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“American soft power is vanishing”

Bruce Sterling and I are well into our annual State of the World conversation over on the WELL. Bruce, who’s traveled the world all his life and has been in unique situations (like his travels through Russia and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Iron Curtain), truly thinks globally, whereas I’m virtually global (via the Internet) though not as well-traveled. I tend to write from a U.S. perspective, which means less these days… sez Bruce,

Back in the 90s, when I was travelling in Europe, I used to get a lot of eager queries about the USA. What’s new over there, what are you doing with your lives and your riches and your technology, why is your government like that? This was considered a matter of urgency, and most Europeans I met, who were naturally from techie, artsy and literary circles, held views of America that were surprisingly like contemporary paranoid Tea Party views. They had interestingly wacky private theologies about the Pentagon, the CIA, Wall Street, the malignant military-industrial complex and so forth… Not that they ever bothered to find out much about the factual operation of these bodies. Stilll, they were sure that the USA really mattered.

Nowadays, the Europeans are just not all that concerned about Yankees. They don’t ask; they’re incurious about America, they are blase’. Being an American in Europe now is rather like being a Canadian, and it’s trending toward being a Brazilian.

American soft power is vanishing. Foreigners are much less interested in American television, movies, pop music… America once had a tremendous hammerlock on those expensive channels of distribution, but those old analog megaphones don’t matter half as much in today’s network society.

The USA has become a big banana republic; in other words, it’s come to behave like other countries quite normally behave. The upside is that we don’t get blamed for what happens; the downside is, nothing much happens. Decay and denial. Gothic High Tech.

Comments

  1. I’m curious Jon, did you push Bruce to find other reasons for those statements? Given the rapid expansion of the Internet and access to it, I think it far more likely that people don’t have to ask stray American’s questions about their country – especially if those questions are about popular culture or issues that impact the world.

    Perhaps they are not blaseĀ“, but rather already feel informed to the level they want to be, much like those he referenced who had pet theories on the CIA and Wall Street. Much like modern Americans who also have their pet theories on CIA and Wall Street.

    I’m also curious if the statement that people outside of the US are not as interested in American music, movies and television. Is this actually the case, or does the ease of acquisition reduce the passion for the acquired media? It seems likely that a teenager in Eastern Europe circa 1982 would be much more proud of a bootleg ACDC tape than would a teen in 2011 who has Jay-Z’s latest, not because American soft power has grown soft, but because American soft power has intertwined much further into the world.

    Power is exerted through many avenues, and often the power that is unseen has a much stronger and lasting effect than that which is wielded openly.

    So, while I know there is a lot more context to Bruce’s statements, but in reading what you included above, his view appears shortsighted. It also seems to follow the recent “Fall of the American Empire” trend, which has gained in popularity of late – just as it does every few decades.

    I’d love to see you post your take on his statements, specifically in regard to the Internet’s influence.

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