President Donald Trump threatened to remove all funding from the World Health Organization unless they make some changes. Why? He blames them for letting the virus escape into the world. It is one more way for the president to avoid any responsibility for his own actions or lack of actions. It is also sweet music to the ears of his ever-present hardcore right-wing base. In the letter, he released overnight he did not specify what those changes should be. This is classic Trump, and it is classic deflection. Trump will do all to distract from his lack of leadership.
However, it also fits a long pattern from the American right. They still hold to this fantasy that International institutions hurt the United States. In their fevered imagination, they take away sovereignty and the ability of the United States to act. Never mind we were behind creating those institutions at the end of World War Two.
The president and the far-right do not understand soft power. This is defined as the ability of the country to influence other nations using diplomacy, trade and other people to people contacts. times it is more important than hard power, which they have romantic ideas about. Hard power is your aircraft carrier, or your soldier patrolling the ground with an M-16, and the ability to call for air support instantly. . The latter includes the romantic idea of charging the enemy with fixed bayonets. It’s easy to envision. It also is far more black and white than soft power.
Soft power is much harder to use and it takes time. It is also not sexy, or flag filled.
There are a few things about soft power that make it harder to understand. There are no uniforms or weapons. It takes time, and involves a lot of person to person relationships, and yes, friendships. It involves a lot of gray areas, where you have people working with each other in-spite of mutual distrust.
Hard power is very easy to spot. Soft power is not. It can also take years to decades to blossom. There are many forms that this soft power takes. For the United States, it takes the form of USAID and the Peace Corp. It includes commercial delegations, and yes, the Global Institutions that we helped establish after World War Two. Unlike World War One, we not only created them but joined in leadership positions. We understood that the post-war world was one where we would be the dominant power. If we wanted to prevent war, we needed to be part of the world.
It worked, we have had a peace that has lasted for over seventy years. There have been proxy wars. But we have had no global conflict.
This was a lesson of the First World War when Woodrow Wilson championed the formation of the League of Nations, which he saw it as a way to guarantee peace. It was also a place for American soft power to grow, as we were still quite isolated and provincial. His successors did not want to involve the country in the affairs of the world. This is why the United States did not join the League. After World War Two the United States made the world anew in its own image and was behind the formation of global institutions, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations.
The American far-right wants to retreat from this American world, insofar as soft power is concerned. They distrust global institutions who they believe take away sovereignty and in the most extreme of cases, believe the UN will fly black helicopters into the country, as part of the New World Order. That NWO is what emerged after the end of the Cold War, and the ultimate victory of the United States and Europe over Communist Russia. This was the success of capitalism in its modern form, and the rise of neoliberalism, and the emergence of an American unipolar world. That NWO is over, with the retreat of the US from the world under Trump, we will become once again a provincial nation with little soft power. Hard power is ineffective, without soft power. In fact, the US succeeded in winning the Cold War because of that soft power, and things like NATO.
A country that only has hard power is like the neighborhood bully. Yes, you may be able to beat up the other kids in the schoolyard, but you have no respect. Fear is a poor substitute for that. As the United States retreats, China emerges as a new power. And yes, she is exercising soft power, in places around the world. Whether it is African infrastructure, or medical teams going to Italy. That is soft power, and as the US threatens to pull out of the WHO in the midst of a pandemic, her soft power will continue to evaporate.