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May 14, 2006
THE WAY WE LIVE NOW

The Perils of Soft Power
By JOSEF JOFFE


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 so 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. It is still power, and it can still make
enemies.

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 or 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 co-productions. But these
American products shape images, not sympathies, and there is little, if any,
relationship between artifact and affection.

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 1960's 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 until the police dispersed
them. 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
scattered, many of them put on free Shrek ears. "They were attracted," noted an
observer in this magazine, "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.

Between Vietnam and Iraq, America's cultural presence has expanded into
ubiquity, and so has the resentment of America's soft power. In some cases, like
the French one, 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.

or 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 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. It was done by "concealment" and "censorship" in a game full of
"marked cards," and 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
20th century. This was an instance of the selective perception that suffuses anti-
Americanism or any other "anti-ism," for the exhibit contained an impressive
number of European works: Matisse, Picasso, Manet, Rousseau, Brancusi and
Mondrian, plus assorted Expressionists and Surrealists.

That did not count. What about contemporary Germans like 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 feuilletoniste 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. It is also 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 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.

Hard power can by defanged by coalitions and alliances. But how do you balance
against soft power? No confederation of European universities can dethrone
Harvard and 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 is 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 by hauteur and denigration.

Josef Joffe is publisher-editor of the German weekly Die Zeit. This essay is adapted from
his book "Überpower: The Imperial Temptation of America," to be published in June by
Norton.

				
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