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Donald Trump's Abandonment of American Soft Power Politics

Trump Focused on Hard Power Politics

Since the fall of the USSR America has sustained its global hegemony through selective use of both hard and soft power politics. Hard power politics, which include coercive policies such as military interventions and economic sanctions, have always underpinned America's global preeminence. With the largest navy, army and nuclear arsenal, the United States has time and again relied on both military action and the threat of engagement to shape global affairs. However, given the American involvement (to be kind) in the protracted conflicts in the Middle East and the expansion of global terrorism, the U.S. has been forced to rely on the dominant soft power cultural and social prowess of the United States to repair the damage caused by faulty hard power practices.

Soft power is defined as a government's ability to shape policy abroad through attraction and co-option rather than coercion (Nye 1990). While not always successful in military encounters, America has remained unmatched as a soft power hegemon since the end of the Cold War, particularly when compared to competing world powers. Soft power, when utilized correctly, can be a far more efficient and less obtuse tool for promoting the global political and economic favored by the United States than hard power alternatives.

Central to America's soft power prowess has been its promotion of democratic institutions and values throughout the latter half of the 20th and the early 21st century. Stewed in rhetoric promising to liberate the masses burdened by the inability to voice their personal and collective concerns, the popularity of both democracy and the United States soared throughout the 1980's and 1990's. In just twenty years, the number of democratic states recognized by the Polity IV democracy database more than doubled from 37 in 1980 to 80 by the turn of the century (Marshall 2014). With this expansion of democracy, U.S. cultural and academic exports also became more abundant. From Hollywood films and hip-hop music to the literary works of Mark Twain, the "American Dream" became a global phenomenon. Within this exuberance the U.S. was able to control much of the world's financial and political assets without much resistance from even its greatest historical rivals.

Following the tragedy of 9/11 and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, President George W. Bush oversaw a steady decline in foreign perceptions of America and its values. While the election of President Obama mended some of these broken fences, his expansion of the U.S. drone strike program and his inability to close Guantanamo Bay, amongst other failures, left America in need of further rebranding.

Instead America got Trump.

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European Opinions of US Candidates and Presidents

With the election of the alt-right sympathizer, foreign perceptions of America have taken a nose-dive. President Trump has taken no time at all to signal his intent to rely upon coercive strategies over more nuanced and sustainable soft power policies. In the Americas alone, Trump has already offended the U.S.'s closest neighbors. In Canada Trump holds a 16-percent approval rating (Erickson 2017). In Mexico his approval rating stands at just 2-percent (Toosi 2014). In Mexico this abysmal rate is less surprising given Trump's push to construct a border wall between the two countries, which again he has attempted to enforce through threat of sanctions rather than through more diplomatic soft power strategies. Beyond the immediate geographic proximity of the U.S., the election of Trump has already provoked riots not only throughout the United States, but also in cities as distant as Auckland, Rome, Prague and Nairobi (BBC 2017). His stance on nuclear weapons, which he has levied to increase production of for the first time since the end of the Cold War, has frightened America's closest allies, as have his continual statements regarding the obsolescence of NATO.

Worse still, Trump has done his best to damage both American and global democracy: the U.S.'s most powerful soft power weapon. Having previously claimed the domestic electoral system is a sham, citing illusory voter fraud, Trump has gone so far as to suggest that little divides the American political and judicial systems from those controlled by Russian Premier Vladimir Putin (Tatum 2017). While the current administration may see no problem abandoning soft power politics in favor of hard-line actions that cost more and do less, the damage being done by the current administration to both national and global democracy will require generations to repair.

The number of global democracies has already begun to decline, with this downward trend likely to continue throughout the Trump presidency. Despite his promise to "Make America Great Again," the country benefiting most from these hard power tactics is the country best positioned to rival America for global economic, military and political supremacy: China. Though the U.S. currently holds distinct advantaged over the autocratic state in all three of these categories, China's is a rising tide. In the past, though both China and the U.S. have had a foreign presence throughout the developing world, the U.S. has managed to retain its position as global superpower in large part due to the attraction America presents. Without the allure of the American Dream for potential immigrants, put off by Trump's harsh demands, China may very well become the next best option. China President Xi Jinping recently declared his country's intent to invest nearly $60 billion in Africa, far more than the U.S., while China's recent dialogue with South American states may be a precursor to China enhancing its stance in America's own backyard (Benabdallah and Robertson 2016).

Democracy and America were once synonymous. For over two and a half centuries the American Bill of Rights has stood as defining document in the advancement of democracy over monarchy, autocracy and oligarchy. Though cultural exports from the U.S. are still popular throughout the global south, the U.S. Government cannot afford to lose sight of the benefits of soft power political strategies. Neither during his campaign or short tenure in the White House has Donald Trump shown any effort to expand the fledgling democratic institutions present throughout the world, instead he has relied on a myopic domestic focus that has prioritized gaining votes over both domestic and international stability. While hard power politics are at times an undesirable necessity, distancing America from fundamental democratic values, such as free speech and governmental transparency, helps America's enemies more than it benefits its people.

Democracy has a number of endemic problems, but it also possesses inherent strengths capable of preventing warfare, minimizing poverty and empowering individuals that are vital to both the survival of American hegemony and the continuation of international political and economic cooperation. Hopefully Trump will realize sooner rather than later that even he can't afford to abandon soft power politics completely.

Reader's Opinions


Benabdullah, L. and Winslow Robertson. (2016). Washington Post. "China pledged to invest $60 billion in Africa. Here's what that means."

BBC. (2017). "Donald Trump protests attract millions across US and world"

Erickson, A. (2017). Washington Post. "Here's How Canadians Want Trudeau to Handle Trump"

Marshall, M. (2014). Polity IV Index.

Nye, J. (1990). Soft Power. Foreign Policy, (80), 153-171. doi:10.2307/1148580

Tatum, S. (2017). CNN. "Trump Defends Putin: So you think our country's so innocent?"

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Toosi, N. (2016). Politico. "Why is Enrique Peña Meeting Trump?"


Malcolm Reynolds (author) from California on February 23, 2017:

Thank you for clarifying your statement. I really do appreciate it. If I'm correct your point is that the main argument in my article is moot because neither soft nor hard power can save America (and democracy) from economic and political decline?

Fair enough. I disagree slightly in that I view the current rise of the BRICS as a challenge for democracy and liberal economic policy rather than an insurmountable obstacle. Excluding Russia, each of the world's other rising powers have shown no intension of dismantling the currently international systems. Both Russia and China have agreed to participate in global economic forums and abide by many of the UN's more grandiose rulings.

I disagree with you further that Donald Trump's current path has placed America on track to slow the inevitable challenge Russia and China will continue to present globally. I believe the best way for America to sustain its global footprint would be for the U.S. Government to utilize its current soft and hard power standing to strengthen the nation's ties to its allies while propping up the international economic and political systems it helped create, yet has failed to support in recent decades (such as the UN). Institutions are far harder to dismantle than the fickle, independent policies of a divided nation.

I am still not sure entirely how the Islamic element is relevant to this piece on soft and hard power, but I will accept that I am hesitant to engage in such a heated topic when it so often devolves into a shouting match containing baseless statements and untrue talking points. If you would like to engage me in a civil discussion/debate regarding your opinions on the conflict in the Middle East feel free to message me privately as I would enjoy presenting my side of the argument to you away from this comment section addressing an unrelated issue.

Ken Burgess from Florida on February 23, 2017:

Oh I read what you said, and you may not like the fact that I disagree with it, and don't cushion my opinion with more politically correct vagaries, but the truth of the matter... again bluntly... is that America is definitely in decline and will NOT recover.

Democracy has had a war waged on it, by the corporate and globalist elites, and it will NOT recover. While Trump has either knowingly or unwittingly delayed the demise of the Constitution and the dismantling of the Nation's sovereignty... that is all that it is... a delay.

Europe and North America are in (again putting it bluntly) a 'death spiral' a anti-Western Civilization suicidal effort to undo hundreds of years of civilization building and colonialism.

One thing I am in total agreement with you on however, is that China and Russia (and their allies) will hold political and economical Supremacy in the very near future. The transition post 2007 near economic collapse has seen a near doubling of their economic growth and influence every two years for the past decade, while America and Europe have flatlined.

The other thing I feel you are failing to consider is the Sunni - Shi'ite or rather the Iran - Saudi conflict that has engulfed the entire Middle East and has migrated to Europe and America, as if there weren't enough factions squabbling within.

Anyways, just putting forth a point of view, not looking to get labeled with a bunch of BS because you don't like my perspective... enjoy debating the issues only with those who see things through your prism.

Malcolm Reynolds (author) from California on February 23, 2017:

Ken Burgess,

Thanks for taking the time to reply to the article, though given your response I am going to assume you simply glanced at the title and the graph given the irrelevant substance of your response.

As for the content of your reply, if you had actually read the article you might have noticed that I was in fact arguing for a worldview that includes the growing influence of both China and Russia.

Though hardly mentioned in the article, your point about Europe being irrelevant in global affairs is, however, skewed. The "global economic realities" you speak of cannot be isolated from geopolitics. An alliance with Europe is crucial for the U.S. to maintain in order for the country to effectively compete with both China and Russia for both political and economic supremacy.

If both Russia and China are given free reign to expand into Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, respectively, the U.S. will find it much more difficult to compete internationally. This will only be compounded by advancing a treatise of economic isolationism destined to restrict the American economy.

As for your point regarding free trade deals and your offensive remark regarding refugees in Europe, I doubt anything I have to say on the matter will force to to think critically about the matter rather than pressing you to spew more political platitudes backed by little more than xenophobic rhetoric and baseless accusations.

Ken Burgess from Florida on February 23, 2017:

The Global economical realities have shifted so much... what Europe thinks about Trump is totally irrelevant.

The BRICS and the Russian-Asian Alliance have way more military and economical might than Europe does.

In what is/was an essentially overnight process, power has shifted to China and Russia (and their alliances) and away from the American-European alliance.

This was slowly occurring anyways because of political corruption and betrayal of the citizens of America and Europe, because of trade deals like NAFTA and the opening of European borders to tens of millions of 'refugees' who collect welfare, housing, food but contribute nothing but isolationism and violence.

Trump has actually slowed the decline of America, just by canceling the TPP, he has delayed parts of the inevitable downfall. But since the 2007 near economic collapse of America and Europe, and the Trillions that were siphoned off by the banks and other corporations during that time, the shift in economic balance has spun tenfold in favor of China and Russia, while America and Europe have struggled to get back to where they were ten years ago.

Malcolm Reynolds (author) from California on February 21, 2017:

I appreciate the feedback. I agree that the U.S. needs to make use of both its soft and hard power advantages.

As for your point regarding European politics, there is definitely something to be said for states pulling their own weight (as with NATO). I think the problem I have most with Trump's handling of that particular issue is his brazen disregard for secrecy between allies. While explicit hints/threats to cut funding may end up being effective, they cast the European-American alliance in a negative light, exposing weaknesses that embolden leaders like Putin.

Brexit could still go either way. It will be just as interesting to see what happens in Europe as it will be to see what happens in the U.S. over the next four years.

Again, thanks for the comment. Let me know if there is anything you'd be interested in reading about in more depth.

CJ Kelly from the PNW on February 21, 2017:

Great piece. We need both soft and hard power politics. Asia requires more subtly, while Russia (and by extension, Eastern Europe) require hard power like putting troops in Latvia.

At the same time, it is correct to push the Europeans to spend more on defense even though there is no push for it by the citizenry. Why Europeans resist being a world power, I don't know. To me, they just cede power to everyone else and go on their merry way. While I may agree ever so slightly with Trump on that one, he is going about it the wrong way. Britain is in the middle of serious debates over defense and who knows how Brexit will play out.

It will be an interesting four years.

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