President Trump and America’s Soft Power

William A. Rugh

The effectiveness of America’s “soft power” comes from the ability to attract foreign governments and peoples because they find our political, social and cultural achievements, our principles and our foreign policies worth emulating. Soft power contrasts with the “hard power” that derives from global military and economic advantages.  America’s soft power enhances our national interests abroad.

Our diplomats benefit from soft power. When I was a U.S. Foreign Service Officer working in the Arab world my colleagues and I were well aware of how important soft power was. Although many Arabs were highly critical of our foreign policies, especially in relation to Israel and Palestine, most had high respect for the American practice of democracy, the efficiency of our government, our economic success, our free press, our education and justice systems, and our respect for minorities and all religions, including Islam. That basic respect for our practices and values made our jobs as diplomats much easier. 

During the 18-month-long American presidential election campaign and the election of Donald Trump, he has strongly criticized all these American values and practices. He said the U.S. economy was failing badly. He called the American press dishonest. Disputing independent studies of the election, he said that millions of votes were cast illegally. He disparaged the U.S. intelligence agencies as incompetent and politically biased. He called for a return to torture, although it is illegal. 

Foreigners heard these criticisms and they undermined the respect for America that had been building over decades. His criticisms had a much greater impact abroad than in previous elections because social media are now globally pervasive, and because people all over the world are interested in what is happening inside the United States.

Mr. Trump has also alarmed many people abroad by his remarks on foreign policy. He criticized NATO and the United Nations, both institutions that have been central to American policy for generations. He indicated he might increase America’s nuclear arsenal, despite years of American leadership in non-proliferation.  His Islamophobic remarks have angered many of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, and he appointed as his national security advisor a retired general who said Islam was not a religion but an ideology that we must fight against. He has selected as his ambassador to Israel a man who advocates moving our embassy to Jerusalem, a move that would seriously alienate both Arabs and Muslims.

As Mr. Trump takes office, it is not clear exactly what his policies will be as president, because many of his pronouncements have been vague. Some commentators hopefully predict that he will modify his views once he is in office. But meanwhile, his pronouncements on the United States and on its foreign policies have already damaged America’s soft power abroad. Foreign publics have heard harsh criticism of our society, its political system and its institutions from the man who won the presidency and that criticism carries considerable weight with them. Foreign leaders are apprehensive about what foreign policies he might follow, and above all they are concerned with his tendency to chart a new course that seems to be unpredictable.

But the United States is not a dictatorship. American political leaders in Congress and elsewhere, as well as the American press and American individuals in nongovernmental organizations around the country, will make their opinions heard during the course of the Trump Administration. They will work to strengthen our practices and basic principles that are known and respected around the world.  The familiar give and take of American politics will resume, and it may be that the exaggerated rhetoric of the presidential political campaign may die down, at least somewhat.  Nevertheless, at this juncture in our history, we must recognize that damage has been done to America’s reputation abroad. American diplomats serving abroad can only hope that the elements of our “soft power” that have been so helpful to our national interests in the past, will be revived during the coming years.

NB: All opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Palgrave Macmillan.

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Read Professor Rugh’s recently published open-access article in Palgrave Communications:
American soft power and public diplomacy in the Arab world.

William A. Rugh is Professor of Practice at Northeastern University.  As a career U.S. Foreign Service Officer 1964-1995, he had nine overseas diplomatic assignments, including as ambassador to Yemen and to the United Arab Emirates. He was President of the nonprofit educational organization AMIDEAST 1995-2008. He speaks Arabic, holds a PhD and has published books and articles on the Middle East and U.S. diplomacy.