Aside from its devastating human impact, COVID-19 has revealed deep social, economic and political fault lines in and across the global system. How states and other global actors engage in this system and the extent to which they mine, obscure or seek to bridge emerging fault lines for advantage will reflect on their soft power.

The soft-power balance sheet China and the US, already locked into a contest for narrative and influence, will play hard to win the international soft-power game. Yet, using tactics that speak to an era past, both look set to stumble.

The US experience offers critical lessons. Last year’s Soft power 30 report marked the third consecutive decline in America’s annual global soft-power ranking (McClory 2019). In overall rankings, that’s not necessarily all that remarkable a drop (after all, the US still maintains a top 5 spot in the index), but it’s nonetheless a striking trend for the global superpower, which under President Trump has demonstrated extraordinary consistency in its ability to disappoint, both at home and on the global stage.

Jonathan McClory argues that the Trump administration doesn’t care for soft power. And yet Trump’s narcissistic preoccupation with the spotlight, his penchant for spectacle and his reliance on the hype of the crowd—whether real or virtual—which all point to a desire for admiration and influence, suggest otherwise. However, as the embodiment of ‘America first’, Trump’s profoundly self-interested approach, accompanied by his disdain for diplomacy and disinterest in multilateralism and global leadership, indicate that he and his team have utterly misread the 21st-century soft-power equation—an outcome that can only be to the detriment of America’s global influence.

Please click here to read the full ‘Competence in a crisis: the new marker of soft power in a chaotic world‘ article originally published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, written by Griffith Asia Institute Director, Professor Caitlin Byrne.