January 6, 2021, may prove to be a day of infamy like December 7, 1941, but it could also go down in history as a turning point in which Trumpism peaked and some politicians began to take responsibility for the consequences of their rhetoric.
(The National Interest)
The Trump years have not been kind to American soft power—our ability to affect others through attraction rather than coercion or payment. Polls already showed a decline in our attractiveness in other countries after 2017, and this was compounded last year by Trump’s incompetence in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Now we start the new year with the shock of a mob invading the Capitol. While Senator Josh Hawley waved them on with a clenched fist, another Republican Senator Ben Sasse spoke critically that today “the world’s greatest symbol of self-government—was ransacked while the leader of the free world cowered behind his keyboard—tweeting against his Vice President for fulfilling the duties of his oath to the Constitution.” Our allies and other countries were shocked. Can our soft power recover from these blows?
We have done so before. Our country has serious problems, but it also has a capacity for resilience and reform that has rescued us in the past. In the 1960s, our cities were burning over racial protests, and we were mired in Vietnam War protests. Bombs exploded in universities and government buildings. The National Guard killed students at Kent State. We witnessed the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the flames were fanned by demagogues like George Wallace. Yet within a decade, a series of reforms passed Congress, and the honesty of Gerald Ford, the human rights policies of Jimmy Carter, and the optimism of Ronald Reagan helped restore our attractiveness.
Moreover, even when crowds marched through the world’s streets protesting American policies in Vietnam, the protesters sang Martin Luther King’s “We Shall overcome” more than the communist “Internationale.” An anthem from the civil rights protest movement illustrated that America’s power to attract rested not on our government’s policy but in large part on our civil society and our capacity to be self-critical and reform. One might consider that a “meta soft power.”
A country’s soft power comes primarily from three sources: its culture (when it is attractive to others), its political values such as democracy and human rights (when it lives up to them), and its policies (when they are seen as legitimate.) How a government behaves at home (for example, protecting a free press and the right to protest), in international institutions (consulting others and multilateralism), and in foreign policy (promoting development and human rights) can attract others by example. Wednesday’s example was awful, but we may recover from it.