The squan­der­ing of Amer­i­can soft power

Per­cep­tions of the US are hard­en­ing around the world

The Star (St. Lucia) - Business Week - - FRONT PAGE - BY FT ED­I­TO­RIAL BOARD

Machi­avelli said it is bet­ter to be feared than loved. But the Ital­ian philoso­pher also cau­tioned against be­ing hated.

The lat­est sur­vey by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter on global at­ti­tudes to­wards the US and its pres­i­dent sug­gests that Amer­ica is ig­nor­ing that ad­vice

Machi­avelli said it is bet­ter to be feared than loved. But the Ital­ian philoso­pher also cau­tioned against be­ing hated. The lat­est sur­vey by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter on global at­ti­tudes to­wards the US and its pres­i­dent sug­gests that Amer­ica is ig­nor­ing that ad­vice. It is no sur­prise the rest of the world does not much like Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump, and that neg­a­tiv­ity is par­tic­u­larly pro­nounced in Europe. What is more se­ri­ous is that the dis­like is trans­lat­ing into feel­ings about the US as a whole. Tra­di­tion­ally, views of the na­tion and its pres­i­dent have been more sep­a­rate.

There has been a dra­matic fall in the per­cent­age of peo­ple in most coun­tries who be­lieve that the US will take care of them, or their in­ter­ests. A whop­ping 80 per cent of Ger­mans, for ex­am­ple, say that the US is do­ing less to deal with global prob­lems than it has in the past.

De­clin­ing per­cep­tions of Amer­ica on the world stage did not be­gin with Mr Trump. Be­fore the 2013 furore over the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency and its pur­suit of whistle­blower Ed­ward Snow­den, a far higher per­cent­age of the world be­lieved that Amer­i­cans took at least their own civil rights se­ri­ously. Far fewer still be­lieve that to be true to­day.

The hard­en­ing of at­ti­tudes has been ex­ac­er­bated by episodes of race-re­lated vi­o­lence, such as the 2014 shoot­ing of a young black man in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri, and ris­ing in­equal­ity. But the in­ter­na­tional per­cep­tion of a uni­lat­eral, self­ish, and even dan­ger­ous Amer­ica has risen pre­cip­i­tously un­der Mr Trump, and that ap­plies to how the coun­try treats its own cit­i­zens too. Only about a third of Euro­peans now be­lieve that the US pro­tects civil rights on its own soil.

Most peo­ple be­lieve the US still does a bet­ter job on civil rights, though, than ei­ther China or Rus­sia (which is ad­mit­tedly a low bar). That is prob­a­bly one rea­son why the pro­por­tion of Ja­panese who re­gard the US pos­i­tively is up ten per­cent­age points from last year, and the num­ber of Kore­ans who have “con­fi­dence in” the US pres­i­dent is up by 22 points. China as a re­gional hege­mon is still a scarier prospect than Mr Trump, who is also per­ceived as keep­ing North Korea at bay.

De­spite this, fall­ing num­bers nearly ev­ery­where else in the world show that Amer­ica’s soft power is at a tip­ping point. Even among sup­port­ers of far-right pop­ulist par­ties in Europe, Mr Trump does not poll par­tic­u­larly well. Less than half have favourable views.

That is per­haps to be ex­pected in the Hobbe­sian world the US pres­i­dent seems bent on cre­at­ing.

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has made it clear that it cares only about hard power — tar­iffs, trade wars, and threats of mil­i­tary ac­tion. Yet soft power has huge value, par­tic­u­larly in a more po­larised and com­plex world. And while views of Amer­i­can pres­i­dents are no­to­ri­ously volatile, the in­ter­na­tional view of the na­tion it­self takes longer to shift. Once soft power is lost, it is hard to re­gain it.

It will be dif­fi­cult for Amer­i­cans them­selves to agree on how to re­pair their na­tional rep­u­ta­tion, if in­deed it is pos­si­ble. Pew data shows that, as in ev­ery­thing these days, there is a per­cep­tion gap be­tween Repub­li­cans and Democrats about how the rest of the world views the US and its pres­i­dent.

Only 42 per cent of Repub­li­cans say Amer­ica un­der Mr Trump is less re­spected than it used to be. Some 83 per cent of Democrats be­lieve it is. Mean­while, 80 per cent of Repub­li­cans be­lieve that other coun­tries are “tak­ing ad­van­tage” of the US. Only 20 per cent of Democrats feel that way.

The rest of the world will be watch­ing to see which group turns out in greater num­bers to vote in Novem­ber’s midterm elec­tions.

Hard power play­ers: US pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump (right) greets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un © AFP

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