The US has been edged off the top spot for its soft power prowess as Germany takes first place in 2021. We examine the reasons behind America's decline.
Before answering that question, we must first get our definitions in order. What exactly is soft power?
Unlike hard power, which involves coercion and even brute force, soft power involves persuasion, attraction and emulation. The term was coined by Joseph S. Nye, one of the most respected names in the field of international relations.
According to Dr. Nye, soft power is “associated with intangible power resources” such as ideology and institutions. In an essay, aptly titled “Squandering the U.S. Soft Power Edge,” Nye said it is “the ability to affect others to get the outcomes you want. Nations need power because without it they have a difficult time advancing their goals.”
Forget intimidation and threats; instead, he advised focusing on attracting followers through strong "values and culture."
Historically, he noted: “The United States has been good at wielding soft power, which is based on culture, political ideals, and policies. Think of young people behind the Iron Curtain listening to American music.”
But those heady days, when the US wielded soft power with considerable ease, appear to be gone. On the latest Global Soft Power Index, the US finds itself in the sixth position. Germany now occupies the top position.
Is the American Dream, closely tied to the idea of soft power, withering away?
Nathan Schneider, an author and academic who covers social movements in the United States, told TRT World:
“[The] country has always had an ambivalent culture, with equal helpings of liberating vibrancy, suppression of minorities, and devastating colonialism."
According to Jeffrey Tucker, a leading social commentator and the founder of the Brownstone Institute, for a century or more, the US "has been the owner of the most important cultural/political idea in the world: freedom. That idea reshaped the world.”
"That idea is no longer ascendant in US culture," he said.
"Over the last couple of decades, that idea has receded in importance while nostrums for the left and right have taken it over. Every sector you examine – academia, media, politics, and large businesses – you discover an extreme deprecation of the idea of freedom. It is being replaced by a culture of hectoring, compliance, ideological fanaticism, and nihilism.”
Tucker said the Covid-19 lockdowns "cemented this trend, proving it to be a hard reality that freedom in the US is no longer the theme."
"Many countries in the world followed the US in its lockdown policies and that decision proved disastrous. That has been devastating for the US reputation all over the world. It has also shattered the idealism of a whole generation,” he added.
Now, of course, some readers will disagree with Tucker. That is to be expected. Lockdowns were, and still are, a contentious issue. Although plenty of professionals have argued that the lockdowns were worth it, others, like Tucker, have argued, and continue to argue, that lockdowns were an incredibly expensive mistake, both financially and psychologically.
The truth, according to some academics, is simple but far from satisfying: we’ll never know whether or not they were worth it. But for those who think they weren’t worth it, and that the lockdowns (i.e “the cure”) were worse than the actual disease, their rage is palpable.
In the US, these people, millions and millions of them, have lost faith in government institutions. In many ways, they have lost faith in the US. If everyday Americans are losing faith in the American system, then it’s little surprise that the world views the US as a shadow of its previous self.
Losing some of its swag
Jeremi Suri, an American historian, and the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs, at the University of Texas at Austin, told TRT World that the reasons for the country’s demise can be traced back to “the end of the Cold War,” when the United States began under-investing “in the State Department, aid agencies, and education about international affairs in general."
Suri said that many Americans came to believe that diplomacy mattered less because the US had “won” the Cold War and had the strongest military in the world. In other words, the US became complacent. It became fixated on what it had already achieved, and less concerned with the dynamics of an ever-changing world.
For Suri, the US retained its soft power dominance in the past decades because of its wealth and robust democracy. But in the past couple of decades, with growing income inequality, the country has become less attractive. The downfall was exacerbated by issues like gun violence, social divisions and poor governance.
“We won the Cold War because we looked better, as a society, than our adversaries. Many doubt that today,” Dr. Suri said.
Dr. Suri mentioned the word attraction. Although domestic politics and international diplomacy play a role in a country’s attractiveness, so too does the notion of “coolness.”
The US, once synonymous with the word “cool,” appears to have lost some of its swag, to use a term favoured by the cool kids. This brings us on to the country's music scene.
The US was once synonymous with music that excited the masses; it produced artists that inspired generations around the world. Again, those days appear to be gone. In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Ted Gioia, a music historian of considerable repute, discussed the decline of the country’s music scene.
“Consider the recent reaction when the Grammy Awards were postponed,” he wrote.
“Perhaps I should say the lack of reaction because the cultural response was little more than a yawn. I follow thousands of music professionals on social media, and I didn’t encounter a single expression of annoyance or regret that the biggest annual event in new music had been put on hold. That’s ominous.”
It has been ominous for quite some. Less than a decade ago, 40 million people tuned in to watch the Grammy Awards. Last year, that number was 8.8 million. A decade from now, will anyone even watch the Grammys? More importantly, if the awards were to disappear, would anyone really care?
Besides music, education also plays a role in a country’s attractiveness. American education, once viewed in a thoroughly positive light, has come in for some rather harsh criticisms of late. Such criticisms appear to have had quite an effect. To be specific, a highly negative one. And a global one at that.
In 2020, as the authors Karin Fischer and Sasha Aslanian noted: “The US government reported an 18 percent drop in overall student-visa holders and a 72 percent decrease in new enrollments in 2020 — is without precedent.”
Although Covid restrictions played a role, the authors stress that “America’s light was already flickering” long before the pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt. The authors argue, rather accurately, that today’s students "have more options than ever before, around the world and at home. Like their US classmates, they question the cost of college and the return on an American degree. They worry about whether they’d be safe in this country.”
The safety point is an interesting one, not to mention a highly relevant one. In cities like Los Angeles and New York, the cultural capitals of the US, crime now reigns supreme. In LA, looting has become a recreational activity for hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens; in New York, meanwhile, violent crimes are on the rise.
Can the US get its “mojo” back? Can it regain some respectability on the global stage?
According to the aforementioned Tucker, yes, “but it won't be easy." Why? Because doing so "means an enormous confrontation with the media, academia, and big business. Regaining what we used to call liberalism will require herculean efforts to rebuild and restore freedom as the theme.”
For the US to get its “mojo” back, the US must do three things, according to Suri: “One. Get our democracy in order — show the world that we can govern effectively and peacefully as a democracy. Two. Address wealth inequalities at home — show the world that we can create a society everyone wants to live in and learn from. Three. Return to our role as an inspiring alliance leader — bring the other democracies together to put pressure (economic and political) on the autocracies (especially Russia and China) to reform.”
Nye, the aforementioned father of soft power, told TRT World that if he “had to pick two things” that would help the United States regain some credibility on the global stage, they would be as follows:
“One. externally, do more to lead in combatting the pandemic in poor countries and don’t leave it to China’s 'vaccine diplomacy.' Two. Domestically, reduce the rhetoric and reality of extreme political polarisation when possible. (It may not be in an election year). And remember that a good deal of our soft power comes not from the government but from our civil society.”