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The End of US Soft Power?

NEW DELHI – One major casualty of Donald Trump’s victory in the bruising US presidential election is, without a doubt, America’s soft power around the world. It is a development that will be difficult – perhaps even impossible – to reverse, especially for Trump.

Traditionally, countries’ global political power was assessed according to military might: the one with the largest army had the most power. But that logic was not always reflected in reality. The US lost the Vietnam War; the Soviet Union was defeated in Afghanistan. In its first few years in Iraq, the US discovered the wisdom of Talleyrand’s adage that the one thing you cannot do with a bayonet is sit on it.

Enter soft power. The term was coined by Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye in 1990 to account for the influence a country – and, in particular, the US – wields, beyond its military (or “hard”) power. As Nye put it, a country’s power rests on its “ability to alter the behavior of others” to get what it wants, whether through coercion (sticks), payments (carrots), or attraction (soft power). “If you are able to attract others,” he pointed out, “you can economize on the sticks and carrots.”

Nye argues that a country’s soft power arises from “its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority.)” But I believe that it also emerges from the world’s perceptions of what a country is about: the associations and attitudes conjured by the mention of a country’s name. Hard power is exercised; soft power is evoked.