Donald Trump and the Decline of US Soft Power
How a government behaves at home, in international institutions, and in foreign policy can affect others by the influence of its example. In all of these areas, Trump has reversed attractive American policies.
CAMBRIDGE – The evidence is clear. Donald Trump’s presidency has eroded America’s soft power. Only 30% of people recently polled by Gallup in 134 countries held a favorable view of the United States under Trump’s leadership, a drop of almost 20 points since Barack Obama’s presidency. The Pew Research Center found that China, with 30% approval ratings, had reached near-parity with the US. And a British index, The Soft Power 30, showed America slipping from first place in 2016 to third place last year.
Trump’s defenders reply that soft power does not matter. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, proclaimed a “hard power budget” as he slashed funds for the State Department and the US Agency for International Development by 30%. For promoters of “America First,” what the rest of the world thinks ranks second. Are they right?
Soft power rests on attraction rather than coercion or payment. It co-opts people rather than coerces them. At the personal level, wise parents know that their power will be greater and will last longer if they model sound ethical values for their children, rather than relying only on spankings, allowances, or taking away the car keys.
Similarly, political leaders have long understood the power that comes from being able to set the agenda and determine the framework of a debate. 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 US represents values that others want to follow, it can economize on sticks and carrots. Added to hard power, attraction can be a force multiplier.
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), in international institutions (consulting others and multilateralism), and in foreign policy (promoting development and human rights) can affect others by the influence of its example. In all of these areas, Trump has reversed attractive American policies.
Fortunately, America is more than either Trump or 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. In a liberal society, government cannot control the culture. Indeed, the absence of official cultural policies can itself be a source of attraction. Hollywood movies like “The Post,” which showcase independent women and press freedom, can attract others. So, too, can the charitable work of US foundations or the benefits of freedom of inquiry at American universities.
It is true that firms, universities, foundations, churches, and other non-governmental groups develop soft power of their own which may reinforce or be at odds with official foreign policy goals. And all of these private sources of soft power are likely to become increasingly important in the global information age. That is all the more reason for governments to make sure that their own actions and policies create and reinforce rather than undercut and squander their 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. For example, the steep decline in the attractiveness of the US in opinion polls conducted after the invasion of Iraq in 2003 were a reaction to the Bush administration and its policies, rather than to the US generally.
The Iraq War was not the first government policy that made the US unpopular. In the 1970s, many people around the world objected to the US war in Vietnam, and America’s global standing reflected the unpopularity of that policy. When the policy changed and the memories of the war receded, the US recovered much of its lost soft power. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Iraq war, the US managed to recover much of its soft power in most regions of the world (though less so in the Middle East).
Skeptics might still argue that the rise and fall of American soft power does not matter much, because countries cooperate out of self-interest. But this argument misses a crucial point: cooperation is a matter of degree, and the degree is affected by attraction or repulsion. Moreover, the effects of a country’s soft power extend to non-state actors – for example, by aiding or impeding recruitment by terrorist organizations. In an information age, success depends not only on whose army wins, but also on whose story wins.
One of the greatest sources of America’s soft power is the openness of its democratic processes. Even when mistaken policies reduce its attractiveness, America’s ability to criticize and correct its mistakes makes it attractive to others at a deeper level. When protesters overseas were marching against the Vietnam War, they often sang “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the US civil rights movement.
America, too, will almost certainly overcome. Given past experience, there is every reason to hope that the US will recover its soft power after Trump.
Will China Weaponize Social Media?
Now that Russia has shown how cyber tactics and informational subterfuge can upend established democracies, China will surely be taking some pages from the Kremlin's playbook. Chinese President Xi Jinping has made it clear that maintaining domestic stability and burnishing China's image abroad is the name of the government's game.
ATLANTA – Ever since the 2016 US presidential election, with its revelations about Russian meddling, European officials have been on the lookout for similar attacks. But Europeans aren’t the only ones paying attention. So, too, are China’s leaders, who are considering what they might learn from the Kremlin’s successes.
For Chinese President Xi Jinping, maintaining domestic stability is a top priority, a point underscored by China’s annual budget for internal security. At well over $100 billion, the official number is low. Like defense outlays, the real number is much higher, owing to hidden spending, including on research and development.
For example, China is exploring how artificial intelligence (AI) and big data can be used to monitor everything from social media to credit-card spending, and it plans to assign all citizens a social-reliability rating to weed out potential troublemakers. The regime’s Orwellian strategy is focused squarely on social media and controlling not just what is said, but also how information flows into and around the country.
Moreover, the authorities are bringing technology companies into line with tough new laws and cyber-security investigations. For Xi, the ease with which the Kremlin has manipulated Facebook and Twitter demonstrates the need for a tighter grip on China’s own social-media platforms. The Chinese government is now requesting seats on the boards of companies such as WeChat, Weibo, and Tencent, and demanding access to their users’ personal data.
Chinese cyber spies are also studying Russia’s success. To be sure, Chinese hackers do not lack technical savvy. They have launched cyberattacks against US presidential campaigns, expatriate Tibetan movements, and Uighur activists. They have burrowed into Western think tanks and universities that study China. They have even hacked into Western news outlets that published embarrassing stories about Chinese leaders’ wealth. Still, the Chinese may have something to learn from Russia’s well-choreographed online army of trolls and bots.
Similarly, strategists at the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are likely poring over the Kremlin’s handiwork to inform their own cyber-war tactics. Chinese strategic thinking about “political warfare” holds that an adversary’s political, social, and economic institutions – particularly the media – should be targeted before a shooting war ever begins. To that end, Russia’s diffusion of bogus news and conspiracy theories through its state-funded media outlets RT and Sputnik could prove instructive.
In addition to expanding China’s cyber capabilities, Xi has also been developing China’s soft power through economic, social, cultural, and media initiatives. And although he has not yet coupled these programs with China’s clandestine forces to launch the kind of audacious attack that roiled the 2016 presidential election, he clearly is establishing the means to do so. Recently, it was revealed that China has been conducting wide-ranging influence operations in Australia, using official campus organizations to monitor Chinese college students, business associations to tout Chinese interests, and diplomats to police local Chinese-language media. Late last year, an Australian senator was forced to resign over his alleged ties to a Chinese billionaire.
China is also expanding its global media presence. By some estimates, the government is sinking some $7 billion into new media and broadcast outlets abroad every year. Its official news agency, Xinhua, has more than 170 bureaus around the world and publishes in eight languages. China Central Television (CCTV) has more than 70 foreign bureaus and broadcasts to 171 countries in six languages. China Radio International is the world’s second-largest radio broadcaster after the BBC, broadcasting in 64 languages from 32 foreign bureaus to 90 radio stations worldwide.
None of these organizations has yet to distinguish itself as a go-to international news source. But they have become a significant source of information for people in underserved regions such as the Middle East and Africa, where they purvey China’s views and are building sympathetic audiences.
At the same time, China is purchasing “native advertising” in Australian, American, and European newspapers. This allows China to place officially authored content about controversial issues – such as its militarized island-building in the South China Sea – next to those publications’ editorial offerings.
Xi is also playing the long game, by approving investments in movies and other forms of mass entertainment to influence how global popular culture treats all things Chinese. Despite the Chinese government’s recent clampdown on outbound capital flows, Chinese companies are still adding to their major stakes in Hollywood properties. The Chinese conglomerate Dalien Wanda alone has some $10 billion in entertainment assets in the United States, Europe, and Australia. And other Chinese Internet and financial giants such as Alibaba, Tencent, and Hony Capital, as well as state-owned companies such as the China Film Group, have invested tens of billions of dollars in US film ventures.
With these financial stakes, the Chinese government has leverage that goes beyond old-fashioned censorship. Hollywood studio bosses with an eye on China’s massive domestic market will be tempted to kowtow to the government’s “creative” requests when it comes to scripts, casting decisions, and so forth. At $8.6 billion in 2017, Chinese box-office receipts are second only to North America’s. Yet China allows only 38 foreign films into the country each year, inducing filmmakers to bend over backward to please the censors.
Of course, Hollywood executives aren’t the only Westerners helping Xi’s realize his agenda. Between Apple’s recent decision to relinquish its Chinese user data storage to a Chinese partner and Google’s announcement that it will site a new AI research center in China, US technology giants are not just making deals to benefit their “stakeholders.” They are also handing Xi and his cyber operatives proprietary technologies and know-how, and even potential access to US targets.
This raises an obvious question: If Russia could roil a US presidential election without such intimate business relationships, what will China be able to do in the years ahead? To think that China’s only interest is making money, one Hollywood executive recently acknowledged, would be “very naive and dangerous” indeed.
The Point of Sharp Power
Authoritarian regimes do poorly in global public opinion surveys, reinforcing the view that despotism is incompatible with "soft power." And yet Russia and China, for example, are projecting more influence beyond their borders than at any time in recent memory, without relying principally on military might or even on raw economic coercion.
WASHINGTON, DC – In recent years, Russia and China have poured considerable resources into arenas typically associated with “soft power,” a term coined by the American political scientist Joseph S. Nye and understood as the “ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion.” Either directly or through compliant surrogates, these two countries have devoted billions of dollars to increasing their global influence through media, culture, think tanks, academia, and other spheres.
Despite these immense investments, however, observers – including Nye himself – have scratched their heads, wondering why these authoritarian regimes continue to suffer a deep soft-power deficit, even as they have grown more assertive internationally.
Russia and China tend to do poorly in global public opinion surveys and indices of soft power, reinforcing the notion that attraction and persuasion are incompatible with authoritarianism. Internationally, autocrats are not “winning hearts and minds.” Nonetheless, Russia, China, and other well-resourced and ambitious regimes are projecting more influence beyond their borders than at any time in recent memory – and not principally through what Nye calls “hard power”: military might or raw economic coercion.
To be sure, Russia has used military force with some frequency in the last decade – in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria, for example. But Russia’s fighter jets and tanks are not driving Moscow’s global surge in influence. Similarly, China is flexing its military muscles in the South China Sea and along its disputed border with India. But, like Russia, China has been far more active using other forms of influence over the last decade.
Theorists are therefore in a bind: these regimes are not relying chiefly on hard power, are unsuccessful at generating soft power, but are still able to project real influence abroad. Given the resurgence of authoritarianism around the world, it is an opportune time to reflect on this apparent paradox.
The Financial Times recently observed that in China’s “efforts to build soft power outside its borders,” the country “needs to tread more lightly and take a more reciprocal and less authoritarian approach.” In a recent commentary, Nye makes the similar observation that “China could generate more soft power if it would relax some of its tight party control over civil society.” The same could be said of Russia and other countries with governments that prioritize state control over openness, independent culture, and civil society – all of which are crucial ingredients of soft power.
But such exhortations to Chinese or Russian authorities are bound to fall on deaf ears. Any significant liberalization would contradict these regimes’ own political needs and objectives to retain control at any cost.
The analytical trap is to assume that authoritarian governments, which suppress political pluralism and free expression in order to maintain power at home, would be inclined to act differently internationally. These regimes have shrewdly adopted some of the forms, but not the substance, of soft power. What they pursue is better understood as “sharp power,” whose key attributes are outward-facing censorship, manipulation, and distraction, rather than persuasion and attraction.
While “information warfare” forms a part of the authoritarians’ repertoire, it is by itself an inadequate description of sharp power. Much activity undertaken by authoritarian regimes – whether it is China in Latin America, or Russia in Central Europe – falls outside of this definition, as colleagues and I detailed in a December 2017 report, “Sharp Power: Rising Authoritarian Influence.”
With hindsight, we can see the misconception that took hold at the end of the Cold War, when conventional analysis assumed that authoritarian regimes would liberalize and democratize. Nearly three decades ago, when the United States emerged from the Cold War as a global hegemon and the term soft power was introduced, political analysts did not take sufficient account of regimes like the ones in control of Russia and China today.
As my colleague Jessica Ludwig and I wrote in Foreign Affairs in November, “the democracies’ complacency concerning the evolution of malign, sharp power has been informed by their reliance on the soft power paradigm.” Analysts who view the authoritarians’ behavior in terms of efforts “to boost their countries’ soft power are missing the mark and risk perpetuating a false sense of security.”
A sound diagnosis is necessary in order to devise an appropriate response. Authoritarian governments are not playing by the rules governing democracies. Systematic repression is the autocratic regimes’ calling card, and the “sharp power” they generate cannot be shoehorned into the familiar and reassuring framework of “soft power.” Without more precise terminology, the world’s democracies will have little hope of countering these states’ increasingly multifaceted influence.