Thursday, February 13, 2003

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Is American soft Power on the wane?

Saying that the U.S. is the global hegemon is obvious. One obvious source of that hegemony is our military might, but there are others, as Josef Joffe pointed out a few years ago:

The U.S.'s main asset in the rivalry with Europe is not 'hard power' — guns, ships and planes — but 'soft power,' as the U.S. political scientist Joseph Nye calls it. 'Soft power' is Harvard and Hollywood, McDonald's and Microsoft — the stuff of temptation not menace.

That jibes with this definition of soft power as well.

Now, many are fretting that as the U.S. increases its exercise of hard power -- you know, the whole war on terrorism and all that kerfuffle over Iraq -- that our soft power will decline, just because of the global resentment such actions create.

Charles Paul Freund and Shekhar Kapur also argue that U.S. soft power is on the wane, but for different reasons. They argue that, contra Benjamin Barber, that demand for indigenous culture is increasing, making U.S. exports, like Hollywood films, less compelling. Kapur (who was the director of Elizabeth) concludes:

When I went to the world economic forum in New York, the big topic of conversation was the domination of the western media. But it's a non-issue. What happens when countries like India and China become the biggest subscribers to cable TV? What will CNN do? CNN gets 10% of the Indian and Chinese markets. Ultimately the only reason you will get a western point of view is if you are western-owned. But your advertising is not going to be western any more. Television is governed by advertising. Why is it always Indians who win Miss World competitions? All the advertising comes from India: the competition would simply collapse without it. Indian cricketers are now the highest paid in the world: cricket survivies because of Indian advertising. You have to get an Indian into Formula One racing now, to get the sponsorship from the tobacco companies. Where are the big tobacco markets? China and India.

What will be the viewpoint of the western-owned news channels when 80% of revenues come from Asia? Will it give an Asian viewpoint? If it doesn't, some Asian channels will come up and destroy it. In 15 years from now, we won't be discussing the domination of the western media but the domination of the Chinese media, or the Asian media. Soon we will find that in order to make a hugely successful film, you have to match Tom Cruise with an Indian or a Chinese actor. What you're seeing now with films such as The Guru is just the tip of the iceberg.

Now is normally the time in my posts where I weigh in on whether these claims are true of not. In this case, however, I will confess that I'm just not sure. I think the above arguments are exaggerations, in part because the U.S. economy remains so dynamic compared to our competitors, and because just as broadcast networks remain relevant in a world of disparate cable channels, American culture will remain relevant in a multiculti world. But I can't deny they've got some good arguments. And I automatically tend to sympathize with any argument that proves that Jihad vs. McWorld is a load of dingo's kidneys.

posted by Dan on 02.13.03 at 03:19 PM