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Has American Soft Power Overwhelmed the World?

Jonathan Power

 

Jonathan Power, for 20 years, a foreign affairs columnist for the
International Herald Tribune; column distributed around the world

 

 

The debate about American influence on the world is not new. The popular twentieth century notion of the ugly American was part of this. Charles Dickens, the great seventeenth century novelist, believed American culture had little to offer the world. In his opinion America’s culture icons were no more than a gang of fakes, fools and tricksters. Dickens’s compatriot, Virginia Woolf, one of the guiding lights of London intellectuals in the early years of the twentieth century, regarded America with barely concealed disdain

In modern times contempt for things American has continued, at least among the well educated of the rest of the world. Coca Cola, McDonald’s, American coffee, Starbucks, all have been targets of this disdain of Americana. Despite this Hollywood’s tentacles have pushed further afield, prevailing often over better made European movies. Today many made in America films earn more abroad than they do at home. Wise to this Hollywood now takes care to use a good percentage of foreign talents and to inject British accents and mannerism into its films to win over the rest of the world

In reality, around the world, many welcome American influence and have done so for decades. The great Yugoslav writer Milovan Djilas went further than most. In 1992 Djilas argued that if the power of America is weakened then the way is open to everything bad. This, in the eyes of many, was not just an argument for Nato, but for Walmart, the builder and creator of massive shopping malls.

Europeans sometimes feel so infused and invaded by American Soft Power that they take America at its word. So America sweeps the stake at Nobel Prize in the sciences. But the truth is, a large number of American prize winners are born abroad, often in India and China. Britain, Germany and France, countries with much smaller populations, rank second, third and fourth in Nobel prizes in physics and chemistry. France and it much smaller population ranks first in the literature Nobel. Britain, Germany and Spain are third, fourth and fifth. Put all of Europe together and it overtakes America by far.

European countries, Canada, Japan and Singapore have a higher life expectancy and lower infant mortality than the US. 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. In India, Pakistan, the West Indies, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe and South Africa, cricket is the sport of choice.

European classical music and composers reign in American concert halls and are increasingly popular in Asia. The Beatles of Liverpool, not Elvis Presley, have left the most indelible mark on the culture of most nations.

So why do Europeans and Asians feel overwhelmed by American culture? Recently I lived in Calcutta in the state of West Bengal where there is very little US cultural penetration. The Bengalis are proud of their language and their Nobel Prize winning poet, Tagore. West Bengal has produced 6 Nobel Prize winners. Today Bengali novelists are winning followers in many parts of the world. Bollywood films dominate the cinema in India and much of South East Asia, although American movies 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 classical African traditions and European influence 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. The BBC is the most far-reaching of all media globally. On the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Gorbachev was imprisoned in his villa it was BBC radio that kept the Soviet leader informed of what was going on in Moscow.

Business is another matter. American business has enormous reach worldwide. It is a pace setter. Yet even so in almost every case, apart from airplane manufacturing, local companies are usually the mainstay of local economies. On the other hand European, Chinese, South Korean and Japanese companies, from Volvo trucks to Lenovo computers to Samsung phones to Sony electronics, dominate large chunks of American market. The one area where American exports are supreme is arms supplies, a dubious honor for sure.

American Soft Power certainly exists. I think much of it is welcome whilst much of it is dross. It is a better thing than guns. But let us keep things in proportion.