Commentary

In fighting terrorism, Bush has forgotten to use 'soft power'

President George W. Bush recently drew an analogy between the current struggle against violent jihadist terrorism and the Cold War. He is right in one respect: waves of terrorism tend to be generational. Unfortunately, like the Cold War, the current "war on terror" is likely to be a matter of decades, not years.

But Bush missed another lesson implicit in his analogy: the importance of using the soft power of culture. The Cold War was won by a combination of military power, which deterred Soviet aggression, and the attractive power of Western culture and ideas. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, hammers and bulldozers, not artillery, brought it down. Unfortunately, Bush has not learned this lesson.

Academic and scientific exchanges during the Cold War played a significant role in enhancing American soft power. While some American skeptics feared that Soviet scientists and KGB agents would steal American technology, they failed to notice that the visitors vacuumed up political ideas alongside scientific secrets. Many of these scientists became leading proponents of human rights and liberalization inside the Soviet Union.

Some 50,000 Soviets - writers, journalists, officials, musicians, dancers, athletes and academics - visited the United States between 1958 and 1988. Alexander Yakovlev, who died last week, was strongly influenced by his studies at Columbia University in 1958. Yakovlev went on to become a Politburo member and key liberalizing influence on Mikhail Gorbachev.

Oleg Kalugin, who became a high KGB official, said in looking back from the vantage point of 1997: "Exchanges were a Trojan Horse for the Soviet Union. They played a tremendous role in the erosion of the Soviet system ... They kept infecting more and more people over the years." Yet today, the Bush administration oversees a cumbersome visa program that has cut the number of such exchanges, particularly with Muslim countries.

Popular culture was also important during the Cold War. Many intellectuals disdain popular culture because of its crude commercialism. But such scorn is misplaced, because popular entertainment often contains subtle images and messages about individualism, consumer choice, and other values that have important political effects.

American films, for example, include sex, violence and materialism. But that is not the whole story; they also portray American life as open, mobile, individualistic, anti-establishment, pluralist, populist and free. As the poet Carl Sandburg put it in 1961: "What, Hollywood's more important than Harvard? The answer is, not as clean as Harvard, but nevertheless, further reaching."

The line between information and entertainment has never been as sharp as some intellectuals imagine, and it is becoming increasingly blurred. Some popular music lyrics can have political effects. Cultural messages can also be conveyed by the way that sports teams or stars conduct themselves, or in the multiple images purveyed by television or cinema. Pictures often convey values more powerfully than words. Even the consumption of fast food can make an implicit statement. As one Indian family described their visit to McDonald's, it was stepping out for "a slice of America."

Although the Soviet Union restricted and censored Western films, those that made it through had devastating political effects. As one Soviet journalist commented after a restricted showing of films that were critical of American nuclear weapons policies: "They absolutely shocked us ... We began to understand that the same thing would happen to us as to them in a nuclear war."

Soviet audiences watching films with apolitical themes nonetheless learned that people in the West did not have to stand in long lines to purchase food; did not live in communal apartments; and owned their own cars. All of this discredited the negative views promulgated by the Soviet media.

Even rock and roll played a part. As one of Gorbachev's aides later testified, "The Beatles were our quiet way of rejecting 'the system' while conforming to most of its demands." Czech Communist officials sentenced a group of young people to prison in the 1950s for playing tapes of "decadent American music," but their efforts turned out to be counter-productive. In 1980, after John Lennon was murdered, a monument to him spontaneously appeared in Prague and the anniversary of his death was marked by an annual procession for peace and democracy. In 1988, the organizers founded a Lennon Peace Club that demanded the removal of Soviet troops. Lennon trumped Lenin.

The Cold War was won by a mixture of hard and soft power. Not all of the sources of soft power were American - witness the role of the BBC and The Beatles. But it would be a mistake to ignore the role that popular culture played.

One has to be careful in drawing lessons for today. Eastern European cultures were more similar to Western cultures than are Muslim cultures. In some fundamentalist circles, and among the terrorists, Western culture evokes repulsion, not attraction. But even in Iran, where the ruling mullahs describe America as "the great Satan," the young want to watch American videos in the privacy of their homes.

Polls in the Muslim world show that American culture remains attractive to the moderate majority. It is American policies that have led to America's unpopularity. For a start, Bush could learn to get out of the way and encourage more popular and grassroots contacts.

Joseph S. Nye, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, is a professor at Harvard and author of "Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics." THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with Project Syndicate (www.project-syndicate.org).

 

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