The feeling that something serious has changed after Trump’s election is palpable. The sombre mood generated by the election hasn’t been shaken off. Certainly, Europeans are also indulging in the entertainment value of the day-to-day surreality of Trump, but the unexpected triumph of a far-right politician is a bit too close for comfort. With Brexit quickly becoming a reality, it’s impossible for Europe to write off the US election as an isolated event, particularly with elections looming in several European states this year.
Yet beyond the rise of right-wing populism that has many rightly feeling uncomfortable about the future of their own countries, the election of Trump to the White House also puts into question the future of Pax Americana. Is anyone comfortable with Donald Trump being the ‘leader of the free world’? Many assume that US foreign policy won’t change all that much; it rarely does from one president to the next. Yet, never has a president been elected to the White House who is so poorly regarded by the rest of the world. This begs the question, could American soft power be at risk under a Trump presidency?
The US has traditionally been the master of soft power. They literally wrote the book on it, as the term was first coined by Harvard’s Joseph Nye in 1990. The concept of soft power assumes two types of power: the traditional hard power, consisting of military and economical might, and soft power, denoting the ability to influence the culture and ideology of other nations. For the US, its ability to promote its values and culture abroad has been as integral a part of their foreign policy for over the past two centuries as their hard power. For instance, while many Europeans didn’t agree with many aspects of Obama’s foreign policy in regards to Syria or the TTIP trade negotiations, according to the Pew Research Center Obama’s approval rate in 2016 was as high as 86% in Germany, and 84% in France. In Italy, 72% reported a favourable view of the US, compared to only 32% in China. Most European countries have similar figures. As Foreign Affairs succinctly put it, “U.S. security hinges as much on winning hearts and minds as it does on winning wars.” But can we really expect Europe to embrace the values of Trump’s America?
One clear indication of Trump’s lack of regard for the typical instruments of US soft power was his decision to immediately dismiss all politically appointed US ambassadors, with no concrete replacements in line. There are two types of American Ambassadors: career diplomats, and political appointees. The majority of ambassadors to Europe are political appointees, who change with each president. So whilst all the politically appointed ambassadors had anticipated having to leave their positions at the end of Obama’s term, there is usually a grace period giving the outgoing and incoming ambassadors time to transition to their new roles. The approval process for politically appointed ambassadors is lengthy, as they must be approved by Congress and go through an intensive background check by White House personnel staff and the FBI. For instance, most of the Obama appointees in his second term (2013-2016) didn’t begin until the summer of 2013.
The role of ambassadors is largely ceremonial, someone to add a personal touch to US relations with their host country. In European countries, they are usually fairly popular among the local population and maintain the usual friendly relations between the nations. However, if we can assume that the Trump-appointed ambassadors are anything like the members he chose for his Cabinet, that is, a cadre of morally dubious figures, and factor in that ambassador positions go to donors or political allies of the incoming President, the esteem and prestige that many US ambassadors are held in in Europe is likely to be reconsidered. Considering Trump’s few political allies, many American pundits assume the posts will go to some of his many business allies.
Furthermore, what will happen to the activities of the US Embassies? They have long been a financial supporter of various civil society movements and events, and considered a reliable funder for projects as long as they “promoted American values.” That has been a relatively broad blanket covering a myriad of causes promoting human rights, democracy, freedom of speech, and so on. But if Trump stays true to many of his campaign promises, it seems that the US government itself would no longer embody many of those ideals. Whilst American hypocrisy is nothing new, Trump seems to particularly revel in it. Whether he uses embassies as a tool to push forward his own ideology is not yet sure, but it is certain that he has the power to. He has already shown a tendency to use state institutions for his own political and personal gain, so can we really believe that embassies will be immune? His campaign promise to move the Israeli Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which he seems likely to fulfil, indicates that instrumentalising US Embassies is already on his radar.
Additionally, the legitimacy of projects like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty could be under threat. RFE/RL was founded during the Cold War by the US government for countries behind the Iron Curtain and still exists today. Their mission is to “report the news in 23 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established,” which includes countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East. Given Trump’s demonstrable disregard for the impartiality of media and RFE/RL’s role in often dispelling misinformation spread by Putin and his media machines, the entire mission and integrity of RFE/RL could be compromised. It’s hard to envisage the continued impartiality of RFE’s Crimea broadcast under a president who has defied his own party by repeatedly defending Russia’s claims to it.
There are other tools of US soft power which might not be of much interest to Trump, who doesn’t seem too interested in details, but that will certainly not be immune to the ire of a Republican Congress hungry for spending cuts. One example is US government sponsored programmes for Americans to go abroad like the Fulbright Scholarships or the Peace Corps. Nary an Eastern European who hasn’t met a Peace Corps volunteer, nor a European professor who is not familiar with the Fulbright. These programmes are widely beloved by those who have participated in them and have been a global model, replicated across the world. Regardless they have been scrutinised during budget hearings in the US Congress before, and with a Republican Senate, House of Representatives, and President, future budget cuts seem plausible.
Whilst US soft power in Europe does not rest solely on state sponsored activities, these certainly play an important role. It’s likely that American corporations will try to counterbalance some of the negative effects of a more isolationist US government. Even if the US government decides to stop investing in soft power abroad, US corporations still have a great vested interest in ensuring consumers abroad have a positive image of their brand. So if there does prove to be a gap in funding opportunities for civil society organisations that the US government used to provide, corporations could see this as an opportunity to insert themselves, and American corporate sponsorships for civil society in Europe could increase. For NGOs in the US, government funding alone is rarely enough to survive and there are few without multiple corporate sponsors. This will doubtless not change in the US under the upcoming Republican government; and it may also spread abroad.
The end of American hegemony and the soft power associated with it might be welcomed by many. It’s not as though European weariness towards the US hadn’t been visible before; the anti-TTIP movement wasn’t always just about trade. But if we do see this soft power dismantled, is there someone ready to fill in the role that the US had played? Asking for a new hegemonic rule is a tall order. Plenty of Europeans would like the EU to fill that role, but this doesn’t currently seem seriously feasible given the current state of politics on the continent. The EU has plenty of tools and expertise at its disposal and the rolling back of US involvement in Europe could be a huge opportunity for the Union and Member States alike. But this would necessitate serious reorientation of vision and solidarity within the EU. Until we get there, a welcome first step would be for Europeans to start adjusting to the practical reality of a Trump presidency, despite the surreality of it which until now might have been easy to laugh at. Just as many Americans are wishing they had done, before it was too late.