The Perils of Soft Power

Sunday, July 30, 2006
this is an image

In recent years, a number of American thinkers, led by Joseph S. Nye Jr. of Harvard, have argued that the United States should rely more on what he calls its “soft power”—the contagious appeal of its ideas, its culture, and its way of life—and rely less on the “hard power” of its stealth bombers and aircraft carriers. There is one problem with this argument: Soft power does not necessarily increase the world's love for America. Soft power is still power, and it can still make enemies.

Cultural Clout

America's soft power isn't just pop and schlock; its cultural clout is both high and low. It is grunge and Google, Madonna and MoMA, Hollywood and Harvard. If two-thirds of the movie marquees carry an American title in Europe (even in France), dominance is even greater when it comes to translated books. The figure for Germany in 2003 was 419 versus 3,732; that is, for every German book translated into English, nine English-language books were translated into German. It used to be the other way around. A hundred years ago, Humboldt University in Berlin was the model for the rest of the world. Tokyo, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, and the University of Chicago were founded in conscious imitation of the German university and its novel fusion of teaching and research. Today, Europe's universities have lost their luster, and as they talk reform, they talk American. Indeed, America is one huge global “demonstration effect,” as the sociologists call it. The Soviet Union's cultural presence in Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw vanished into thin air the moment the last Russian soldier departed. American culture, however, needs no gun to travel.

There may be little or no relationship between America's ubiquity and its actual influence. Hundreds of millions of people around the world wear, listen, eat, drink, watch, and dance American, but they do not identify these accouterments of their daily lives with America. A Yankees cap is the epitome of things American, but it hardly signifies knowledge of, let alone affection for, the team from New York or America as such.

The same is true for American films, foods, and songs. Of the 250 top-grossing movies around the world, only four are foreign-made: The Full Monty (U.K.), Life Is Beautiful (Italy), and Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle (Japan); the rest are American, including a number of coproductions. But these American products shape images, not sympathies, and there is little, if any, relationship between artifact and affection.

America's cultural clout is both high and low: It is grunge and Google, Madonna and MoMA, Hollywood and Harvard.

If the relationship is not neutral, it is one of repulsion rather than attraction—the dark side of the “soft power” coin. The European student movement of the late 1960s took its cue from the Berkeley free-speech movement of 1964, the inspiration for all post-1964 Western student revolts. But it quickly turned anti-American; America was reviled while it was copied.

Now shift forward to the Cannes Film Festival of 2004, where hundreds of protesters denounced America's intervention in Iraq. The makers of the movie Shrek 2 had placed large bags of green Shrek ears along the Croisette, the main drag along the beach. As the demonstrators were scattered by the police, many of them put on the free Shrek ears. “They were attracted,” noted an observer, “by the ears' goofiness and sheer recognizability.” And so the enormous pull of American imagery went hand in hand with the country's, or at least its government's, condemnation.

The Soviet Union's cultural presence in Prague, Budapest, and Warsaw vanished into thin air the moment the last Russian soldier departed. American culture, however, needs no gun to travel.

Between Vietnam and Iraq, America's cultural presence has expanded into ubiquity, as has the resentment of America's soft power. In some cases, such as France, these feelings harden into governmental policy. And so the French have passed the Toubon law, which prohibits on pain of penalty the use of English words: make that D.J. into a disque-tourneur. In 1993, the French coaxed the European Union into adding a “cultural exception” clause to its commercial treaties exempting cultural products, high or low, from normal free-trade rules. Other European nations impose informal quotas on American TV fare.

A Tale of Two Critics

Neither is America's high culture more easily accepted than its pop—at least not by the cultural elites. A fine example is how the art critics of two distinguished German newspapers, Süddeutsche Zeitung (leftish) and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (centrist), dealt with an exhibit of 200 pieces from the Museum of Modern Art in Berlin in 2004. More than a million visitors stood in line, many for up to nine hours, to view the objets from across the Atlantic. Yet the fervor of the hoi polloi mattered little to their betters, whose comments ran the gamut from contempt to conspiracy.

The opening shots were fired by the Süddeutsche Zeitung of Munich. Without having seen the collection, its critic aimed his volley straight against imperial America. Regurgitating a standard piece of European ressentiment, the author insinuated that what America has in the way of culture is not haute, and that what is haute is not American. (Or, as Adolf Hitler is said to have declared, “A single Beethoven symphony contains more culture than all that America has ever created.”)

After World War II, the critic contended, America had wrested “artistic hegemony” from Europe in two sleazy ways. One culprit was “a new abstract school of painting”—Abstract Expressionism—“that had hyped itself into high heaven.” The other was American mammon: “Everything still available in old Europe was bought up.” And this “stolen idea of modern art will now be presented in Berlin.” Thus were pilferage and grand theft added to the oldest of indictments: America's cultural inferiority.

The critic of Frankfurter Allgemeine went one worse. If his colleague claimed that America's art was either hyped or heisted, the man from Frankfurt thundered that MoMA's Berlin show was a mendacious ploy, indeed an imperialist conspiracy accomplished by “concealment” and “censorship” in a game full of “marked cards.” Its aim was not only to blank out Europe's greats but also to suppress their magnificent contribution to American art in the second half of the twentieth century. This was an instance of the selective perception that suffuses anti-Americanism or any other “antiism,” for the exhibit contained works by an impressive number of European artists: Matisse, Picasso, Manet, Rousseau, Brancusi, and Mondrian, plus assorted Expressionists and Surrealists.

A Yankees cap is the epitome of things American, but it hardly signifies knowledge of, let alone affection for, the team from New York or America as such.

That did not count. What about contemporary Germans such as Beuys, Baselitz, and Kiefer? the critic huffed. But even here, MoMA had done its duty, capping the progression with Gerhard Richter's 18 October 1977 cycle, which depicts dead members of the Baader-Meinhof terrorist gang. That MoMA would display these German works enraged the feuilletonist from Frankfurt even more. That particular choice, he fumed, was the final proof of American perfidy. The terrorist motif was insidiously selected to finger Europe as a “creepy” place, as a messenger of “bad news.”

There is a moral in this tale of two critics: the curse of soft power. In the affairs of nations, too much hard power ends up breeding not submission but resistance. Likewise, great soft power does not bend hearts; it twists minds in resentment and rage. And the target of Europe's cultural guardians is not just America, the Great Seductress, but all those “little people,” a million in all, many of whom showed up in the wee hours to snag an admissions ticket to MoMA's Berlin exhibit. By yielding to America-the-beguiling, they, according to the critics, committed cultural treason—and worse: They ignored the stern verdict of their own priesthood. So America's soft power is not only seductive but also subversive.

Inferiority Complex

Hard power can by defanged by coalitions and alliances. But how do you counter soft power? No confederation of European universities can dethrone Harvard or Stanford; neither can all the subsidies fielded by European governments crack the hegemony of Hollywood. To breach the bastions of American soft power, the Europeans will first have to imitate, then improve on, the American model. Imitation and leapfrogging are part of the oldest game in the history of nations.

But competition has barely begun to drive the cultural contest. Europe, mourning the loss of its centuries-old supremacy, either resorts to insulation (by quotas and “cultural exception” clauses) or seeks solace in the disparagement of American culture as vulgar, inauthentic, or stolen. If we could consult Dr. Freud, he would take a deep drag on his cigar and pontificate about inferiority feelings being compensated for with hauteur and denigration.