Questioning US ‘Soft Power’

Questioning US ‘Soft Power’

Is the world being captured by what Harvard academic, Joseph Nye, has termed American “Soft Power”? 

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. 

In 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 by far.

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 (although US 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.