fields) around the world, to assess the presence, reputation, and impact – in other words, influence – on the global stage of different nations.
The survey focuses on a range of parameters relating to business, governance, international relations, culture and heritage, media, education, and values. And this year, the survey included a section on the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The U.S. placed dead last – in the 105-country survey – in that category (which helped drag down its overall rating). Much of the rest of the world viewed the U.S. management of the COVID-19 pandemic, under the helm of President Donald Trump, as historically incompetent… and that walloped the country’s soft-power standing. The turbulent presidential election and last summer’s wave of protests also contributed to America losing its position as “the world’s soft-power superpower.”
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Four Ways to Come Back From No. 6
Without soft power, the American empire will become a footnote.
But fortunately for the U.S., soft power has a long shelf life.
Friends went off the air in 2004. Yet the magic of streaming – and pirate websites – ensures that the American cultural and social values reflected in the lighthearted comedy about 20-somethings finding their way in life in Manhattan will remain a staple of how the rest of the world views the U.S. so long as the show is available.
And the half-life of America’s underlying soft-power strength has a similar kind of longevity. In other words… it will take a lot more than COVID-19 (and Donald Trump) to permanently destroy America’s soft-power standing.
But it will take some work to make it back… and the four ways below are a sound place to start.
- Reclaim America’s role at the head of the table
Candidate Biden wrote last spring that he planned to “salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and mobilize our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges.”
And so far… he has made a good start. Under President Biden, the U.S. rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, reinforced the country’s commitment to NATO, and stepped up to work with the World Health Organization. Many of the strident anti-immigrant policies of the President Trump era have been rolled back. Rather than cozying up to the likes of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden has played the alpha dog.
And more broadly – and, for soft power, maybe more importantly – the tone and tenor of the United States government has shifted… from petulant teenager who’s one blueberry-mango White Claw from driving into the ditch, to the cool and collected (if somewhat beige) grown-up in the room.
The problem is that the potato chips have been crushed… and they can’t be glued back together. The U.S. has shown that it’s a few handfuls of disgruntled voters in Florida (or Ohio or Wisconsin or name your purple state) away from wading neck-deep back into the trash hard seltzer. But in the meantime, President Biden is at least reclaiming some of America’s soft-power credibility.
- Launch a COVID-19 Marshall Plan
As I wrote in late May, America is staring down the biggest soft-power opportunity in generations… one that rivals the Marshall Plan – which solidified the position of the United States at the top of the post-World War II global pecking order – for potential long-term impact: to vaccinate the world against COVID-19.
In recent months, the U.S. has stepped up its efforts to get shots in arms around the world. For example, in mid-June the U.S. purchased and donated 500 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 92 low-income countries.
But it could be doing a lot more to marshal the will of the rich western world (and – bonus – undercut China’s efforts to build bridges with the developing world) to improve, expand, and deepen relationships with key countries and regions in a way that could reap geopolitical and economic benefits for generations – while saving millions of lives. That’s real soft power.
- Stop debasing the dollar
For about 100 years, the U.S. dollar has served as the world’s primary reserve currency. It’s the global economy’s quarterback, pitcher, and goalie wrapped up in one… it’s the most essential medium of exchange, unit of account, and store of value.
Somewhere around two-thirds of all printed dollars are used outside the United States. Seven different countries use the U.S. dollar as their official currency, while 65 others peg their national currencies to it. In 2019, just under 90% of all foreign-exchange trades involved the dollar.
The U.S. dollar is both the bricks and mortar of the global economy. And because of that, it’s a central argument for American soft power.
But the U.S. has taken advantage of the supremely privileged position of its currency. It has borrowed – and borrowed and borrowed – beyond reason. The U.S. national debt now stands at a mind-boggling $28.5 trillion. To put that in perspective, that’s nearly $85,600 in debt for every single American citizen.
There’s a limit to how many new dollars we can create until the global economy calls the U.S. government’s bluff. Just because that limit hasn’t been reached yet doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But as Uncle Sam explores the far reaches of it, the risks increase that it will kill – or at any rate, maim – the golden goose that’s the U.S. dollar… and dent America’s soft power at the same time.
The answer? Just stop borrowing. Simple, right?
- Hold elections… and protest
You might think that the vision of America’s streets filled with protestors – whatever the color of their beliefs – projects a warped vision of a thriving, unified country. Discord isn’t good for the brand – any brand. And recent elections in the United States have underscored deep political, social, and economic fissures throughout American society.
But speaking truth to power – and using the power of the ballot box to enact change – reinforces some of the most potent ingredients of soft power. As Nye explains…
“An anthem from the civil rights protest movement illustrated that America’s power to attract rested not on our government but in large part on our civil society and our capacity to be self-critical and change… Despite Trump’s churlish exit [from the White House, culminating in the January 6 attack on the Capitol], American soft power was strengthened by the fact that a federal democracy carried out an honest election in 50 states with a record turn-out despite the worst pandemic in a century. These civic sources of soft power are increasingly important in the age of social media. Even our peaceful protests can generate soft power.”
Arguably the most important element of freedom is the liberty to say (in an inside, non-violent voice): I don’t like what’s going on… and this is how I want to change it. And that’s something that, historically, America has always pulled off with messy gusto.
America’s soft power has taken a beating. It’s down… but it’s not out. And – for the sake of the future of America – it’s critical that the country’s soft power makes a comeback…
Switzerland, here we come.
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July 16, 2021