Originally an academic term popularized by Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye in the 1990s, soft power has increasingly embedded itself in popular discourse and has operated as a significant consideration in U.S. foreign policy for the past few decades. Soft power, in the words of Nye, is about “attraction and seduction.” It is based on the idea that co-option, rather than coercion, is an essential component of international relations; in short, getting others to “want what you want” instead of “forcing others to do what you want.”

In general terms, it refers to the nonmilitary resources available to states and institutions: culture (when considered attractive by others around the world), political values (when lived up to both at home and abroad), and foreign policy (when based in cooperation, legitimacy, and credibility).

As Nye and other scholars have argued, contemporary international politics increasingly revolve around institutions and collaborations. While hard power — military and economic might — still forms a crucial piece of international relations, as Katherine Brown argues, soft power strategies bolster trust and understanding, which can make or break foreign policy, business, cultural, and educational initiatives. 

The United States tends to rank at the top of the Soft Power 30 index, one of the most highly regarded and comprehensive indices that ranks the top soft power-rich countries. This is primarily due to its pervasive culture, well-ranked universities, foreign aid programs, free press, and innovation in research and technology. It is also related to the United States’ image as a multicultural “nation of immigrants.” 

In fact, in its many forms, immigration has functioned as a soft power resource for the United States. For much of the 20th century, the U.S. accepted millions of refugees and immigrants escaping poverty and political turmoil, generating a reputation of openness and opportunity. 

During the Cold War, the U.S. reception of Jewish refugees and others from the Soviet bloc juxtaposed U.S. magnanimity against Soviet intolerance. Diasporas from a wide range of countries have created communities in the U.S. that have remained in contact with home communities, facilitating cultural, political, technological, and business exchange. 

However, these moments of generosity have not always been congruent with other realities: immigration laws in the 1920s imposed quotas and excluded Asian immigrants; many Jewish refugees of World War II were denied entry; political dissidents had to flee the U.S. during the 1950s; Japanese-Americans were interned; millions have been deported; the U.S. has supported regimes in Latin America that persecuted minority groups; and the Trump administration has recently implemented travel bans on citizens of majority-Muslim countries, separated families, and left thousands of vulnerable asylum-seekers to wait in unsafe cities in northern Mexico. 

These inconsistencies reduce the potential for U.S. immigration policy to be a source of soft power, and in extreme cases, reduce U.S. soft power. 

The connection between immigration and soft power spans many of the metrics used by the Soft Power 30 index to rank countries by their soft power resources. One metric, education, is measured in terms of the “ability of a country to attract international students,” based on numerous empirical studies that show that educational exchange promotes positive images of the host country amongst exchange participants. 

Engagement and enterprise, two other metrics that deal with the ability to engage with global audiences and the capacity for innovation respectively, are also related to immigration; in the U.S., immigrants have played essential roles in maintaining ties between the U.S. and their home countries and have also contributed significantly to research and business development

Another metric, culture, is also related to immigration; immigrant singers, celebrities, artists, writers, and filmmakers have been behind some of the most influential American cultural productions, creating content that resonates with a global audience and promotes images of tolerance and multiculturalism, which boost soft power. 

Immigrant diplomats and politicians have brought international perspectives to their U.S. government work, including Madeleine Albright, Samantha Power, Zalmay Khalilzad, and many other ambassadors, Cabinet members, and members of Congress. 

Recent studies by the Australian and British governments and several institutes and analysts have affirmed the substantial ties between immigration and soft power.

Policies that generate soft power include expansive student, employment, and diversity visa programs and a consistent commitment to refugee resettlement. In the short term and long term, these policies boost the ability of the U.S. to engage with global audiences and project images of cooperation and tolerance that, in turn, translate into soft power.

These policies and programs all have first-order effects — national security, economic growth — but they also have less tangible and more interpersonal implications. These soft skills of international diplomacy are essential for any global actor, not least the United States, which has an outsized influence in many parts of the world. 

Take the diversity visa program (DVP), for example. In a 2011 House Judiciary Committee hearing, Johnny Young, who served as U.S. ambassador to multiple countries under presidents of both parties, testified that “foreign policy interests are served by the Diversity Visa program.” Young argued that the DVP could be placed in a broader context of initiatives undertaken by the U.S. to “help shape the minds and hearts … to regard the United States and the democracy it enjoys as a beacon of hope and opportunity, and therefore a leader, in the world.”

In regards to foreign students, David Di Maria, associate vice provost for international education at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, writes, “the alumni of educational and cultural exchange programs include more than 75 Nobel Laureates and nearly 450 current and former heads of state and government. Having established personal ties, international students often return home as unofficial ambassadors for the U.S.”

Di Maria adds, “International alumni are more likely to look to the U.S. for ideas and trade agreements and to otherwise exert influence abroad that benefits U.S. interests.”

There are also various exchange programs overseen by the State Department that bring young foreign nationals to the U.S. with the hopes they will learn and embody the American democratic experience, which we hope they bring back to their home countries. In short, soft power creates new ambassadors for the U.S. around the globe. The opposite works as well: Think of U.S. Peace Corps volunteers, study abroad participants, business travelers, or tourists who travel elsewhere and come back to tell the tales of the places they visited. In essence, anyone can transmit soft power upsides or downsides.

In July, more than 40 former U.S. ambassadors wrote to President Trump opposing the suspension of J-1 Exchange Visitor programs. They wrote, “We have seen first-hand the important role that international exchange programs play in our nation’s diplomatic efforts.” They note that 75 percent of cultural exchange participants developed a more favorable opinion of the U.S. after their experience. It’s not just foreigners who benefit; their letter notes American hosts of Exchange Visitor programs develop familiarity with different cultures and languages that can benefit them professionally in the future, equipping Americans to be competitive in today’s globalized marketplace.

Soft power mixes directly with hard power in the case of immigration pathways for Iraqi and Afghan translators and interpreters who worked alongside U.S. forces in the last two decades. Special programs were created to provide those nationals and their families with visas to live in America in exchange for their service. National security luminaries such as Jim Mattis and many others have discussed the importance of maintaining pathways and keeping promises to these people to reinforce trust in the U.S. 

Robert Natter and Mark Hertling wrote, “We promised our Iraqi partners support and safety when they were shoulder to shoulder with us fighting a despicable enemy. If today we turn these people away, or reduce the numbers who are allowed entry, it will be extremely difficult to ask others to assist us in the future.” In FY 2020, the U.S. has resettled a paltry 125 of these partner Iraqis, undermining trust and eroding American soft power for future conflicts. 

Even more soft power can be generated through integration policies that allow immigrants and refugees to realize their potential; in the long term, this could increase cultural competence and language skills in many sectors, including U.S. government agencies, which are surprisingly language-deficient. 

In 2012, Nye wrote explicitly about immigration and soft power, noting:

Equally important are immigration’s benefits for America’s soft power. The fact that people want to come to the U.S. enhances its appeal, and immigrants’ upward mobility is attractive to people in other countries. The U.S. is a magnet, and many people can envisage themselves as Americans, in part because so many successful Americans look like them. Moreover, connections between immigrants and their families and friends back home help to convey accurate and positive information about the U.S.

The Trump administration has been a devastating example of how immigration policy can hurt soft power resources while putting immigrants and refugees in difficult, sometimes dangerous situations. Travel bans targeting majority-Muslim countries, visa restrictions, current COVID-19 policies that target international students, the so-called Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), the dismantling of the asylum system, and the xenophobic rhetoric of the administration portray the U.S. as intolerant and disrespectful of international law. It’s no surprise that since the election of President Trump, the U.S. has fallen from first place in 2016 to fifth place in 2019 in the Soft Power 30 report. 

Recent analyses have attributed this significant soft power decline in part to reductions in international student enrollment, cuts in funding to the State Department, and travel bans and visa restrictions. The American refusal to resettle Iraqi refugees who risked their lives to assist the U.S. and its historically low resettlement ceiling are other examples of how restrictive immigration policies conflict with the values the U.S. has traditionally advocated for around the world, namely tolerance, diversity, and respect for human rights. 

For the U.S. to recuperate the soft power resources it has traditionally drawn from immigrants and refugees, clean up its image worldwide, and improve its ability to share its culture and values, it must advance policies that are in concert with its values. In the short term, this means honoring refugee resettlement commitments and increasing the ceiling for 2021, ending MPP, promoting international exchange, supporting international students, expanding access to the diversity and H-1B employment visas, and offering more opportunities for immigrants to work for or assist the government in its international efforts

In the long term, this means a sustained recognition that immigration increases soft power, closer collaboration between the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security on the connection between immigration and diplomacy, and policies that are constructed to create relationships of mutual benefit with immigrants and refugees. 

Immigrants, refugees, and international students have helped the U.S. achieve its full soft power advantage. Rejecting this reality will continue to reduce the nation’s soft power and negatively impact its ability to engage with countries, institutions, and other global actors strategically.