America and Peer Pressure

Swift was an amazingly witty man, and his book Gulliver’s Travels was actually a satire on European society of the time. Gulliver visited many places, and saw many things. In one nation the citizens were talking horses, who used humans as draft animals. In another nation, all the humans were giants. But perhaps because there’s some degree of fantasy fulfillment involved, the one image all of us retain is Lilliput, where it was Gulliver who was the giant, and where the Lilliputians saw his great size as a threat (as indeed it could have been) and thus attempted to restrain him with thousands of tiny ropes.

A few days ago, Shawn sent me a link to the transcript of a speech given in Sydney on August 5 by Josef Joffe, titled Gulliver Unbound: Can America Rule the World?
Joffe is described as being ” the Publisher-Editor of Die Zeit and Contributing Editor to Time magazine. His most recent book was The Future of International Relations: The Great Powers.” This was the annual “John Bonython Lecture” sponsored by an institution in Australia called The Centre for Independent Studies, which appears to have a more-or-less (small-l) libertarian agenda. As I look at the site frontpage I see that they just sponsored a forum and invited Victor Davis Hanson to participate in it. All of which suggests that this isn’t a group prone to think of the US in Chomskyian terms.

I was really quite impressed by the first half of Joffe’s speech. It lays out the current international situation quite clearly and reasonably fairly, and it is uncharacteristically frank for a European.

There are a few minor factual mistakes.

First, unlike Rome et al., we can intervene-without the help of allies-anywhere in the world, and almost in real-time, as those B-52 bombers demonstrated that rose in Missouri, dropped their bomb load over Afghanistan and then returned home, all in one fell swoop. Bases, as during the Second Iraq War, are useful and important, but not vital, as the closure of Turkey to the passage of American troops demonstrated earlier this year. No other power could ever project so much might so far so fast and so devastatingly.

Actually, they were B-2’s rather than B-52’s, and the only reason they were able to reach Afghanistan was that they were met several times by air tankers flying from local airbases along their flightpath. They cannot carry enough fuel for a trip that long. But all that means is that he chose a very bad example to demonstrate a point which is nonetheless totally correct: The US has an unprecedented ability to project huge amounts of military power of many kinds almost anywhere we want, without needing help from anyone else.

He correctly points out that one of our biggest long-term advantages is the brain-drain, something I have also talked about. He also talks about the fact that American culture is popular elsewhere to a great extent because it is a hybrid of the world’s cultures.

It was pleasing to see a high-profile European intellectual who doesn’t seem to be paranoid about the US, and who acknowledges that the US doesn’t generally seek to conquer other nations.

First, America irks and domineers, but it does not conquer. It tries to call the shots and bend the rules, but it does not go to war for land and glory. Maybe, America was simply lucky. Its ’empire’ was at home, between the Appalachians and the Pacific, and its enemies-Indians and Mexicans-easily bested. The last time the US actually did conquer was in the Philippines and Cuba a hundred years ago.

So in a sense his basic question given in the title of the speech is irrelevant. Given that the US doesn’t want to “rule the world”, does it really matter whether we are actually capable of doing so?

Yes, actually, it does matter. The competition for world rulership isn’t really a political struggle, and it isn’t a matter of deliberate choice. He correctly identifies the true source of American power in the world:

Nonetheless, Mr. Big is no pussycat, and he does throw his weight around. Why is it so hard to balance against him?

My answer: Counter-aggregations do not deal very well with the postmodern nature of power. Let’s make no mistake about it. ‘Hard’ power (men and missiles, guns and ships) still counts. It remains the ultimate, because existential, currency of power. But on the day-to-day transaction level, ‘soft power’ is the more interesting coinage. It is ‘less coercive and less tangible’. It grows out of ‘the attraction of one’s ideas. It has to do with ‘agenda setting’, with ‘ideology’ and ‘institutions’, and with holding out big prizes for cooperation, such as the vastness and sophistication of one’s market.

‘Soft power’ is cultural-economic power, and very different from its military kin. The US has the most sophisticated army in the world. But it is in a class of its own in the soft-power game. On that table, none of the others can match America’s pile of chips; it is American books and movies, universities and research labs, American tastes high and low that predominate in the global market. This type of power-a culture that radiates outward and a market that draws inward-rests on pull, not on push; on acceptance, not on imposition. Nor do the many outweigh the one. In this arena, Europe, Japan, China and Russia cannot meaningfully ‘gang up’ on the US like in an alliance of yore. All of their movie studios together could not break Hollywood’s hold because if size mattered, India, with the largest movie output in the world, would rule the roost. Nor could all their universities together dethrone Harvard and Stanford. For sheer numbers do not lure the best and the brightest from abroad who keep adding to the competitive advantage of America’s top universities.

Against soft power, aggregation does not work. How does one contain power that flows not from coercion but seduction? Might it work in the economic sphere? There is always the option of trading blocs-cum-protectionism. But would Europe (or China or Japan) forego the American market for the Russian one? Or would Europe seek solace in its vast internal market alone? If so, it would forgo the competitive pressures and the diffusion of technology that global markets provide. The future is mapped out by DaimlerChrysler, not by a latter-day ‘European Co-Prosperity Sphere’. This is where the game has changed most profoundly. Its rivals would rather deal with America’s ‘soft power’ by competition and imitation because the costs of economic warfare are too high-provided, of course, that strategic threats do not re-emerge. To best Gulliver, Europe et. al. must do their work-out at home.

What he refers to as hard power is the kind of power that governments have traditionally wielded. It is concentrated power. Armies and navies and planes and missiles are deliberately designed and deliberately acquired and deliberately used to advance the interests of that government (and sometimes, the nation it rules). This is conscious power.

But what he refers to as soft power is not like that. It’s unconscious. The American predominance in these areas didn’t happen as part of a deliberate plan to somehow spread our influence around the world; it’s just something that happened. It’s a manifestation of what we are and what we do here in the US, which turns out to be popular elsewhere, but our government didn’t deliberately purchase it for that reason, and can’t really direct it. No one specifically does any of those things as part of some sort of national imperialist plan to conquer and rule the world.

Hollywood movies are very popular in the world, but moviemakers don’t make movies with an eye to the world market in hopes of spreading American ideals elsewhere. Indeed, there’s every reason to believe that much of the negative and mistaken impression people elsewhere have of us comes from our own movies, which actually make us look worse than we are.

I don’t think Hollywood producers even think in those terms. They’re not cultural evangelists or imperialists, they’re just interested in making money. They produce the films that they think people will be willing to pay to watch, and the more the better.

The government of the US does have the ability to use access to American markets as a diplomatic tool, but by and large it isn’t done very commonly, except for the occasional punitive tariff. The primary American diplomatic goal in that regard for the last few decades has been to try to open all the markets of the world including our own and to eliminate protectionist barriers to trade.

And as far as most of the rest of the cultural power of the nation, it’s either protected by the Constitution from government meddling or it’s so diffuse as to be beyond any ability of central control.

One of the reasons why American culture and ideals are popular in the world is that they represent the ideals of the lowest classes. What we think of as “culture” historically in most of the world is the culture of the aristocracy and the wealthy bourgeois and upper classes in general. In most of the world, produced culture was a luxury, and only the rich were able to pay for it, so it was produced to their tastes. The great classical music of the German speaking nations, great composers such as Bach and Brahms, arose and prospered because they were financed by the aristocrats (sometimes indirectly through the Church). What we think of as “Chinese Cooking”, in particular Mandarin style, was developed for the banquets of the rich. There may be some contributions by the hoi polloi perhaps in the form of folk tales, but most of it comes from the top.

But the aspects of American culture which have become so popular around the world come from the culture of the lower classes. America is made of Europe’s huddled masses who came here wanting little more than an opportunity to work hard, make a good living, raise kids and hope the kids would do even better, and generally to be left alone while doing all of that. That taps into a deep yearning I think everyone feels, no matter where they live. We offer that possibility, and we show what can happen when the masses are unleashed. What we create culturally is often viewed as unsophisticated and “low” by sophisticates elsewhere, who sniff at it. But that’s exactly why it’s popular with the masses. We’re peasants who made good, and we’re talking to the peasants elsewhere, who like what they see.

But the biggest reason why American culture and ideals are popular is that the world has the opportunity to actually see what we’re doing. In fact, it no longer can avoid doing so. It’s entirely possible that the culture of the Roman empire (which he uses as a historical analogy) might have had that kind of impact elsewhere, but we’ll never know because there was no way for people outside the empire to really learn much about it.

It is modern transportation and communication technology which really makes the difference, and most of that was developed in the US; either outright invented by us, or made commercially feasible and common. It is radio and television and the movies and jet airliners and the Internet which are spreading our culture to the world. We created all of those; we developed them and made them big business and made them common and cheap. One would be hard pressed to imagine weapons more suited for a war of cultural conquest; they’re the cultural equivalent of the wizard-weapons we buy for our military.

But they weren’t actually developed for that purpose; they didn’t really have any kind of purpose at all except for making money. Most of them we developed for internal use and then started selling overseas when the demand was recognized. All of them emerged; none was planned, and none was ever really controlled. They were planned in the sense of involving corporate investment and marketing strategy, but they weren’t planned as weapons for use in a culture war.

We may well be flooding our culture into the world, via communications technologies we created, but it isn’t part of any kind of deliberate campaign of cultural colonization or conquest. All of that is a side effect. It’s like Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”; it’s an emergent result that no one predicted and no one intended.

It isn’t something we are deliberately doing, it’s just a result of what we are.

And that’s one of the reasons why the governments of other nations have a hard time fighting against it, if they decide they need to. It isn’t just that we didn’t do this deliberately; it’s that it isn’t something you can do deliberately. It has been as successful as it has been to a great extent because it wasn’t deliberate. Deliberation in this kind of thing slows the process, constrains it, and makes the result feeble and uninteresting and thus uncompetitive.

Joffe ends by saying that there actually is a way to restrain Gulliver, but I don’t find his arguments convincing. He refers to it as “soft balancing”. He says that it’s already going on, which is true, and that it’s having an effect, a point on which I don’t really agree. It’s having an effect, but not the one he thinks it is.

Nonetheless, he continues to be uncharacteristically blunt and refreshingly honest:

What is ‘soft balancing?’ The best example is the run-up to the Second Iraq War when a trio of lesser power-France, Germany and Russia-all ‘ganged up’ on No. 1 diplomatically in their effort to stop the Anglo-American move against Saddam Hussein. What was their purpose? To save Saddam Hussein? No, of course not. It was to contain and constrain American power, now liberated from the ropes of bipolarity.

And why not? Assume this American victory, swift as it turned out to be, is also sustainable-that it intimidates rather than inflames Arabs and Iranians, relieves dependence on dangerous clients such as Saudi-Arabia and Egypt, and finally loosens up the dysfunctionalities of Arab political culture that spawned Al Qaida. Such an outcome will finally consecrate the US as arbiter over the Middle East, over its oil and politics. This prospect can hardly enthuse the lesser players, for it would certify what is already the case de facto: the global primacy of the United States. So it should not come as a surprise that America’s rivals and quondam allies would try to balance against No. 1 by enmeshing him in the ropes of institutional dependence, that is, the UN Security Council.

It is not at all a surprise that they felt that way, but it’s pleasing to see a European intellectual clearly state that as a practical matter France was acting as a political enemy in the UN.

This was a classic instance of ‘soft balancing’ against No. 1-spawned by the profound shock to the international equilibrium caused by the demise of No. 2, the Soviet Union. Another kind of balancing, let’s call it ‘surreptitious balancing’, had begun much earlier, in the mid-1990s, when the US regularly found itself alone and on the other side of such issues as the ABM Treaty or the International Criminal Court.

Au fond, all of these duels were not about principle, but power. If the United States wanted to scratch the ABM Treaty in favor of Missile Defense, Europe, China and Russia sought to uphold it on the sound assumption that a better defense makes for a better offense, hence for richer US military options than under conditions of vulnerability. And so with the International Criminal Court (ICC). In the end, even the Clinton team correctly understood the underlying thrust of the ICC. Claiming the right to pass judgment on military interventions by prosecuting malfeasants ex post facto, the Court might deter and thus constrain America’s forays abroad. All the Liliputians would gain a kind of droit de regard over American actions.

Europe and others cherished this expansion of multilateral oversight precisely for the reason why the United States opposed it. Great powers loathe international institutions they cannot dominate; lesser nations like them the way the Lilliputians liked their ropes on Gulliver. The name of the game was balancing-on-the-sly, and both sides knew it, though it was conducted in the name international law, not of raw power.

Yes, that effort went on in the 1990’s, and in many areas there was an attempt internationally to institute treaties which would have had the effect of significantly handicapping the US economy or its ability to operate militarily and diplomatically in the world.

And the US saw through it and refused to play along. The US Senate appraised the Kyoto accord and correctly determined that its primary goal was to economically strangle the US (to “let the other nations catch up and restore fairness and balance to the international system”). In 1997 the US Senate unanimously passed the Byrd-Hagel Resolution, indicating that the treaty would not be considered unless it could be shown that ratification and enforcement of it would not harm the US economy. The US participated in the ICC negotiation but never ratified it. There may have been opposition elsewhere to the end of the ABM treaty, but the process by which the US withdrew from it was in the treaty itself and didn’t require permission from any other nation, so the opposition of other nations didn’t actually prevent us from leaving the treaty.

As Joffe says, the primary goal of so many of these international treaties was to try to slip through clauses which would give other nations the ability to cripple us or impose binding controls on us, and yet again it’s pleasing to see someone from Europe be honest about this. Few there admitted it, of course; all the rhetoric about the ICC treaty involved handwaving about the noble purposes it was intended to achieve and about the triumph of “multilateralism”; few were willing to answer the American fear that the ICC would be used as a way of harassing Americans.

Nor did they succeed in imposing censorship on the Internet. The Internet, in all its manifestations and capabilities, is an incredible technical achievement, and it has the potential to shake the political and cultural foundations of the world. And by its nature it is fundamentally liberal humanist. It is Marshall McLuhan’s global village made real, it is a virtual space where everything is next door, everything is within arm’s reach. I can visit web sites in Japan or the UK just as easily as I can those in the US, and therefore I can read what people in those places think, if they write in languages I understand. And so can anyone else who accesses the Internet anywhere else unless there’s some effort in place to try to prevent it. Absent any kind of controls, the First Amendment of the US Constitution governs the world’s use of the Internet. We in the US are free to post almost anything we want to, and anyone else in the world can read it, and even if other governments place limits on what their citizens can post, they don’t have the ability to place limits on us.

And that terrifies the governments of other nations who have decided that their people can’t be trusted with some kinds of ideas, and it means they face a dilemma. The Internet is already too important, and too valuable; any nation which refuses to permit its people to access it automatically is condemned to being economically third rate.

Nor is it really possible to have only partial access. Nations like China and Singapore and Saudi Arabia who have tried to institute national firewalls to limit the parts of the Internet which are accessible to their people, and what everyone is learning that it’s almost impossible to keep up. The content available on the Internet simply changes too fast and appears in too many places.

What they’d really like to do is to kill what they view as the most dangerous stuff at the source, which usually means here in the US. So as part of the negotiations of a treaty about cybercrime, a clause was included which would have required that every nation which was a signatory enforce court orders issued by other nations to shut down web sites. In particular, the Europeans wanted to be able to order American web sites shut down because they violated European laws regarding “hate speech”, which is protected speech in the US.

During the negotiations our diplomats made clear that we could not ratify a treaty with such a provision for Constitutional reasons, but rather than remove that clause, diplomats from other nations tried to apply pressure to the US to accept those limits anyway.

It didn’t work. We didn’t ratify that treaty, or any of the others which were clearly intended to try to cripple us or to infringe on our constitutional rights.

Joffe is correct that there’s been a long-standing and semi-surreptitious attempt to affix hundreds of small ropes to us through this kind of diplomacy. But the effort wasn’t successful; we didn’t fall for it. There has been at least some diplomatic cost for us in doing so, what with various condemnations of us for not being a “team player” and so on, but the larger march of events has made most of that unimportant going forward.

He’s right that there have been attempts at soft balancing. But they didn’t work, in the sense of actually placing bonds on us. There’s no sign that any balancing actually took place.

His argument is that eventually the US will decide that it wants people to like it, and will thus begin to give in to what amounts to international peer pressure and start to accept those kinds of limits so as to reduce the criticism. In essence, he assumes that the US wants to retain its position as the strongest nation in the world, and will recognize that it is better to be somewhat weaker but liked and unchallenged than to be stronger but faced with strong opposition which may bring the US down.

His basic assumption is wrong. We don’t want to be strong. We just want to be left alone. Our policy isn’t driven by an attempt to prevent other nations from becoming strong; it’s driven by attempts to reduce threats to us. Having other nations be strong is fine with us as long as they don’t try to use their strength to threaten us.

But he makes an even deeper mistake by assuming that this is even something which is susceptible to centralized decision and control. It’s true that Washington can decide how to arm and use our military, and what treaties to negotiate and which to ratify. But most of the soft power he described is unconscious and undirected; it isn’t a deliberate strategy, and as such it isn’t really possible to change it. Hollywood will continue to make movies with the goal of making lots of money, with little consideration of indirect political effects.

Thus even if there do end up being a few political limits placed on the US, it won’t affect the larger cultural competition in the world, or our overwhelming advantages in that competition.

Joffe writes:

Power exacts responsibility, and responsibility requires the transcendence of narrow self-interest.

No, it doesn’t require it, except in some vague philosophical sense that it’s what everyone who isn’t powerful really wishes would happen. There’s nothing inherent in power that makes altruism inevitable, and the history of the world is full of counter-examples. Indeed, one is hard pressed to find any example to support his contention.

Real empires routinely crush their rivals. But America is only an ‘imperial republic’, as Raymond Aron mused decades ago. Presumably, democracies pay ‘decent respect to the opinions of mankind’ because they cherish that respect for themselves. They are better off leading by heeding because they cannot sustain the brutish ways of Rome for any length of time. Unwilling to conquer, this ’empire’ still needs order beyond borders. The objective is the right ‘milieu’. To achieve it, America must sometimes use force; to sustain it, the sword is not enough-and too costly, to boot. But to build the right coalitions for peace, the United States must not forsake the ‘co’ in ‘coalition’-as in ‘consensus’ and ‘cooperation’. As Gulliver learned, it is hard enough to live even as friendly giant among the pigmies. It is even harder to escape their slings and arrows when strength is untempered by self-restraint. For power shall be balanced.

Yes and no. It’s a matter of degree, and it’s also selective.

We don’t want to “rule the world”. We never did. And we haven’t given up on the idea of cooperating with other nations.

On the other hand, we won’t let other nations use negotiations and “cooperation” as a way of fucking us over. We never have and we’re not going start now. We’ll continue to cooperate, to the extent that we see advantage in doing so, but except for the fact that we’re being uncharacteristically activist right now because of the war, that’s not really a change. And it also isn’t really important.

On a deeper level, the true competition at the cultural level isn’t going to stop nor will it be restrained, nor is there any particular reason to think it’s going to be balanced. There may seem to be political balance, but Hollywood is going to continue to dominate the world movie industry. We aren’t going to stop working on science and engineering. We aren’t going to stop competing commercially. We aren’t going to stop putting material on the Internet where the world can read it. The brain drain isn’t going to end.

There may be some degree of political and diplomatic control laid on our government, though not even remotely as much as many others would like. But there won’t be any controls on what the people here do, which is the true source of our strength (as Joffe himself points out), and I see no prospect of anything rising in response which would balance that.

This ultimately isn’t a competition between leaders or between governments. It isn’t even necessarily a competition between peoples. It’s a competition between ideas and philosophies and attitudes, and it’s increasingly unfettered competition on that level.

And everything we know about unfettered competition says that balance is an unnatural state. The natural state is concentration, dominance and shakeout. We aren’t winning on that level by defeating others or subjugating them, we’re winning by seducing them and making them agree with us. And we aren’t doing that deliberately as a political goal.

Joffe correctly describes the power we have at that level, but leaves it out of his calculation of the future, and that is why I think his conclusion ultimately is wrong. Over the course of months or years there may be some appearance of balance. Over the course of decades there will not be.

Chris Lansdown comments:
“But he makes an even deeper mistake by assuming that this is even something which is susceptible to centralized decision and control…”

I suspect that he’s just misspeaking here, because there certainly is a way to curb our soft power: through government regulation. It’s nearly impossible for the government to force its people to become a dominant culture in the world, but it’s very easy to keep them from doing it. Saddam Hussein demonstrated an effective way to do it. The entire reason why Steve is against certain treaties like the ICC, Kyoto, and the one which would remove Freedom of Speech is because they would do this.

It’s easy to stop the exportation of culture — destroy the culture. Make the shooting or marketing of movies illegal and punishable by the execution of your entire family. This is certainly quite doable. We’re just never going to do it.

Now, Steve makes this point — that we’re never going to cripple ourself in these ways — but what he doesn’t mention is one of the reasons why European attempts to get us to do this through peer pressure will fail: Europeans aren’t our peers. I don’t think that Europeans really understand just how little the average American cares about Europe. Most Americans have no idea which countries are which on a map of Europe (though I am dubious that Europeans would be very good at naming the states of the United States, despite many of our states having larger economies than many of their countries). Most Americans only speak English, and the most common second language is a South American Spanish dialect.

Occasionally Europeans notice that when we want a European in a movie, an English accent will do for just about any of them, and will generally pass off reasonably well. Europe just doesn’t matter much to Americans. This shouldn’t be surprising, as I’ve written before, Americans are largely the descendants of people who didn’t want to be in Europe. All of their harping isn’t going to bother us much because we’re just not going to here it. If you’re really interested, you can watch the BBC in some places, and our public television stations often play British murder mysteries and comedies. That’s about the extent of European press than you’re going to find in America: if France and Belgium and Germany and Italy rant and rave about us being uncooperative with them, how will Americans find out about it? Oh, they’ll probably see some snippet on the evening news about some ugly man with bad teeth saying stupid things which are generally angry at us, but that’s hardly going to make a truck driver say, “Damn it, whoever that ugly guy with bad teeth is, he wants us to ratify Kyoto, so let’s ratify the treaty”.

The United States is a big place, and it’s hard enough to pay attention to Californian politics and opinions when you’re on the east coast, let alone worry about a bunch of people who weren’t good enough for my grandparents. The Europeans can jabber all they want, but the Atlantic ocean is big and sound doesn’t carry very well over it. Peer pressure is often quite effective, but it has to come from your peers. In America, our peers are mostly just other Americans.
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