At the forefront of global debate on foreign affairs is the decline of the rules-based liberal international order. Much of this debate has been fuelled by a sudden, radical recalibration of US foreign policy, away from multilateralism and collaboration towards a unilateral, zero-sum approach to international affairs. Under the banner of “America First”, the current administration has called into question long-standing security alliances, launched trade wars with America’s closest partners, and taken a string of decisions that have served to undermine the wider global order. To date, “America First” has seen the US prioritise its balance of trade above all else. This effectively means trading (potential) short-term economic gain for long-term strategic interests. It is a dangerously short-sighted approach to foreign policy and, as the 2018 data shows, comes at a cost in terms of American soft power. A decline of only one place in the rankings is certainly a testament to the tremendous soft power resources that exist beyond the US federal government. However, as our research has shown, the largest driver of global public opinion on a given country is how it conducts itself in the world. Essentially, is it a force for good or a force for ill in the world? Given the strain that “America First” has put on the rules-based international order, answering that question of the US is not so straightforward in 2018.
In terms of objectively assessed soft power assets, the US is still largely unmatched. With more top universities than any other country in the world, it is no surprise the US attracts more international students than anywhere else. America’s film, television, and digital industries continue to set the pace and trends for the rest of the world. It is unlikely that America’s global cultural ubiquity 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 – the US leads the way in tech-based innovation.
“America First” does not play well with audiences abroad. Last year’s international polling data for the US was unequivocal in showing a severe drop in favourability towards the US. The US’ combined score for the polling component of the Soft Power 30 fell nearly ten per cent from 2016 to 2017. Unsurprisingly, sentiment has not recovered this year. Moreover, the US ranks 21st in overall favourability scores in 2018. As long as “America First” is the rallying cry of the Trump administration, it’s hard to see the rest of the world getting behind US leadership.
A liberal international order, creaking under the strain of “America First”, is not going to serve the long-term interests of the US, nor is it going to do much to further America’s soft power reserves. The Trump administration clearly has little interest in soft power, multilateralism, or solving the major challenges facing the world. It is hard to see a reversal in policy, and no amount of tweaking or messaging is going to reverse America’s soft power decline. The best hope for American soft power is for non-federal government actors to take up a bigger role in engaging the rest of the world. Indeed, the 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. The same goes for American business, universities, and civil society. In doing so, they can stem some of the self-inflected bleeding to Brand America.