Friday, February 2, 2018

Trump's State of the Union address will impact US soft power

Andrew Hammond,

image (not from the article) from

Donald Trump gave his first State of the Union speech to Congress on Tuesday [January 30]. His address was not just widely watched on television, but also discussed extensively on social media, and it has become the most-tweeted-about State of the Union address by any US president, highlighting Trump’s current global prominence. ...

At a time when Washington is facing a series of complex foreign policy challenges, the president's team would benefit from more engaged, supportive and stronger allies.

While the idea of soft power — the ability to achieve goals by attracting and co-opting others, rather than by coercing — is sometimes misunderstood and criticized, history underlines the key role it has played as a means of obtaining outcomes that policymakers have sought. For example, Washington used soft power resources skillfully after the Second World War to encourage other countries into a system of alliances, such as NATO, the IMF, World Bank, and the UN.

Yet Trump, who had more than 130 meetings and telephone calls with foreign leaders in 2017, seems set on a different course, and his apparent disdain for international treaties and organizations that don’t bend to his will is already provoking a backlash. A few weeks ago, for instance, Gallup found that the image of the US leadership in the last year is significantly weaker across 134 countries worldwide, with median approval of the US leadership at a new low of 30 percent.

This finding adds to the Pew Global poll of last summer, which found that about three-quarters of the thousands surveyed internationally had little or no confidence in Trump’s global leadership and policies. Indeed, the Pew poll showed Trump already enjoys less support than George W. Bush did at the height of his own foreign policy travails, amid the controversy of the Iraq invasion in 2003.

At a time when Washington is facing a series of complex foreign policy challenges, the Trump team would benefit from more engaged, stronger, and supportive allies. And this is true in issues ranging from helping to find a resolution to the nuclear stand-off in Korea; moving forward the president’s promised peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians; combating the continuing threat from international terrorism; and tackling the range of threats posed by sizeable, revisionist powers such as Russia.

Yet a key problem Trump faces is that, while he enjoys significant popularity in a small number of countries, including Israel, many of his policy ideas and occasionally wild rhetoric threaten a sustained, deep spike in anti-US sentiment. The tragedy is that this could undercut much of the work that has been undertaken in the last decade to enhance US soft power, potentially creating a disabling (rather than enabling) environment for covert and overt cooperation and information sharing with US officials.

Coming into office in 2009, Barack Obama confronted a situation in which anti-US sentiment was at about its highest levels since at least the Vietnam War. The key factor driving this was the international unpopularity of the Bush administration’s policies, not least the war in Iraq.

While Obama made much progress with his global public diplomacy efforts, the scale of the challenge he faced meant that he left much to do for his successor. For instance, despite the early promise of his Cairo speech in his first term, in which he sought to reset US relations with Muslim-majority countries, there remain deep pockets of high anti-Americanism in several key states like Pakistan.

It is in this context that Trump’s speech and first year of foreign policy is being judged by many internationally, with a large body of the global populace still skeptical and nervous about what his presidency may bring. While the president has had a tough 2017 in terms of international opinion, it could get worse in 2018 if he continues on the current course.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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