The squandering of American soft power
Perceptions of the US are hardening around the world
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