Josef Joffe Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Power and Culture in International Affairs; Conversation with Josef Joffe, editor and co-publisher of Die Zeit, 1/20/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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The Power of the United States

In this world of two worlds, so to speak, different kinds of power are important, and in your writing a theme emerges partly first defined by Joe Nye at Harvard, of soft power. Tell us a little about that and how that compares to the traditional power base in the world of insecurity.

I think power has to be seen like a bundle of currencies. Traditionally the most important currency of power was military power, strategic power. Machiavelli said it's easier to get gold with good soldiers than to get good soldiers with gold. So on top, the most fungible of all currency is strategic. Then you can go down to all kinds of other "currencies": economic power, the attraction of your political and social system, even of your movies and your TV, your diplomatic skills. Or the power radiating from ideas: part of the great power that the Soviet Union had for a while was that this idea of socialism was a very powerful, attractive idea which inspired the entire Third World after decolonization. Everybody wanted a kind a Marxist-Soviet model of economic development and one-party states. So in the Berlin-Berkeley Belt, where the strategic issue for the time being does not arise, those who have the most soft power sources will do very well, such as Germany.

But also the United States.

Yes. But the most important thing is, the best deal you can get is when hard power and soft power come together. The Vatican has a lot of soft power but it has no hard power and so that means the influence of the Vatican is limited. Switzerland has a lot of soft power but nothing in the hard power field. So if you really want to sit pretty today you have to be like the United States, because the United States has all of these resources in spades. It's the mightiest military power in the world, it is the mightiest economy. Everybody looks in envy to the way America has restructured its economy beginning in the 1980s.

But there is more. Europeans could always say that America is a daughter of Europe. They have the brawn but we have the brain, we have the culture, we have the ruins, we have the old universities. And now America is beating out the Europeans in the cultural field too. The cultural part I'm talking about covers a whole range. The range is from McDonald's to Microsoft, Harvard to Hollywood. It is the great universities in this country, the incredible engines of growth that places like Silicon Valley represent, but also the kind of low-tech, low-taste if you wish, stuff that everybody seems to love -- Big Macs and blue jeans and hip-hop and what have you. These things exert an enormous, enormous attraction, and revulsion of course. So you have the case of France where you have 780 McDonald's. Nobody has ever driven people at gunpoint to the Big Mac counter, and yet if you trash a McDonald's you become the great cultural hero. So it's both repulsion and attraction. And the question is, what is it that makes America so attractive to the rest of the world at a time when the world no longer depends on America for protection or CARE packages?

To follow up on what you just said, if I can quote Joe Joffe to Joe Joffe, in this New York Times piece you say, "Imagine a room full of fourteen-year-olds from Germany, Japan, Israel, Russia and Argentina. Obviously they all would be wearing Levis and baseball caps, but how would they relate to one another? They would communicate in English, though haltingly and with heavy accents. And about what? The Fugees, Beavis and Butthead, Ace Ventura, Michael Jordan. They would debate the merits of Nike versus Converse, of Chameleon versus Netscape. Sure, they would not discuss Herman Melville or George Gershwin, but neither would they compare notes on Dante or Thomas Mann." The point is that they would talk about icons and images made in the U.S.

You notice that this piece was written a few years ago, because nobody talks about Chameleon search engines any more. It's Netscape or ...

But most of the others still hold.

Yes; it's a journalistic observation but I think it holds true; what this little vignette meant to say is that to the extent that there is a global civilization today, it's a civilization made in the USA. And there's probably no antecedent to that. We've had many periods in history where one country or one empire carried its civilization forward, but it was always done by the force of arms. So first the Romans conquered the Mediterranean world, then they spread Roman law and Roman philosophy. The French decreed a revolution, it's transported on the bayonets of the French army. The Soviet Union, the communist empire if you wish -- well, communism really only extended as far as the Red Army could reach. So there's really no example in history where soft power, as it were, by itself, of a certain kind, worked its own way through the system without the force of arms. I can only think of one other example where powerful cultural ideas spread around the world without the force of arms, that was Jewish monotheism as transported by Christianity. For the first 300 years, Christianity had to make it on its own. Then, of course, it, too, was spread by states and their armed might: by Rome and Byzantium.

So how do we account then for the negativism about America that one finds in Europe, even as there is this emulation, which you also find in the United States too?

Well, there's a couple of answers but the most important answer is that we often don't like the stuff that seduces us. You see America, the McDonald's to Microsoft syndrome, is enormously seductive, and we don't like what we are being seduced by. So there's always ambivalence. We sometimes hate our girlfriends or our boyfriends. That's point one.

The other thing is that the seducer is also enormously subversive. I once talked to a German upper class person who hated McDonald's. I said, "Why do you hate McDonalds?" And after a while he came up with the real reasons. "You know, my kids don't come home for dinner anymore." "Ah," I said, "You hate it because it enlarges your kids' freedom." And he says, "Yes!" So that's the subversive part: the kids don't come home for dinner any more. They no longer depend on their parents. So America is the steamroller of modernity which, like any steamroller, flattens not only old habits but old power and status structures. And that, as you know, creates a counterrevolutionary situation. We don't like to lose our power and status to the "new, new thing," to coin a phrase. So that, too, explains the enormous resistance.

A third factor I would say is that, take France, which is the best example of anti-Americanism because it comes out of France in its purest form. France is a country that first lost its strategic superiority in Europe to those upstart Prussian-Germans, and they kept being clobbered by them until they lost their empire too. And then they lost their cultural superiority, which lived way beyond French strategic superiority, way, way beyond into the twentieth century. And now it loses to this upstart, the United States to which, you know, De Gaulle always used to refer to as the "daughter of Europe." That's a lot to sustain, and so this is the third reason. It's the resentment of coming out as the loser on the strategic front and then on the cultural front.

To what extent is this power that America has power in the traditional sense? Are all of these global forms of culture manifestations of American power? And to what extent is it something else, a new global language?

To what extent does Microsoft have power? Most people I know hate Microsoft, they hate Windows, but they can't do without it. So power is when you can define the rules and the standards. America tends to define more and more rules and more and more standards. That's a kind of power. It's very different from the power that you have when you conquer another country and you erect an empire. It's at best informal and a very diffuse power, and it comes with resentment. If you look at it from an American point of view, it does serve American interests, because to the extent that America produces things and ideas that other people want and find attractive, the attraction will always exceed the revulsion or repulsion. So in that respect, it is like traditional power. It gives you a net surplus in your power balance. After you subtract the resentment, you still have a positive balance left over in the account.

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