Ian Garrick Mason


Articles and Essays


Literary Review of Canada -- December 2003

Weapons of Mass Distraction: Soft Power and American Empire

Matthew Fraser
Key Porter Books, 288pp

Globalization and the American Century

Alfred E. Eckes, Jr. & Thomas W. Zeiler
Cambridge University Press, 343pp

by Ian Garrick Mason

It has been three months since Toronto’s most recent International Film Festival lit up the city; the red carpets and marquees are safely stored away, and the festival’s organizers have no doubt returned to their whiteboard-equipped meeting rooms to plan next year’s event. Yet perhaps we can permit ourselves one last moment of self-congratulation. The festival’s success, after all, reflects the major role that Toronto now plays in the global film industry. Not only have we managed to create a yearly event that reliably attracts the biggest stars -- Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan -- along with producers and directors by the score, but we’ve also successfully marketed the city as a shooting location for ever-increasing numbers of American films, which in turn has led to the emergence of a host of supporting companies (car rentals, lighting, camera supplies, props) and a workforce of skilled technicians. But we should not be misled by the glamour and the profits: though Toronto may indeed be a key worker on the continental assembly line of movie production, it doesn’t own the factory. Gratifying though it may be to our sense of civic pride, the festival is really just one result of some pragmatic cooperation between government and business in pursuit of an industrial opportunity. The festival may be a celebration of many things, but a celebration of Canada’s cultural power it is not.

In a world of global trade flows, this is to be expected. America has a huge English-speaking internal market, and has therefore always enjoyed an advantage in the production of cultural goods. A movie produced for an American audience can recoup its costs in national theatre chains, and can go on to earn its profits in global release. It is hard for Canadian, British, and Australian movies to do the same thing in their much smaller domestic markets, and even tougher for foreign language films that do not have the benefit of selling to a global audience that speaks the same language. So rather than indulging ourselves in grumpy Canadian complaints of “cultural imperialism”, we should be proud that we’ve at least managed to derive some economic value from America’s natural dominance of this industry.

This is the traditional argument of Canadian free-marketers as against Canadian cultural nationalists, and its basic economic logic is sound. Yet its premise is weak, it turns out, for it wasn’t just the invisible hand of the market that caused the film and television industries to flourish on American soil. As Matthew Fraser, editor of Canada’s National Post -- a pro-free-market paper if there ever was one -- contends in his book Weapons of Mass Distraction, American governments have long believed that cultural exports can provide national benefits far beyond the mere accumulation of foreign currency. “The motion picture can be the most wonderful system for spreading national propaganda at little or no cost,” wrote the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry to President Woodrow Wilson. Almost from the beginning, film exports were subsidized by Congress, while American administrations encouraged the creation of export cartels in both the film and television businesses. Fraser describes in convincing detail the remarkably tight links between the government and the movie industry (with the MPAA’s Jack Valenti as a kind of uber-lobbyist), television networks, and even fast-food conglomerates. His discussion of the Coke vs. Pepsi war for influence in the White House is particularly fascinating and unsettling. Big Oil should take some tips from Big Cola.

Fraser goes much further, though, and in doing so seems to validate the darkest fears of Canadian nationalists. For this is not the propaganda of any mere nation; to Fraser, it is part of a systematic program meant to construct and maintain an “American Empire”. He argues that because empires since Rome have always been “cultural constructions” that seek to envelop subsidiary states in a blanket of shared values, it’s only natural that America use its own “soft power” (he uses Joseph Nye’s term througout the book) for similar ends. While well-known government creations like Voice of America and the US Information Agency have had important roles to play in this project, so too have American movies, television, and music, all of which promote “free markets and liberal democracy”, and fast food brands like Coca-Cola and McDonalds, which act as proxies for the Stars and Stripes.

Yet having argued so strenuously that the US government deliberately promotes these industries to support its dominion -- he calls MTV, for example, a “pulsing electronic extension of the American Empire” -- Fraser is quick to dismiss those who would complain of cultural imperialism. The French (naturally) come in for particular disdain, and their futile attempts to raise barriers against the American cultural tide are derided as being motivated not by cultural defensiveness but by grubby commercial protectionism. Apparently, the only people who are allowed to take culture seriously are the Americans; everyone else has ulterior motives.

This, of course, is a complete inversion of how the rest of the world normally perceives the situation: Americans are thought to regard culture as just another industry, while Europeans and Canadians are thought to regard it as something with important implications for national identity and independence. But even if Fraser is right, and we’ve all been sadly misled on this front, there is a deeper problem with his thesis. Although culture is indeed important, as a “weapon of mass distraction” it is remarkably hard to aim. Cultural output is a function of myriad and unpredictable decisions made by individual artists, producers, and executives (influenced in turn by consumer preferences in various markets); it is not an outcome of decisions made by a bureaucratic organization with a unified message to convey. So even if the United States was somehow able to ensure that only American movies reached the screens of the world, it would have to pick its movies carefully to ensure the right messages were getting across. After all, neither Bowling for Columbine nor American Beauty really advance the cause of free markets and liberal democracy, as Fraser assumes. Nor does Citizen Kane.

As Fraser points out, the need to control content externally did lead the American government to limit the provision of export currency guarantees to films portraying America in a positive light, and the need to control content internally led to the creation of the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee in 1938. Even in the past twenty years, conservative moralist William Bennett’s crusade against Hollywood’s lack of values and Tipper Gore’s crusade against profanity in lyrics have shown that if soft power is capable of transforming foreign societies, it is just as capable of transforming America. And many Americans, including those who might support today’s “imperial” mission, don’t like that.

Transforming societies in what way, though? Even after rock music and Hollywood and Coke have penetrated a foreign country, there is no clear link between this penetration and the changing of political attitudes. Fraser is right to hold up the recent creation of Radio Sawa as an example of a US government attempt to influence young Arabs, but the jury will be out for a long time on whether listening to songs by J-Lo will increase Arab support for the occupation of Iraq. The genuine popular enjoyment of American culture in France, Britain, Germany, and Russia has certainly not lead to increased public support for American policies, although it has perhaps protected the American people from being included in the hostility that many foreigners now feel toward America’s current administration.

Fraser does admit that an ostensibly liberalizing force like television can also be used by governments to pacify their populations. In Africa, television is that continent’s “bread and circuses”. In Chile, General Pinochet encouraged the import of Hollywood movies as a way to keep his citizens quiet. And Fraser describes how for many years the Brazilian broadcaster Globo was backed by that country’s military government because “its escapist ‘entertainment’ programs were regarded as a powerful opiate for the masses.” Observations like these cast the title of his book into a new light.

True, satellite television has brought with it the ability for citizens to watch foreign programming without depending on government-controlled broadcast towers or cable connections -- this is the “unambiguous threat to totalitarian regimes everywhere” that Rupert Murdoch famously referred to. But Murdoch must have regretted that comment once the Chinese government retaliated by banning satellite dishes, because he then spent a significant amount of time kowtowing to the Chinese authorities in order to get his newly purchased Star TV recognized as a legally-authorized subscription channel. Murdoch-owned Harper Collins cancelled the publication of an impending book by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten that was sure to be critical of the Chinese government, and instead published a flattering biography of Deng Xiaoping written by the premier’s own daughter. Even a “revolutionary” technology like satellite television needs the support of governments if it is to operate profitably.

After all, profits are crucial for today’s global media companies, just as they were for yesterday’s local presses. Like any other public company, global corporations must attract capital investment by offering potential and existing shareholders a competitive return. This means that market demand, not a company’s national origin, will in the long run drive production decisions. Consumer tastes vary all over the world, and a company cannot afford to alienate its customers by forcing “American values” down their throats. Though production processes might be kept consistent around the world, the product itself will usually be adapted to suit local tastes. This is why McDonald’s restaurants operate with nearly identical food preparation methodologies in both New York and Delhi, but you can buy a Big Mac (all-beef) in one and a Maharaja Mac (all-lamb) in the other.

To the globalized firm, the home country is just another market to be served. Fraser thinks that it’s a contradiction for the local McDonalds in Belgrade to hand out free cheeseburgers at anti-NATO rallies during the Kosovo War -- shouldn’t McDonalds be pro-NATO? -- but it proves the point about globalized companies: McDonalds (or Disney or News Corp or AOL TimeWarner) will do what it must in order to maximize shareholder value. If the foreign policy of the United States is indirectly helped or hurt by this, this is no more than an unintentional side effect.

There is irony in this, since America has been the great champion of globalization over the past one hundred years, as Alfred E. Eckes, Jr. and Thomas W. Zeiler demonstrate in their book Globalization and the American Century. At the zenith of the British empire, when the Royal Navy ruled the seas and global trade flourished, America was just completing its transformation from a republic of small farmers and small businesses to a nascent empire with large military forces and national corporations. World War One marked a changing of the guard, when a weakened and heavily indebted England began to relinquish its pre-eminent position in world affairs to a wealthier America. It didn’t happen all at once, of course: America still retained its traditional reluctance to become entangled in the affairs of other nations, and did not join the League of Nations. However, the collapse of the world trading regime, the onset of the Great Depression, and the coming of World War II convinced many in the American elite that the United States could no longer avoid the responsibility of leadership.

In 1941, Henry Luce captured this new spirit with a famous article in Life called “The American Century”, in which he argued that America must be “the Good Samaritan” of the world: ”the vision of America as the principal guarantor of the freedom of the seas, the vision of America as the dynamic leader of world trade, has within it the possibilities of such enormous human progress as to stagger the imagination.” As World War II drew to a close, American diplomats and businessmen engaged in a flurry of planning with the other powers, out of which emerged agreement after agreement, organization after organization: Bretton Woods, the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (IBRD), the International Trade Organization (ITO), the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and so on.

Thus the postwar world was born, in which America’s new national security objectives -- chief of which was the waging of the Cold War with the Soviet Union -- complemented the economic objective of ensuring a predictable environment for world trade. Prosperous and democratic allies, went the reasoning, could help to deter the Red Army while also participating in mutally enriching trade. The system worked: the Cold War turned hot only at the peripheries of the developed world, and even when two decades of growth in the 1950s and 60s were brought up short by the oil shocks and stagflation of the 1970s, Western economies were eventually able to adjust. Eckes and Zeiler argue that the “Reagan revolution” of the 1980s ushered in a “new international economic world” which emphasized the efficiency of markets over the guidance of governments, and which reached new heights after the collapse of the Soviet Union and with the coming of the 1990s information economy. Although the authors conclude by reflecting on emerging problems within this globalized, information-rich world of ours -- cybercrime, terrorism, contagious diseases -- they do not doubt that globalization is the right direction for us all.

Yet the economic adjustments caused by the international specialization of labour can be highly controversial in the nations in which they occur, and the processes of harmonization that often accompany negotiated agreements in order to “level the playing field” for businesses have sparked opposition by environmental and labour groups who fear a lowest-common denominator effect. Resisting the temptation to concentrate exclusively on the anarchic violence of the anti-globalization protests, Eckes and Zeiler are careful to note the arguments of globalization’s more articulate critics, particularly those of Lori Wallach, the Harvard-trained lawyer who heads Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. Wallach has noticed a weakness in globalization: far from a remorseless process of economic logic, globalization is the product of “enormous planning and political work”. To her, there is nothing inevitable about it.

For good or ill, she’s right. Globalization is indeed fragile, for even though most national governments have by now bought into the idea of lowering trade barriers in a systematic, rules-based way, the global order lacks something absolutely critical to its robustness: a legitimate government, with the authority and power to enforce its rules. By contrast, almost every national, provincial, and urban economy in the developed world has a government to complement it. Each of these governments (in democracies mainly, but the point often applies to dictatorships, too) has an implied mandate from its voters to maximize wealth creation in that economy, and each is vested with the authority to make and enforce laws to this end. Canada’s federal government, for example, can ensure that labour and capital mobility is allowed across Canada, and through its powers of taxation and redistribution can seek to moderate the ups and downs of economic cycles that occur in its various provinces. Such powers are not limitless (especially not in a contentious federation like ours), but they are real. And crucially, each government’s self-interest is intertwined with the economic health of the polity it governs.

No such situation exists for the global economy. Global institutions like the UN or the WTO are little more than membership organizations created by national governments, and have no democratic legitimacy as such. They have no power to tax the public, to raise an army, or to enforce capital and labour mobility. Everything they have is given to them -- often tardily -- by dues-paying national governments.

When economies are doing well, globalization tends to thrive. Economic restructuring caused by shifts in trade and foreign investment continues to occur, but national politicians can cope with the politics of layoffs by promising growth in other areas of the economy, and by pointing to the cheaper consumer goods made available by freer trade. When severe economic weather hits, however, it is always the first instinct -- and more importantly, it will always by necessity be the first instinct -- of national governments to protect their own economies. This is when trade barriers are raised, currencies devalued, local industries subsidized. In such times, the only people left defending the globalized system are those with a direct interest in it: financiers, successful exporters, international bureaucrats. Thus globalization, as Eckes and Zeiler point out when describing the collapse of the 1930s, is in many ways “a fair-weather system, conceived by corporate and government elites but vulnerable to the attacks of grassroots demagogues in bad times”.

Even if good times were to continue indefinitely, though, the pursuit of national self-interest would lead to other outcomes of potential concern to America. Nations become richer as they participate in globalized flows of goods, capital, and information -- and hopefully, they also become more resistant to radical ideologies like Communism or fundamentalist Islam. But in becoming richer, they also become stronger competitors to the United States. So far, most have chosen to remain economic competitors only: America helped Europe and Japan rise from the ashes of World War II, and since the 1970s it has often resented the tough economic competition presented by these countries. There is no guarantee, however, that future competitors will restrict themselves to the economic sphere. Very large and steadily developing nations like China and India -- countries which each have three to four times the population of the United States -- may one day end up as technologically advanced and significantly more wealthy than America. Should such nations seek military power to complement their economic strength, America will find itself in a very different situation than it does now, and this year’s claims of American Empire will ring rather hollow.

Neither Fraser nor Eckes and Zeiler address such possibilities, nor their implications for global stability -- to them, the expansion of global capitalism is as obviously good for America as it is for everyone else. Fraser even attempts to link the spread of American fast food restaurants to world peace, referencing Thomas Friedman’s now-famous “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention”, which holds that no two nations with a McDonalds will ever go to war against each other. A humorous spin on the old notion that democracies will never attack other democracies, Friedman’s theory was fatally wounded in 1999 by America’s bombardment of Serbia, a Westernized country with plenty of McDonalds restaurants -- not that Fraser points this contradiction out, despite having mentioned those very restaurants and their free cheeseburgers only four pages earlier.

All of these authors seem to assume that because America is on top now, globalization and “soft power” will keep it on top. But culture and commerce are forces that march to their own drummers, and even a powerful nation like America cannot predict where their combined dynamics will lead; certainly, such complex phenomena require much more careful analysis than is offered in either of these books. The “weapons of mass distraction” that Fraser sees as buttressing an American empire are diffuse and difficult to control, their impact on foreign societies impossible to predict. And the globalization that Eckes and Zeiler claim as an American project (though as far as the 20th century goes, they’re largely right) not only helps to weaken America’s soft power further by placing culture in the hands of global media companies, but may well end up creating a world in which America’s hegemony is challenged by the very powers that freer trade has helped to enrich. Though one indisputably American century has drawn to a close, it is far from clear that we are embarking on another.