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Trump and the Squandering of US Soft Power

Superpowers come and go. They conceive their political hegemony through violence, assert their dominance with military braggadocio, and fight for survival until their last breath. But the United States, I have always thought, is a different kind of superpower –– gentle, persuasive, and more likely to endure the tide of history that unforgivingly washed away the Roman, British, and Soviet empires. Even with the rise of China and repeated muscle-flexing by Russia, the United States remains the world’s foremost economic and military actor. American nominal GDP of $19.39 trillion is greater than that of the bottom eight of the world’s ten largest economies combined. Constituting less than five percent of the global population, Americans generate and earn over 20 percent of the world’s total income. With an unrivaled annual defense budget of $716 billion, over 6000 nuclear warheads, and an extensive network of allies and strategic partners, the American military is consistently ranked as the most powerful and logistically prepared in the world. Though quantitative indicators are certainly worthy of consideration, we should also acknowledge that they are incomplete. American influence operates in much more subtle and sophisticated ways: captivating minds of people around the world in a way that cannot be quantified or fully documented on paper. Even in the most socially conservative of countries, teenagers are voracious consumers of Hollywood productions and pop music. Chinese and Russian elites tirelessly decry Uncle Sam’s actions but send their children to American schools and universities; for one, Xi Jinping’s only daughter is a Harvard graduate. Every time there is a major political or humanitarian crisis, the world eagerly awaits what American politicians and experts have to say. The US standing on the global arena is thus as reliant on values, culture, and the ingenuity of the American people as it is on our fiscal-military prowess. Unfortunately, President Trump has repeatedly made clear that he is willing to practice the latter but not the former component of American global leadership. He has repeatedly suggested that the US should leverage its economic and political dominance to craft more beneficial trade deals, cajole Mexico’s government into paying for the wall, and get our NATO allies to meet their spending commitments. In light of this Trumpian diplomacy, I cannot help but ask: why not use some of the most persuasive tools in our arsenal –– America’s historic commitment to human rights, freedom of the press, and representative democracy –– to encourage nations of the world to embrace better versions of themselves?

Nick Morgoshia
Assistant Forum Editor

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