Is the world being captured by what Harvard academic, Joseph Nye, has termed American
This debate about American
influence on the world at large is not a new thing. Charles Dickens, the great British nineteenth century novelist, on a visit to the US
had no compunction in thinking America’s culture had little to offer the world. He said it was “a clamorous gang of fakes, fools and tricksters”. In the early twentieth century the writer, Virginia Woolf of the Bloomsbury Group, one of the guiding spirits of London’s intellectuals, treated America
with a mixture of disdain and disinterest.
In modern times the disdain has continued —at least among the well educated. First it was the penetration of Coca Cola and McDonald’s. In more recent times came Starbucks. This time bankers and businessmen flock to savour its high priced coffees, but the true coffee cognoscenti don’t. All the while Hollywood’s tentacles push further afield, prevailing over often better films from the UK and the rest of Europe.
we are so infused, penetrated and invaded by American
Soft Power that we too often take America
at its word. Nobel
prizes for example. Yes, America
wins hands over fist in the sciences yet in truth a large number of its prize winners have been born abroad, often in India
and China. Britain, Germany and France with much smaller populations rank second, third and fourth in Nobel
prizes in physics and chemistry. France, with a population of only one quarter of the US, ranks first in Nobel
prizes for literature. Britain, Germany and Spain are third, fourth and fifth. Put all of Europe
together and it overtakes America
Britain is first and Germany second in attracting applicants for political asylum. Soccer, Europe’s leading sport, is far more popular globally that American
football or baseball. Likewise for cricket in India, Pakistan, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
European classical music and composers reign in US
concert halls and are increasingly popular in Asia. The Beatles of Liverpool have left the most indelible mark on the culture of most nations.
So why do Europeans and Asians say they are overwhelmed by American
culture? This is partly nonsense. Recently I lived in Calcutta in the state of West Bengal where there is very little US
cultural penetration. The Bengalis are rightfully proud of their language and their Nobel
prize winning poet, Tagore. Indeed, West Bengal has produced 6 Nobel
prize winners and today Bengali novelists are becoming much appreciated in many parts of the world. Bollywood films dominate the cinema in India
films are also popular).
By and large Indians don’t feel they need the US
and its Soft Power. The same goes for Sri Lanka and, to a lesser extent, Pakistan.
In Africa traditional culture and European colonial influence still dominate. In Latin America
there is certainly more US
influence. But in Brazil, the continent’s largest and most populated country, one would have to search hard for it. Brazil
and Argentina are culturally entwined with Portugal and Spain. Worldwide, the BBC is the most far-reaching of all the media. When Gorbachev was imprisoned in his villa it was BBC radio that kept him informed of what was going on in Moscow.
Business is another matter. American
business has enormous influence all over the world. It is a pace setter. Yet even so in almost every case, apart from aeroplane manufacturing, local companies are usually the mainstay of their economies. On the other hand European, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese companies from Volvo trucks to Lenova computers to Samsung phones to Sony electronics dominate parts of the US
market. The one area where American
exports are supreme are arms supplies. Is that something to be proud of?
American Soft Power certainly exists and I think much of it is welcome whilst much of it is dross. It is a better thing than guns. But let us keep it in proportion.
*Jonathan Power is a veteran foreign affairs commentator. This abridged article originally appeared on Khaleej Times online.