This July 4, Be Thankful the Biden Administration Has Revived Soft Power
American diplomats learn to appreciate the multi-faceted nature of our power. I certainly did as ambassador in Finland from 1994 to 1997, where our military and economic strength is admired and respected. I saw this when I accompanied the Finnish defense minister and other top officials on a visit to a U.S. aircraft carrier engaged in combat operations. The Finns were impressed with how the ship’s diverse crew functioned smoothly, each male and female sailor doing their job without visible signs of authority. “It’s a democratic Navy, not an authoritarian one,” I explained, “The captain trusts his crew.”
In 1994, when Finland joined the Partnership for Peace, a precursor to an expanding NATO, it was not ready to abandon neutrality and join the alliance, but public opinion changed after Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Finland applied for membership by year’s end. The other 29 NATO countries welcomed it as its newest member in April.
But military power is not the only form of power. The first summer I was in Helsinki, I saw the reach of American culture. Finns who owned classic American cars of the 1950s and 1960s would display them at a park near my residence, where I talked engines and carburetors with the drivers, calling on what knowledge I’d gained from my California high school newspaper’s “Star Car” column. I helped open Helsinki’s American car show, riding into the arena atop a tail-finned behemoth. Finland’s leading Elvis impersonator greeted me. On behalf of President Bill Clinton, I accepted his induction into the Ford Mustang Owners’ Club of Finland, apropos since the president’s favorite car, when he still drove himself, was the iconic roadster.
This is soft power. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., the Harvard scholar, coined the phrase in his classic book,Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Promoting it was an essential part of my ambassadorial duties. I greeted American rock stars visiting Finland, hosted American orchestras, slipped into American-style jazz clubs, and attended premieres of American movies. I welcomed American teams at my residence and attended their basketball, football, and hockey games.
I returned from my tour in Helsinki convinced that America must value hard and soft power. I’ve sustained this conviction as a professor of diplomacy at Occidental College, where I have taught courses on modern diplomacy, sports diplomacy, public diplomacy, and U.S. foreign policy. I also served as a public diplomat for the State Department, speaking worldwide. I’ve taught my students how “Ping Pong Diplomacy” in 1971 between Chinese and U.S. table tennis players eased Sino-U.S. tensions. The team became the first American delegation to enter “Red China” in decades. It smoothed the way for Richard Nixon’s 1972 historic summit with Chairman Mao Tse Tung. I often show my students PBS’s Kremlin Road Show on Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 tour of America, which includes the Soviet Premier’s visit to 20th Century Fox studios, where he lunched with Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and other Hollywood stars.
Right now, hard power is at the forefront of international affairs. Joe Biden’s administration provides weapons to Ukraine, tightens sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and erects high-tech roadblocks to China’s development. For its part, Beijing stands by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, expands its generous loans, and uses its economic power to project its diplomatic influence in the Middle East. Russian oil finances its hard-power pillage of Ukraine.
Since taking office in 2000, Putin has perverted the promotion of Russian soft power. His constant invocation of the “Great Patriotic War” (what Moscow calls World War II), the promotion of the Russian Orthodox Church, and the demonization of the LGBTQ community might sway conservative Russians but not the citizens of London or Lima. His invasion of Ukraine has led to Western sanctions on the Russian athletes and artists who support him. Musicians close to Putin are confined to touring China and Serbia.
After opening their nation’s economy in the 1970s, China’s leaders embraced Chinese soft power. Foreign ministry officials studied Nye.Beijing hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics to promote itself on the global stage. The People’s Republic established hundreds of Confucius Institutes worldwide, including in the U.S., to encourage the study of Chinese language and culture. Under Xi Jinping, these centers spread China’s aggressive nationalism and, in some cases, espionage. “He would promote Confucian philosophy and cultural traditions, stoking a sense of Chinese civilizational pride that could counter Western ideals of individual freedom and democracy,” explains Wall Street Journal correspondent Chun Han Wong in Party of One: The Rise of Xi Jinping and China’s Superpower Future. The Economist estimates that Beijing spends $7 to $10 billion annually to disparage the U.S. and “tell China’s story.”
Former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel calls these “Information Wars,” the title of his thoughtful 2019 book. To win them, America must mount a robust public diplomacy offense to respond to Chinese and Russian hackers and Xi’s and Putin’s nationalistic narratives. With people-to-people engagement America can win hearts and minds, complementing and strengthening our hard power.
The Biden record on soft power has been impressive. As COVID-19 has eased, initiatives such as the International Visitors Leadership program, which brings rising leaders to the U.S., and the long-standing Fulbright Scholars program, are running again at almost every embassy. The Mandela Fellows program, started by President Barack Obama, which brings young African leaders to the U.S., is back online. The “Sister Parks” program at the Department of the Interior operates with new relationships between national parks in the U.S., Mexico, and Brazil. U.S.-China joint programs are reopening. Over 250,000 Chinese students are currently studying in the U.S. But as U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Burns told NPR, it’s also essential that more Americans come to study in China. Cultural exchange is a two-way street.
Here is a look at the Biden administration’s innovative public diplomacy initiatives, something to celebrate on this Independence Day.
The Biden administration recognizes that not all the action should be on Embassy Row.
In 2022, the administration appointed Ambassador Nina Hachigian as the first emissary for Subnational Diplomacy—engagement between American cities and states with their foreign counterparts. From this new State Department position, she arranged for Secretary Tony Blinken to speak at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in January. None of his predecessors has ever addressed the group. Hachigian brings an ideal background to the post. She served six years as Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles for International Affairs, the first such position created in a U.S. city, where she supported long-standing programs like L.A.’s Sister City relationship with Lusaka, Zambia and initiated exchanges with Mexico and Southeast Asia.
When the U.S. hosted the inaugural Cities Summit of the Americas in Denver in April, Ambassador Hachigian and her team organized city, state, and municipal leaders throughout the hemisphere to discuss cooperation on issues ranging from urban development to climate change. My home state of California demonstrates the utility of sub-national diplomacy. Last year, New Zealand’s then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern signed a memorandum of cooperation between the state’s Environmental Protection Agency and her country’s Ministry of Environment. California has signed working agreements with the Australian state of New South Wales to share fire-fighting strategies. In March, on a visit to the state, Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö and California Governor Gavin Newsom discussed climate change and the green transition.
Telling the American Story
President Biden has strongly advocated diversity, equity, and inclusion in his hires, but he has also asked America’s diplomats to reflect on and relate their country’s story.
Screening documentaries is one way U.S. embassies are delivering the message. In honor of Black History Month, U.S. Ambassador to France Denise Bauer, an Occidental graduate, screened a documentary at her residence on the life of Claude McKay, an African American writer who lived in France in the 1920s and ‘30s and who was a powerful voice against segregation and racial violence. The audience included artists, students, museum heads, writers, and the French Minister of Education. In South Korea, Ambassador Philip Goldberg and his public affairs team premiered The Chosen, which documents five Korean Americans running for Congress in 2020. David Kim, who ran unsuccessfully from Los Angeles, appeared at the event to discuss his experience. Afterward, the film played in Korean theaters. Last fall, the U.S. embassy in Berlin hosted filmmaker Ken Burns for a showing and discussion of his documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust and followed up on the theme in January when Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff visited Berlin to learn how Germany has developed a culture of remembrance.
The U.S. has appointed LGBTQ officials, political and career, to be ambassadors, and the administration promotes them and gay pride to further U.S. aims.
American embassies are expected to support gay pride weeks. Last year when Tokyo’s Rainbow Pride week returned in person, Ambassador Rahm Emanuel was among the headline speakers saying, “I see a day in Japan’s future when we no longer have gay marriage and straight marriage. We just have marriage for everybody.” He met with Fumino Sugiyama, one of Japan’s leading LGBTQ activists, and walked at the head of the parade. In Norway, the embassy hosted a drag queen who was a former Fulbright scholar in Russia. In some countries, standing up for gay rights is not easy. In Hungary, Ambassador David Pressman, who is gay, has been attacked for interfering in domestic politics. Some Asian and African countries have passed harsh anti-gay legislation, including imprisonment and even the death penalty in Uganda, making the U.S. position vital but diplomacy more complicated. Putin claims that he is defending Russia and other countries against the gay agenda of the West.
The U.S. also strongly advocates for women’s inclusion and equality. President Biden has appointed women as ambassadors to France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Brazil. In Japan, Ambassador Emanuel celebrated Women’s History Month with the Japanese Minister of Gender Equality and more than 12 female ambassadors in Tokyo. He also convened Japanese space and science leaders at Nagoya University to discuss the importance of increasing the number of women studying STEM fields. Women in Japan are still second-class citizens. When I toured Japan for the State Department with my ex-wife, who had been mayor of Santa Monica, she spoke at a women’s college while I sat quietly. The Japanese women expressed amazement. America’s support for gender equality is an exciting part of our soft power arsenal.
Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior and the first Native American to serve at cabinet rank, gave a landmark address in Perth, Australia, for the traditional land of the Whadjuk people of the Noongar nation. Accompanied by Ambassador Caroline Kennedy, Haaland emphasized that Indigenous-lead conservation programs were essential tools for battling the global climate crisis: “There is nothing I would like to see more than Indigenous people from the U.S. and Australia getting together to talk about how we can care for our planet.”
Breaking bread has always been a part of human relations between individuals and nations.
As U.S. ambassador, I practiced food diplomacy, offering chocolate chip cookies at meetings, serving California wines at dinners, and promoting U.S.-made products like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.
Thirty-five-year career diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, practiced “Gumbo Diplomacy” when she served in Asia and Africa. Famous for her family recipes from Louisiana, she often cooked the meals and discussed the American South’s multicultural and multigenerational food traditions. “Wherever I was posted, I’d invite people of all walks, then make homemade gumbo. I put a Cajun spin on it,” she explained. “It was my way of breaking down barriers, connecting with people, and starting to see each other on a human level.” In January, the U.S. embassy in Norway kicked off Black History Month by hosting “Soul Food” scholar Adrian Miller, who used pop-up kitchens to give interactive lectures on the roots of African American cooking and how it provides a window into American society.
In February, Secretary Blinken signed a diplomatic culinary partnership with the nonprofit James Beard Foundation to launch the American Culinary Corps to find “innovative ways of embracing food, hospitality, and community as diplomatic tools.” It’s already enlisted more than 80 top American chefs to act as citizen diplomats—traveling, cooking, and sharing food in partnership with American embassies. A prime example is Spanish-American immigrant chef Jose Andres, whose World Central Kitchen has provided over 100 million meals to war refugees in Ukraine.
American popular music—rock, jazz, hip hop, folk, metal, and classical—significantly contributes to U.S. soft power, but music diplomacy goes beyond greeting name acts. Appearances by less well-known groups who spend time with the local population are part of the State Department’s music programs, including “American Music Abroad,” where 10 or more American groups in different genres go on tour each year. The department’s “Next Level USA” program features a collaboration between American hip-hop artists and overseas NGOs and schools to reach youth and underserved communities.
Examples of music diplomacy in action include the Harvard a capella group, the Krokodiloes, visiting Zambia, where they gave music clinics as well as concerts, and the Beatbox House, a quintet of percussive vocal artists from Brooklyn who traveled abroad earlier this year to Indonesia and Singapore. Three band members are first-generation Americans whose families came from Japan, the Philippines, and Bangladesh. In Norway, the U.S. embassy supported an all-Navajo metal band, Mutilated Tyrant, to participate in the famous Inferno Metal Festival in April. In January, the U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Mark Brzezinski, hosted a performance by Step Afrika!, an African American percussive song and dance group.
At the highest levels, Biden’s team puts music in its diplomatic tool kit. On her recent tour of three African countries—Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia—Vice President Kamala Harris posted a Spotify playlist of her favorite African music, appearing with local musicians at a studio in Accra, the capital of Ghana.
American professional leagues attract global audiences increased by the advent of international players. Perhaps the most significant impact has been an influx of international women athletes to American colleges and universities. Because Title IX provides resources to U.S. women’s sports teams, top foreign female athletes come here. At the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, at least 75 countries fielded women athletes who had played for American colleges and universities. Foreign women players are staples of American college soccer, basketball, and hockey teams, and more American women athletes are playing in professional leagues abroad. American athletes playing in authoritarian countries like Russia and China will not magically resolve our international differences—look at Brittney Griner’s detention by the Russians—however popular they are with local fans.
The State Department promotes people-to-people sports diplomacy that goes beyond the impact of American college and professional sports to focus on grassroots development. In Uganda, the embassy’s public affairs officer launched the Arthur Ashe tennis program, which trained over 200 young Ugandans nationwide, combining tennis instruction with HIV/AIDS education.
Support for sports diplomacy begins with Secretary Blinken. A lifelong soccer fan, Blinken met with Qatari players and coaches at the World Cup in Doha and attended the American team’s first match. In 2022, the U.S. embassy in Tokyo partnered with MLB Japan to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the American pastime’s arrival in Japan. Ambassador Emanuel commemorated the anniversary with baseball-themed displays at our embassy’s first in-person Independence Day reception since 2019. Speakers included the first Japanese to play in the Major Leagues, Masanori Murakami. The U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet band played sports-inspired songs, and MLB loaned jerseys, bats, and other equipment for display.
Ambassador Brzezinski attended a celebrity basketball game in Lodz organized by former Polish NBA star Marcin Gortat, now a player development coach with the Washington Wizards, to thank Polish citizens for supporting Ukrainian war refugees.
The State Department works with the Center for Sport, Peace, and Society at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, to implement the Global Sports Mentoring Program, which links U.S. mentors and sports organizations with grassroots programs in more than 72 countries. The most recent class visiting the U.S. included representatives from Kosovo, Croatia, India, and Egypt.
On public diplomacy trips for the State Department to New Zealand and Australia with my wife, Sue Toigo, I would address U.S. politics and foreign policy, and she would speak at business schools to women entrepreneurs, with Maori women starting small businesses in New Zealand and indigenous women in Australia. When we traveled to Syria for the State Department (before the civil war began), Sue met with Syrian women interested in starting their businesses. We hoped that Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, an investment banker born and raised in London with degrees in computer science and French literature, might take up the cause of women and economic development. The ensuing civil war and repression in Syria dashed these expectations. Friends we made on the trip, like radio personality Honey Al Sayed, host of “Good Morning Syria,” had to flee the country. Soft power engagement is not easy to practice in dictatorships and war-torn countries.
On a February trip to Namibia and Kenya, First Lady Jill Biden met with African women entrepreneurs helped by a USAID finance program for start-ups. The Women’s Entrepreneurship Program in Zambia focuses on microfinance. The program, part of the ongoing Los Angeles-Lusaka Sister Cities effort supported by the embassy, helps Lusaka women to start small businesses ranging from grocery stores to apparel shops. Over 400 Zambian women have graduated from the State Department’s Academy for Women Entrepreneurs.
Last year in Norway, the U.S. embassy and Norwegian partners hosted an Arctic entrepreneurship-themed TechCamp in Tromso, the third largest urban area north of the Arctic Circle. Forty-eight entrepreneurs ages 20-30 from Norway, Sweden, and Finland met with regional and local experts to discuss business solutions to sustainable development issues in Arctic communities.
In the fall, the Commerce Department launched the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF) to improve digital skills among women and girls in the region to promote economic development. Country partners in the initiative include Brunei, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam. Plans are to train girls in data science, cyber security, A.I. (Artificial Intelligence), and robotics; support female small business owners with a digital toolkit; and improve digital literacy training for women and girls in rural areas via mobile training centers.
Civic and Judicial Diplomacy
The struggle of our time, says President Biden, is authoritarianism versus democracy. He reiterated this formulation at the recent Democracy Summit. Labeling countries as authoritarian or democratic is not the most helpful lens for viewing international relations. China and Russia are indisputably authoritarian, but defining authoritarianism is not easy. NATO members Hungary, Turkey, and Poland all have authoritarian traits but are counted as allies by the White House. Most countries in the Middle East will never be democracies; they are hereditary monarchies. A military leader with anti-democratic tendencies runs Egypt, and our longstanding ally Israel maintains a military occupation. India lurches towards intolerance and illiberal democracy.
The U.S. should help those open to assistance and fight authoritarianism. Former United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power, who President Biden tapped to head the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is not just dumping aid on struggling regimes. Instead, American aid is going toward fighting corruption that undermines democratic institutions, spreading digital democracy, defending a free press, and to assuring fair and free elections.
USAID is not the only government agency assisting democratic institutions.
Since the Clinton administration, the Federal Judicial Center, which supports the Federal court system, has had a small Office of International Affairs. FJC’s international office brings visiting fellows—judges, prosecutors, legal scholars—to the U.S. and supports judicial training abroad. The program has hosted judges from Brazil, Jordan, India, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, and China. Funding has been haphazard and not well coordinated. Permanent financing for FJC’s International Office, including programs like visiting fellows, should be supported. Secretary Blinken should appoint a Special Representative for the Rule of Law to coordinate such efforts.
President Biden’s career and political ambassadorial choices are effective communicators for American power. In South Korea, career ambassador Philip Goldberg and his team set up American Diplomacy House, where Korean students engage in interactive diplomacy simulations in a park in Seoul on the site of a former U.S. military base. In Zambia, career Ambassador Michael Gonzales, another graduate of Occidental College, has hosted successful visits from Vice President Harris, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, and Dr. Earnestine Thomas Robertson, longtime head of the Los Angeles-Lusaka Sister City program. Soon after arriving in Armenia, Ambassador Kristina Kvien visited refugees from the troubled region of Nagorno-Karabakh, baking traditional pastry with women entrepreneurs at a bakery supported by USAID.
Political appointee Marc B. Nathanson, a Los Angeles businessman, has been energetic and outgoing in Norway, participating in “Meet America” visits to high schools and colleges, taking questions about U.S. policy and politics. Ambassador Brzezinski practices canine diplomacy in Poland with his famous dog Teddy, whom Polish citizens can follow on Instagram @AmbassadogTeddy. Elizabeth Frawley Bagley, who led the U.S. embassy in Portugal under Clinton, is our ambassador in Portuguese-speaking Brazil. Tom Nides, a veteran of multiple administrations, is in Jerusalem. These are serious people doing serious work.
Assistant Secretary of State for Education and Culture Lee Satterfield told me in an interview that she is highly optimistic about her team’s work, including initiatives like protecting Ukrainian cultural heritage sites amid a war. I asked her what she needed. “More,” she said. U.S. embassies need more staffing and more funding for public diplomacy. The State Department knows what works, but they need more support from Congress even as the country provides more weapons for Ukraine and Taiwan.
There is more than anecdotal evidence that U.S. soft power prevails over counter-narratives and coercive diplomacy from Russia and China. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has won few admirers. The Economist’s index of “Putin’s Pals” is a short list—only a half-dozen countries like Belarus yoked to Russia by history, geography, and dependence. The magazine groups them in categories like “coalition of the failing,” “the Soviet Remembrance Society,” and an “axis of opportunists”—not a set of characteristics designed to attract global influence.
China’s economic coercion has led to pushback. After it shut down Korean-owned markets citing regulatory issues and blackballed K-Pop stars, our embassy reported that U.S. favorability soared to over 80 percent, an all-time high. A study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on China’s economic coercion against Japan, Norway, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and Lithuania concludes, “Beijing’s bullying has harmed China’s image around the world, pushing countries closer to the United States.”
While countries like India, South Africa, or Turkey conduct transactional business with Russia and China—that is the way of the world—their citizens do not admire these countries or envy their way of life.
A 2022 report from the Eurasia Group Foundation, “Democracy’s Promise: International Views of America in the Biden Era,” found that favorable views of the U.S. and American democracy had increased to over 50 percent, the highest level in four years, but with caveats. Our country is viewed positively for high tech, entertainment, sports, military, and universities but not as much for the health care system, racial discrimination, and the state of our democracy. This should not be surprising. The U.S. ranks 26th between Chile and Estonia in the Economist’s most recent Democracy Index. Freedom House ranks the U.S. below Argentina and Mongolia in access to political rights and civil liberties. Summing up these studies, international public opinion expert Bruce Stokes concludes, “Those who care about U.S. stature and influence in the world must engage in strengthening American democracy at home.”
Former President Donald Trump’s assault on fair elections and the backing that he receives from most Republicans—even after being indicted—is not, shall we say, a winning narrative for American influence. Neither is Congressional gridlock nor stories of Supreme Court justices accepting gifts from billionaires. America’s failure to stem mass shootings makes us a global outlier, and not in a good way. Right-wing state legislatures’ attacks on women’s reproductive rights are out of sync with our message of personal freedom. However, sentencing the leaders of the January 6 attack on the Capitol to jail time sent a solid message to the world about American democracy. American citizens will send an even stronger message next year when they choose between Biden, who proudly promotes American culture and values, and Trump or one of his clones, who offer a pinched definition of what this country is all about.