His rhetoric included overzealous articulations about how the United States and Russia control more than 90 per cent of the world’s nuclear weapons, demonstrating his penchant for hard power capabilities.
Trump has used America’s material resources to back up his threats to NAFTA, NATO, the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, textbook examples of the use of what’s known as hard power. His approach to wielding influence completely ignores soft power, which refers to the non-material assets a state can harness to gain influence, including its culture, policies and political values.
Unlike its coercive counterpart, soft power rests on a state’s diplomatic capability to shape others’ preferences and the ability to get others to want to do what you want them to do.
But if Trump believes hard power is all that matters, then how can he explain his lack of regard for Chinese-American relations? And how can we understand mounting concern for the drop in America’s soft power?
Trump’s meeting with Putin shows just how much soft power matters: It might matter enough, in fact, to reconfigure the entire power structure of the global political system.
Trump increased the 2018 U.S. defence budget to US$639 billion while in 2017, Russia decreased its budget for the first time in two decades, to US$66.3 billion. Despite its hard power disadvantage, Russia seems nonetheless to have a lot of influence over the U.S.
Does this mean that Russia has a soft power advantage over the U.S.? No. What the Helsinki summit and Trump-Putin relations shows us, more broadly, is the erosion of America’s soft power capabilities.
No longer a coherent U.S. identity
Research shows a reordering of the global soft power roster, which captures the U.S. fall from the ranks. However, we know much less about how the Trump administration is weakening U.S. soft power. One explanation comes from the nuances of the concept of soft power. In short, inconsistency erodes soft power.
The U.S. no longer projects a coherent identity to the international community, which is how its soft power has diminished. Conflict between political parties, division within civil society, and changing domestic and foreign policies have eroded the image of the U.S. as an internally and externally consistent and united country.
Trump’s openness to have Russian investigators question U.S. officials counters the indictment of Russian gun rights activist, Maria Butina, charged with conspiracy against the U.S. by the Department of Justice and FBI, for example. And Trump himself is inconsistent: He switched his position on the urgency and timeliness of North Korea’s denuclearization, from “immediately” to “no time limit.” There are many other examples of these paradoxes.
How countries use soft power
Simply put, it’s what a state does with its own soft power and what other states do with it that matters. Having soft power means nothing if it’s not used or accepted by others. Consider soft power as a starting point, a necessary but not wholly sufficient condition for influence.
Hosting the 2018 World Cup, Russia sought to exercise its soft power on the world stage and acquire some influence in the process. But soft power is not self-determined.
By using soft power, a state can gain support through legitimacy and compliance through authority, which yields influence. But for that to happen, other states need to buy into the image that state is advancing. Based on which countries follow and are followed, a hierarchy appears.
Therefore, the U.S. loss of soft power could jeopardize its ranking and level of influence in the system. Legitimacy and authority operate based on co-optation and attraction, which links them to soft power. This is also why reliance on hard power could be even more damaging to the U.S.
China turns the tables
Lately, China has been quietly employing its soft power, with the prospect of new trade relations with the EU as just one example. Soft power connotes a subtler and gentler way of influencing other countries, which China is displaying. More relevantly, China is showing more internal and external consistency in those areas that foster soft power.
This reinforces the argument I explore in my research about how “winning friends” can influence others and shift the power structure internationally.
Scholars and pundits feel China will need to overcome a number of economic, environmental, political and social obstacles before it can surpass the U.S. as the world’s superpower.
But for now, the burden may rest on the U.S. to overcome its own set of obstacles to defend and keep its position in the world order.