The Decline of American Soft Power
Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, DC, 2020. Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

The Decline of American Soft Power

José Niño
José Niño
8 min read

With Russia's brutal invasion of Ukraine and China continuing to grow as a credible peer competitor to the United States on both economic and military fronts, plenty of ink has been spilt speculating about what America's future looks like. The primary theme of these speculative think pieces tends to be militaristic in nature. China invading Taiwan and escalating tensions in the South China Sea and Russia expanding its current campaign in Ukraine into a broader European war are some of the scenarios being floated.

Hard military power is the coin of the realm in international relations. It’s what historians write and debate about for centuries on end, and what storytellers try to vividly portray in theatric or digital form. There are many valid questions to be asked about where the US currently stands with regards to its military power.

However, what’s more interesting is the status of the America's soft power. Political scientist Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” and popularized its usage in international relations circles after publishing an article in Foreign Policy in 1990 where he fleshed out the concept. In essence, soft power refers to a country’s capacity to persuade other countries to do what it desires without resorting to brute force or coercion.

In Brand Finance’s Global Soft Power Index 2021, the US fell from first place to sixth place in 2021 with respect to its soft power. In order, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Switzerland occupied the top five spots in this soft power index.

The Brand Finance index cited the US's “haphazard COVID-19 response” and the preceding Trump administration’s lackadaisical approach to dealing with multinational institutions and allies as some of the principal reasons as to why it dropped in the soft power rankings.  

This article is not going to debate how large of a role the US government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic played in the ostensible decrease in America’s soft power scores. Instead, I will posit that toxic identity politics trends, which have grown in the last few years, could cause the country’s soft power projection to take a major dive in the long-term.

Since the conclusion of World War II, the US has been adept in its use of soft power. Its companies, foundations, popular culture, universities, and religious institutions have moved mountains in terms of spreading American values and making the country look like an attractive partner without having to solely rely on military force to influence other countries’ behavior.

America's multi-faceted approach to project its power abroad allowed it to become the most powerful polity in human history. While the US pulled off major military feats by coming out victorious in conflicts such as World War I and World War II, in addition to outlasting the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the US success story is more than one of sheer military might.

It’s one of strong institutions and cultural norms that paved the way for some of the highest levels of human flourishing in history. American success was so great that many foreign nations have gone to great lengths to emulate it. Over the last 70 years, countless countries have made genuine attempts to become liberal democracies, embrace capitalism, and join multinational institutions that the US is at the helm of. Most of this transition did not occur through military power or raw coercion.

The very concept of the American dream—the belief that anyone can achieve a high level of success in a society that rewards hard work irrespective of a person’s social status—became an inspiration for millions of people around the world, who would make harsh journeys in hopes of attaining a lifestyle that could not be obtained elsewhere.

Victorian-era Prime Minister William Gladstone said it best that “good government at home” is the first principle of a sound foreign policy. What has traditionally made countries like the US become powerful juggernauts on the world stage is a stable foundation at home. From a powerful economic base that allowed it to build a robust military machine to a stable federalist system that facilitated unprecedented jurisdictional competition, the US became the envy of the world by the middle of the 20th century up until the present.

Americans should be proud of their country’s fantastic accomplishments. Though this could all be in jeopardy because of new cultural and political trends that are gaining steam in academic, business, and political circles.

The growing embrace of wokism and other diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives presents a unique threat to the US both domestically and internationally. At its core, DEI is raw cronyism pure and simple. It’s all about rewarding jobs and benefits to people based on tribal grounds, with no consideration of merit. A country that wants to maintain its superpower status must be firing on all cylinders. When cronyism is embraced on a mass scale in both the private and public spheres, stagnation and decay begin to ensue.

Moreover, the constant obsession about people’s race, gender, and lifestyle habits is not a sign of a healthy society. This type of internal tension will inevitably bleed into other facets of American public policy that foreign onlookers will be observing with interest, if not outright horror.

In recent years, we’ve already seen some of America’s social ills gradually exported to foreign countries. For example, Japan saw its fair share of BLM protests in the summer of 2020. A bizarre scene to say the least for a homogenous country with no history of participating in the African slave trade.

In France, a country that is no bastion of right-wing politics, political leaders have come out against the spread of wokism in various institutions. French President Emmanuel Macron lamented the penetration of American-style identity politics into France. In a similar vein, French education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer had choice words about wokism and the toxic influence it has had on French institutions. Even the US's most ideologically aligned allies have limits when it comes to embracing its most controversial cultural trends.

US foreign policy has turned increasingly ornery, as numerous diplomats have used their positions to lecture other countries about their social inadequacies as opposed to working with them in a constructive manner. For example, the Trump administration’s US Ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher lectured the Eastern European country about being on the wrong side of history for not sufficiently protecting LGBT rights. Similarly, the Biden administration has protested a media law passed in 2021 that tightened regulations on foreign media ownership in Poland. Berating other countries, that are ostensive allies, about their legislative flaws is not always the best course of action.

One hallmark of US foreign policy for most of its history has been its realist bent. During the Cold War, the US made common cause with authoritarian regimes such as Chile under Augusto Pinochet, South Korea under Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, and Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek to help mitigate the spread of Communist influence.

Nevertheless, the US maintained its patience and waited for these nations to eventually democratize. The US's shining example, not incessant nagging about other countries’ spotty human rights track records, is what inspired these countries to liberalize and join the community of nations that respect markets, civil liberties, and the rule of law in the long run. Such appeals could no longer draw countries into the US fold if its soft power diminishes and the country starts to be viewed as unstable.

Simply put, most foreign nations want to deal with a normal country that’s not going to lecture them about racial justice or export its pathologies abroad. Instead, they want to do business or cooperate in practical matters concerning defense.

Rival countries may also use unrest and constant bouts of social instability for propagandistic purposes and portray the US as a hub of instability. While some analogies used to describe the January 6th, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol were a tad exaggerated, this incident still represented a low point in American politics where individuals took extra-political action to resolve a perceived political grievance. Such behavior goes against the spirit of Anglo-Saxon rule of law and its firm commitment to using the legislative process to adjudicate political disputes. Against the backdrop of heightened polarization, similar incidents are likely to transpire with greater frequency and deadliness, if worse comes to worst.

Francis Fukuyama of The End of History and the Last Man fame is correct in observing that polarization is an issue that American leaders must address. A US that is serious about preserving an international order favorable to the rule of law, market-based economics, and competitive democracy must nip its polarization problem in the bud. Whether Westerners like it or not, the age of multipolarity is upon us. A failure for the US to set things straight at home will invite peer competitors abroad to impose their will and reshape the international order in a way that’s not amenable to human freedom and democratic governance.

Whether America's declining soft power is real or imagined, perception is reality in politics. A US that is perceived to be unstable will soon be treated like a shaky actor that cannot be relied on as a strategic partner. Those are the many pitfalls of a country that does not exude strength at home.

China, no avatar of human freedom and a country whose diplomatic corps is not exactly known for its tact and professional statesmanship, is gradually catching up to the US when it comes to influence. China generally follows the KISS method. Keep it simple, stupid. It uses its vaunted Belt and Road Initiative to woo countries with massive development and investment projects. On top of that, China has established Confucius Institutes worldwide to promote the Chinese language and culture, while facilitating cultural changes. Although Confucius Institutes are rife with allegations of espionage, censorship, and questionable connections with the Chinese Communist Party, one cannot but admire China’s tenacity in promoting its interests abroad and not apologizing for it.

As repressive as China is, outside observers at least see a society that went from an economic basket case to an emerging regional power that’s proud of its culture and accomplishments. What’s more, potential trade partners with China can rest easy knowing that the East Asian nation is all about business and is not going to lecture trade partners about human rights, identity politics or the latest social justice fads prevalent in the West.

As the US continues indulging in wokism, other countries will be taking meticulous notes. And it’s not just America’s enemies. Traditional and prospective allies will be seeing a country rife with social unrest, moral panic, and a deteriorating physical and social infrastructure if the US continues its present course. Rewarding people based on their identities and shutting down dissenting opinions—all necessary ingredients for a society that wants to maintain its superpower status—is a recipe for creating institutional decline and stifling innovation at all levels of society. In turn, the US will come out weaker internally. America’s weakness at home will make once reliable allies hesitate to form ties with the US, likely choosing neutrality or in worst-case scenarios, joining its rivals in competing trade blocs and military alliances.

If America is serious about building a balancing coalition against China in the Indo-Pacific—a daunting task—it will first need to get its domestic affairs in order. At the end of the day, it’s the small things at home that add up and make or break America's image abroad.

To be sure, the US remains a superpower and a place millions of people still make great sacrifices to migrate to. However, it would be complacent to say everything is A-OK. Part of what propelled the US to greatness is introspection and a willingness to recognize errors and flaws. From there, the country could build off its mistakes and improve itself. That said, engaging in guilt-tripping, censorship of uncomfortable perspectives, and exercises of historical iconoclasm are non-starters.

It will take serious leadership on all fronts—academic, business, cultural, and government—to recognize the problems the US faces and build proactive solutions. The US will need to go back to basics and understand what made it great. It will need to trim out the excess fat it has accumulated after gorging on the pig trough that is wokism and start going back to its meritocratic roots.

The 21st century will be filled with a unique set of challenges in fields ranging from national security to technological independence. The US clearly won the 20th century, but the 21st century may turn out differently. Arrogantly brushing these concerns aside could be the first step in ensuring that the US ends up in the soup kitchen of mediocrity and becomes another nation marked by perpetual instability and unrest. The US can still avoid such a fate, but it will require a full-blown reckoning with its woke demons.

José Niño

José Niño is a freelance writer and political analyst based in Austin, Texas.