By Jin Canrong Source: Global Times Published: 2018-2-28
As the world`s only superpower, the US is internationally acknowledged to play a leadership role in four main fields: technology, military, finance and soft power. Yet a controversial change is taking place as US establishment forces worry about the country`s soft power. They think the presidency of Donald Trump has eroded US soft power. Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, who first put forward the concept of soft power, wrote an article in Project Syndicate in February about his concerns. He cited the results of multiple polls proving that US` approval ratings and attractiveness are dropping due to Trump`s presidency.
US soft power is indeed declining, but this process of decline can`t be fully ascribed to Trump. It actually results from a series of US mistakes over domestic and foreign issues after the Cold War that seriously undermined its soft power. In this sense, all US presidents ever since the end of the Cold War, or rather the entire elites of the country, are to blame.
Washington has wronged other countries because it misunderstood its victory in the Cold War. The victory came mainly because the Soviet Union collapsed from internal problems. But US elites took it as a result of their actions and hence became arrogant, considering Russia a defeated nation. This cursed US-Russian relations.
In accordance with the economic "shock therapy" prescribed by the US that led to the privatization of Russian state-owned enterprises, Russian state assets were shared out among the US-led capitalists and Russian oligarchs. Washington also trapped Moscow in terms of security, as shown by the eastward expansion of NATO.
The Arab Spring was presented by Western media as a movement to overthrow secular regimes. During the process many Russian allies in the Middle East and North Africa were uprooted, with only Syria left. Hence Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a harsh stance on Syria issue.
The US made a huge mistake by treating Russia this way. If US elites and strategists had realized that the US won the Cold War because Russia gave up, their attitude would have allowed Russia deeper participation in the international system. Washington would have had much better days than it has now.
The US has also bullied China, playing cards of most-favored nation status, Taiwan, the South China Sea and so on.
Washington has made constant mistakes dealing with Muslims. A majority of US-launched wars after the Cold War targeted Muslims and led to the deaths of leaders of some Muslim countries. As a result, about 1.6 billion Muslims feel themselves being taken lightly or even humiliated by the US. The US also performed poorly in maintaining its relations with allies and other important countries such as those in Africa and Latin America.
US academia attributed the Cold War victory largely to its liberal democracy and continued promotion of neoliberalism after the Cold War. This essentially allows more freedom for elites rather than the public. Consequently, US financial elites got much richer while the general middle class saw no significant rise in income, which led to the widening gap between the rich and the poor and eventually the outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008.
The soft power of a country depends on its actual performance. The US` declining soft power is rooted in a multitude of its mistakes, both domestic and international. Trump`s election victory was merely an outcome of the decline, not its cause.
Trump`s political philosophy, which apparently goes against elites and upholds an "America First" doctrine, populism and nationalism, should have prompted US elites to reflect upon their arrogance and isolation from the masses. Unfortunately they have lost the capacity for self-reflection. In the circumstances, Trump being elected to the White House was not a bad thing. It at least sent a warning to the elites about their poor performance, although it remains unknown where his efforts to boost the economy and adjust US foreign policy are headed. In the final analysis, the waning of US international clout, or soft power, will last a long time. In spite of this, we have to admit that the West as a whole, including the US, still has predominant influence in the international community with a conspicuous absolute advantage.
The author is associate dean of the School of International Studies at Renmin University of China.