Weekend Roundup: Disarming America’s Soft Power

The world watches warily as a nation of immigrants admired for living together in liberty under the rule of law changes course.

WorldPost Illustration/Getty
The sinking dream of America.

Presidential historian Daniel Franklin writes this week that U.S. President Donald Trump could be a once-in-an-era “reconstructive president” in the mold of Andrew Jackson, FDR and Ronald Reagan. Like those former leaders, says Franklin, he has upended the status quo by realigning partisan constituencies and departing entirely from the previous governing consensus, a shift that can be progressive or regressive. More than just having won an election, Trump is out to effect a “regime change” that will be in place for a long time to come.

“There is a very good possibility that Trump will succeed,” Franklin writes. “It is hard to fight a reconstructive president. By and large Americans want to be led. My own research suggests that there is a bias in our minds towards bold leadership, no matter where it takes us. Furthermore, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that with human beings the facts bend to perception rather than the other way around.”

Writing from Santiago, Chile, Andrés Velasco thinks that Latin America’s experience with populism also suggests that Trump’s protectionist policies will first gain momentum and produce results long before their “toxic” impact becomes clear.

One of the most consequential victims of America’s radical change of course is its unique status as a beacon for a certain set of values in the world through its “soft power” appeal as a diverse nation of immigrants that has managed to live together in liberty under the rule of law. That image of America has already been fairly dashed by the package of policies and rhetoric during the first three weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.

The rest of the world is warily watching the continuing assault on what the president calls the “dishonest media,” a smear chillingly close to the Nazi-era term “Lügenpresse”, or “lying press.” Many beyond U.S. borders were shocked by the blanket ban on visas from several majority-Muslim countries, which is already being contested on the streets and in the U.S. courts. Former security officials see it as a gift to terrorist recruiters. Sara Afzal surveys the attitudes toward the ban of Iranians both in the U.S. and Iran.

Yet, perhaps more menacing than the ban itself has been the president’s contemptuous denigration of the independent judiciary that is hearing the case, even belittling respected jurists who don’t agree with him as “so-called judges” and less qualified than “bad high school students.” 

Paul Gowder sees two factions emerging in this battle ― the “authoritarian” camp led by the president himself and the “constitutional” camp that includes the new Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch, who has called Trump’s comments on the judiciary “disheartening” and “demoralizing.”

If the “reconstructive president” succeeds, what values will America stand for in the world at the end of this road of regime change? Soft power is arduously hard to attain but easy to lose. So far, the insistence of the U.S. courts in checking executive power actually further bolsters America’s positive image despite the new administration’s efforts.

Anastasya Manuilova has seen this same steady erosion of a free press and judicial independence under President Vladimir Putin in Russia. Writing from Moscow, she surveys those who protested against Putin in 2011 for their advice to Americans. One suggestion the Russians had: “Hold your leaders accountable and don’t stop protesting. No protest is too small.” Wary of both Trump’s hints over abandoning allies in Europe and the Russian bear breathing down their necks, Naomi O’Leary reports from Narva, Estonia on how that country is training civilians to prepare for self-defense. 

Benjamin von Rooj and Jeffrey Wasserstrom argue that, despite his high-profile appearance as a defender of global cooperation recently in Davos, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian turn disqualifies his nation from taking up the “moral leadership” in the world that the Trump administration has relinquished. Paradoxically, the lack of an independent judiciary is one of the reasons they cite in dismissing a leading role for China. “Last month,” they write, “China’s highest judge came out with an unusually sharp warning against Western legal influence.” They quote the chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court of China as saying, “We should resolutely resist erroneous influence from the West: ‘constitutional democracy,’ ‘separation of powers’ and ‘independence of the judiciary.’ We must make clear our stand and dare to show the sword.”

China scholar Minxin Pei also posits that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, carried out by the Communist Party’s disciplinary inspection commission, will falter and ultimately fail without the kind of independent judiciary China’s top judge denounces. “A more independent legal system,” he writes, “not an extrajudicial body, must lead the charge against corruption in order to preserve the procedural integrity and protect the constitutional rights of the accused.” Pei also adds, “effective policing of corrupt officials is impossible without a genuinely free press.” 

The free press is an issue in today’s America as well, not only because of Trump’s taunts, but because of the way “alternative facts,” hate speech and fake news spread so rapidly across social media. Frank Pasquale is concerned that extremists are “gaming” Google’s search engine and others posting algorithms. To make the tech giants more accountable he proposes five solutions: limit obscure content that is damaging and not in the public interest; label, monitor and explain hate-driven search results; audit logs of data fed into algorithmic systems; possibly ban certain content; and permit limited outside annotations of defamatory posts and hire more humans to judge complaints. The Future of Life Institute’s Ariel Conn this week explores how privacy can be protected in the era of big data. She quotes an IBM executive as saying, “It’s absolutely crucial that individuals should have the right to manage access to the data they generate.” 

As all these controversies play out, Syria continues its downward spiral. Writing from Idlib, Syria, Lina Shamy relives the harrowing years leading up to Aleppo’s destruction. Her written account is accompanied by photos and an audio narration of the course her life has taken since the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad and the brutal civil war that ensued.

Finally, our Singularity series this week show how a simple new invention enables robots to make clothing.

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