Breakingviews - MAGA mindset proves toxic for U.S. soft power

U.S. President Donald Trump looks on during a ceremonial swearing-in for Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia at the White House in Washington, U.S., September 30, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - Donald Trump may not care about most kinds of soft power, but the U.S. president likes to win. In the latest annual index of countries’ persuasiveness America is a loser: down to fifth from top of the rankings three years ago, and pipped for fourth place by Sweden. One-sided military might and economic heft only go so far.

A country’s allure and perceived trustworthiness on the world stage matter to its selfish interests, even if the effect isn’t direct. That’s why even Trump, who promised to “make America great again” and takes the “America first” slogan to heart, shouldn’t ignore the obvious deterioration of his country’s reputation.

In essence, the image of Washington’s government is so poor – including among Americans – that it increasingly outweighs undoubted U.S. strengths in other spheres. That’s what drives the slide in its ranking in the Soft Power 30, a joint project by communications consultancy Portland and the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy.

As the new Soft Power 30 report notes, Trump’s zero-sum worldview is part of the problem. A liking for tariffs on trade, a hard economic power play, reflects the idea that there’s no mutual benefit to be had from compromise, accommodation or cooperation. The same MAGA mindset is on view in the president’s affirmation this week that the United States would formally quit the 2015 Paris accord on climate change – and in his attitude to the U.S. military, which remains the world’s strongest and by far the most expensive, a tool for projecting both hard and softer power depending how it is used.

Presidents last at most eight years, and there are forces that outlive them. In the case of American soft power, these include the technology industry, led by Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet, Facebook, Amazon and others. On top of that come many of the world’s top universities, including Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and cultural phenomena like artist Taylor Swift.

America’s personal freedoms and legal system also remain the envy of many in the world. The factors that helped France under President Emmanuel Macron regain the top position or kept the UK and Germany in the top five may not last. U.S. soft power, however, could use some polishing.


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