faculty & experts
12 October 2020

The End of Soft Power?

When Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft power,” he was naming a phenomenon that had been studied at least as far back as Gramsci and Mannheim: the way in which power is exercised by consent rather than by coercion. Nye’s concern – in a book significantly titled Bound to Lead – was with how the power of the United States over other states was due to how elites in those other states wanted many of the same things as their counterparts in the US. This was not solely a matter of sharing political values but of being receptive to US arguments, not least because of having been steeped in American popular, as well as high, or university, culture. Metaphorically, we can say that the key figures in US dominance in Europe after World War II were less Dean Acheson and Dwight Eisenhower than Elvis Presley and James Dean.

Of course, soft power did not imply that the United States always got its way. On numerous occasions during and after the cold war, US presidents of both parties found that their pet ideas were altered significantly or blocked tout court by their European counterparts. Nonetheless, even in highly controversial situations – the 2003 Iraq War, for example – Washington was able to construct “coalitions of the willing.”

It is in this context that Trump’s arrival at the White House was considered so disruptive. His attacks on institutions such as NATO and the EU, his enthusiastic embrace of trade wars, his kind words about Vladimir Putin: all were viewed as tantamount to throwing US soft power in the garbage. The sparse number of intellectuals and entertainers who supported Trump were, in this account, an additional indicator of a US that no longer would be leading European states. This is why when US elites showed up at events such as the Berlin Security Conference and the World Economic Forum, their visits were interpreted as akin to reassurances from political exiles that after the next election, all would be restored; and it is why hopes are so high that Biden might win.

However, Trump, and even more, those who surround him, have had a considerable influence on Europe, precisely in the consent terms of Nye’s original formulation. The combination of economic nationalism, xenophobia and suspicion of governing elites is, in effect, an attractive proposition for leaders such as Orban and Meloni, and for alt-right and QAnon adherents throughout Europe. This is an alternative transmission belt of soft power: not MoMA and Motown, but Breitbart, 8chan and Gab. Trump may well lose the election, but these ideas will persist.

Counterposed to this archipelago is another collection of ideas and forms of mobilisation, itself just as distant from US elites in exile as is the contemporary far right. Consider #MeToo and Black Lives Matter, and the way they spread rapidly across national boundaries, being almost immediately made specific in terms of local politicians, local police, local sports teams and even local statues. The fact that almost all of the activists in these movements are deeply anti-Trump is of only minor importance in their diffusion.

In short, the election next month will mark neither the end, nor the return, of US soft power, but its de-Americanisation. Even if Biden wins, groups in the United States will continue to pump out extra-governmental ideas and forms of organisation that resonate deeply throughout the world. But that resonance means that what then flourishes on the ground is no longer American in any strong sense. The real gravedigger of US soft power may not be Donald Trump, but Mark Zuckerberg.

This article was published in Le Temps on 9 October 2020 as part of the special dossier, “L’Amérique et nous”.