Off the back of one of its most politically volatile years in decades, it’s perhaps easy to suggest the US falling back to third was a forgone conclusion. But the decline is more in line with global sentiment than it is with fact. America is still unrivalled in higher education, cultural production, and technological innovation, and it’s unlikely we’ll see dominance in these areas waver significantly. Clear threats to American soft power do exist, however, if its leadership continues with an “America First” approach of promoting nationalistic rhetoric, devaluing international alliances, and prioritising hard over soft power. We’ve already seen the initial impact of “America First” not only in terms of broken or fractured agreements (Trade Pacific Partnership, North American Free Trade Agreement, Paris Climate Deal), but also in a significant decline in our international polling data. With potentially another three and a half years left of this administration, we wait to see if the US will withdraw further from the international community, thereby limiting America’s obligations and contributions to international public goods, all of which diminish the country’s ability to set the global agenda.
In terms of objective soft power assets, the US is still largely unmatched. With American universities among the best in the world, it’s no surprise the US attracts more international students than anywhere else. America’s film, television, and music industries continue to set the pace and trends for the rest of the world and it is unlikely that the dominance of Hollywood will decline anytime soon. And as home to Silicon Valley and some of the largest tech companies in the world – Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft to name a few – America leads the way in tech-based innovation.
President Trump’s often divisive rhetoric has led to a sharp decline in the international polling. The US’s total score for polling fell nearly 10% from 2016 to 2017. And in the global affairs question, the US ranked 21st, and it should be noted polling was completed before Trump’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris Agreement.
A weakened US State Department is going to diminish America’s ability to leverage its existing soft power assets. The planned cuts to the State and the inability of the White House and Secretary of State to get key appointments in place is undermining America’s diplomatic capability. This must be addressed. Moreover, the rhetoric of “America First” may play well in certain parts of the American electoral map, but in reality they leave America isolated and unable to shape global outcomes in ways that actual work in America’s interests. But a devolved federal system could be the saviour of American soft power. Mayors and governors need to get serious about taking on active diplomatic roles, and circumventing the federal level structures. In doing so, they can stem some of the self-inflected bleeding to Brand America.