Friday, 2 June 2017

Chinese soft power 'Trumps' US soft power: America's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement

The Trump administration is flushing American soft power down the drain.

In my publications I have repeated a very clear statement: China has public diplomacy, but no soft power. This conclusion was based on the Chinese government's apparent commitment to expanding its platforms of communication - to know us is to love us - without paying sufficient attention to the way it behaves abroad and towards its own citizens. The continuing absence of democracy, the abuse of human rights, and China's policies in Tibet, Xinjiang and towards Taiwan have constantly undermined the more positive stories about the country's transformation since the early 1980s. Some of my publications addressing the absence of Chinese soft power are available here - Rawnsley Academia.edu.

As I noted in my last post, the election of Donald Trump as the US President has presented substantial challenges for American soft power (Post-Trump Chinese cultural diplomacy). The Trump administration's attitude to soft power is captured in the aggressiveness of the President's philosophy: America First. This is at odds with America's contribution to the international system since Harry Truman who said, 'no matter how great our strength ... we must deny ourselves the license to do as we always please.' We might call Trump's turn the Milwall approach to soft power (fans of Milwall Football club were notorious in the 1990s for violence), namely: 'You don't like us, we don't care', an attitude originally ascribed to President Putin. The reorientation to hard power under Trump demonstrates that the US still has a preference for 'something that could be dropped on your foot or on your cities, rather than something that might change your mind about wanting to drop something in the first place' (1).

 On 1 June 2017, the death knell of American soft power under Trump rang loud and clear as the President decided the US would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement. This is an explicit abrogation of America's share of the burden of tackling climate change and was a signal that 'America first' really means 'the rest of the world last'. The problem is that climate change is everyone's problem. Future generations of Americans will be victims of President Trump's short-sightedness.

In the wake of Tump's decision, China's soft power capacity is increasing, and this is demonstrated by the agreement between Chinese and EU leaders to issue a joint statement calling the Paris agreement 'an imperative more important than ever'. The promise of plans by China and the EU to lower carbon emissions by 2020 is a significant step forwards. Since 1949, China has rarely worked with other countries outside the communist orbit, but by doing so now on such a pressing issue, Beijing is showing maturity and an astute understanding of how modern international politics are configured. Mutual interest and shared responsibility must challenge America first. As the US retreats from the world stage and President Trump demonstrates his lack of understanding of how diplomacy works, China is gaining the power to help reorder the international system.

Soft power is about moral authority. It is about leadership and leading by example. It is about accepting responsibility and stepping up when necessary. Soft power is not under any circumstances a panacea for problems in the hard power domain, and no amount of presentation or spin will change opinion about misjudged, unethical, or poorly designed policies crafted and executed by governments in the national or international arena. Getting the right policy right is absolutely essential and must be the core function of government. Credibility – the currency of modern political communication – depends on the consistency between actions and rhetoric. The questions for governments is not, ‘How can we make them like us more?’, but rather, ‘How do we wish others to see us?’ and ‘How can we govern better?’.


In asserting a commitment to the Paris agreement and the need to work with other countries to manage, if not find solutions, to the problems created by climate change, China is demonstrating its moral authority and leadership. Although problems remain - China remains heavily dependent on coal - the government is investing in renewable energy, while seeking multilateral ways to deal with environmental problems.

Since the mid-1990s, we have discussed the rise of China in economic and military terms. Now finally we can add speak about China's soft power in a more meaningful way than Confucius Institutes and CCTV. On climate change at least, China is showing its potential global leadership that may fill the space left by America's soft power collapse. Speaking during a visit to Germany, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that China 'will continue to implement the promises made in the Paris accord. But of course we also hope to do this with the co-operation of others.' He added that China, as a major industrial power and the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gasses, has an 'international responsibility' to prevent climate change. Following Trump's decision Hua Chunying, spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said 'The Paris Agreement contains the international community's coherent opinion on climate change. It was a hard-won result'. It was a hard won result easily lost.

This new commitment to soft power complements the Chinese government's investment in the One Belt, One Road Initiative which sees Chinese-funded investment on a scale that surpasses the Marshall Plan. Are we finally witnessing the dawn of the Chinese century?

Admiral Mike Mullen of the US Navy summarised the problems with American soft power and we can make the connection between his observations and the Trump administration, especially its decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement:

To put it simply, we need to worry a lot less about how to communicate our acts and much more about what our actions communicate. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are. (2)


(1) J.S. Nye, (2011), The Future of Power (New York: PublicAffairs), p.82.
(2) M. Mullen (2012), ‘Getting back to basics,’ Joint Forces Quarterly, issue 55, p.4.

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