American foreign policy since World War II has relied upon soft power – the ability to influence others based on key human values. Since World War II, the US goal has been to project its image as a nation that is not only strong, but also “good,” drawing on the idea of American Exceptionalism to persuade others that the country is the “shining city on the hill” and a democratic “beacon of freedom” in a troubled world.
Yet U.S. foreign policy has also been guided by national self-interest. This pursuit has at times conflicted with our aspirations and led to less than admirable policies implemented through counter-productive means that diminished America’s standing in the world.
Today a debate over fundamental values rages within the U.S. and abroad. The world’s view of America is no longer favorable. Forty-nine percent of the globe views the United States and President Trump’s “America First” slogan unfavorably. Yet Americans themselves are still admired by fifty-nine percent according to that same Pew “gold standard” poll of international opinion. Can we change this increasingly negative view of our country overall, or if not, will it spread to individual Americans? What can we do to regain the world’s trust?
Barack Obama’s 2008 election was a source of hope at home and overseas. While his administration fell short of expectations, the U.S. did regain and retain much of the international community’s respect. But in the past year, many question if the United States’ foreign policy is guided by its aspirational values.
Are there fundamental human values that all nations and cultures can agree upon or are they idiosyncratic? How are such values interpreted in U.N. documents and organizations of which the U.S. was an instrumental drafter?
Many American aspirational values are enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution. Do democracy, human rights, the rejection of tyranny, equality for all, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, constitutional government, freedom of the press and worship continue to call for respect domestically and internationally? How can we maintain a free media but deal with concerted efforts to undermine this bedrock of democracy? What about the value and importance of scientific inquiry, which has underpinned economic, health, national security, educational, social and technological foundations of the American success story since before the founding of the Republic?
Finally, can America still be influential on the international stage, or have we yielded that role to others through an “America First” form of isolationism that has diminished US stature with allies to the delight of our competitors and adversaries? What options do we have to navigate today’s unstable world?