The End of the Soft-Power Delusion

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan under way in the South China Sea, August 2018. (Mass Communication Specialist Second Class Kaila V. Peters/US Navy)

After decades of wishful thinking, it’s finally become clear that cultural influence is no substitute for economic and military strength in foreign policy.

On the night of October 2, 2019, Comedy Central broadcast the South Park episode “Band in China,” a devastating satire of the way Beijing has used access to the Chinese market to shape how the U.S. entertainment industry operates. The plot involves one of the main characters’ going to China to try and sell marijuana, getting arrested, and being rescued by Mickey Mouse and the Disney corporation, whose subservience to China is emphasized. Disney agrees to kill Winnie the Pooh, supposedly for resembling the Chinese leader, in exchange for opening up the Chinese pot market. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., some of the other main characters are trying to make a movie while being supervised and censored by the Chinese military.

“Band in China” made it clear that Hollywood’s soft power was no match for Beijing’s economic hard power. Indeed, the American entertainment industry has failed to have any cultural influence on China, while China has used its hard power to neutralize the influence of American culture.

After the episode’s release, the idea that somehow soft power — which is to say, cultural influence — can be used to decisively change the behavior of foreign nations is, or should be, dead and buried. Soft power, when it does exist, flows directly from hard power. In the case of China, the belief that exposure to U.S. cultural products would help soften and democratize the country has been proven utterly false. In fact, as “Band in China” showed, it has been the Chinese Communists who’ve influenced America.

In the mid 1990s, the idea that somehow soft power, by itself, would shape the post-Cold War world began to take hold. It emerged, naturally enough, from American universities, where an academic elite was all too happy to imagine that its influence on the intellectual and cultural landscape would correct the ugly and vulgar reality of military and economic strength that had, up to now, shaped human history.

Some European leaders insisted that Brussels would become the capital city of a new “Soft Power Superpower,” the EU. They honestly believed that their continent’s culture, lifestyle, and environmental activism would eventually eclipse American hard power. The fact that the Balkan wars of the 1990s could only be resolved with the help of the U.S. armed forces did little to change their attitude.

Boris Johnson’s victory this month in a U.K. election that was mostly about leaving the EU is yet another sign that European soft power is nowhere near as attractive as it once seemed. Across the English Channel, French president Emmanuel Macron has been desperately and unsuccessfully trying to convince his fellow EU leaders to turn “Europe” into a hard military superpower. He seems to have given up on the attempt to create a new soft empire.

Meanwhile, in Asia, it looked like China was slowly but surely gaining the kind of soft power that flows directly from hard power. For example, Tibet’s Dalai Lama had for years been a major thorn in Beijing’s side. His popularity in Hollywood and elsewhere constantly reminded people of the status of Tibet as a conquered, occupied nation. His attractive demeanor and his distinctive robes made him instantly recognizable to millions throughout the world. In many ways he embodied soft power.

But if soft power were as effective a tool of statecraft as its advocates claimed, no doubt Tibet would have gained some measure of autonomy by now. Instead, China has strengthened its control and the Dalai Lama himself has become, at best, a minor and fading celebrity. His status was perfectly symbolized by the picture of him leaving the Obama White House through a garbage-strewn back alley. China’s hard power had defeated his soft power decisively.

Elsewhere, Greta Thunberg and her team have recently failed to influence the COP 25 Climate Change Conference in Madrid. This shows how even the best-planned attempts to use soft power to create a sense of mass panic around an issue can be ignored. After so many decades of environmentally driven panics, few of which turned out to be justified, people have learned to dismiss such campaigns and to go on eating meat, driving cars, and adapting to the petty and annoying ukases of the politically powerful green aristocracy. Banning plastic straws is not really much of a way to show off one’s ability to mold the course of human history.

Instead, hard power is making a comeback. Neither China nor the U.S. believes that cultural influence can substitute for economic or military strength. Soft power in various forms will never really go away, but has been proven not to be a decisive force in world politics. Under the circumstances, it seems fitting that a cartoon satire ultimately drove home the point.

Taylor Dinerman is the author of Subway Lists and Other Writings from the iPhone Era.

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