Brinkmanship and the loss of American soft power

This post was first published on Patreon on 20 Jun 2018

Last July, I was in Germany for a high school graduation. And as the only American family member in attendance, I got a lot of questions about Donald Trump. What I said then was that one person won’t change decades of German-American partnership. I said that that Presidents come and go. And while Germans might not like Trump, his presidency would have little impact on the longer term relationship between the US and Germany.

America’s soft power defined

I was wrong. At least that’s how it looks a year later. The reality I am seeing now is that America has lost its soft power, the underappreciated weapon that the US wields to move economic and geostrategic policy. Soft power, as I see I am defining it here, could be called “the benefit of the doubt”. And it increases the willingness of other countries to follow America’s lead when the US most wants other countries onside.

An example of soft power is the coalition George H. W. Bush formed to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in the First Gulf War. These countries didn’t sign on to the military venture because of their strategic national interests. Rather, they joined the effort because US President Bush asked them to do so. He told them that he needed a coalition of forces to legitimize the military campaign. And many countries gave Bush the benefit of the doubt regarding his aims. They signed up with financial, materiel or military support largely based on America’s soft power.

Contrast that war with the Second Gulf War that George W. Bush led to remove Saddam Hussein from power after the 9-11 terrorist attack. Bush-43 formed a “Coalition of the Willing” that was far less potent and had many fewer countries onboard. Some of the countries like the Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau had no standing armies. The Solomon Islands even repudiated membership after it was announced as a member of the coalition.

This was the beginning of the erosion of American soft power.

Trump has severely damaged the “Beacon on the Hill” image of the US

But Trump has taken this to a whole new level. From a German perspective, there are a number of slights that have really galvanized public opinion against Trump and caused many to decide the US is not a reliable partner or leader.

The trade war is a big factor because it is conditioned on “national security” grounds. That is an affront to every US ally, particularly Canada. Then there was the invitation of the right wing Austrian Chancellor by the US Ambassador to Germany. There is no legitimate diplomatic reason for a meeting between a US Ambassador to Germany and a political leader of Austria except interference in European politics. Grenell, the ambassador, even admitted this.

I could go on. There are many other slights. But the spectacle of US immigration officers separating children from parents is the final straw. US soft power is predicated on the “Beacon on the Hill” ideology that says the US is a bastion of freedom and opportunity. That imagery has always been hyperbole. But given the US’s economic, political and military might, it was a big factor underpinning America’s soft power. The concept that the US is forcibly separating children from their parents and putting those children in cages obliterates that imagery.

And this is particularly true because Trump has used this an opportunity to attack Merkel’s immigration policy and draw a contrast to his own. The only beneficiaries of this attack in Germany are right wing parties that are unelectable at the national level. The CDU/CSU coalition is Trump’s natural political ally. And by trying to insert a wedge between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, Trump has spent all of his political capital. When Germany’s own dispute on immigration between the CSU and CDU ends, right wing parties like the AfD won’t be in power. Either the CDU or the SPD will. And those parties have begun the march toward permanently reducing reliance on the US.

This is all about brinkmanship

The reason all of this is coming to a head is because of Trump’s “Art of the Deal”. His worldview says the US is the unassailable world super power whose best alternative to a negotiated agreement is ALWAYS good. America can go it alone with little downside repercussions in his book. And so he plays chicken with adversaries and allies alike.

For Trump, all negotiations are zero sum games – even with allies. And he has no sense of the importance of time and repetition. ‘Deals’ are one-off negotiations between parties in which one party wins and the other loses. And because Trump sees the US as the dominant party with the best alternative to a negotiated agreement, he believes brinkmanship is the best negotiating strategy.

But, in the world of diplomacy, it’s all about repeated encounters. You can’t just bully your way to results. An adversary in one instance may be a needed ally in another. Look at what economists found about the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Prisoner’s move from a cutthroat Nash Equilibrium to cooperating to achieve the best outcomes over the longer term. And so soft power matters.

Where is this going?

I think the US has lost most of its soft power now. First and foremost, the juxtaposition between Obama’s policies and Trump’s is too stark. Allies cannot depend on the US to uphold the policies of previous Administrations. The end of the Iran nuclear deal has had a severely negative impact on European companies.

I anticipate that Europe will move to gain greater security and economic independence from the US. Knowing that US policy can change from one 4-year period to the next means Europe can no longer operate under the US economic and security umbrella. Germany and France will take the lead in trying to fashion European strategies to global problems, excluding the US from leadership.

If Trump sees this, he will look to put a wedge between the older western European US allies and the newer, more Trump-friendly eastern European US allies. And in this way he can exploit discord in Europe. It will place more pressure on the integrity of the EU and increase political discord there.

I have framed this piece mostly from a German perspective as that’s where I think I can add value to those of you looking at this from a US or UK perspective. In Germany, the US is no longer considered the home of the free and the brave. And that will have negative longer term consequences.

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