America’s Road to Reputational Ruin

The decline in U.S. soft power didn’t start with Trump, but he accelerated it this week with his racist tweets.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
From left, U.S. Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pause between answering questions during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 15.
From left, U.S. Democratic Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pause between answering questions during a press conference at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on July 15. Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

It felt a bit jarring, almost unstuck in time (in a Slaughterhouse-Five kind of way), to hear newscasters talk this week of U.S. President Donald Trump’s racist tweets and then, in the next breath, about the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, which falls on Saturday.

Were they even talking about the same country?

The grainy images of Neil Armstrong’s famous “small step” onto the moon, observed raptly in real time around the world, marked one of the high points in America’s soft power—meaning the global influence of its ideas and values, and its ability to persuade other nations to stand behind it. Though the Vietnam War was raging and domestic headlines spoke of civil violence and assassination, the United States earned its keep that week as the champion of the free world, dramatically besting its Cold War adversary in the technological rivalry of the space race—which it was seen as losing only a few years before. Moreover, the Americans added a touch of humility to the great deed, emphasizing its universality. “We came in peace for all mankind,” said the plaque left in the Sea of Tranquility, and even President Richard Nixon got a little gooey, saying later that summer that with the moon landing, “the people of this world were brought closer together.”

There were other high points in U.S. influence later on, of course, none more so than the successful conclusion to the Cold War, in which America’s once-formidable rival, the Soviet Union, simply ceased to exist, exhausted by its efforts to keep up with democracy and freedom—including the freedom to create better technology—in the face of the Reagan Revival. There was the Gulf War, when the United States led a global coalition in enforcing United Nations norms against aggression and launched the smart bomb era. And then, a few years later, Washington engineered the rescue of Bosnia and Kosovo while the Europeans dithered.  

But things started to go downhill after that. Much of the world began to seriously question Washington’s judgment with the fraudulently justified 2003 Iraq invasion and the forever war that followed, and then the entire nation’s judgment with the election of a career huckster who seems to be a living, walking antithesis of the idea of universality.  

Now we appear to have reached another reputational low point. Last Sunday, a president who rose to political power with frequent dog whistles to racists and xenophobes—and who has spent the last two and a half years denigrating U.S. allies and many nonwhite nations—gave unabashed expression to those beliefs in public. On Twitter, Trump urged an ethnically diverse group of Democratic congresswomen to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He falsely said that they “originally came from countries whose governments are a complete and total catastrophe”—even though, of the four Democrats, only one, Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, isn’t native born, and all of them are Americans. Trump later denied he was being racist, but with his words he appeared to be endorsing Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s claim that the true slogan of his presidency is not “Make America Great Again” but rather “Make America White Again.” And to many people around the world, it was yet more proof that a country so politically and socially broken can hardly be seen as a global influencer.

Is this loss of influence a permanent condition? Trump’s behavior has plainly cost the United States dearly, reducing the lone superpower’s ability to use moral and geopolitical suasion to bring other nations over to its side, whether the issue is isolating China by seeking a ban on Huawei products or pressuring Europe, Russia, and China to impose fresh sanctions on Iran. But the Harvard University scholar Joseph Nye, who coined the term “soft power,” said that while “Trump has definitely had a major negative effect on American soft power,” it’s still possible to recover. 

“It’s worth remembering that at the same time technology gave us the moon shot, America was wildly unpopular because of the Vietnam War,” Nye told Foreign Policy. “The good news, and this is relevant to the effect of Trump, is that we were able to recover our soft power after that very bad period in Vietnam, and basically Watergate.” Soft power, Nye noted, doesn’t rest “only on what the government does. It rests on civil society, on technology. It’s a lot of things.”

Even so, he said, there is the danger of permanent damage if the racism, divisiveness and hatred associated with the Trump administration are broadly reaffirmed by American society—as they appear to have been by the Republican Party this week. Only one Republican senator, Joni Ernst of Iowa, said that the president’s comments were racist, and all but four House Republicans on Tuesday voted against a Democratic resolution condemning Trump’s comments.  House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican, dismissed the negative reaction to Trump’s comments  as a matter of “politics and beliefs of ideologies.”

In the end, Nye and other experts in soft power said, much will depend on the outcome of the 2020 election and whether the world will someday view Trump and his crude sowing of nativist hatred and international anomie as an aberration that can be forgiven—or as part of a long-term trend leading to an enduring loss of reputation.   

“That’s much more worrisome, and of much greater concern—the question whether Trump is exacerbating the polarization in society and making American society less attractive,” Nye said. “If so, it may be that recovery after Trump will not be as easy as the recovery after Vietnam.”

Nicholas Cull, a British historian at the University of Southern California and the author of the recently published Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age, agreed that “the problem is not so much Trump but what he represents and the ongoing damage this will do other aspects of American life and society. The problem isn’t Trump—it’s American racism.” 

But Cull too stressed that all is hardly lost, based on international ratings systems that track soft power, such as the Anholt Ipsos Nation Brands Index, according to which Germany is now seen as the No. 1 nation in global reputation, while its former Axis ally in World War II, Japan, is No. 2. The United States is steady at No. 6. “Reputation is surprisingly unvolatile,” Cull said. “There is movement in the reputation of the United States based on Trump, but it’s on the order of a kind of adjustment. The U.S. has gone to being seen as six or seven in the world. It’s not No. 21. Nobody thinks China or Russia or India is more attractive.”

Cull also sees 2020 as a crucial test: “When something goes on for longer, it starts to be understood as part of the nature of the country. The reelection is more dangerous than the election.”

If Trump wins, Nye said, “a lot of people who have been allies and who’ve been more or less holding their breath, I think we’ll find will no longer hold their breath.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh