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'America First' harms US soft power

Donald Trump
Jim Bourg | Reuters
Donald Trump

If a handshake symbolizes diplomatic power, U.S. President Donald Trump may be losing his grip.

The prolonged handshake with France's Emmanuel Macron in May was the latest in a string of awkward embraces between Trump and global leaders to go viral, and it seems clear who walked away with the symbolic upper hand.

France replaced the U.S. as No. 1 in the Soft Power 30 Index, an annual ranking recently released by communications consulting firm Portland in partnership with the University of Southern California's Center for Public Diplomacy.

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The U.K. maintained its No. 2 spot, and the U.S. fell to No. 3. Germany and Canada rounded out the top five countries in the index.

Combining data and perception, the index assesses countries on soft power, a term coined by political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990. He defined soft power as the authority gained through attraction and collaboration rather than coercion.

Despite top spots in education, culture and technological innovation, the U.S. faces a "clear threat" to its soft power, according to the report, which cited Trump's "America First" foreign policy as a major factor in the U.S. drop in its ranking. Nationalist rhetoric and strained international alliances were linked to significant drops for the U.S. in global engagement and perceptions of global citizenship.

In the face of nuclear threats, ISIS, cyber attacks and other threats, soft power remains critical to a nation's safety and success, experts say.

"History shows that progress has been made when soft power is marshalled by diplomacy among people with like minds," says Christopher Holmes Smith, a clinical professor of communication with the University of Southern California. "This has helped to effectively keep the peace for the better part of a generation and should not be jettisoned at this juncture, no matter how complicated the circumstances of our world may become."

The individual benefits for countries that collaborate, rather than coerce, are compelling.

The relationship between wealth, or a country's gross domestic product per capita, and perceptions of trustworthiness is twice as strong as the relationship between wealth and perceptions of military might, according to the Best Countries report.

In his book, "The Power Paradox," psychologist Dacher Keltner explores how leaders, especially those whose power is left unchecked, can become detached from those they lead, defaulting to coercive power. Studies have shown that this creates an environment rife with stress, distrust and disengagement, he says.

Soft power leadership has been considered to be fragile across the globe since Trump was elected, evidenced by the close elections across Europe, Keltner says. But eventually there was a banding together around Germany's Angela Merkel and other leaders to counter Trump's unilateral approach to diplomacy over the decades of multilateralism the West has embraced.

"In any network – an employee in an organization or a country in the U.N. or a neighbor in a soccer association – cooperative types, collaborative types, kind types can survive even if really nasty Machiavellan people are around," he says, adding they become even stronger through those social ties.

Soft power and hard power can co-exist, experts say. The top five countries in the Soft Power 30 Index also rank in the top seven in the Best Countries ranking of hard power.

"Hard power and soft power are historical constants. And they are not mutually exclusive," says Jay Wang, director of USC's Center for Public Diplomacy. "A more expansive way of understanding the relationship and dynamics between the two forms of power is to view them on a continuum in terms of type and strength...the central question is how to balance them."

China, up three spots to No. 25 on the Soft Power 30 Index this year, has invested heavily in recent years to shift the balance of its international image away from hard power.

Drivers of soft power qualities take time to build, Wang says, but there is an ebb and flow.

Trump has three and a half years to shift this balance in the U.S.