KYOTO – That sound you are hearing is the screeching halt of U.S. soft power in the world. We were already driving recklessly with the most derided presidential campaign season in a lifetime. Soft power is based entirely on the legitimacy and credibility of a country’s ideas, ideals, values and policies.
The United States has had reams of it in the past. We told America’s story to the world through the Marshall Plan, the Peace Corps, space program, and a civil rights movement at the height of a most unpopular war in Vietnam. We aired our dirty laundry and let “warts and all” policies show the world that even in the throes of racial strife, we shall overcome through debate, dissent and activism.
The U.S. is losing not only its global influence edge but the whole table. The emulative qualities of innovation, entrepreneurship, risk-taking and freedom are under the shadow of an executive management style directed at the “other,” whether by politics, religion, gender, national origin or institution. The persuasive abilities of the U.S. in global public opinion is at its lowest, exceeding even the civil liberty restrictions of the global war on terror.
Hillary Clinton’s turn as U.S. secretary of state had many setbacks that came back to haunt her as a presidential candidate. But she did an effective job at promoting American democracy ideals and values in her more than 100 overseas trips. She showed up and shared the American story as one of aspiration, befitting the country with Lady Liberty in the harbor of its largest city.
Joseph Nye says that the “greatest threat to the American idea is what we may do to it ourselves.” That’s exactly what is happening now. The Trump administration is acting like it not only has no desire to hear out the concerns of all its citizens but also the world.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s inaugural address had many pledges that came with caveats: “At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. … We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
That means his America first, his America only. I’ve never seen my home country more divided and less connected in government to people.
By a three to one margin, the nationwide women’s marches were larger than the turnout for Trump’s inauguration. What might have been a one-off show of national protest is now a sustained effort to counter rushed policies that keep tearing away at any semblance of American liberty, freedom, diversity and compassion. Restricted immigration, North American walls, the media as an opposition party, pages on LGBT rights, civil rights, climate change and health care removed from the White House website … it’s hard to keep up with the daily deluge of bad moves.
Trump raised some critical policy issues in a coarse and bigoted manner throughout his presidential campaign. Nearly half the electorate gave him a pass on his personal style in favor of addressing these concerns. They bet on an outside candidate with no military or political experience to become president and commander in chief. If nothing else, America loves a good gamble. But we’re losing this bet. Trump is using a rapid attack executive order model to ram extreme policies down the throats of not just his opponents but all the aghast Americans who realize that the world is shaking its head in disbelief. My country ’tis not of me.
America is strong only when it uses its strength effectively at home and abroad. Right now, we are battling ourselves and the world. We have a president who sees everything in black and white, evil or good, zero-sum. Gray is for the weak. International cooperation is a consolation prize.
As a candidate, Trump said “The United States loses with everybody.” Many well-intentioned Americans who had lost jobs and hope believed that he would make everyone a winner. Candidate Trump said so often at his public rallies, “We’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning. And you’ll say, ‘Please, please. It’s too much winning. We can’t take it anymore.’ “
But Trump’s wins seem very much his own. And yes, Mr. President, we can’t take it anymore.
Nancy Snow is Pax Mundi (World Peace) Professor of Public Diplomacy, Kyoto University of Foreign Studies. Reach her at www.nancysnow.com.