Part one of five:
A country that makes a film like ‘Star Wars’ deserves to rule the world.
— Philip Adams, former chairman of the Australian Film Commission
Love it, hate it, embrace it, deny it, American power, American influence and American values are the defining features of today’s interconnected world. Questions of an American “empire” — whether we have one, whether we want one, whether we can afford or keep one — aren’t just the white-hot topic of the day among statesmen and political scientists. The world really is becoming more “American.”
The pervasive pull of American ideals, popular culture and media, and economic opportunity works in mysterious counterpoint, and not always harmoniously, with overwhelming U.S. military might and diplomatic clout.
This pull is felt in every corner of the globe in the age of Google, Michael Jordan, Eminem and SpongeBob SquarePants.
Last month’s re-election of President Bush — who opinion surveys show would have difficulty even getting on the ballot in many countries — is just the latest illustration of America’s unique role.
“You cannot imagine the impact of the American election in Europe,” Italian religious philosopher and politician Rocco Buttiglione says during a recent Washington visit.
“America is modernity, and what takes place in America today will take place in Europe in 10, 15 or 20 years,” he says. “The Europeans, all of a sudden, had to discover that America is religious, that ethical issues are relevant to politics.”
Lorne Craner, president of the International Republican Institute, served as the State Department’s human rights chief for most of President Bush’s first term.
“I was obviously concerned that issues like Abu Ghraib could hurt our standing and our ability to support our values abroad,” says Mr. Craner, whose tenure was marked by international criticism of U.S. actions on everything from the Kyoto global-warming pact to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.
“But I found that the American experience and American ideals still were very powerful almost everywhere I went,” Mr. Craner says. “People realized we are not perfect, but it did not undermine our credibility.”
This series examines aspects of America’s pervasive influence and some of the consequences, from democratic ideals and entrepreneurial ingenuity to language, sports and popular culture.
Some of America’s most skeptical critics seem to be most aware of the nation’s provocative pull.
Hubert Vedrine, the former French foreign minister who coined the term “hyperpower” to describe the post-Cold War United States, writes that America’s power rests on its ability to “inspire the dreams and desires of others, thanks to the mastery of global images through film and television.”
“For these same reasons, large numbers of students from other countries come to the United States to finish their studies,” he adds.
Dartmouth College political scientists Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth observe in a Foreign Affairs article: “Today, the United States has no rival in any critical dimension of power. There has never been a system of sovereign states that contained one state with this degree of dominance.”
Strength in ‘soft power’
Aspects of U.S. “hard power” are well-known:
Although defense spending takes up a little more than 4 percent of gross domestic output, for instance, the United States still spends more on defense — $348.5 billion in 2002 — than the next 12 countries combined.
With 6 percent of the world’s population and 6 percent of its land mass, the United States generates a third of the gross domestic product (GDP), attracts a third of the foreign direct investment and spends more on research and development than the next seven countries combined.
But Harvard analyst Joseph S. Nye Jr. argues that America’s “soft power” secures the country’s dominant place in the world, confounding critics who consistently predicted that U.S. power and influence were bound to fade as rivals emerged.
“Soft power arises in large part from our values,” Mr. Nye says. “These values are expressed in our culture, in the policies we follow inside our country, and in the way we handle ourselves internationally.”
German commentator Josef Joffe says the attraction of American culture “looms even larger than its economic and military assets.”
“U.S. culture — low-brow or high — radiates outward with an intensity last seen in the days of the Roman Empire — but with a novel twist. Rome’s and Soviet Russia’s cultural sway stopped exactly at their military borders. America’s soft power, though, rules over an empire on which the sun never sets.”
On Armenian television, a young man wearing a Charles Barkley basketball jersey and a stocking cap raps about society’s injustices in fluent Armenian. Hollywood blockbusters dominate theater marquees from Brussels to Beijing to Buenos Aires. Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods are among the most recognized people on the planet.
“We so-called ‘imperialists’ don’t wear pith helmets, but rather, baggy jeans and backward baseball caps,” says conservative columnist and Hoover Institute fellow Victor Davis Hanson.
“Thus far, the rest of the globe — whether Islamic fundamentalists, European socialists or Chinese communists — has not yet formulated an ideology antithetical to the kinetic strain of Western culture.”
Head of the class
It is a dominance built on a series of paradoxes.
In education, for example, the poor state of America’s public schools is a staple of the U.S. political debate. U.S. eighth-graders ranked 12th in a new survey of fourth- and eighth-grade science and math skills, trailing such countries as Russia, Cyprus and Latvia.
But U.S. universities and public and private research foundations remain the envy of the world. “Brain drain” has become a shorthand term around the world for top scholars, researchers and managers pulling up stakes and moving to America.
American citizens and U.S.-based researchers won or shared the Nobel Prize in medicine in 17 of the past 20 years and took home at least a share of the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 18 of the past 20 years.
The Internet’s early partisans saw it as a global leveler, giving equal access and voice to users in the most remote corners of the globe.
But the Web became yet another expression of U.S. dominance, cementing the status of English as the globe’s universal language. Although Americans aren’t the most numerous users of the Internet, a recent survey found that the estimated 115 million U.S.-based Web sites dwarfs that of second-place Japan, home to 13 million sites.
Built on beliefs
In matters of faith, the United States remains distinct from other industrial powers.
America has more churches, synagogues, temples and mosques per capita than any other country on earth, U.S. News & World Report recently noted. That’s about one house of religion for every 865 persons.
More than four in five Americans tell pollsters that they believe in God, and more than 40 percent of American Christians say they attend a religious service at least once a week.
By contrast, weekly religious attendance hovers at about 15 percent in Italy and 5 percent in France. Just 21 percent of Europeans rate religion as “very important” in their lives.
“In Western Europe, we are hanging on by our fingernails,” the Rev. David Cornick, general secretary of the United Reform Church in Britain, told Christian Today magazine earlier this year. “Europe is no longer Christian.”
Many scholars say faith continues to thrive in America because government took a hands-off approach, in contrast to the state-sanctioned faiths of other countries.
“Monopolies damage religion,” says Massimo Introvigne of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, Italy. “In a free market, people get more interested in the product. It is true for religion just as it is true for cars.”
That faith inspires thousands of American Christians to leave comfortable lives behind to spread the Gospel and do good works in often-hostile foreign mission fields, such as Malaysia and Vietnam.
Culture across borders
The global impact of the decidedly worldly U.S. pop culture — notably movies, television and music — also reflects a triumph of the marketplace and free competition, argues George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen, who has written extensively on culture and globalization.
Hollywood’s global clout and ability to shape attitudes come not from government support (there isn’t any) or from some native superiority of American actors, directors and producers.
Unlike many of European and Asian rivals, Hollywood never relied on government subsidies or bureaucratic guidelines in deciding which projects to bankroll and which stars to promote.
American cinema and television, Mr. Cowen says, is the ultimate meritocracy, where an Austrian bodybuilder (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and a movie buff from New Zealand (“Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson) become the faces of “American” filmmaking.
Mr. Cowen notes that the two national movie industries enjoying the most export success after Hollywood — Hong Kong’s action movies and India’s Bollywood extravaganzas — “are run on an explicitly commercial basis.”
Spirit of giving
The same reliance on private forces and individual initiative is evident in American patterns of giving, which also deviate markedly from the rest of the world.
The U.S. government ranked 22nd among the world’s developed nations in 2003 in foreign aid on a per-capita basis, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, offering one-sixth the amount of aid per citizen offered by Norway.
But private philanthropy in America is one of the most powerful and effective aid programs on earth, concludes a new study by researchers at the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
American private charities are set to spend more than $200 billion this year, and more than half of U.S. adults will work on volunteer projects, putting in an estimated 20 billion hours in donated time.
One study by the Washington-based Philanthropy Roundtable found that the average American household contributes seven times as much to charity as its German counterpart, and Americans are six times more likely than Germans to do volunteer work.
“In short,” researchers Alexander Karp, Gary A. Tobin and Aryeh Weinberg write in the journal Philanthropy, “American philanthropy is extraordinary by any world standard and the reason is that America herself is exceptional.”
Marion Baillot contributed to this article.Top