US soft power declining because of its COVID-19 pandemic bungling

By Song Guoyou Source:Global Times Published: 2020/5/26 22:07:47

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

COVID-19 is rapidly emerging as a soft power touchstone for global diplomacy.

The effectiveness of various countries' systems and governmental capacities are being seriously tested. This, in turn, is having an impact on the elements of so-called soft power. In the case of the US, I contend that the pandemic has crippled their soft power. 

Analytically speaking, soft power can be measured in two dimensions: capability and intention. 

In terms of capability, the US has neither prepared sufficient materials for the domestic coronavirus fight nor provided necessary material assistance to the world. As the world's biggest economy and a purportedly strong public health power, the US government has been mired in a serious shortage of medical supplies. This was the case before the outbreak, and is the case now. It has created a farce with the federal government and states engaging in a catfight for supplies. 

These facts expose the dysfunction of the US political system under polarized politics. Under this situation the US cannot even guarantee domestic medical supplies, no matter how much the Trump administration touts how it aided other countries' epidemic fight. He's not convincing. 

In terms of intention, the Trump administration has shown no intention to play a leading role to unite other countries to fight the pandemic. Not even from the beginning, and not now. It's widely acknowledged this pandemic is the first major global crisis where the US has failed to exert leadership at the international level since World War II. 

Its refusal to effectively lead and the intentional disruption of global cooperation have totally undermined US soft power. 

At the key stage in the battle, the US accused and threatened the World Health Organization (WHO) and froze its funding. If the accelerated crackdown on China is a "personal" vendetta, its blow to the WHO, regardless of international justice, has triggered a "public" outcry. Nonetheless, Washington even boasted it did this for its own "morality."

The US is considered the most powerful country in terms of both hard power and soft power. It has 4 percent of the world population, but its confirmed coronavirus cases and death toll constitute 30 percent of the crisis. 

This is in no way something worth boasting about. The US has shown the world how its public health governance has failed - and this has also attributed to why its soft power is dwindling. 

The pandemic is not the starting point of the decline of US soft power. But it is accelerating the process. After all, soft power is a result of a country's long-term effective governance and public approval of a country's willingness to shoulder international responsibilities. 

Without good domestic governance and public support, soft power is just a bubble in thin air. Without international responsibility and international approval, soft power is just a shifting sand dune. In these two regards, the US is hardly playing a leadership role under President Donald Trump. 

Domestically, US politicians are engaged in bitter bipartisan struggles. This shows their divergence in ideology. As economic and social woes exacerbate, it is more and more common to see Americans oppose Americans. 

Internationally, the self-centered US, with its many imagined enemies on its mind, is destroying the liberal world order it fought to forge. It is scrapping international unity, which is deeply disconcerting. More dangerously, the US is overdrawing its soft power. It exploits the trust of some countries and tries to instigate confrontation between different systems in order to maintain its soft power. China must be on alert. 

The author is deputy director of the Center for American Studies, Fudan University.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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