Its disastrous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic sent the US tumbling from top spot as a soft power to sixth place, while its rival China fell three places to land at No 8, according to a British ranking.
While Germany took the crown, the US was the fastest falling country in this year's Global Soft Power Index, published by Brand Finance. It lost more than double China's score in the overall index. In the Covid-19 metric, the US came in at the bottom of the table, out of 105 countries.
China suffered from poor perceptions in the categories of international relations and governance, which track records on measures including rule of law, human rights and constitutional principles.
The index measures a country's ability to influence through attraction or persuasion rather than hard power methods, such as military force and financial clout. More than 75,000 people from more than 100 countries were surveyed in autumn last year, from the general public as well as business leaders, politicians, academics and think tank analysts.
Singapore's former foreign minister George Yeo, who contributed to the survey, said China's draconian system - which shut down cities and even provinces as soon as the alarm was raised - had worked in its response to the Covid-19 outbreak. Every Chinese city also had the capability of testing millions of inhabitants in just a few days.
However, the world's reaction to China's management of the pandemic was mixed, with the perception among Western countries turning markedly negative, said Yeo, who is a senior adviser to Kuok Group and Kerry Logistics Network.
Despite providing much of the world's personal protective equipment, China was accused of politicising exports and boasting, he added, while its vaccines were denigrated as less advanced and effective, even though China was the most important supplier of vaccines to the developing world.
Steve Thomson, insights director at Brand Finance, said China's soft power had grown enormously over the past 20 years because of its economic and technological advances, reduction in poverty, business and trade growth.
The country's positive scores from the general public were aided by a favourable perception of its business friendly attitude and strong potential for future growth, he said.
But global media coverage of the Covid-19 outbreak in the central Chinese city of Wuhan had affected perceptions around the world. The report said distrust of China and its policies had increased during the pandemic, and the situation in Hong Kong had also played in.
Younger generations were undoubtedly more favourable towards China than their older peers, but they also displayed a clear preference for the lifestyles offered by Western countries. For this reason, the more established soft power leadership demonstrated by Western powers still held considerable appeal, Thomson said.
For the US, in addition to concerns over its handling of Covid-19, Thomson said respondents had expressed doubts about whether the US was safe and respected human rights. "This was undoubtedly influenced by the wave of Black Lives Matter protests and counter-protests, where many of the nation's policing methods were heavily scrutinised all over the globe."
Joseph Nye, former dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said that even when mistaken government policies reduced the attractiveness of the US, its ability to criticise itself and correct mistakes could still make its story attractive at a deeper level, and the US was at such a point now.
According to Nye, the Biden administration could recover US soft power by changing policies to emphasise alliances and multilateralism. "Civic sources of soft power are also increasingly important in the age of social media. Even peaceful protests can generate soft power."
According to a Pew Research Centre poll published last week, nine out of 10 Americans view China as a competitor or enemy, and nearly half believe the US should seek to limit China's power. A recent Gallup poll found China less popular in the US than after the Chinese government's 1989 crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Only Iran and North Korea scored worse than China, with 79 per cent of respondents holding an unfavourable view of the country.
Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.