By J. Mac Ghlionn
In 2017, the academic George Gao wrote, “(t)he quest for cool is key to a country’s so-called soft power. Unlike hard power, which is the ability to get what one wants through coercion or payment, soft power usually comes in the form of seduction.”
According to Gao, when it comes to the art of seduction, the United States is a master.
From a cultural perspective, Gao argues, China simply can’t compete with the United States. Thus, we’re told, such an inability to compete prevents China from ever becoming a truly dominant force.
However, Gao was wrong then; four years later, he’s still wrong. In this essay, I will outline the reasons why. I will also ask, and attempt to answer, the following: with China’s ascendancy, are we now in a post soft war age?
The Disappearance of Soft Power
Joseph Nye, the father of the soft power believed that pop culture played a major role in America’s Cold War victory. Soviet state-run propaganda, he argued, simply couldn’t compete with the appeal of American music, movies, and messages of hope. Nye was most definitely correct. More than thirty years later, however, American soft power no longer carries the authority it once did.
Nye’s definition of soft power includes three dimensions: political values, foreign policies, and culture.
When it comes to political values, what, exactly, does the United States represent?
Three core values include: Liberty, Equality, and Democracy.
1. Political Values
Liberty involves a state of being free within society. Unlike North Korea, for example, individuals in a truly free state needn’t worry about oppressive forces, coercion, or acts of espionage. What, then, are we to make of Facebook sharing private data with the government, without users’ consent? Is it a truly free society when tech giants work with the American government to decide who does and does not get to have a voice?
As Newsweek’s Martin Avilla writes, social media outlets have found “both overt and devilishly subtle ways” of shutting down “open and honest dialogue—one of the hallmarks of American democracy, and of all genuinely free countries.”
Such actions are not compatible with the idea of liberty.
The second of the three core political values is equality, or the state of being equal, especially in status, rights, or opportunities. Equality, of course, in the truest sense of the word, is a myth. No two humans are truly identical, so levels of inequality are to be expected. However, when considering a country’s values, equality represents a system of fairness, not favoritism.
In a truly equal society, gerrymandering would not exist. As NPR’s Michel Martin writes, gerrymandering is “the practice of drawing electoral district lines, sometimes in absurd shapes, in a manner designed not to benefit voters but to benefit the politicians of one party or another.” When voters are being used as pawns in a game of political chess, how, exactly, is equality possible?
Thirdly, we have democracy. In its purest form, democracy is a form of government in which the people have the authority to choose their leaders. According to this basic definition, the United States is not a true democracy; it is a representative democracy. According to James Penny Boyd, “in a representative democracy, the people elect representatives to deliberate and decide on legislation, such as in parliamentary or presidential democracy.” Essentially, a citizen’s vote appears to be more symbolic than significant.
This fact is reflected in the latest Democracy Index findings, which lists the United States as a “flawed democracy.” Meanwhile, Canada, its northern neighbor, is listed as a “full democracy”.
2. Foreign Policy
What are the goals of American foreign policy? The three most prominent goals are security, prosperity, and the creation of a better world.
A cursory glance at the state of affairs in Afghanistan, the most recent country to have been invaded by the United States, tells us that security, prosperity, and the creation of a better world are sorely lacking.
In a piece for Foreign Affairs last year, titled How the Good War Went Bad: America’s Slow-Motion Failure in Afghanistan, Carter Malkasian, a historian and former adviser to American military commanders in Afghanistan, lamented his nation’s failures. Malkasian’s frustrations are both understandable and warranted. After all, the United States has been fighting a war in Afghanistan for close to two decades. As the author notes, “more than 2,300 U.S. military personnel have lost their lives there; more than 20,000 others have been wounded. At least half a million Afghans—government forces, Taliban fighters, and civilians—have been killed or wounded. Washington has spent close to $1 trillion on the war.”
Osama bin Laden is, of course, dead, but “the United States has been unsuccessful in its attempt to bring stability to a notoriously volatile region. Malkasian concludes “the Afghan government cannot survive without U.S. military backing.”
Culture can be defined as the ideas, customs, and social behavior of a particular society.
In 2021, what are we to make of the ideas and behaviors associated with the United States?
As Samuel P. Huntington, the renowned political scientist, noted, the history of the United States is one characterized by episodic moments of moral convulsion. Every six decades or so, according to Huntington, disgust spreads throughout American society, trust in institutions plummet, and a sense of uncertainty reigns supreme. Moreover, trust amongst fellow citizens also plummets. Forty years ago, Huntington predicted that the United States would face its next moral convulsion right around… now.
In a 2020 report issued by Pew Research Center, the authors wrote the following: over a third of “Americans (35%) register low levels of trust in other people, compared with 29% who are “high trusters” and 32% who are “medium trusters.” For the first time in history, more Americans lack trust in their fellow citizens. Furthermore, trust in objective journalism is at an all-time low. According to a CNN report released in February of this year, three quarters of Republicans believe that the 2020 presidential election was contaminated by “widespread fraud.” Conspiracy theories have disturbed the national psyche. The United States is fractured and divided. How, then, does this affect the country’s ‘marketability’?
One cannot discuss American culture without referencing the country’s music. In the 1980’s, bands like Def Leppard, Mötley Crüe, Aerosmith, Poison, and Bon Jovi thrilled audiences around the world. These bands promoted a very specific type of American sound. It was unapologetically ostentatious.
In the 90’s, as a sort of musical rebuttal to the 80’s, grunge, a subgenre of alternative rock, emerged. Bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains delivered a new sound. Darker, moodier, and deliberately lacking the flamboyance of 80’s rock, grunge gave a voice to the disillusioned. Of course, the 90’s was also the age of bubblegum pop, when the likes of Britney Spears and The Backstreet Boys took the world by storm. Either consciously or unconsciously, bubblegum pop sought to nullify the nihilism of grunge.
Either way, whether you happened to be a fan of grunge or a fan of pop, both were (and still are) unmistakable products of American culture. In 2021, to a global audience, what does American culture sound like? This question, I argue, is far more difficult to answer.
From a musical perspective, K-pop appears to have stolen much of America’s soft power. Of course, charismatic American artists, like Justin Bieber and Billie Eilish, exist. But, one asks, is their global influence comparable with the Bon Jovis of the 80’s or the Britney’s of the 90’s?
In this brief essay, I hope I have shown that China’s soft power deficiency is not as problematic as Gao imagined. This is largely because American soft power no longer exerts a profound, global influence.
Furthermore, China’s use of smart power more than compensates for any supposed soft power deficiencies. According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, smart power is underscored by “the necessity of a strong military,” as well as heavy investments in “alliances, partnerships, and institutions of all levels to expand one’s influence and establish legitimacy of one’s action.” China, through its Belt Road Initiative, for example, has a cultural and financial footprint that stretches from Eastern Europe to South America.
Are we now in a post soft war age? It appears so. Smart power is where it’s at. In 2021, when trying to compete with China, “cool” simply doesn’t cut it. In other words, don’t bring Bieber to a gunfight.
J. Mac Ghlionn is pursuing a doctorate in psychosocial studies.