In 2018, the central debate in foreign affairs circles centred on the continued viability of the rules-based international order. Was it in crisis? Could it survive in its current form? One year later and the debate has moved on. Accepting that the global order is eroding, foreign policy thinkers are looking at how best to respond to this new context. There are several contributing factors to the erosion of the global order, but perhaps the most unexpected is the radical shift in American foreign policy. Under the banner of “America First”, the Trump administration has called into question the value of long-standing security alliances, launched trade wars with America’s closest partners, and taken a strong line against multilateral cooperation in favour of bilateral dealings. This shift in foreign policy has made an impression on publics around the world. This year’s results report a further decline in American soft power, and the US’ lowest ranking since the launch of The Soft Power 30. As our research has shown, the primary driver of public opinion on a given country is how people perceive that country’s foreign policy. In assessing their feelings about a given country, people are essentially asking themselves “is this country a force for good in the world or a force for ill?” Clearly there is still much to admire about the US, but “America First” is unlikely to win many hearts and minds abroad.
In terms of objectively assessed soft power assets, the US continues to be world-beating in Culture, Education, and Digital. American pop culture is more globally pervasive than any other country’s comparable outputs, and that is unlikely to change anytime soon. With more top-ranked universities than any other country in the world, the US hosts more international students than the next two closest countries (the UK and Australia) combined. 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, as well as digital diplomacy.
Our polling data suggests that “America First” does not play well with audiences abroad, and this continues to be true in 2019. As long as US foreign policy is seen as unpredictable at best and untrustworthy at worst, US soft power is unlikely to return to the levels seen in 2015 and 2016. According to the objective data, the US has fallen back five places in the Government sub-index, reflecting a hit to American soft power as a result of domestic policies and politics. In short, it is the US Government – at home and abroad – that has weighed down the US’ overall rank this year.
The Trump administration has demonstrated little interest in soft power, multilateralism, or solving the major challenges facing the world. It is hard to imagine a change of direction, 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 help hold the line for American soft power. Mayors and governors need to step up their active diplomatic reach and capabilities, circumventing the federal level structures where necessary. The same goes for American business, universities, and civil society. In doing so, they can remind audiences abroad that the US has much to offer to international partners and that will continue to be true in the foreseeable future.