Soft power: how American culture rules the world

Let’s be honest, the early decades of the new millennium have been a whiplash time for America and its image abroad. Sympathy for the United States after the 9/11 attacks was quickly followed by anger over the Iraq War.

The poisonous gridlock in Washington DC has not helped America’s global standing, nor has the inability to deal with the gun issue. Even British Conservatives have a hard time understanding why some basic controls on personal arsenals haven’t been put in place given the regular mass shootings in the US.

And yet America’s influence on societies everywhere remains profound. And there is one simple reason: American soft power. Through culture, education and diplomatic outreach programmes, the US still influences “the street” globally.

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The history of America’s “soft power”

When Harvard’s Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in 1990, the Cold War was coming to an end, the Soviet empire was collapsing, the power relationships that had governed the world for almost half a century were at an end. Soft power was a prescription for US policymakers in its unipolar moment. That moment has passed, but the term is still in general use.

The US remains a nation of immigrants. More than 40 million people living in America were born outside the US – that is 13 per cent of the population and one in four immigrants are in the country illegally. Each immigrant represents a connection back to a different country. In a world of globalised communications, those connections, for the most part, aren’t severed when a person leaves for America.

Through immigration, the American experience is shared globally. Not every immigrant story is a happy one, but clearly enough positive news about America gets told so that American society is a model for the world.

Through culture, education and diplomatic outreach programmes, the US still influences ‘the street’ globally

The power of popular culture

American popular culture remains pre-eminent, not just through its creativity, but through its business nous. Stalin may or may not have said: “If I could control the medium of the American motion picture, I would need nothing else to convert the entire world to communism.” But totalitarian leaders have long been envious of Hollywood’s extraordinary ability to tell stories that speak to the entire planet.

The secret of Hollywood’s success has a lot to do with it having been founded by immigrants – Goldwyn, Mayer, Warner were all just off the boat. Their cultural frame of reference was a synthesis of new world optimism and old world culture. The stories their studios told and the way they told them meant the films appealed well beyond America’s shores.

US film and television exports earned $16.2 billion in 2012. By comparison, British film and television exports, riding a wave of popularity, were $1.2 billion.

Going global with video games

Having invented personal computing, the US is the primary shaper of the fast-growing market for video and computer games. It is hard to find comparable export figures to those of film and television in this area of the cultural industries because of the globalised nature of production of both games and machines to play them on. But clearly America is the primary influence on these products.

An example: Grand Theft Auto is one of the world’s most popular video games. It was developed in Edinburgh, but it is played in fictional cities that are recognisably American. Why? Not just because the American market is huge, but because “American” is a global visual language.

Another example: the multi-platform sensation Transformers. Originally a Japanese toy bought, redesigned and rebranded by American firm Hasbro, it is now a multi-billion-dollar film franchise whose latest installment was filmed in China and partially financed by the Chinese.

The film has no artistic merit, but has provided a field day for commentary on the growing soft-power rivalry between the US and China. The American-based, Chinese media scholar Zhing Yu notes in Foreign Policy magazine that the film depicts the Chinese as bystanders in a struggle on Chinese soil to save the world. It is a rough-and-ready group of American individualists, led by Mark Wahlberg, who “save the day”.  That message of individualism, in Mr Yu’s view, seeped through in China, where more people saw the film than in the US.

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Cementing soft power with aid and education

The US government puts money towards soft power activities such as foreign aid. The USAID budget this year is $20 billion. No other country comes close to ear-marking that kind of funding for combating the effects of global poverty.

Then there is education. This was clearest in the first months of the Tahrir Square revolution in Egypt. Many of the movement’s leaders had had some education in the US or at the American University in Cairo. They were not political science majors, they were engineers and business majors, who spoke English with American accents and knew American history. They understood there is a difference between the American government of the day and “America” the idea.

The wisdom to use brute power less, while persuading by example, is a good definition of soft power

Many were inspired by Barack Obama’s election and the speech he gave in Cairo shortly thereafter. The President quoted Thomas Jefferson: “I hope that our wisdom will grow with our power and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.”

Jefferson meant power in the brute sense. The wisdom to use brute power less, while persuading by example, is a good definition of soft power.

How long will America hold its soft power advantage? For quite a while, I suspect. Despite all its travails in this century, the self-inflicted wounds and those inflicted by outside forces, young people of the world, aged 18 to 29, still regard the US in an overwhelmingly positive light, according to the recent Pew Global Attitudes survey. Even 60 per cent of Russian young people have a positive view of the US, although given recent events that could change.

As long as Americans remember their immigrant roots, don’t lose their popular cultural touch, and aid and educate the world, soft power will remain America’s most effective tool for influence in these uncertain times.