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American Soft Power in the Age of Trump

Many in the current US administration argue that soft power does not matter much; countries cooperate out of self-interest. But this misses a crucial point: cooperation is a matter of degree, and the degree is affected by attraction or repulsion, not just weapons and sanctions.

CAMBRIDGE – US President Donald Trump’s administration has shown little interest in public diplomacy. And yet public diplomacy – a government’s efforts to communicate directly with other countries’ publics – is one of the key instruments policymakers use to generate soft power, and the current information revolution makes such instruments more important than ever.

Opinion polls and the Portland Soft Power 30 index show that American soft power has declined since the beginning of Trump’s term. Tweets can help to set the global agenda, but they do not produce soft power if they are not attractive to others.

Trump’s defenders reply that soft power – what happens in the minds of others – is irrelevant; only hard power, with its military and economic instruments, matters. In March 2017, Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, proclaimed a “hard power budget” that would have slashed funding for the State Department and the US Agency for International Development by nearly 30%.