The recovery of American soft power in 2021 is far from guaranteed. The global approval rating of U.S. leadership in 2019 was at the lowest level of any of the previous three administrations, and now the world’s soft-power leader has fallen to 6th place after a tumultuous 2020 election year and handling of COVID-19. Soft power contributes to the way America is perceived, and according to a Pew Research study, 87% of U.S. adults say that respect for the U.S. abroad is vital. Although not as easy to measure as hard power, soft power is vital in enabling the U.S. to expand and maintain its level of influence.
While we begin to navigate a post-pandemic world, it is important that the U.S. works to ramp up its soft power leadership to avoid losing its competitive edge.
Here are 5 ways the U.S. can enhance its soft power leadership:
1. Engaging in global agreements
For the U.S. to continue to be a respected global leader, it is imperative that it engages in global agreements that impact all countries in the international system. The U.S.’s previous departure from the Paris agreement was not received well by foreign publics, particularly as the U.S. withdrew its contributions to a global fund to help smaller and poorer countries that climate change disproportionately burdens. Besides the Paris agreement, the U.S. refusal to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership hindered the country’s strategic advantage in a way that China has been able to capitalize on. The Trump administration’s disinterest in global agreements tarnished the U.S. image. In a 2021 Gallup poll, 52% of American survey respondents were either somewhat dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with the role the U.S. plays in global affairs. Some observers, particularly those critical of the Trump administration, argue that the “America First” construct negatively changed America’s role in the world. Showing greater support for global agreements by not only joining and remaining in them, but also supporting their creation could improve the U.S.’s ability to leverage influence through soft power leadership.
2. Taking a leadership role in climate initiatives
As more and more countries have begun to commit to ambitious climate goals, it is paramount that the U.S. steps up into a greater leadership role. A Brookings report highlights that “four years of U.S. absence from the global climate community has left a big gap in international leadership and credibility.” As the second-largest greenhouse gas emitting country after China, the U.S. needs to accelerate climate action and make more substantial commitments. According to a Gallup poll in 2021 58% of American respondents viewed climate change as a critical threat within the next 10 years, yet the pace of current action is not meeting the urgency. Reengaging with key partners and allies around the world through multilateral strategies to address ambitious climate objectives is vital to rejuvenation of the U.S.’s global influence.
3. COVID Relief as an opportunity
States’ efforts to develop and distribute COVID vaccinations around the world have sparked a new soft power rivalry, “vaccine diplomacy.” Due to the coronavirus response, polls in 2020 revealed a significant drop in American soft power. China and Russia took the lead early on in vaccine distribution, leaving the U.S. behind. At least 90 countries received vaccines from China, especially those partnered with the Belt and Road Initiative. Recently, these countries have had massive outbreaks and the U.S. could use this time to promote their safe and effective vaccines. Russia has distributed vaccines across Latin America and East Europe and has been actively developing disinformation campaigns to discredit western vaccines. According to the Global Soft Power Index, released in February 2021, the U.S. received a score of 1.2 concerning Covid-19 response compared to Russia at 4.0 and China at 3.7. Since then, the Biden administration has distributed more than 110 million U.S. vaccine doses worldwide, including collaboration through the COVAX project. According to the United Nations, this outnumbers all other countries’ contributions combined. As the demand for vaccines increases, the U.S. should continue this course of action and debunk anti-western disinformation efforts.
4. Highlight American values
President Biden inherited a tarnished U.S. image abroad. According to a Gallup poll in 2020, countries’ approvals of U.S. leadership were low, such as Germany at 6% and Iceland at 5%. As these statistics indicate, the U.S. is lumped together with Russia and China, which have similar percentages. Despite the deadliest pandemic in a century, American soft power can be bolstered by the fact that a federal democracy conducted an honest election in 50 states with a record turnout. Demonstrating our right to peacefully protest can also generate soft power. To guarantee that our worldwide message and domestic behavior are in sync, the way in which our government responds to protest must be consistent with the values it professes. The U.S. must continue to champion for human rights through efforts like the Xinjiang ban and support organizations that fight hunger, disease, and poverty.
5. Strengthening international alliances
The U.S. alliance network, arguably one of the most successful and enduring aspects of American foreign policy over the past 70 years, enabled the U.S. to pursue its strategic goals. A Heritage article argues that alliances prevent war, control rivals and allies, enable balancing, and can facilitate global power projection. As China continues to expand its economic, military, and technological capabilities, it is vital that the U.S. has the support of its allies to counter the growing threat of China. The Trump administration’s promotion of an “America First” doctrine cut into U.S. credibility and left allies wondering if they could count on the U.S. With the new administration, the U.S. should not underestimate the importance of its perception abroad and collective actions with its allies to achieve its objectives in a strategic battle with China.
America’s success is not only dependent on its military might, but its image worldwide. During the Trump administration, data on foreign perceptions of US soft power were largely ignored. Biden will have the task to change the American message by engaging in global agreements and establishing policy emphasizing collaboration. Engagement with our international partners, and highlighting this cooperation as part of a public diplomacy plan, will help address global concerns about the U.S. role in challenges the world faces.