Is America Still a “Soft Power?”

The United States’ (US) reputation and status within the international community has taken a beating over the past decade and a half. With many of Washington’s foreign policy ventures, “anti-Americanism” has burgeoned in many parts of the world, most dramatically in the Middle East, even in spite of increased discourse about American exceptionalism, particularly during the years of Barack Obama, who has frequently been called the “soft power president.”

This concern is not a new one. In 2004, Joseph S. Nye, Jr. wrote in Foreign Affairs about the decline of US “soft power” (he first introduced the term in his 1990 book entitled, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power) and spoke of the proliferation of discontent over the legitimacy of US policies and their negative effects on such matters as poverty, protecting the environment, and peace and security. A Eurobarometer poll taken shortly after George W. Bush entered office shows that nearly half of Europeans believed the US plays a “negative role” in world peace.

By 2009, on average, 66% of the world held the belief that the US abuses its power while the vast majority of US citizens saw the US as cooperative with other countries, playing a mainly positive role in the world. In 2014, the median favorable views of the US were approximately 65%. The specifics of many opinion polls based on a long list of global issues and concerns present the equivalent of a roller coaster ride of approval, disapproval, disapprobation, and simply lack of opinion about the US.

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Disparate views of the US are inseparable from the US’ reliance on “soft” and “hard” power. Americans have not rejected the idea that “soft power” as an important instrument that can be used to promote US values and interests in the world, but the US has become comfortable relying on military action. Many of the US’ partners intentionally prefer military action to be used by the US. Other, more practical factors, like basic capabilities such as equipment, technology, and logistics helped to concretize America’s role.

Skeptics of “soft power” would have a difficult time ignoring the patchy history of US “soft power” action while at the same time little effort is needed to map America’s use of hard power and coercion. This has not only occurred when the US was involved in major overseas wars such as Vietnam, but also during many conflicts where military power did not present itself as the only option. The US has much to gain through its “soft power” abilities, however, and boasts a strong record in the area – so much so that many (this writer included) would argue that it is inextricably part of US tradition.

The European Union (EU) experienced remarkable success in this regard when it made promises to countries in its eastern region, until it basically ran out expansion room in Eastern Europe. Despite the EU’s obstacles, the US has enjoyed economic growth and cooperation, and cultural exchange/widening as a result of globalization.

The past decade-and-a-half left many stains on America’s military record. With the prolonged and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (through the Bush Doctrine), which yielded no definitive success, struggles with asymmetric threats, rising powers, and other matters like drug trafficking and migration, produced anything but a homogenous reputation. All this, amid the Great Recession when Lehmen Brothers collapsed in September 2008, have actually provided the US with a distinct opportunity to rebuild its standing in the international community. This cannot be truer than today given US economic recovery and a stretch of time that has left only the illusion of a US in decline.

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These days Russia is cited as a country outperforming the US in the foreign policy realm, and yet the perception is a result of the US failing to see the potential of its own “soft power” capabilities rather than any spectacular policy decision formulated within the Kremlin. Russia recently pilfered Crimea from Ukraine, incited revolt, and now supports a violent hybrid war in Eastern Europe.

In Syria, Russian warplanes are bombing anything but what most states perceive as the predominant threat. Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam are feeling increasing pressures from the authoritarian and oligarchic regime in China. Africans, concerned about Chinese investment and intervention, and feeling the effects of ongoing civil wars, insurgencies, and terrorism, still project a healthy perception of US values and activities.

We should not forget to acknowledge that the Kremlin has developed its own soft power and projected it toward ex-Soviet states. Russia’s compatriot policy, aiming to create strong links between Moscow and a large and scattered Russian diaspora, is a successful mechanism bringing together policymakers in Moscow and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the media, and the Russian Orthodox Church. Some see this as “soft power.” Others would call it coercive propaganda.

Washington need not abandon its hard power approach to international politics and relations with other states. The major risk of over-emphasizing the need to use hard power ultimately involves over-shadowing the potential of its “soft power” arsenal – something the world has been very receptive of over a long history. In coalescence, these factors create a succinct and didactic story.

“Soft power” has worked well (most notably during the Cold War) when hard power resources were simultaneously been implemented, and when forceful measures remained on the negotiating table. Neither “soft power” nor hard power alone can dominate foreign policy agendas, though understating the value of US “soft power” and the failure of US policymakers acknowledging its strength undercuts the US at an opportune time.

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What has resonated in the past fifteen years is that states have images and the US, despite its image having been significantly tarnished, never lost its brand. Recent US administrations have merely departed from what has kept the idea of American exceptionalism alive. Economies eclipse military power in armies, navies, and air forces. US “soft power” never declined, it was never abandoned, and it never went away. It has merely been neglected.

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