The Chinese chase for the American soft power

Article by Alessia Petrucci | Illustration by Chiara Zilioli


‘’Foreign policy, as nature, refuses emptiness’’

(Francesco Costa)


Since the end of the Cold War, the international system changed. Experts now consider it a “liquid system”, not only because there aren’t two super powers constantly challenging each other and asking to the world to pick a side, but also because new players are entering the scene, trying to make economic and political space for themselves.

A question, then, jumps naturally to our minds: is the United States losing its soft power?

The idea of soft power

The political scientist Joseph Nye formulated the concept of soft power in the late 1980s, a concept that wanted to define the post-Cold War era.While hard power is easy to measure – you can count the number of missiles, tanks and troops – it is more difficult to measure soft power. How many divisions does the Pope have? Asked Stalin once.

As Nye stated, soft power is the ability of a state to influence others without using the common sources of hard power, i.e. substituting attraction with coercion. He put the content of American soft power into three categories: cultural, ideological and institutional. Following World War II, many countries wanted to be as United States in these areas, unconsciously helping them, to shape the world. For Nye, the American soft power was in essence liberalism.

After the United States won the Cold War, American liberalism had an unprecedented appeal: everyone wanted to vote, everyone wanted to wear jeans and everyone wanted free speech. As a matter of fact, in the decades between the 1980s and the 2010s, the number of liberal democracies (as defined by Freedom House) grew up close to 150.

In international relations, United States led a drive to establish and enlarge international institutions that would support its new order, such as the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Things played out similarly in Europe, leading to the birth of the European Union the way we know it today.

In other words, it really looked as if the 21st century belonged to the United States, the West and their global soft power. On the contrary, there are reasons nowadays not to believe so: soft power seemed increasingly more expendable and Americans started becoming more interested in saving money.

China is economically bursting into the world

Since 2001, when China entered the WTO, its foreign policy has been aggressive and focused on huge investments especially in Africa and Asia. These policies have been strengthened during the last decades, with the creation of the Belt and Road initiative: a “new” Silk Road. Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, this initiative is meant not only to fund the building of infrastructure, but also to expand China’s economic and political influence, aiming to become an indisputable and necessary interlocutor.



Actually, through the new Silk Road, China wants to develop the idea of an inclusive and pacific rise. In these terms, Africa has been the privileged context where China experimented and cultivated the art of soft power toward both the local and the international community.

Besides the economic investments, China has also financed social sectors such as education, development and healthcare, in the attempt to establish and consolidate good relationships with the African countries, therefore increase its credibility in front of the international community to let the world know that China is everything but a threat.

However, Chinese rhetoric induces us to make a comparison with Western colonization. Beijing states that its development model is better than the ones offered in the past from Europe and The Soviet Union, especially because China lacks a past as a colonizing power. In fact, China asserts that since it is a developing country, its presence will not turn into exploitation or into a new way of colonialism.

How did China integrate so deeply in African economy? There are two main explanations.

The first one is the decision not to apply any political condition for granting loans (unlike what the World Bank and the IMF usually do). While the second one, is the absence of requests among sensitive themes such as the fight against corruption, the transparency of the banking system and more democratization in politics. Hence, the principle of non-interference remains granted.

Moreover, China is also investing in education. In the past 15 years, mostly thanks to student loans, the number of African students in Chinese universities has grown 26-fold- from just under 2,000 in 2003 to almost 50,000 in 2015. To provide education is a way for the Chinese government to extend its soft power and to cultivate the next African élite generation.

Data retrieved from the Chinese Ministry of Education via The Atlas

What will happen next?

The recent decline in US attractiveness should not be so lightly dismissed. It is true that the United States has recovered from unpopular policies in the past (such as those regarding the Vietnam War or the Watergate scandal in the 70s), but that was often during the Cold War, when other countries still feared the Soviet Union as the Greater Evil.

To date, Trump’s administration is strengthening this statement: on April 14th, the current occupant of the White House, decided to suspend American funding to the World Health Organization, accusing it to be siding with China in the management of the pandemic Covid-19.

However, in order to contrast China’s influence and assuming the 45th president was interested in preserving the United States soft power, it would have been reasonable to increase its own involvement instead of leaving more wiggle room to its Asian opponent.

The following question is whether the US soft power will rebound as it did in the previous examples.

It is very hard to tell. In the spring of 2020, it is difficult to be optimistic. The global challenges that the US has failed to address are huge and will not go away. The kind of leadership, vision and general competence needed to do so, do not appear on any visible horizon.

Moreover, what Trump is probably underestimating, is that a broad decline in the US soft power has many practical implications. These include the drain in foreign talent going to the United States, the potential backlash against American companies, the growing attractiveness of China and Europe, and the possibility that anti-US sentiment will make it easier for terrorist groups to recruit. In addition, with a decline in soft power, Washington is simply less able to persuade others.


Therefore, the best hope for American soft power is for non-federal government actors to take up a bigger role in engaging the rest of the world. The same goes for American businesses, universities, and civil society. In doing so, they can remind audiences abroad that the US has much to offer to international partners and that will continue to be true in the foreseeable future.

In conclusion, considering the facts, many analysts and experts think that the current crisis might speed up changes that were already happening. Hence, at the end of the pandemic, the balance of the new world might be upside down.

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