At the time of writing, the focus is on nine teenagers being shot at a prom party in Texas, but by the time you read this the headlines will almost certainly be about another, similar, equally tragic killing spree elsewhere.
Such is the extent of American gun violence that ‘mass shootings’ – defined as incidents when four or more people are injured or killed – happen on average twice a day. Already in 2023, over 160 have occurred which means that there have been more mass shootings than days passed in 2023.
Already in 2023, over 160 mass shootings have occurred in the United States, which means that there have been more mass shootings than days passed in 2023.
There have been more mass shootings than days in 2023, database shows.
There have been 163 mass shootings this year till now.
A huge dangerous social problem that will make US reaching the level of being a very dangerous place to live in. https://t.co/XxaGxhOz8g
Yet as sadly predictable as these killing sprees have become, so have the responses of America's lawmakers. Governors, senators, and congressmen offer their thoughts and prayers and, on occasion, the White House attempts to introduce new gun controls, only to see them blocked or watered down by Congress.
In the end, little changes, and the mass shootings continue.
But while attention is understandably focused on how the gun problem impacts US domestic politics and society, mass shootings also impact America's foreign policy.
Soft power — the ability to convince others to do as you wish because of your own appeal and attractiveness — is an important tool of international relations that America has effectively wielded since its founding as a nation.
However, Washington's global appeal is increasingly precarious and no longer as commanding as in the past. Mass shootings and seemingly uncontrollable gun violence are already chipping away at the global public's positive perception of the US and could seriously dent its soft power over time.
The Power of Attraction
The idea of soft power was popularised by American professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University in the late 1980s. In international affairs, he argued, governments had several ways of influencing the behaviour of other states.
They could use the familiar means of coercion or incentivisation, via military threats or financial leverage, which he termed 'hard power'. But he said they could also use soft power, that is, being attractive and appealing to other countries and their societies, so that they end up wanting the same as you.
As Nye puts it, "seduction is always more effective than coercion." Soft power assets include values, culture and policies and, if utilised effectively, can increase a country's appeal and, therefore, its overall global influence.
Unsurprisingly, when developing his concept, Nye saw the US as one of the most effective wielders of soft power in the world.
Since its independence from Britain in the 18th century, successive US governments made much of its political values internationally — promoting itself as a beacon of democratic republicanism in a world then dominated by autocratic monarchies.
In the 20th century, Washington became more activist in promoting its democratic values. Briefly under Woodrow Wilson after the First World War and then more lastingly under Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) during the Second World War.
The Cold War saw US governments often prioritise supporting anti-communist movements over promoting democratic values, but an image of the US as a standard bearer of freedom to be emulated remained powerful.
This was greatly aided by the global hegemony of US culture that emerged during the Cold War. Sometimes US culture, especially early Cold War Hollywood films, were deliberate propaganda with government funding and influence, aimed at painting a positive image of the US and a negative one of its enemy, the USSR.
But in fact, among the most effective soft power assets came from American culture that had no government involvement. Mainstream Hollywood movies, music, and television — despite being sometimes critical of the government — still projected a prosperous and free image of America around the globe.
Among the most effective soft power assets came from American culture that had no government involvement. Mainstream Hollywood movies, music, and television — despite being sometimes critical of the government — still projected a prosperous and free image of America around the globe.
The post-Cold War era arguably saw American soft power at its height. The narrative of US democratic capitalism defeating Soviet Communism was reinforced via US film, music, and television.
The power of America's attractiveness was seen when a swathe of former Soviet client states in Eastern Europe not only embraced capitalist democracy in the 1990s, but then joined Nato in the 2000s. This was not down to any obvious coercion or incentivisation by Washington, but rather owed much to the attractiveness of aligning with America.
Waning soft power?
Fast forward to 2023 and America's global soft power position is no longer as sure as it was.
And while America's global hard power has not absolutely declined (it remains the most powerful military and economic global power), it has declined relatively, with China challenging it economically, while a more military activist Russia and others are increasingly willing to push back on US dominance.
However, it has declined relatively, with China challenging it economically, while a more military activist Russia and others are increasingly willing to push back on US dominance.
Soft power has similarly been affected by this.
Many countries, both America's rivals and friends, have become aware of the importance of soft power and are seeking to improve their global image and attractiveness. China's use of the Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese culture globally, or its use of TikTok to promote itself as a technology leader are obvious examples.
Similarly, Britain, France, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and many others have made efforts to boost their international images and attractiveness. In the 2010s this was seen in the proliferation of English language news channels funded by various governments to present a positive view of the funding state, such as Iran's Press TV, Russia's RT and Turkey's TRT World.
In turn, the US tried to boost its own international image via Arabic language channels like al-Hurra, which it established in the wake of 9/11 and the Iraq war.
Yet despite this increased competition, the US remains just about on top when it comes to global soft power. It remains top of most soft power lists, assembled by various companies that factor in variables such as culture, values and public perception to create an annual league table of nations.
Among the most prominent of these is the list by Brand Finance, which placed the US at the top of its 2023 list, followed by the UK then Germany. However, America's position is not so unsurmountable that it always remains at the top.
For example, during the presidency of Donald Trump, the US was displaced. It fell to 5th place in 2020 and then 6th in 2021, following Washington's unimpressive response to the Covid-19 pandemic and the high death toll in the country.
This combination of an unpopular president and a weak response to a global emergency illustrated how quickly international public opinion could turn on the US.
Under Trump, the US fell to 5th place in 2020 and then 6th in 2021 in its soft power rankings due to the high death toll during the pandemic. This combination of an unpopular president and a weak response to a global emergency illustrated how quickly international public opinion could turn on the US.
Though soft power league tables didn't exist then, something similar happened in the 1970s when the long-drawn out Vietnam war — followed by President Nixon's resignation and a stuttering economy — damaged America's reputation. This was the highest point of the Soviet Union's global attractiveness, only for the positions to be reversed in the 1980s.
These two episodes suggest that, despite America's huge cultural advantages, soft power is not a permanent asset but one that requires constant attention, development, and maintenance. They also suggest that soft power can wane relatively quickly.
The gun violence threat
This brings us back to mass shootings. At the moment, it would seem that the sharp increase in mass shootings has not greatly impacted US soft power, but that could change. The Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit research database, shows that mass shootings in the US have nearly doubled in the last 3 years.
The U.S. experienced more than 600 mass shootings in 2022, nearly double the number recorded four years ago when there were 336, according to Washington-based Gun Violence Archive. pic.twitter.com/znl3C0mxkP
While there was an average of 367 mass shootings between 2017-19, this rose to 649 in 2020-22. This coincided with America's return to the Brand Finance soft power league summit, so there is no obvious immediate correlation of it damaging America's reputation immediately in the way the Covid pandemic response did.
However, surveys by the Morning Consult showed that many people around the world have a very negative view of gun violence in the US. Less than a quarter of people surveyed in 17 countries viewed America's response to gun violence positively. Meanwhile over 70% of respondents from the UK, Canada, Australia, France, and Germany described the situation as "poor or terrible."
Meanwhile gun violence continues to impact the attractiveness of US cities. The Economist Intelligence Unit's 'Global Liveability Index', which every year ranks global cities based on the quality of life they offer inhabitants, has not included a US city in its top 10 in the last decade.
The highest US performer in 2022 was Atlanta in 26th place, followed by Washington in 30th. High levels of gun violence, alongside poor healthcare and infrastructure, act as significant obstacles to improvement.
Therefore, while mass shootings aren't currently impacting US soft power in league tables, it is decreasing the general attractiveness of the United States.
As information and media proliferates due to new technology, it is easier for people around the world to see the regular tragedies unfurling on America's streets, and this makes a related drop in soft power more likely.
Rivals struggle too
A possible comfort for the US is that its great power rivals are currently doing worse in the soft power stakes. China, who made so much progress in improving its global reputation over the 2000s and 2010s, has been negatively impacted by its response to Covid-19. The series of restrictive lockdowns damaged its international standing, causing it to drop from 4th to 5th place in Brand Finance's 2023 table.
Similarly, Russia fell from 9th to 13th place following the fallout of its invasion of Ukraine.
These falls may prove temporary and certainly in China's case it seems plausible that the further Covid lockdowns retreat into the past the easier it will be to rebuild its global standing. But they show the US is far from alone in struggling to maintain its soft power attractiveness.
The #UAE has been ranked among the world's top 10 soft power superpowers for the first time and is the only nation from the Middle East in the top 10 positions, according to the @BrandFinance's Global Soft Power Index 2023 released on Thursday. pic.twitter.com/tKrSNA3fVl
Interestingly, the US seems most threatened not by its great power rivals but by 'middle powers' that consistently perform well in the soft power league tables: Britain, Germany, Japan, France, Canada and, making the top ten for the first time ever in 2023, the UAE.
Of course, some would argue that soft power doesn't really matter. Nye was challenged by several international relations scholars when he first published his theory. They argued hard power remains the true currency of geopolitics, with soft power only relevant when it is backed up by arms and money.
There is some truth to this, and Nye acknowledged it himself when he later wrote of 'smart power': how states can use hard and soft power in combination to achieve their goals.
That said, soft power does retain some merit. As has been seen by Ukraine's ability to present itself to the Western world as the last line of defence for democracy and culture, the power of attraction can be mobilised to achieve desired results – Western weapons in Kiev's case.
While hard power remains the true global currency, soft power does retain some merit. This is evidenced by Ukraine's ability to present itself to the Western world as the last line of defence for democracy and culture.
Moreover, the US itself does really care about its own attractiveness to the world. The 'American Dream' and the appeal American values have played an important role in US diplomacy and interaction with the outside world since its founding, and it is unlikely to cease to be important.
As such, the policymakers that are repeatedly blocking gun control legislation might want to rethink their approach if they value the continuation of America's soft power supremacy.
Other countries' experiences have repeatedly shown that legislation and gun control can lead to serious drops in firearms deaths and would likely lower the number of mass shootings significantly. They would be wise to do this sooner rather than later.
Obviously, the primary benefit would be reducing the high number of unnecessary and tragic deaths, but a bonus would be a likely boost in US soft power and, at the least, preventing mass shootings from diminishing America's global appeal.