The United States possesses a powerful military. But its armed forces weren’t always its greatest means of influence.
Instead, America has counted on its moral authority to exert influence in the world. That moral authority—“soft power,” experts call it—flowed from a perception on the part of the rest of world that America is good.
That sense of goodness is always, always in question. Rarely more so than during extraordinary displays of wanton violence such as Wednesday’s assault and occupation of the U.S. Capitol by right-wing extremists. Four people died.
“American soft power has been in decline for the past 20 years, but arguably has experienced a sharp drop in the past four,” said Maggie Seymour, a researcher at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
The past 20 years have, of course, seen the United States invade Afghanistan and Iraq and extend its “war on terror” across much of the planet.
But even under President George W. Bush, instigator of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the country made some effort to soften its “hard” military power with elaborate humanitarian missions, a degree of openness to refugees, respectful diplomacy and some effort to adhere to the rule of law at home.
Under Trump, the United States has all but abandoned soft power. “Trump has overwhelmingly sought out hard-power foreign policy—military action, threats, rewards, unilateralism—while turning away from multilateralism, foreign aid, refugee resettlement, a robust [Department of State] and [intergovernmental organizations],” Seymour said.
“His policies have reflected not only a preference, but a sole reliance on hard-power approaches. His idea for foreign policy, by his own accounts, is the same as his approach to business—cutthroat, hyper masculine brinkmanship with threats and punishments for enemies and rewards for friends.”
In a way, America under Trump has no choice but to rely solely on hard power, for under Trump America’s moral influence precipitously has declined. To understand why, look no farther than Wednesday’s insurrection.
There was a time when U.S. leaders could express dismay over political violence in some other country and count on that dismay to have some ameliorative effect. On Wednesday, the dismay flowed the opposite direction—with the effect of boosting other countries’ moral standings and highlighting America’s decline under Trump.
“Distressed to see news about rioting and violence in Washington, D.C.,” tweeted Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister whose own commitment to multicultural democracy is suspect. “Orderly and peaceful transfer of power must continue. The democratic process cannot be allowed to be subverted through unlawful protests.”
The repressive Venezuelan government, which Trump has attempted to overturn, expressed with thinly veiled Schadenfreude “its concern with the acts of violence that are taking [place] in the city of Washington, United States.”
The erosion of moral authority could complicate efforts by President-elect Joe Biden to boost American soft power. Legitimacy isn’t necessarily a renewable resource.
That’s a problem, Seymour said. “Every grandmother who has advised that one can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar or recited the proverb of the wager between the wind and the sun understand that soft power is not only often more efficient but often more effective than hard power.”
“I’d also point to the temporal nature of hard power,” she added. “Hard power only works as long as those rewards or punishments are kept in place—which requires resources. Soft power, on the other hand, changes preferences and by changing preferences we can establish enduring change.”
“Ultimately, it’s not a choice between soft and hard power, but rather an artful, effective and efficient balance of the two,” Seymour said. “Both have their place and the U.S. must maintain a high reserve of resources that support both.”
But in inciting violence against the very government he leads and turning the country into an object of pity and scorn all over the world, Trump has depleted the resources that fuel America’s soft power.
It’s unclear what it will take for Biden to restore them. Unless and until he does, the United States will have only one way of exerting influence in the world.