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COMMENTARY

Trump's disdain has eroded the US's soft power and generated backlash

DONALD Trump makes his second annual address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. With 140 other world leaders in attendance, the US president is likely to steal the show again, despite the growing disgruntlement with him at the supranational body.

The reason why most eyes are likely to be on Mr Trump again this year is not just his speech on Tuesday, or the drugs policy summit that he hosted on Monday. Beyond this, Washington is currently holding the chair of the Security Council, and remains by far the largest contributor to the UN budget.

With his speech on Tuesday, and his chance to chair a Security Council meeting too on Wednesday, Mr Trump will have significant agenda setting power. In the past, US presidents such as Barack Obama have used this to push forward multilateral solutions, including in 2015 when Mr Trump's predecessor made a final pitch for pushing forward with a UN climate change agreement which was finalised later that year.

Mr Trump, by contrast, has no major multilateral agendas to push forward. And his big week in New York comes after a year when Washington has flagged withdrawal from the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council and the UN Educational and Cultural Agency (Unesco); refused to sign the Global Compact on Migration; and made cutbacks in voluntary funding for the UN Population Fund.

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While Mr Trump was generally politely received last September when he gave his last UN speech, there is growing backlash. In June, the International Organisation for Migration rejected Mr Trump's candidate Ken Isaacs to lead the agency, and UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres asserted this month that "I think the soft power of the United States . . . is being reduced".

Yet, the UN is only one example of what many see as the administration shooting itself in the foot on foreign policy. In his first 18 months, other key US decisions - from withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership to the Paris climate treaty - have undermined goodwill with allies and damaged US standing in the world which Mr Trump may regret during the remainder of his presidency, given the range of international challenges that he faces.

While the idea of soft power - the ability to achieve goals by attracting and co-opting others, rather than by coercing - is sometimes misunderstood and criticised, history underlines the key role that it has played as a means of obtaining outcomes that policymakers have sought. For example, US administrations generally used soft power resources skilfully after World War II to encourage other countries into a system of alliances, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the UN itself. The Cold War was subsequently won by a strategy of containment and cultural vigour.

Yet, Mr Trump seems set on a different course, and his apparent disdain of international treaties and organisations that do not bend to his will is provoking backlash. A Pew Global poll found last year, for instance, that around three-quarters of the thousands surveyed internationally had little or no confidence in his global leadership and policies.

Indeed, the Pew poll showed that Mr Trump already enjoys less support than did George W Bush at the height of his own foreign policy travails after the controversy of the Iraq invasion in 2003. And the billionaire businessman therefore has the clear potential in coming years to be the least popular US president, overseas, of modern times.

At a time when Washington is facing a series of complex foreign policy challenges, the Trump team would benefit from more engaged, strong and supportive allies. And this is true from moving forward the president's promised peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians; combating the continuing threat from international terrorism; to tackling the range of threats posed by revisionist powers such as Russia.

Yet, a key problem Mr Trump faces is that while he enjoys significant popularity in a small number of countries, including Israel, numerous of his policy ideas and occasionally wild rhetoric threaten a new, broader spike in anti-US sentiment. The tragedy is that this could undercut much of the work that has been undertaken in the last decade to enhance US soft power, potentially creating a disabling (rather than enabling) environment for covert and overt cooperation and information sharing with US officials.

Coming into office in 2009, Barack Obama confronted a situation in which anti-US sentiment was at about its highest levels since at least the Vietnam War. The key factor driving this was the international unpopularity of the Bush administration's policies, not least the war in Iraq. While Mr Obama made much progress with his global public diplomacy efforts, the scale of the challenge that he faced meant that he left much to do for his successor.

It is in this context that Mr Trump's UN speech and his first 18 months of foreign policy is being judged by many internationally, with a large body of the global populace still nervous about what his presidency means. While he has already had a tough time in terms of international opinion, this may only get significantly worse if he continues on the current course.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics