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American Democracy and Soft Power

As President Joe Biden meets with fellow leaders at COP26, many are asking just how badly US soft power was damaged by Donald Trump's presidency. True, Trump trashed democratic norms that must be restored, but American culture retains great sources of resilience which pessimists often underestimated.

CAMBRIDGE – At a recent meeting of trans-Atlantic foreign policy experts, a European friend told the group that he used to worry about a decline in American hard power, but felt reassured. On the other hand, he now worried more about what was happening internally and how that would affect the soft power that underlies American foreign policy. Are his fears justified?

Smart political leaders have long understood that values can create power. If I can attract you and persuade you to want what I want, then I do not have to force you or pay you to do what I want. If the United States (or any country) represents values that others find attractive, it can economize on sticks and carrots. US soft power rests partly on American culture and foreign policies when they are attractive to others; but it also rests on our values and how we practice democracy at home.

As international polls show, President Donald Trump’s term in office was not kind to American soft power. This was partly a reaction to Trump’s nativist foreign policy, which shunned allies and multilateral institutions, as well as to his administration’s incompetent response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But even more damaging to US soft power was Trump’s effort to disrupt the orderly transition of political power after he lost the 2020 election. And on January 6, 2021, as Republican Senator Ben Sasse described the invasion of the US Capitol, “the world’s greatest symbol of self-government was ransacked while the leader of the free world cowered behind his keyboard tweeting against his Vice President for fulfilling the duties of his oath to the Constitution.”

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