A dent in American soft power: The erosion of American Exceptionalism

By THO Contributor, Tarik Oguzlu 

Since its birth as an independent state in late eighteenth century, the United States has always claimed to be an exceptional country in global politics and preferred to view other countries through the prism of its constitutive values. Striking the right balance between material interests and foundational values in conducting foreign policy is a daunting task and the United States is not immune from this. 

In the academic literature on International Relations, values come to fore basically in two different ways. Values might alternatively help constitute the actor itself or get employed in such an instrumental way so as to legitimize/justify hard material interests in the eyes of other actors. Either way, values matter in foreign policy and most states try to find the right balance between these two options. One cannot find any country saying that its foreign policy interests or behaviours do not reflect any value-claim at all. 

Among all states, the United States appears to have spoken the language of values, either in constitutive or instrumental fashion, the most. Speaking the language of values and morality and claiming to represent the best model for other countries to emulate has for decades constituted the most important arsenal of American soft power. Had other countries not viewed the United States as a benign hegemon, the immense material power capability of this country would not have sufficed for the emergence and persistence of the US-led liberal International order for so long. Similarly, if the United States wants to win out over China and see its traditional followers march with itself, its soft power will prove to be as decisive as its hard power. 

That said, the current maladies facing the United States will strongly impact the American soft power in the years to come. Unfortunately, of all the great powers in today's world, the United States has fared the worst in managing the Covid-19 disease. President Trump has not only failed to adopt a scientific approach to deal with the crisis at home but also proved to be inept in orchestrating an effective global response to the pandemic. Missing has been credible American global leadership since the crisis broke out in January 2020. 

Adding insult to the injury has been the abject failure of the current administration to adopt effective economic measures to help alleviate the burden of the people as well as unify the country around the noble purpose of eradicating the traces of racism and other sorts of discrimination following the inhumane killing of George Floyd by a white policeman in Minneapolis. 

Built on the four-years performance of the current administration, these latest examples of misgovernment and malfunctioning carry the risk of further eroding the legitimacy and credibility of the so-called American exceptionalism across the globe. 

Unlike many other countries, particularly compared to Russia, China and many European powers, the United States came into being as an experiment in nation-building underlining the importance of secular, cosmopolitan, universal and multicultural values in uniting a diverse people around the political project of American nationalism. Being part of American nation has long been considered as subscribing to the core tenets of the American creed which has been in abject contradiction with examples of ethnic, religious and racists nationalism in other societies. 

One of the strengths of American soft power is that irrespective of ethic background or religious affiliation, subscribing to the secular and universal underpinnings of American nationalism and contributing to prosperity of the American nation might pave the way for American citizenship for originally non-American people across the world. Being a country of immigrants and putting openness at the center of American body politic sets apart the United States from many other countries.

Americans have thought of themselves so unique that promoting the universal American values to other parts of the global in an missionary mission has long shaped American foreign policy practices in different parts of the globe. Americans have thought of themselves as an exceptional nation which has a God-given mandate to civilize and transform other societies in the image of American values.

The four-years old Trump presidency seems to have dented such an America image severely by contributing to the erosion of American soft power in the eyes of other societies. We knew that Trump was a nativist politician disparaging and belittling American exceptionalism. He said many times that it was not the business of the United States to teach others how to rule themselves and with him in power the United States would no longer engage in nation-building exercises abroad. For Trump, the United States is like many other countries which would do well to define its national identity on the basis of solid ethnic, racial and linguistic background, in this case the so-called WASP identity.  

Despite Trump's beliefs and erratic style of governing, many outsiders have continued to believe that Trump's presidency is an aberration and other societies, particularly Russian and Chinese, are not on par with the American society to shine as a source of inspiration for others. Unlike China and Russia, the United States is the country that attracts the immigrants the world over the most. Despite the historical legacy of racism and well-entrenched practices of discrimination, the number of people who want to settle in the United States and pursue university education there far exceeds the number of people who dream a much better life in other countries. 

Maybe that was by now. People in different countries have recently taken to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd and give their support to the Black Lives Matter movement. Criticisms leveled against the lack of American leadership during the global pandemic have mounted. This matters because in the emerging Cold War like geopolitical competition between the United States and China soft power appears to be as much important as hard power. It should be a worrying sign for the American leadership to notice that many protests against American racism have occurred in traditional American allies in Europe and other continents that continue to believe in liberal democracy and wish the United States remains committed to the liberal international order. it is for certain that any further erosion in American soft power will help create a suitable environment for China to assert its regional dominance in East and Southeast Asia and potentially global hegemony in the years to come. It cannot be a coincidence that Chinese bullying tactics have recently become more evident than ever as the United States has now been facing dire challenges at home and abroad and going through a soul-searching process in the midst of an election season. The idea of American exceptionalism has long been the most important ammunition in America's struggle against existential threats as well as its ability to secure the cooperation of like-minded states. The sooner the Americans realize this once again, the better.