Can we recover our soft power?
The United States is involved in three simultaneous crises — a pandemic, economic collapse, and protests against racism — which are hurting us both at home and abroad. Where others once admired us for our competence and values, we are now losing our attractiveness. Recent polls show a serious decline in American soft power around the world.
Can we recover it? We have done so before. Our focus on the current crises can lead us to forget the capacity of this country for resilience and reform that is our hope.
In the 1960s, our cities were in flames over racial protests, and we were mired in the Vietnam War. I remember a bomb exploding in my office building at Harvard, and massive protests in the streets outside. I remember my despair at the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — and the racist rhetoric of George Wallace and Richard Nixon. Yet in the following decade, a series of reforms passed Congress, and the honesty of Gerald Ford, the human rights policies of Jimmy Carter and the unifying optimism of Ronald Reagan proved to be restorative.
In the 1960s, when crowds marched through the world’s streets protesting American policies in Vietnam, it is worth noting that the protesters did not sing the communist “Internationale.” Instead, they sang Martin Luther King’s “We Shall overcome.” 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 reform. Smart political leaders have long understood the power that comes from values. If I can get you to want to do what I want, then I do not have to force you to do what you do not want. If the U.S. represents values that others find attractive, we can economize on sticks and carrots.
A country’s soft power comes primarily from three sources: its culture (when it is attractive to others), its political values such as democracy and human rights (when it lives up to them), and its policies (when they are seen as legitimate because they are framed with some humility and awareness of others’ interests.)
How a government behaves at home (for example, protecting a free press and the right to protest), in international institutions (consulting others and multilateralism), and in foreign policy (promoting development and human rights) can affect others by the influence of example.
In all of these areas — even before the current crises — President Trump had reversed attractive American policies, and our decline in the international polls reflected it.
Fortunately, America is more than the government.
Unlike hard-power assets (such as armed forces), many soft-power resources are separate from the government and are only partly responsive to its purposes. Hollywood movies which showcase independent women or protesting minorities can attract others. So, too, does the charitable work of U.S. foundations and the freedom of inquiry at American universities. Firms, universities, foundations, churches, and protest movements develop soft power of their own which may reinforce or be at odds with official foreign policy goals.
These private sources of soft power are increasingly important in the age of social media. Our peaceful protests can actually generate soft power. That is why governments at all levels must make sure that their own actions and policies do not squander that soft power. Domestic or foreign policies that appear hypocritical, arrogant, indifferent to others’ views — or based on a narrow conception of national interests — can undermine soft power. When President Trump says, “America First,” the question is not whether the president tries to defend the national interest: it is how he defines that interest that makes the moral difference.
In coping with the pandemic crisis, President Trump went from denial to delay to shifting blame to withdrawal from international cooperation. Imagine, instead, if he had taken the lead in organizing a COVID-19 defense fund open to all poor countries. Like the Marshall Plan in 1948, it would be good for us, but also good for others.
Unfortunately, we missed that opportunity, but our crises are not over, and faced with the need for domestic and international reforms, we may again discover leadership that is unifying rather than divisive.
The open values of our democratic society and the right to peaceful protest are among the greatest sources of America’s soft power. Even when mistaken government policies reduce our attractiveness, the ability of American society to criticize itself and correct our own mistakes makes us attractive to others at a deeper level.
We have done it before; we can do it again.
Joseph S. Nye, Jr. is a professor at Harvard University and the author of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.” He served as undersecretary of State and chairman of the National Security Council group on nuclear nonproliferation during the Carter administration, as assistant secretary of Defense and chairman of the National Intelligence Council during the Clinton administration, and as a member of the State Department’s Foreign Affairs Policy Board during the Obama administration.
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