The Rise and Fall of America's Soft Power
In this essay, NPQ editor Nathan Gardels traces the rise of American soft power to its post-Cold War heights and its demise since, especially after the invasion of Iraq. He focuses on the clash between Muslims and the West, including the play of contraries in which the American majority, itself in conflict with postmodern mass culture, is at loggerheads with culturally conservative Islam.
Gardels also argues that the chief consequence of going to war in Iraq against the tide of global public opinion has been to demote America from a hegemon to a preponderant military power. "By willfully ignoring the interests of others as expressed in their public opinion," Gardels writes, "the US unilateralist approach to Iraq and other issues has pushed the multipolar world order out of its post-Cold War womb."
It is now commonly recognized that the old Westphalian borders have been breached by the soft forces of globalization—finance, trade, travel, information technologies and the media. Nation-states as we knew them and as the United Nations has enshrined them, are not the solid entities their flags indicate. They are today porous, permeable and plural. States are, more and more, becoming generic spaces of flows instead of places identified by their history and ethnicity. Ideas, migrants, drugs, terrorists, money, merchandise, microbes and pollution all pass through. In Asia—where this century will see scores of sprawling post-urban zones with 20 million people each—the past, and the states that bounded it, have become too small to inhabit. And the future will spill out all over others. For example, NASA scientists, who track clouds of pollutants as they travel the atmospheric currents around the world, estimate that a third of the smog-forming ozone in California by 2010 will originate in booming Asia.
Borders are eroding from above and below. As Europe dismantles national borders to build a super-umbrella state, immigrants, mainly Muslim, are subverting the old cultural entities from below. In Africa, as Ryszard Kapuscinski notes, "the concept of territory has ceased to be the concept of power. Strength and prestige used to be equated with a large amount of territory. Now nobody cares. What is important is how rich a country is, how much it trades with others. Sudan is Africa's largest country, but also its weakest. In Africa, the states which occupied large territories are now disintegrating. There is practically no state in Zaire or Chad, in Somalia or Liberia. Where there was state power, now there is only a sense of crisis."
And what of the old borders? Kapuscinski again: "Borders used to mean fighting and hatred. They meant the division of territories, the separation of people. The Berlin Wall was a frontier of fear, a possibility of war.
"Today we have a new concept of the border. In Europe, in Africa, in Asia it has become a place of exchange, of trade and interaction, of people moving back and forth. Paradoxically, in the failing states, it is often the very guardians of borders, the soldiers and customs people, who are destroying them, albeit in a corrupted way." "You want a visa?" a border guard asked Kapuscinski in Liberia, "Twenty dollars, please." For Claude Levi Strauss, it was this intermingling of people and goods that gave rise to a sense of mutual interests as well as a common perception of threats. Now that is true across boundaries, not just within them. In this new world where Sony is supplanting soil, cross-border contagion can be both financial, as we saw with the Asian financial crisis, and microbial, as we saw with SARS.
It is not news, therefore, to report that the traditional forms of power associated with the modern nation state—a territorial monopoly over violence, the economy and information—are, consequently, also being undermined. Jihadist terrorists, as we all know in the past three years, have undercut the porous state's ability to monopolize violence. And even the strongest states can't hold back the tide of globalization and its political consequences. As George Yeo, Singapore's foreign minister, has noted: "In taking the leap to join the WTO, the Chinese Communist Party undermines its own monopoly. Once China is linked at a million points to the global economy, it will be difficult to break those links." The outsourcing of white-collar American jobs to India, the Philippines and elsewhere further demonstrates that no matter how high a country climbs up the value-added ladder, it is not beyond the reach of stiff competition.
Finally, new media technologies have undermined the information control of those few states that still attempt to track the thoughts of their ever-less servile subjects. In China today, there are more Netizens—80 million—than members of the Communist Party. "Online uprisings" over issues normally kept out of the traditional media are commonplace.
In this era of free flows, not hard boundaries, the nature of power itself has changed. Military might—the idea that power comes from the barrel of a gun—is associated with territorial defense or conquest. In a world that has moved beyond borders, power is associated with economic prowess and the sway of hearts and minds. The same forces that have eroded the nation state have created a global market and nascent global civil society in their wake. If hegemony is not consensual in this new domain, it won't long last. Without legitimacy conferred by consent, the political objectives for which military might is deployed, and for which a society's wealth must pay, cannot be met. The ability to dominate one's environment— power—is thus frustrated, if not entirely defeated.
The manifest powerlessness of the sole superpower to establish order, no less democracy, in Iraq is a dramatic illustration of this point.
Long before Joe Nye coined the phrase "soft power," the Italian communist theorist, Antonio Gramsci, wrote in his Prison Notebooks about the contrasting hegemonies of the state and civil society. Hegemony of the state was based on force—hard power—while the hegemony of civil society was based on consent—soft power. Gramsci's notion was that through a variety of cultural means from festivals to plays to newspapers and political campaigns, Communist ideas would, over time, inform the consensual worldview of the majority, thus laying the groundwork for the legtimate seizure of state power.
It is this kind of consensual hegemony on a global scale upon which much of America's influence in the post WWII era rested.
America established consensual hegemony through the appeal of it ideas realized in practice—as the land of personal freedom, of equality under the rule of law, of social and economic opportunity. Abroad, these ideas informed the battle against Fascist and Communist totalitarianism and for decolonization and self-determination. Indeed, American freedom and prosperity led Mexico's Nobel laureate Octavio Paz, expressing the view of many, including his migrating compatriots, to declare America "the republic of the future." At least up until the Iraq war, and perhaps during the later stages of Vietnam, this soft power was the legitimating complement to US military might for much of global public opinion, even within the populations of the communist bloc and under US-allied authoritarian rulers.
The rise of the media-industrial complex in the US in the wake of postwar prosperity spread the message far and wide through the mass culture of Hollywood ﬁlms and popular music. As the cineplex replaced the silver screen through the industrial-scale production of entertainment, domestic markets were rapidly saturated and new outlets were sought abroad.
Once globalized, this American soft power not only beat out the competition, but helped undermine the hard power of the Soviet empire. Even before the arrival of Gorbachev back in the 1980s, Regis Debray, the French philosopher, champion of guerrilla warfare and pal of Che Guevara had presciently concluded that there was "more power in blue jeans and rock and roll than the entire Red Army." Michael Eisner of Disney was not off base when he said in 1995 that "...the Berlin Wall was destroyed not by force of Western arms, but by force of Western ideas. And what was the delivery system for those ideas? It has to be admitted that to an important degree it was American entertainment. Inherent in the best and worst of our movies and TV shows, books and records is a sense of individual freedom and the kind of life liberty can bring. It's in the movies of Steven Spielberg; it's in the songs of Madonna; it's in the humor of Bill Cosby."
Responding to the attack by French intellectuals on EuroDisney as a "cultural Chernobyl," Eisner said: "It would be an absurd exaggeration to say EuroDisney could replace the Berlin Wall as an emblem of freedom and harmony instead of conflict and division. But it may not be such an exaggeration to appreciate the role of the entertainment industry in changing history." Where once there was containment, now there was entertainment.
In those heady post-Cold War moments, it did indeed seem like a small world after all. And, lest we succumb to mythology, the push that came to shove in ending the Cold War was, on balance, less about Reagan's hard power buildup than about Gorbachev's deployment of soft power—that is, the absence of the use of force as East Germany and the rest of the East bloc collapsed. That the Cold War ended with a whimper instead of a bang was also due to the restraint of George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft—soft power. They refused, as Gorbachev once put it to me, to poke the Soviets in the eye and dance triumphally on the rubble.
Sydney Pollack, the director, was right on the mark when he said the global appeal of American ﬁlms was the implicit meme—or theme—in all our cultural products: In America, personal freedom allows individuals to "write their own narrative." Todd Gitlin, the media critic, was more prosaic: American mass media has global appeal because it projects "a fun culture," where pursuit of happiness is not constrained by the state or religious authorities.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of communism, American soft power was at its height. MTV had gone where the CIA could never penetrate. The warblings of Michael Jackson and Madonna were the Muzak of the new world disorder, their visages glaring out from every corner of the globe like statues of Lenin in the old Soviet Union. The arrival of CNN and the English-dominated Internet secured the global conquest: America now dominated the metaworld of images, icons and information.
But, as the ﬁlmaker Costa-Gavras warned in an article for NPQ called "Resisting the Colonels of Disney," wherever there is a Goliath there will arise Davids to slay it, as we have already seen with the rise of the anti-globalization movement, the likes of Al Jazeera and the rapid spread of the Chinese-language Internet.
Resistance to America's post-Cold War global dominance also appeared in more amorphous form through the widespread discomfort of conservative societies with postmodern mass culture generated by the US media-industrial complex in hyperdrive. Together with the war in Iraq, this resistance has undercut the hegemony of America's legitimating soft power. If the narrative that comes from our mass culture is Reality TV and Desperate Housewives, what is the world, especially conservative Muslim society, supposed to think?
Over-The-Top PostModern Culture | We all know the stories about Iranian teenagers huddling in darkened rooms listening to heavy metal music while the guardians of virtue roam the streets outside. But there is something more—something that it is a mistake for the mostly secular policy analysts to ignore, as they mostly have done in the same way political analysts within the US missed the "faith gap" so important to the re-election of George Bush. And it is something more than the hollow protests of an essentially materialist Chinese leadership about "spiritual pollution."
To counter the antipathy to the US in the Muslim world after 9/11, the Bush Administration launched an international public relations campaign under the guidance of the marketing guru behind Uncle Ben's Rice, Charlotte Beers. The naive notion was "if the Muslim world only understood our good intentions, all would be OK." Jack Valenti and a host of Hollywood celebrities were enlisted to tell the world, "This is not a war against Muslims."
But the propaganda of postmodern America—our globalized mass cultural presence—had been out there a long time already and was understood by the Muslim world. The problem was not that angry Muslims didn't understand America, but that they did. They understood that the faithless, materialistic, sexually immodest, permissive message projected by the American mass media was a threat to the conservative and pious civilization of Islam. It should not be a surprise to discover that the image people have of America is the one that it projects.
Please don't get me wrong here. A prude I am certainly not. I'm not even a cultural conservative. But what I want to insist upon is that we should not be misled by all those analyses that the threat so many Muslims feels is only about US policies in the Middle East. Fixing that would go a long way to cooling things down, no doubt. But that is not the whole story. It is important to get into the imagination of another civilization to see how we are seen.
The American culture of consumer democracy we inhabit today is a qualitatively different culture than it was when the thoroughly Protestant landed gentry wrote our freedoms into the Constitution as one nation under God or when our troops landed at Normandy to defeat Hitler or even when the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko went to San Francisco in the 1950s to celebrate the miniuscule band of North Beach beatniks growing ﬂowers in bathtubs. Long story short, the radical freedom and avant-garde lifestyle of that very few was democratized during the cultural revolution of the 1960s, then co-opted and commercialized after that by the media-industrial complex.
Above all, the impiety and materialism that is the face of America presented by the mass media—even if the soul of American society itself is a kind of "religio-secular hybrid," as the theologian Martin Marty puts it—is a challenge to a civilization based on faith, a civilization where praying is still more important to most Muslims than shopping (except at the Dubai airport and among the Saudi royal family!).
This is what the Pakistani scholar and diplomat Akbar Ahmed means when he talks about the "media Mongols" being "at the Gates of Baghdad"—a reference to the Mongol hordes in 1258 who shattered the greatest Arab empire in history.
But this time, as Akbar and many Muslims see it, the challenge is not one of armies and territories alone, but worse—a challenge to the very idea of a life centered around faith.
"The age of the media in Muslim society has dawned," Akbar wrote in his seminal book, Postmodernism and Islam. "Muslims need to face up to the fact that there is no escape now, no retreat, no hiding place, from the demon. The more traditional a religious culture in our age of the media, the greater the pressures upon it to yield. The collision between the global civilization emanating from the West and Islam is a straight-out fight between two approaches to the world, two opposed philosophies. One is based in secular materialism, the other in faith."
What some see as the positive messages of the American media can be seen differently from within conservative cultures. The appearance (without getting into a debate with the late Isaiah Berlin here) of value relativism that comes with pluralism, tolerance and diversity can be seen as indifference to values, even nihilism. In short, the disbelief of the infidels. This should not be such a strange perception to grasp, since it is the same as Pope John Paul II's view of postmodern culture as laid out in the encyclical, "The Splendor of Truth." It is also the basis of the "faith gap" or "moral values gap" that emerged strongly in the recent American presidential election.
Let's not forget that, long before Osama bin Laden, we saw this conﬂict in the Salman Rushdie case. Only in a world of global integration where the media have made Rushdie and Khomeini neighbors in the same cultural space could the blasphemous engage in a fatal war of nomenclatures, a clash of faiths and languages. It's the Word—capital W, singular—against words. The novel against Truth—capital T. Rushdie the novelist, like the Western novel itself, blasphemed the Absolute. Khomeini blasphemed the only sacred values of the postmodern West: skepticism, relativism, pluralism and tolerance.
Similarly, as the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk says of young Dutch-Moroccan accused of murdering the ﬁlmaker Theo Van Gogh on an Amsterdam street, "this is a person who does not understand freedom of speech; who is easily offended by any work of art that doesn't speak the only truth he knows and soils the purity he imagines. And it is a person who feels free to kill as an answer."
Indeed, our fragmented, culturally hybrid postmodern society lives by a code of "modus vivendi" that is literally pagan—that is, it accepts all gods and lifestyles in the name of civil peace. Anti-authoritarianism can be seen as ridicule of any rules to live by; the dissing of all authority, from mom to imam.
Even Zbigniew Brzezisnki has wondered whether what he calls our "out of control secularism" and "permissive cornucopia" have undermined America's capacity to be a "systemic model." "Americans must face the fact that our own mass culture intensifies cultural cleavages around the world," Brzezinski says, "because otherwise we are in no position to criticize other cultures for their religious principles or concerning relations between the sexes."
Liberation of women can be seen in conservative cultures as sexual, not gender, freedom. The "material girl" (Madonna) is the very opposite of what conservative Muslim culture prescribes for its young women.
The Turkish sociologist Nilufer Göle in fact argues provocatively that modernity means "the freedom of seduction." Conversely, Masoumeh Ebtekar, the highest-ranking woman in the Iranian government, told me, as she recoiled from my instinctive offer to shake hands, covering up should be considered superfeminism because it frees women from sexual objectification and harassment in the workplace.
Indeed, one wonders what Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shiite leader in Iraq, would have thought had he watched Janet Jackson during the half-time show at last year's Super Bowl. As he sat contemplatively stroking his long white beard in his sparse room in Najaf, he no doubt would have mused it was bad enough that France, the birthplace of the secular West, banned the headscarf for Muslim girls. Worse, the ayatollah might have thought, isn't there an inexorable continuum from that imposition of immodesty to Janet Jackson exposing her breast before several million people?
"Is that what we want for our Islamic democracy?" he might well have asked himself. He would no doubt direct those who want an answer to this question to his Web site (sistani.org) which begins with a stream of blessings upon the wronged, including "Salutations upon the pure women who were paraded without their veils."
Yes, the ayatollah might recall, America is a Christian country, more religious than its decadent European cousins. But while Janet Jackson was invited to perform her stunt at the biggest venue offered by the global mass media, mainstream Hollywood wouldn't touch Mel Gibson's film about the passion of Christ with a 10-foot pole—though the public made it a box office megahit.
The truth is, the ayatollah might conclude, there is indeed a clash of civilizations. Maybe it is not between Islam and Christianity per se, but between the Pope and Madonna. That is, between the socially conservative culture of mainstream Christianity and Islam on the one hand and, on the other, the sensate liberalism of postmodern society that comes across pervasively in the American mass media. It is hard enough for many American parents to take, as the anti-Hollywood moral majority has made plain, no less an ascetic cleric.
All this might lead the great Shiite guardian to shepherd his restless flock toward an illiberal democracy. Getting American troops to leave Iraqi soil may be the first task; but preventing the occupation of the Iraqi soul by American mass culture is the ultimate issue.
In short, America's postmodern mass culture has transcended the boundaries of our traditional foreign policy and military institutions in its impact on the world. For better and worse, that can't be rolled back. But we shouldn't pretend this is not one answer to "why they hate us," or at least see us as a threat, the question so urgently asked after 9/11 but now largely forgotten. Let's not be surprised if Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani reminds us of this once the American liberators hand over power to him through democratic elections.
Whether these two worlds can reconcile with each other without losing their essence is the grand historical question.
Quite obviously, there is a play of contraries here—a socially conservative American majority, itself in conflict with postmodern mass culture, at loggerheads with culturally conservative Islam—that can't go unremarked. Each, in Harold Isaacs' memorable words in Idols of the Tribe, "protecting their pride and power and place from the real or presumed threat of others, who are doing the same."
DOUBLE MESSAGE | America's soft power thus carries a double message. It is a beacon of hope for the huddled masses who risk their lives to get here across the scorching desert from Mexico, on rickety rafts from Haiti or in the holds of rusty cargo ships from China; but it is also a satellite signal that inflames the pious and mobilizes the militant.
Those who want what America has but can't get it are stuck in their hopeless lives under corrupt and repressive regimes. On the other hand, those who don't want it can't escape its ubiquitous presence. Either way there is combustible resentment and anger across the Muslim world that, as V.S. Naipaul sees it, "their misfortune is due to the success of another civilization."
IRAQ WAR AND ABU GHRAIB IMAGES | The other element that has brought down American prestige, and not just in the Arab and Muslim world, is the Iraq war and the torture at Abu Ghraib. For a superpower to act unilaterally—if it is perceived to act ONLY in its own interest as if it were a NORMAL power—is, by definition, to undermine the basis of the consensual hegemony granted to it by others, who expect it to look after their interests as well. Without dwelling on facts familiar to all during the buildup to war, acting in the name of the world but without the world's consent forfeited too much political capital—that is, soft power.
Another superpower did emerge to oppose US policy in the past year: global public opinion. It was led, figuratively, by Nelson Mandela, the ultimate soft power icon of moral leadership, who said early on, "America is a threat to world peace." Its opposition to US policy meant that the political objectives for which our unparalleled military might paved the way could not in the end be met. Soft power checkmated hard power.
Here it might be apt to paraphrase Stalin on the Pope. Some skeptics might ask "how many divisions does global public opinion have?" Answer: It has the divisions so direly needed now but not deployed in Iraq—no divisions from Turkey, from the French, from Spain, from NATO.
Walter Lippmann wrote about phantom public opinion. But in this case we've seen a phantom coalition, where public opinion from Japan to Italy to Britain doesn't stand behind their leaders, constraining the actual capacity of the coalition to shape postwar Iraq. Spain bowed out after the fact of war; the fledgling democracy in Turkey, though championed by the US for membership in Europe, bowed out before, making the US invasion jump through tactical hoops to get into Iraq. It turned out to be only an assumed ally.
In this context, and by contrast, across much of Asia, China has become seen as the stabilizer seeking a "peaceful rise" while the US upsets the apple cart, not only through the war in Iraq but with its anti-terror crusade that is a low priority for most Asians. The lack of consent for going into Iraq, and the daily demonstration of powerlessness since, have made even those Asians suspicious of China's new power concerned about whether they can rely on the US. Tokyo's nationalist governor, Shintaro Ishihara, told me as much in a long conversation last year: Japan, he said, can no longer depend on the US to take care of anyone's interest but its own, so Japan must reopen its nuclear option and be prepared to remilitarize. Just as DeGaulle was sure the US would not sacrifice New York for Paris, so too the new breed of Japanese politician doesn't trust the US not to sacrifice Tokyo in pursuit of other interests.
Paradoxically, by willfully ignoring the interests of others as expressed in their public opinion, the US unilateralist approach to Iraq and other issues has pushed the multipolar world order out of its post-Cold War womb. This is the most profound strategic consequence of the loss of US soft power. America has been demoted from a hegemon to a preponderant power—by the public opinion of its own allies!
Condi Rice once argued to me that the French call for a multipolar world was the rhetoric of an adversary, not an ally, especially when proclaimed at summits in Beijing and Moscow. The rhetoric is now on its way to realization. In this respect, the Iraq war has had a demonstration effect, but not the one Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney envisioned.
Rather than demonstrate American power it has demonstrated the limits to American power. Qian Qichen, China's former foreign minister, has summed up the lesson as most of the world sees it: "The 21st Century is not the 'American Century.' That does not mean the US does not want the dream. It means it is incapable of realizing the goal."
As Joe Nye writes in his book Soft Power, "Politics in an information age may ultimately be about whose story wins." Much of America's winning story which accounted for it being a soft superpower—human rights, the rule of law, an historic liberator instead of occupier—was further undercut by the images of humiliation, torture and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.
Certain images so iconify a moment in history they are impossible to erase. Germans knocking down the Berlin Wall piece by piece with sledge hammers is one. The lone individual standing down a Chinese tank near Tiananmen Square is another. On the ignoble side, now there are the images of Abu Ghraib.
The further the truth of the image is from a false claim, the deeper and more enduring the damage. Whereas American softpower undermined Soviet hard power nearly 15 years ago, here American hard power undermined its own soft power. As Brezezinski argued recently: "In our entire history as a nation, world opinion has never been as hostile toward the US as it is today."
The hearts and minds once won are now being lost. And there are real costs.
Just two examples to illustrate the case. After the Abu Ghraib images emerged, I asked Boutros Boutros-Ghali about the impact in the Arab world and beyond. First, of course, he said these photos were a gift to Al Qaeda recruiters. Second, he said, "they damage the role of organizations all around the world that deal with the protection of human rights and law in the time of war. I am the president of the Egyptian Commission on Human Rights, " he told me. "It will be difficult for me now to say, 'Look, the international community is demanding that we clean up the human rights situation in the Arab world.' Their response now is: 'The superpower is not respecting human rights in Iraq or Guantanamo. So the pressure is off...governments all over the world will say that security is more important than the protection of human rights.'"
Similarly, Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian lawyer who won the Nobel Peace prize last year, told me after Abu Ghraib, "America was once recognized as the standard of human rights everywhere...but now, I see these pictures from Iraq, and I ask myself, 'What has happened to American civilization?'" She recounted how, during all her dark years struggling against the ayatollahs for human rights, Eleanor Roosevelt and the UN Human Rights charter she helped draft were her inspiration. "Of all the apologies in order by America's current leaders," Ebadi said, "one of the most important is an apology to the spirit of Mrs. Roosevelt."
The figures on America's image in the Arab world are well known, with the positives falling below 6 percent in our closest Arab political ally in the region, Egypt. Even the Bosnian Muslims, whom the US saved from genocide and is the greatest provider of development aid, share the attitudes of the Arab world. A recent Marshall Fund poll shows 60 percent of Europeans want more independence from the United States. Marketing studies show that brands with too close an American tie—Marlboro cigarettes, American Express, Coca-Cola, McDonalds—are facing market share losses.
Beyond this, Abu Ghraib, damaged the credibility of the handful of anti-antiAmerican intellectuals in Europe—namely Bernard Henri Levy, Andre Glucksmann and Jean Francois Revel. Levy, for example, argued that, even if people didn't want THIS war against Iraq, they had to understand that America was the historic champion of universal human rights and must be stood with when it topples dictators. Today, they are barely holding their anti-anti-American line in public debate, arguing that American power is a draw. US troops may have acted brutally like the French in Algeria, but at least Seymour Hersh exposed it all.
RECOVERING SOFT POWER | Rebuilding soft power is a far more difficult task than hard- power rearmament. The latter only takes the political will of one side; rebuilding soft power means the long march to reestablish credibility, win hearts and minds once won and lost again—a trust issue—and building consensus over a worldview among others.
It is true that the US rebuilt its fairly-shattered credibility once before, after the Vietnam War. That was possible then because the world order remained frozen in Cold War bipolarity. This time, the world will not stand still during another four years of arrogance and unilateralism that has gone from being an administration to an American policy since its endorsement by 60 million voters in the last election.
With the advent of service outsourcing and now that China has entered the WTO and shifted the global balance of economic power, globalization is more and more a two-way street. The global economy is flattening into an ever more level playing field. There is thus no guarantee where US economic might will stand two or three decades hence, and what that might mean to the appeal of America's opportunity society. America's preeminent status in higher education is also coming under challenge by China and Europe. Even on the military front, Paul Kennedy has returned to his thesis of imperial overstretch, pointing out that, one year into the war, the US military has had to resort to a "covert draft" of extended duty for the reserves and National Guard and pulling troops back from the North Asian hotspot, Korea.
To be sure, there is no countercreed to supplant American soft power yet on the horizon, though there are important examples of the emergence of non-hegemonic soft power. For example, just as Japan's rise vis-a-vis the West once inspired other Asians from Taiwan to Malaysia to compete with the West, suspicion over China's rise has given way to appreciation of its new economic clout from Seoul to Bangkok to Sydney. In Korea these days, the rage among students is to learn Chinese, not English. Last year, more Indonesians obtained visas to study in China than in the US. With the wide success of such Chinese films as Hero one wonders if the narrative they carry of the individual immersed in society honoring his or her duties instead of floating free like an elementary particle might one day challenge the heretofore more attractive narrative of American film.
As Timothy Garton Ash has also pointed out, an expanding European Union has broad soft-power appeal to those around it.
MORE MIGHT, LESS POWER | American soft power has lost its luster, though there is not another hegemonic challenger. Real diplomacy—for example getting back on the road to Middle East peace through Jerusalem instead of through Baghdad—can help reburnish that lost power. So could a successful election and stabilization in Iraq. Public diplomacy, however, is a clueless response in the reestablishment of soft power because those who have withdrawn from the American consensus have done so for real policy reasons, or because the America they see through our globally projected media is no longer their model.
In practical terms, this means that the legitimacy of American action in the world today can no longer be assumed. It must be earned each and every time for the forseeable future. Without doubt, America's light has been dimmed. Not only are we not safer since the war in Iraq. For all our might, we are also less powerful.