Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1237, (12 - 18 March 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Does the world admire American culture?

Theorists may debate between hard and soft power, but consuming American cultural products does not necessarily mean liking America, or its policies,
writes Al-Sayed Amin Shalaby

Al-Ahram Weekly

With George W Bush focusing on the use of military power, the political scientist Joseph Nye articulated his concept of “soft power.” Nye argued that contrary to “hard power” (which includes military force), the US uses its values (which constitute a form of soft power) to get what it wants from the world.

He referred to the US’s values and culture  reflected in cinema, TV and music and the appeal of its political system. In Nye’s view, such “soft power” encourages other peoples to follow the US, emulate its model and aspire to its level of prosperity.

Nye’s concept was not immune to criticism. In his book The World America Made, political scientist Robert Kagan said that the historical truth was more complicated. In the decades after World War II, Kagan argued, large parts of the world did not admire the US, agree with its foreign policy or want to imitate it.

It is true that the American media was disseminating its culture. However, it was disseminating unattractive images, such as Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s when he was chasing “communists” in the US State Department and Hollywood. American movies depicted a stifling capitalism, and bestseller novels such as The Ugly American showed American boorishness.

The battles were ongoing in the 1950s and 1960s around racial discrimination, with images spread globally of white people spitting on black students in schools. Racism was destroying the image of America in the world.

US foreign policy was equally unattractive to many in the late 1960s and 1970s. Eisenhower wanted to make the Third World “like more than dislike us,” but actions taken by US intelligence agencies to remove Iranian Prime Minister Mohamed Mosaddegh were not helpful in this respect.

At the end of 1960, on the “good intentions” trip to Tokyo, Eisenhower had to return home early after the Japanese government warned him it could not guarantee his safety in the face of students demonstrating against “American imperialism.” Eisenhower’s Democratic successors faced similar challenges.

For a long time, John F Kennedy and his wife were popular, but this dissipated after his assassination. Lyndon Johnson’s invasion of the Dominican Republic in 1965 was widely condemned, not only in Latin America but also in the US.

Then came Vietnam, with all its destruction and scenes of napalm, the My Lai massacres, the secret penetration into Cambodia and striking Hanoi, which evoked the public image of a great imperial power trampling a small country.

When US Vice President Hubert Humphrey visited West Berlin in 1967, thousands of students protested and the American Cultural Centre was attacked. In 1968, millions of European youth took to the streets. They were not expressing admiration for American culture.

As one of Johnson’s officials said, “What we do in Vietnam and other places represents a heavy burden that we have to bear in the Afro-Asian world and in Europe.” During that time the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement (Nehru, Nasser, Tito, Sukarno and Nkrumah) were expressing their deep dislike of the exploitative policies and racism of the West.

These feeling were transferred from the old colonialist powers to the United States when it became a great power. From the 1960s until the end of the Cold War, the United Nations General Assembly became a forum for the continuous expression of hostility towards the US.

In the 1990s, American political scientist Samuel Huntington described the US as “the lonely superpower,” largely disliked because of its obtrusive, exploitative, individualist, hypocritical and dominating behaviour.

Kagan concluded that soft power exists but is difficult to measure in influence, while easy to exaggerate. People could enjoy American pop music and movies but still hate America.

In his latest book, Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power, published in 2012, strategic thinker and political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski entered this discussion and raised an essential question regarding America’s image and its future, and how the world regards it.

Is the American system still worthy of emulation on the world level, and does the world regard America as a positive influence in world affairs? Because American power to influence international events in a constructive way depends on how the world regards its social system and its international role, America’s status in the world will inevitably decline in the face of negative domestic realities and hated international initiatives.

Therefore, if the US, with all its unique power, wants to restore faith in its world leadership it must overcome its domestic challenges and reorient its foreign policies.

In this context, Brzezinski writes of what he called the “common American dream.” He says that America still attracts those who are looking for higher education, and also those determined to break out of poverty in their societies. Many foreign scientists, physicians and businessmen see America as offering greater opportunities than their own countries.

Their colleagues aspire to join American schools because they believe that an advanced degree from the US will boost their professional lives. More than a million foreign students study in the US every year and many stay there, attracted by American opportunities. America is still the most attractive country for those who seek a more advanced life, and it ultimately benefits from their personal dreams.

In this respect, the key to historical American attractiveness was in combining idealism and materialism. Brzezinski argues that America has to understand that its power abroad will increasingly depend on its ability to face its internal challenges.

The writer is executive director of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

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