March 29, 2017 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week’s Reads - The Decline of American Soft Power

The nature of American power today is in flux. Not because of a lack of military might – the United States still maintains by far the most powerful military in the world. And not because of a lack of economic prowess – despite all of its problems, the strength, reach, and dynamism of the American economy remains unmatched. Instead, it is America’s political and cultural appeal, what Joseph Nye has called “soft power,” that is fading, thus reshaping American influence around the world.

Take immigration. In recent months, the Trump administration’s hostile rhetoric toward immigrants, coupled with its controversial travel ban, has represented a significant departure – not just in terms of policy but from the belief in the power of international exchange. This power is evident in the fact that immigrants comprise 30 percent of all American Nobel Prize winners and the founders of 90 American Fortune 500 companies, as Bret Stephens points out in a recent Wall Street Journal column. It should be cause for concern, then, that amid this new political climate, nearly 40 percent of American colleges and universities are seeing an overall drop in foreign applicants.

America’s declining soft power can also be seen in the Trump administration’s approach to global health. The new White House budget calls for dramatic funding cuts in organizations that fight infectious disease – from the National Institutes of Health to USAID to the Prevention and Public Health Fund. These cuts belie America’s role as a global health leader but more importantly, as Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker write in The New York Times, they threaten American citizens and population centers across the globe with the prospect of unpreparedness for the next outbreak.

As American soft power fades, so too will America’s influence in the global order it helped create. Soft power has traditionally ensured that American interests are reflected in international institutions. But as the United States turns inward and makes significant cuts to its diplomatic resources, its influence – and thus its interests – will be diminished.

Importantly, this comes at a time when rival powers are attempting to undo the American-centric order. Look at Russian efforts to undermine the European Union or its attempts to recreate an order based on traditional spheres-of-influence. Or consider China’s development of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank or its championing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Trade Partnership, both of which would create a more robust Chinese political orbit.

The bottom line is that America’s soft power is declining precisely when it is needed the most. The many global challenges facing the United States today require not just hard military power but the wise application of American political, cultural, and diplomatic force. This week’s reads explore some of these challenges, as well as the changing dynamics of American power.

‘Other People’s Babies’

Bret Stephens/The Wall Street Journal

Jumping off from a US congressman’s recent comment about limiting immigration, Bret Stephens takes a look at a country that does successfully restrict newcomers – Japan. While a severe limit on foreigners has ensured Japanese social cohesion, the country’s economic stagnation is a direct result of its declining population. Stephens sounds a warning bell for US policymakers, arguing that in light of declines in the US fertility rate, as well as the important contributions immigrants make to the country, “immigrants aren’t a threat to American civilization.” In fact, as Stephens writes, “If immigration means change, it forces dynamism. America is literally unimaginable without it.”

The Real Immigration Debate: Whom to Let In and Why

Mark Krikorian/The Wall Street Journal

“If we are ever to have a rational debate about immigration – rather than a screaming match among combatants mostly intent on signaling their own moral virtue or ideological purity – the starting point has to be a candid acknowledgment of our goals and preferences,” says Mark Krikorian. In other words, rather than discussing enforcement, we need clarity on what our policies are supposed to achieve. Krikorian runs through issues affecting his position, such as a desire to protect American jobs or the costs and benefits of multiculturalism. In the end, he argues for narrower set of criteria than we currently use – mainly immediate family members of US citizens, top skilled workers, and a small number of genuine refugees.

Abandoning the Liberal International Order for a Spheres-of-Influence World is a Trap for America and its Allies

Daniel Twining/Medium

Daniel Twining, the Asia director for the German Marshall Fund, explains the flaws in a new world order based on spheres of influence. “Were such an order to replace one based on global integration and American leadership in the geopolitical cockpits of Europe and Asia, it would only engender insecurity and conflict,” Twining argues. One reason? “Spheres overlap in ways that would generate conflict rather than clean lines of responsibility.” Others? Spheres of influence would spark competition and break up the global economy. And the fact that states such as Iran, Russia, and China would welcome such a reorder is perhaps the strongest reason the United States should oppose it.

Reality is Creeping into the Trump Show

David Ignatius/The Washington Post

President Trump would be well served if Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson played more prominent roles, argues David Ignatius, who notes that while these two aren’t speaking much to the public, they are speaking to each other, and to Trump. For the nation’s sake, Ignatius makes a plea for their wise counsel on three major hot spots – ISIS, North Korea, and Russia. “As Mattis and Tillerson work on these complex problems, they need to communicate their strategy to America and the world. The United States is facing big questions, and the answers can’t be conveyed in 140-character tweets.”

Trump’s Diplomat: How Rex Tillerson Is Translating 'America First' Into Foreign Policy

Erin McPike/Independent Journal Review

As the lone reporter allowed on the plane for Secretary Tillerson’s recent trip to Asia, Erin McPike seized the opportunity – controversial among the State Department press corps – and published a lengthy profile based on several one-on-one interviews. The result was a not-to-miss story with unique insight into Tillerson’s motivations for taking the job, his relationship with the president, and his views on running the State Department.

Jared Kushner Struck Out in His First Foray into Middle East Diplomacy

Colum Lynch/Foreign Policy

Since even before President Trump’s inauguration, son-in-law Jared Kushner has maneuvered behind the scenes advancing Trump’s foreign policy. Colum Lynch details Kushner’s first diplomatic efforts, which centered on convincing the UK government to delay its planned resolution in Israeli settlements until after Trump took office so that the new administration could veto it. While Kushner wasn’t successful, Lynch makes clear that he has established himself as a formidable voice on Trump’s behalf.

The Future of the European Union

John Peet/Economist

As the EU recently celebrated the 60th anniversary of its founding on March 25, 1957, “it is in deeper trouble than ever,” writes John Peet in an essay kicking off a new special report series. With many member states in the throws of an election year, issues such as migration and public debt loom large. The EU is losing popularity, and, indeed, “whenever any European treaty has been put to a vote in recent years, it has been as likely to be rejected as approved.” So what to do? Peet advocates a “creative rethink of the entire European project,” focusing on the option of varying levels of cooperation within the EU, a “multi-speed, multi-tier union.” The series will examine the wider promise of such an idea.

The Real Threat to National Security: Deadly Disease

Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker/The New York Times

The authors argue against cuts to domestic efforts to fight infectious diseases, cuts proposed in order to increase military spending. Arguing that working against threats such as Zika is just as much “defense” spending as a DoD budget line item, Michael T. Osterholm and Mark Olshaker say that only the government has the resources to devote to research and protection. “The military has figured out how to convince congressional funders that the only way to maintain defense is to appropriate money before a crisis. …The only way we can win the inevitable microbe wars is to do the same – to have new vaccines and antibiotics and trained personnel ready before the crisis hits.”

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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