The Tragicomedy of US Soft Power: Exporting Banality to Korea (1)


The term soft power seems to have a acquired a good amount of play in the last few years. Nye of course is the major exponent, but the EU openly uses the term and the Obama people seem to have picked up it too. (The IR scholar in me, of course, is green with envy over the extra-academic success of Nye’s work; that is how you get the real dollars, cool gigs, and policy relevance in this field. And Nye is a great scholar to boot. Very nice.)

Basically, the soft power argument is: hard power coercion is expensive. Militaries costs money, violence destroys lives and economies. Isn’t it much better if we re-make others ideologically to want what we want? This is actually a social constructivist, 3rd face of power argument. If we can reshape their preferences, then our interests will align, not collide. So the US should broadcast its exciting, fun, liberal-democratic, modernist, universalist cultural tropes to the world. Others will see the attractions, and a secret lifestyle yearning will arise. Frictions with the allies will decline as they ‘Americanize.’ And if those living in repressive authoritarian or traditional societies can pick up this stuff up too (and it is awfully hard to be isolated in the globalized world), then there will be a slow grassroots revolution of rising expectations that pressure the state’s elites to soften toward the US. My own sense is this theoretic logic is basically correct.

Consequences from this argument include:

1. Liberals like soft power, because it suggests it might be substitute for hard power (especially attractive if you don’t want to pay for a military). Hence one can be a ‘civilian superpower’ (EU, Japan). NK, the Georgian war, 9/11, etc. have disproved this idea, but the EU doesn’t seem to have gotten the message.

2. Diplomats and academics like soft power. a) It means that diplomacy isn’t just gabbing, but can serve a national security purpose (trying to open closed states so that western/American culture can get in), and it keep things like Voice of America and al-Arabiya alive. b) Maybe our academic work means something! Someone on the other side might read it and be influenced by it, and then maybe bring those new preferences to the state. This is the idea that Gorby’s reformers read US IR, realized that we weren’t so bad and didn’t want to invade the SU, and therefore winding down the Cold War would not destroy the USSR.

3. American Conservatives like it because it lionizes the US way-of-life as the envy of everyone else and confirms that immovable and deeply-held US belief that everyone else really, secretly, in their heart-of-hearts wishes they were like us. (They they just won’t admit it to our faces – those damn French.)  Specifically, it reinforces post-Cold War liberal-democratic triumphalism. There’s a ‘we-won-the-Cold-War-and-that’s-a-helluva-good-thing’ feel to it that American exceptionalists and nationalists (basically, most of the country) just love. It’s pretty cool when an esteemed liberal academic tells you that we really are the last best hope for mankind living in a city on the hill in the greatest country on earth at the end of history.

4. There is a nice inevitability to soft power’s triumph over tyranny. As T Friedman would say, closed systems fall behind rapidly, because technology improves and diffusion ensures wide adoption. This puts authoritarian systems in a terrible dilemma. Opening up risks exposure to soft power forces like the influx of West German or SK TV shows. But perpetual closure means decay and irrelevance. Cuba and NK opted for decay. The USSR tried opening, but so late, that it blew up. The PRC too is trying opening, but no ones knows if it can avoid a Velvet Revolution-style popular revolt. And there does seem to be growing empirical evidence that soft power can work in long ideologcal stalemates. Liberals have generally argued that the CW ended not because Reagan spent the SU into the round, but because the Helsinki accords opened a chink in the Iron Curtain, through which flowed lots of liberalism. Or think about the painful opening of NK civil society and growing paranoia of the DPRK because of the flood of SK VHS from China after the introduction of DVDs in SK in the 1990s. Consider also the slow burn of the youth movement in Iran, desperate to connect to modernity.

5, But no one seems to pay much attention to a) the internal colonialist dimension of soft power, or b) the possibility of blowback from those who resist. 

a. I agree that it is cheaper for us to get our way if ‘they’ are like ‘us.’ (I think Nye is correct.) But isn’t it culturally imperialist to make them like us and to baldly say that this is a US foreign policy goal? Should they be like us? Do they want to be? Shouldn’t we care about that? It is astonishing hubris and arrogance to say we should try ‘remake’ others to be like us. That’s Americanism on steroids. And just how much Americanism do we want them to share? How far down should this Americanization go? Is it enough that they are liberal, democratic and capitalist, or do they have to share other US values like individualism, wide social tolerance of minorities, protestantized religiosity, consumerism, sports, food, Pimp My Ride, etc, etc? Just how totalist is this project? Whenever I hear liberals praise soft power, I always think of 1) the song “America, F— Yeah!” from Team America: World Police, and 2) that colonel in Full Metal Jacket who says, ‘we are fighting this war, because inside every gook there is an American trying to get out.’ How different is the logic?

b. Also, what if they really actually don’t want to be like us (contrary to point 3 above)? Won’t there be blowback? I am thinking here of the Arab-Muslim Middle East and the Islamic revival ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to al Qaeda. Remember that Sayyad Qutb went to the US and came home convinced that the Middle East should absolutely NOT become like the US. The intellectual descent from Qutb to bin Laden is very clear. If the Iranians set up the ‘Voice of Shiite Islam’ in Toronto and beamed it into the US with declared intent of converting Americans in order to improve US-Iranian relations, we would flip out. Foreingers will be a lot more recpetive to American cultural inputs if those inputs seem casually available and selected by the conusmer. If transmission of our lifestyle looks like a brainwashing plot to reduce friction to US power in the world, they will be far more resistant. And shouldn’t they be?

Next, I want to look at the South Korean case as a study of US soft power.

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2 thoughts on “The Tragicomedy of US Soft Power: Exporting Banality to Korea (1)

  1. Pingback: The Olympics are a Moral Equivalent of War « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

  2. Pingback: There’s No US-Israel ‘Crisis’ — It’s just Regular Old Alliance Politics « Asian Security & US Politics Blog

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