The Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye defined soft power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.” Under Trump, America’s attractiveness has gone down even as its stock market has gone up. The Pew Research Center found in a survey of people in 22 nations that the number who express confidence in America’s president fell from 70 percent in 2013 to 28 percent in 2018, while the number who see U.S. power as a major threat climbed from 25 percent to 45 percent. A recent YouGov survey found that more Germans view Trump as a danger than they do North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and China’s Xi Jinping combined.
Much of the world rejects Trump’s policies. A new Pew Research Center survey of people in 32 countries found that 68 percent oppose his tariffs, 66 percent his withdrawal from climate change agreements, 60 percent his border wall, 55 percent allowing fewer immigrants into the United States and 52 percent his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. What makes Trump’s decisions worse is that so many of them were taken either without consulting U.S. allies — as when he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership three days after taking office — or without seriously listening to their concerns.
But it’s not just his policies that make Trump — and by extension the whole country — so much less popular worldwide. All of the appalling behavior that causes him to lose standing at home — his incessant lies, his bombastic threats, his playground name-calling and abusive tweets, his racism, his erratic zigzags — also undermines him abroad. When Trump pardons war criminals, tries to legalize bribery by U.S. companies, insists that he did “NOTHING WRONG” in pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political opponent, calls the media “the enemy of the people,” tries to discredit the intelligence community (“go back to school!”) and the FBI (“badly broken”), and orders investigations of the investigators — in other words, when he acts like a typical dictator — that’s when American soft power melts as fast as the polar ice caps.
Every time Trump meets with foreign leaders, the yawning gap between his inflated self-image as a “very stable genius” and the disturbing reality becomes starkly apparent. My Post colleagues Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig report in a new book that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “eyes bulged out in surprise” when Trump told him that India didn’t share a border with China. Modi probably “left that meeting and said, ‘This is not a serious man. I cannot count on this man as a partner.’” Subsequently, they write, “‘the Indians took a step back’ in their diplomatic relations with the United States.” No doubt there will be more unpleasant encounters this week as Trump visits Davos. Every time he goes abroad, he commits gaffes that leave other world leaders shaking their heads and even laughing at him. “We need a President who isn’t a laughingstock to the entire World,” Trump tweeted in 2014. He isn’t that leader.
Because Trump cannot get what he wants through soft power, he frequently resorts to hard power even against U.S. allies. As my Post colleagues Anne Gearan and John Hudson note, he has threatened to pull out of NATO to get members to increase their military spending, threatened to impose sanctions on Iraq if U.S. troops are forced out, threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border to force Mexico to clamp down on refugees, and threatened to impose automobile tariffs on European countries “if they didn’t call out Tehran for alleged violations of the 2015 nuclear deal.” Trump is also trying to force South Korea to increase fivefold the subsidy it pays for U.S. forces as part of his belief that “we need to be making a profit” from troop deployments. Of course, the more that Trump punishes U.S. allies, the more resentment he engenders, the more soft power we lose — and the more pressure he has to apply. It’s a vicious circle.
It never occurs to Trump that he is confirming every anti-American stereotype on the planet. If you think the United States is a rapacious imperialist bent on despoiling the planet and looting other countries with an army of mercenaries, Trump seems intent on convincing you that you are right. He is the very personification of the Ugly American — and his ugly impact on American standing abroad may take decades to dissipate.