congress / reading room

Culture war

Edwin Bendyk

 “Music is the weapon of the future,” Fela Anikulape Kuti, the Nigerian father of afrobeat used to say. Today, that statement could easily be broadened into: “Culture is the weapon of the 21st century.”

In Joseph S. Nye’s book, “Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics”, there is the following passage: “If you can make others marvel at your ideas and desire what you yourself want, then you will not need to use a carrot and a stick to make people go in the direction you want them to. Seduction is always more effective than force...” Nye, an American political scientist, reminded us of his quite old theory of power in international relations in 2004.

The image of the United States suffered greatly in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. President George W. Bush and his acolytes believed that the goals of their administration can be achieved by hard power. However, it quickly became apparent that despite the greatest defense spending, greater than the spending of all other countries combined, military might is simply insufficient in the modern world. Incompetent application of hard power leads to a significant decline in soft power, which is the ability to influence others without resorting to physical violence.

Soft power is very whimsical; the French learned that lesson the hard way during the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia. For years, one of the pillars of French foreign policy was maintaining special relationships with countries of the Francophonie, that is societies whose cultural space was shaped mostly by the French language and culture. Francophonie is a very capacious concept, it includes not only former colonies but also countries where French influence was important for historical reasons.

In the 75 countries of the Francophonie, the French include Poland, Romania, Albania and Macedonia. That’s the real extent of soft power.

The entire charm of Sweet France crumbled when it became known that the authorities in Paris backed the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia almost to its last hours. Moreover, the support was not limited to diplomatic assistance, it also meant sharing “intelligence with regards to internal security” and export of tear gas grenades. It’s hard to imagine a greater discrepancy than the one between this reality and the universalist messages of the Francophonie, preaching French support for anyone fighting for the universal right to personal freedom and democracy.

Soft Power 2.0

Instead of calling the Americans and the French hypocrites, we should rather engage in cold dispassionate analysis and follow Joseph Nye’s thoughts. Soft power and its elements (out of which cultural attractiveness is the most important) is not a goal in itself but a mean to attain political goals. To avoid any misunderstandings, in his newest book, “The Future of Power,” Nye introduced the concept of “smart power.” Smart power is skillful and complementary use of both “hard” as well as “soft” power. Moreover, in this instance both are inextricably intertwined.

We could say that both forms of power are locked in a dialectic relationship. Force itself is not enough for the powerful to gain respect and love. Russia learned that lesson the hard way during its clash with Georgia in 2008. Russia did win from a military point of view, but it also reclaimed the mantle of a superpower that does not shy away from violence in the pursuit of its imperialistic goals. Even the Chinese frowned upon such blatant abuse of sovereignty. Unfortunately, the attractiveness of culture and idea is insufficient as evidenced the European Union’s failure at the 2009 UN Summit on Climate Change in Copenhagen.

The summit was supposed to showcase Europe’s soft power capabilities. The Old World wanted to show that ideas of balanced development and green industrial revolution are no less attractive and universal than the universalist ideas of the Enlightenment. However, without cannons (and in this case, money) to back up the export of ideas, Europe was pushed out to the sidelines of history by younger, less subtle players. The final document of the summit, the Copenhagen Accord, was prepared without the input of the European Union.

The concept of smart power, an updated version of soft power (Nye sometimes calls it soft power 2.0) aims to use certain “soft” resources for achieving political goals.

Culture becomes a tool of direct action as well as grounds for legitimization of other, harder resources.

In December of 2009, many American corporations became victims of an Internet attack perpetrated by Chinese hackers affiliated with the authorities, Americans were the first to condemn it as an act of cyberwarfare. The Americans’ symbolic legitimization was so strong that they were not afraid of any similar condemnations coming from the Chinese, even though the latter are also victims of similar intrusions acted out by US-affiliated infiltrators.

Confucius versus Avatar

The Chinese are aware that Americans are still unsurpassed leaders when it comes to soft power. The triumphal march of “Avatar” through the cinemas of the world, including those in the Middle Kingdom, was a great illustration of that asymmetry. The Chinese authorities decided to limit the run of James Cameron’s movie, citing the need to make place for a biopic of Confucius. The people’s uproar over that decision was so great that the authorities relented and “Avatar” went back to cinemas.

This symbolic defeat only empowered the Chinese politicians, who since 2007 have been including soft power means in their strategic toolkit. The most important of these are the Confucius Institutes, established by the hundreds across the world and backed by huge sums of money. They are to promote Chinese culture and language and familiarize the public with the values of the Chinese social and developmental model, which is supposed to be a viable socialist alternative to liberal capitalism.

Five years ago, an idea such as this would be considered a pipe dream at best, like Chavez’s 21st Century Socialism. But the 2008 economic crisis changed much, and the way that China handled the downturn only increased the attractiveness of the Chinese model. “The Economist” noticed at the beginning of 2010 that not only developing countries look up to China, but even American businessmen are starting to consider it a place where business is done quickly and efficiently. Even though Confucius lost to “Avatar” in his own country that does not necessarily mean that he will not win outside China’s borders. What factors will decide the outcome of this confrontation?

One of the answers is provided by Olivier Poivre D’Arvor, a French diplomat and director of France Culture. In the book “Bug Made in France ou L’histoire d’une capitulation culturelle” he dramatically describes the way that France, and even Europe altogether, has already lost that fight – the Old Continent has not grasped that the idiom of culture as soft power has changed. The vision of strong and attractive culture, cultivated by Francois Mitterand and his incredibly skilled minister of culture, Jack Lang, is no longer viable. Building the Grand Louvre, the biggest museum in the world, is a swell idea, but it’s nothing compared to the things Steve Jobs does with Apple, Larry Page and Sergey Brin do with Google or even Jimbo Wales does with Wikipedia.

Universalism is no longer spread through codes of high culture, but as the French observer of the global scene Frederic Martel writes, they are spread through popcultural mainstream. In this area, Europe has failed completely and utterly.

The funds allocated by the Union for all things cultural is not even equal to the sum that James Cameron received to produce “Avatar.” Instead of interpreting that lesson correctly, Europe went on the defensive, creating provincial projects and trying to shelter its cultural space with legal instruments that only undermine creativity. The recent attempts at creating legislation that would police the Internet and enable the authorities to cut off selected users from the net are an excellent illustration of the aforementioned tendencies.

Caught in the Net

Establishing footholds in the techno-popcultural mainstream is the most important effect of soft power at work. The fight has definite economic and strategic dimensions. According to the International Intellectual Property Alliance report for 2003-2007 (just before the crisis started), copyright industries were the biggest segment of the American economy. Copyright industries are all the sectors of the economy that generate economic value through copyright usage. The value of this segment has reached 1,5 trillion dollars in 2007 and the value of copyright exports reached 126 billion dollars. However, the most important fact cited in the report was that this segment was responsible for more than 40% of the increase in American GDP in the analyzed timeframe.

Cultural soft power is becoming hard, economic power. Martel further describes that this transformation spurred other economies to partake in the fight for the souls and wallets of consumers, namely Brazil, India and China. When in January of 2010 Hillary Clinton gave a speech at the Newseum, the museum of the press in Washington (some hailed it as the proclamation of Operation Internet Freedom), the fight ascended to the strategic level.

Internet is the quintessential product of technology and the culture of freedom, and the key tool of soft power in the 21st century.

Just look at the role that Twitter played in the Moldovan revolution or the Green Revolution in Iran. Marshall McLuhan wrote that “the medium is the message.” Internet is freedom in its purest form. Unfortunately, the optimism of January 2010 dissolved in the face of the complex reality of the following months. Let us not forget that soft power is still power, thus not a goal in itself but only a tool that helps achieve political goals. Evgeny Morozov in his book, “The Net Delusion,” proves that Operation Internet Freedom was a de facto failure. The regimes in China, Russia and the Arab countries treated Clinton’s speech as exceeding the discrete limits of soft power and a declaration of cyberwar. In return, they demonstrated that the Internet can be used to oppress people just as well as it can be used to set them free.

The mainstream, popcultural code is dominant in the worldwide networks of the Internet. This code can be used in various soft power implementations. On one hand, we see the development of pop-cosmopolitism, as described by Henry Jenkins, a global remix culture that consumes the products of all cultures active on the Internet, thus creating a common resource. On the other hand, as evidenced by Morozov, we see the rise of pop-nationalism and pop-fundamentalism. Internet and digital popculture seem to be a very efficient tool for integrating hate groups and promoting xenophobia. Games available on the Internet can be used to foster the ideas of cooperation in the Middle East, or by extremists to spread their messages of hate.

Translated by Jan SzelÄ…giewicz