Trump’s ascension to the presidency has raised many questions about his impact on the United States, both domestically and concerning the country’s international standing. A great deal of mystery surrounds the new president of this incredibly powerful state, and the world waits to see what his leadership will mean. In the field of International Relations, some scholars wonder what Trump’s impact on America’s soft power will be, and what those implications could mean for the country’s future, well beyond Trump’s time in office.
Soft power as a concept was developed by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye to distinguish between states’ use of coercion and attraction to achieve results. Instead of economic and military hard power resources, soft power takes advantage of institutions like media, the Internet and cultural exchange programs (like Fulbright scholarships) to promote an attractive perception of a state’s culture, political values, and foreign policies. A favourable international image through soft power makes it easier to implement foreign policy, because other states have a positive perception of what the state does. For example, China has made significant effort throughout the early 2000s to increase its soft power initiatives in the hope Western powers will see their economic rise as beneficial to the international community instead of as a threat, hopefully avoiding hard power counteractions.
The U.S. has built a strong soft power-base over the years through its Hollywood film industry and global companies like Microsoft, Starbucks, and Google, but substantial erosions to U.S. global image emerged during George W. Bush’s presidency, as his decision to invade Iraq and seeming dislike for international treaties and bodies were negatively perceived by the international community. Additionally, the news coverage surrounding the confinement and torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, made some claim hypocrisy between American human rights values and the state’s actions. While the U.S. has substantial reserves of cultural soft power, it has previously been undermined by policies inconsistent with advertised values and undercut by policies viewed as illegitimate.
With the importance of cultural image and policies perceived as having legitimacy and moral authority impacting soft power, Trump’s behaviour will likely seriously damage American soft power abroad. His tweets especially work to regularly harm American soft power, causing trouble for American diplomats and foreign ministries who must regularly interpret those tweets for a global audience. The president’s Twitter presence does little to promote attraction or admiration towards America. Joseph Nye, when asked about Trump’s constant use of Twitter in a personal capacity, emphasised the damage the tweets cause to American soft power by contributing to international confusion, manipulating the press, and attempting to appeal to the American public. Trump’s language and ‘America first’ stance could also alienate other states, and his actions could potentially damage relationships with other heads of state. Already, his travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries led to many world leaders criticising the policies as ‘divisive, illegal, insulting, and discriminatory.’ This legislation was perceived negatively by many, damaged America’s soft power reputation and proved inconsistent with the melting-pot history of the country. Additionally, the criticism of Trump, both domestically and internationally, is a constant through Internet and media platforms. It is leading to some to question his abilities as a leader and the legitimacy of his policies, all while Trump continues to tweet challenges and insults to those who oppose him. Given his personal use of Twitter, the media coverage, and the passage of policies perceived as divisive and illegitimate, Trump may significantly deteriorate America’s previously strong soft power standing in the international community, leaving a lasting impact on the country’s reputation and relationships long after he leaves the White House.