Friday, June 10, 2016

American Cultural Influence

Every nation has, to some extent, hard power. But which nations have soft power? How do they use it? Have nations used soft power in the past?


While studying abroad in London, I realized that many parts of English and European culture are heavily influenced by the United States. TV programs made reference to American celebrities and politicians; young men wore American flag t-shirts on the streets; there were even tourist shops, in London, where you could buy touristy kitsch for New York City. I had left the United States to experience something I didn't know already, and yet I kept bumping back into a familiar culture. I realized that a lot of culture had flowed out of the U.S., but there hadn't been much in the other direction.

Everyone knows nations have power through military, information, and the resources it owns. Guns, computers, and oil give a nation power. But there is another kind of power that is separate from might, or being able to force someone else into doing what you want. This is the ability to make others want what you want. To use influence to change what another person would do. The most popular kid in high school gets others to do what they want not by beating them up but by making other people want to do what they want. This is soft power, named in relation to the hard power of military and physical resources.

The man who introduced the idea and discussion of soft power, Joseph Nye, said the following in his first book on the subject: 
"A country may achieve the outcomes it prefers in world politics because other countries want to follow it or have agreed to a system that produces such effects. In this sense, it is just as important to set the agenda and structure the situations in world politics as it is to get others to change in particular situations. This aspect of power—that is, getting others to want what you want—might be called indirect or co-optive power behavior." --Joseph Nye, Bound to Lead: the Changing Nature of American Power

Not all nations share soft power equally, just as not all nations share soft power equally. Currently, the United States holds the most soft power in the world, just as it holds the most hard power. There are many parallels between the U.S. today and France in the 1700s and early 1800s, when it held the most soft power of any nation in Europe. However, France made several blunders that caused other nations to lose respect for France, and that ultimately led to its downfall. The U.S. will eventually lose its position as the most powerful nation, but how that transition takes place will be dependent on whether the U.S. makes more sustainable, multilateral relationships with other nations.


In the modern historical era, one nation has generally been at the top of the soft power and hard power triangle. Through the 1700s and 1800s, France had an enormous political and cultural influence on the rest of Europe.

Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud
In the early 1700s, Louis XIV, or the Sun King, made France the most powerful nation in Europe. He almost single-handedly built France into an absolute monarchy with a bureaucracy and governing force. He expanded France's military enormously and continually waged war on other nations to gain more territory. Under his reign, he waged war on the Netherlands; a coalition of the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire; the Grand Alliance of the English, Dutch, and the Holy Roman Empire; and then later with the English and Dutch again over the Spanish throne. These wars lasted throughout most of his long reign and essentially bankrupted the French state.

This was possible because France had adopted a standing army before most other European states, from 1640-1680, making it possible for them to wage war as Louis XIV wanted; in 1659, the French army was planned for 30,000 men. By 1710, at the height of the War of Spanish Succession, France had a standing army of 360,000. By 1693 the Dutch only had an army of 93,000 and Britain of 90,000. Russia by 1731 had a permanent force of 132,000.France also had a greater population than any other; French men and women comprised 26% of the population of Europe in 1700, falling slightly to 23% by 1800. This set up France to be the preeminent country in Europe.

The period from death of Louis XIV to the French Revolution is generally classified as the High Enlightenment, a movement during the longer 18th Century dubbed the Age of Enlightenment, or Siècle des Lumières (Century of Lights). The High Enlightenment was centered on the French philosophes or philosophers. Their names are likely familiar: Descartes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Buffon and Diderot. Their influence spread across Europe and later across the world. The work of these Frenchmen provided the foundation for modern government, individualism, and mercantilism. Their ideas shaped Western ideology.

Napoleon Bonaparte by Jacques Louis David
After the Revolution, France was taken over in a coup d'état by Napoleon Bonaparte. While in power, he made a series of institutional reforms that left a lasting impression on France and much of the rest of Western Europe. As he won battle after battle, his prestige increased enormously and it was eventually voted that he remain in office as consul for life. Though he used battle to fight against Britain, he also used economic strategies. His troops followed him because they loved him, not because they feared him: he was immensely popular with the French military and the French people.

The influence of French culture only increased as Napoleon conquered several countries in Europe; already great, France became a cultural powerhouse. One work of literature that gives evidence of the spread and influence of French culture is War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. The following excerpts are only taken from the first chapter, and yet, French language and news dominate.
"Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes. But I warn you, if you don't tell me that this means war, if you still try to defend the infamies and horrors perpetrated by that Antichrist—I really believe he is Antichrist—I will have nothing more to do with you ... "
... Anna Pávlovna had had a cough for some days. She was, as she said, suffering from la grippe; grippe being then a new word in St. Petersburg, used only by the elite. ... 
... All her invitations without exception [were] written in French, and delivered by a scarlet-liveried footman that morning, ran as follows: ...
... He spoke in that refined French in which our grandfathers not only spoke but thought, and with the gentle, patronizing intonation natural to a man of importance who had grown old in society and at court.
Despite the fact that Anna hates Bonaparte, her life is immersed in French culture. The rest of the first chapter details a party at which French news, and opinions on it, are the main subject of discussion. At one point a character apologizes for having to tell a story entirely in Russian.

Chart of French forces by Charles Joseph Minard
The Russians ended up being right to fear Napoleon; he did invade Russia. This was the move that led to his own downfall and the eventually replacement of France by Great Britain as the most culturally influential nation in the wold. This graph details how the French army was destroyed in the trip to (tan) and back from (black) Russia, with the width showing how many people were left in the army. By the time the army had returned to its original point in Poland, a fraction of the people were left. This loss of physical force was coupled with something much more important: it was such an obvious and terrible blunder on the part of Napoleon, that the rest of Europe lost respect for him in the way that they had before. He was seen as power hungry, greedy, and in error. The French did not conquer Russia.

As France lost its physical power, its cultural influence waned as well. A coalition of European forces, led by Great Britain's Admiral Wellington, defeated Napoleon and Great Britain became the preeminent force culturally and politically.


An Italian woman kisses the hand of a U.S. soldier. Link. 
U.S. cultural influence and soft power grew enormously after World War II. The U.S. immensely changed the war effort in Europe, and after World War II, many U.S. troops emigrated to European countries, attending universities and making new lives in another country. The U.S. also began the Marshall Plan, which gave food and financial aid to Europe while also working to prevent the spread of communism. This plan dramatically increased the cultural influence of the U.S. and spread its values across the world. It specifically aimed at spreading democracy, the free market, and liberal values.

"Marshall began to concentrate his energies on getting the Economic Cooperation Act (authorizing and funding the [European Recovery Plan bill]) passed after returning from the London Foreign Ministers’ meeting in December 1947. He was the lead-off witness in the Senate hearings on January 8, 1948. Marshall insisted that the ERP would reduce the expansion of Soviet influence without the need to resort to overheated rhetoric." - from Results of the Marshall Plan Speech
This played out in both hard and soft power ways. Its hard power played out in war in Korea and Vietnam, and in a soft power way in the Cold War. The Cold War was a war of soft powers: two nations trying to spread their cultural values through media, economics, and persuasion. The United States became very good a finding a multitude of ways to export its culture. Some of these were directly sponsored by the government, and others were less so.

A global icon, Hollywood dominates the world movie industry. 
One of the ways that the U.S. spreads its culture globally is through Hollywood.  The United States earns a disproportionate amount of money for the number of films it produces. It out-earns the second highest-earning national film industry, the United Kingdom, by about four times. India actually produces far more films than the United States, and yet the earnings are nowhere near as close. The U.S. makes about a quarter of global film revenue. This is because there are so many people outside of the U.S. buying Hollywood films.

The revenue of the film industry broken up by country, from Statista

These films are just one part of the greater export of pop culture that the United States constantly produces. Books, TV shows, movies, and now billions of websites online spread United States culture and ideas worldwide. The Internet has accelerated the rate at which it is possible to spread culture. There have been many discussions of the way that Facebook acts as a colonial empire, and many Europeans resent the high level of American cultural influence that takes place.
"In the US, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon (GAFA) are generally praised as examples of innovation. In the French press, and for much of the rest of Europe, their innovation is often seen in a less positive light—the ugly Americans coming over with innovative approaches to invading personal privacy or new ways to avoid paying their fair share. Take Google: its tax affairs in France are being challenged (paywall)—which comes soon after it has been forced to institute a “right to be forgotten” and threatened with being broken up.
"But the spread of the term “GAFA” may be as much to do with cultural resentment as taxes. 'I think it’s more about distribution of power in the online world than tax avoidance,' Liam Boogar, founder of the French start-up site, Rude Baguette, tells Quartz. France, after all, is a country with a long history of resisting US cultural hegemony." -- from American cultural imperialism has a new name: GAFA 
Culturally, the U.S. is beginning to tread deeper waters. Too much influence and other countries will begin to provide greater friction to the U.S.' actions.

Beyond cultural influence, the U.S. has been widely criticized by other nations for acting unilaterally, meaning it makes decisions that significantly affect nations other than itself without agreement from or approval of one or more other nations. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars are frequently cited as examples. Most other nations--meaning the ones not attempting to do the same thing themselves--see this kind of action as damaging to relationships between the U.S. and other countries. As one person said, "In each instance, America's ambivalence toward multilateral commitment is on display." Essentially, the U.S. has shown that it doesn't really care what other nations think when it makes its decisions.


There are many similarities between France and the United States in the way they use soft power. Neither rely entirely on soft or hard power; both use a blend to ensure the greatest influence. Both have large populations, and militaries that far exceed any other country of the time. They both engage regularly in wars outside their national soil, for various national and international reasons.

The biggest difference is that the United States has the tools to spread its culture farther than France ever could. Only elites, those with access to books, education, and leisure time could be influenced by French culture. However, many people across the world of varying educational and socioeconomic statuses can access the culture of the U.S. It's not perfect global access, to be sure, but it is much larger in scale than France could even dream of.

What is important to remember is that France overextended itself, acted in a way that made other nations lose respect for its power, was defeated, and then another nation took its place. Naturally it will be impossible for the U.S. to maintain its current level of global power and influence forever. What will be most important is for the U.S. to find ways to mitigate the damage that will come when it loses power.

It would be worst if other countries formed a coalition to fight the United States; what would be better is if the U.S. found ways to relate to other countries more sustainably. The U.S. has acted nearly unilaterally, especially in recent invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. This could be compared to France's decision to invade Russia. The motives were very different in each case, but the effects can be compared. The U.S. has lost face because other countries see it as much more imperialistic than the did before.

The more that the U.S. can build sustainable, multilateral relationships with other countries, the better it will fare when its soft power begins to disappear.


Maddison, Angus. The World Economy: A Millenial Perspective. Appendix B: Growth of World Population, GDP and GDP Per Capita before 1820. Link.

Erlanger, Philippe. "Louis XIV: King of France." Britannica Encyclopedia. Link.

History. "Enlightenment." Link. 

The George C. Marshall Foundation. "The Marshall Plan Speech." Link. 

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1998.

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