The speech by President Trump to the United Nations General Assembly began with the rest of the world laughing at the President of the United States….and it did not get much better from there.
“Today I stand before the United Nations General Assembly to share the extraordinary progress we’ve made. In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” Trump says as he begins his speech at #UNGApic.twitter.com/hM6YH0h60k
With his speech to the United Nations, President Trump accelerated the erosion of American soft power.
Soft power is the idea in international relations that a country can be persuasive not by threats and coercion, but through attraction. Since World War Two, countries have historically wanted to ally with the United States because they and their populations like the United States. They appreciate the culture, movies, music, schools, the foreign aid they receive, or the values that the United States has represents, like an embrace of human rights and democracy. For over 70 years, this has been a profound source or real world power for the United States — it is part of the reason the United States is the most powerful country in the world and an important compliment to America’s economic and military might.
But now, America’s soft power is as tenuous as ever, and President Trump’s speech only weakened America further.
“The United States will not tell you how to live, work and worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return, ” President Trump said in a speech heavily colored by appeals to the primacy of state sovereignty. The implication here is that the United States no longer wants to be the exceptional country in global affairs that will speak up on behalf of beleaguered populations. “Leave us alone, and we will leave you alone” was the message delivered and likely received by people around the world.
The irony here is that this kind of direct invocation of sovereignty has typically been favored by authoritarian leaders who want to avoid international criticism over abusive domestic policies, including from the United States. But now, it is the United States that is embracing an interpretation of sovereignty in international relations that has historically been the last refuge of authoritarians. Historically, when countries at the UN invoke sovereignty it is because they want to avoid criticism over human rights abuses committed on their territory. The fact that the US president is now championing this ideology should come as a profound warning to Americans that their rights may soon be trampled upon or further eroded.
Another historic source of American soft power has been US foreign aid. Indeed, when humanitarian aid is delivered through the US Agency for International Development, the logo bears the American flag and the tagline: “from the American people.”
US aid amounts to less than 1% of the total US federal budget. Humanitarian assistance is even less. Historically, the United States has directed its foreign assistance through a combination of humanitarian imperative and political priority. But the US never demanded a quid-pro-quo in which the government of country in which US aid is distributed unquestioningly support the policies of the US government. Trump, though, is changing that. “The US is the far biggest giver of foreign aid,” he said at the UN. “But few give anything to us… We are only going to give aid to countries that respect us and are our friends.”
Conditioning aid that benefits the people of a country — like the provision of humanitarian assistance, or HIV/AIDS medicines — on whether or not the political leaders of that country act in a way the US President finds friendly could have the effect of punishing vulnerable populations abroad. Using foreign aid as a tool of coercion or means of compellence erodes the value of aid as a tool of soft power.
To a large degree, actions taken by President Trump have already eroded American soft power. The “travel ban,” the separation of families at the southern US border, the withdrawal from the Paris Accord and other actions have reduced the attractiveness of the United States. Still, the United States remains the most powerful nation on the planet. It’s military and economic might is unparalleled — and, it has some residual stores of soft power upon which it can draw.
But that soft power is fast eroding. And with it, the ability of the United States to lead global coalitions to solve great global problems. In an interview with Uri Friedman of The Atlantic ahead of the General Assembly, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres bemoaned the loss of American leadership.
“’I think that the soft power of the United States … is being reduced at the present moment,” Guterres told me in an interview. This, he suggested, is dangerous because there ‘is no way to solve most of the problems in the world without’ America.”
Unfortunately for the United States and for the world, President Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly may have accelerated this trend.