Much has been made of soft power – the promotion of American culture, values and standard of living as tools for advancing our interests, even to the point of perhaps influencing the internal dynamics of rogue regimes. As the argument goes – if our adversaries and the people they control could be exposed to our way of life, they just might change their ways and become like us.
Two recent events speak to the evidence of American soft power in the world. The Disney Corporation just announced that it has reached an agreement with the Chinese to open up a $ 4 billion Disneyland outside of Shanghai. Although there is a Disneyland in Hong Kong, most Chinese cannot travel to see Mickey and Donald and Snow White without travel permits. By placing a new Disneyland in a more centrally located site and easing travel restrictions, the new middle class of China will be able to enter the dream world of American cartoons.
Then there is the new polling data from an outfit called Eurodata TV Worldwide, which asked viewers in 66 countries what were their most popular television shows. Not surprisingly, the United States led the way – Fox’s quirky medical show House was the top drama, Desperate Housewives from fictional Wisteria Place won in the comedy category and the Bold and the Beautiful topped the soap opera category.
I guess as proud Americans we should all be happy that Disney characters are a big hit in communist China and the world is watching our mindless television shows, but I wonder whether these examples of our popular culture, and therefore our soft power, have the ability to remake authoritarian governments in our image or to advance our way of life around the world?
If we as a nation are about promoting open elections, the rule of law, human rights, personal freedom and equality, then I guess I don’t see a connection between Disney and democracy or how the morally challenged gals on Desperate Housewives advance our most cherished values. If anything Disney and popular television shows reenforce the view that America is really about escaping reality and embracing infidelity.
Disney in China and popular television shows may help to portray the United States as filled with people who are happy, contented, playful, well-off, and gorgeous, but of course this is pure fantasy ( much like Disneyland). If anything, such images do send a subconscious message to the people of the world that there is something else out there besides abject poverty, brutal control, drab lifestyles and little hope. I guess that may be the real value of our soft power – not stimulating governmental change, but creating a dream.
So three cheers for American soft power. I am not sure that we are winning over our adversaries or changing governmental power, but the world sure does love our pop culture and our mindless stuff.