The Battle for Soft Power: America's Digital Cold War with China

TARIK KIZILKAYA via Getty Images

Justin O'Connor, School of Media, Film and Journalism Monash University, Australia

Soft power seems to me a confused and ambiguous term. This kind of power may be "soft," but it's still about power! And I would add, the power of nation-states.

Harvard Professor Joseph Nye has famously used the term to designate the global influence of the United States -- the ability to get what it wants -- exercised by the range of different institutions, associations, foundations and media channels financed directly and indirectly by the government since the Second World War.

This kind of global influence can also be called, after the Italian Communist theorist Antonio Gramsci, "hegemony." In his lexicon, hegemony was not a replacement for hard power -- direct coercive force -- but its continuation by other means. Nye's soft power is an assertion of the U.S., or sometimes "Western," values of freedom, democracy, the rights of the individual and so on.

This can be called "culture" in the broader sense of common values; but it also used "culture" in the narrower sense -- artistic, entertainment, literary, scientific, and humanistic activities -- to promote these values. The most well-known story in this cultural arena is that of the CIA promoting abstract expressionism in the 1940s and 1950s as symbolic of freedom and progress.

In today's times, China has adopted soft power in a different sense. It is concerned to couch its rise to global power in non-threatening tones. Not wanting, like Germany and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to threaten the existing world order and provoke a world war, it wishes to present its rise as harmonious. It can fit within a slightly expanded world order as long as this entry is not seen as zero-sum.

Soft power then appears not the exercise of (or aspiration to) global hegemony by other means. Rather, it is the assertion of the right to a diversity of values and voices on the global stage, and that the competition between nations be sublimated into a dialogue of culture. Soft power as China means it is the replacement of conflict for dialogue and winner-takes-all competition with multiple winners in a new world order.

We have here a shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world, a return to the "concert of nations" envisaged by Metternich in Europe after the defeat of Napoleon and before the rise of Germany. Or perhaps the vision of the international order of self-determining nation states hoped for by President Wilson after the First World War.

The principle of national autonomy -- the right to act in its own interests and be free from outside coercion -- was to be tempered by the recognition of other nations' rights, a commitment to dialogue to solve dispute, and above this a promotion of wider commonly held values and legal norms that might bind all nations to certain forms of behavior.

Soft power as culture is a version of this. It asserts the diversity of cultures as an outcome of, and a contributor to, the free, peaceful dialogue between nations.


There are some more difficult issues to face.

First, cultural diversity is most frequently interpreted as a diversity of national cultures. As we shall see below, the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, invoked as a key piece of international legislation in this field, is also about diversity within nations and about the liberties and means to express therein. This is not always accepted.

Secondly, culture is invoked as if it can only be a good thing. But, as Dominique de Villepin has written in The WorldPost, "culture as identity" is a response to chaos and fragmentation, a strong assertion of them and us in a way that further contributes to the downward spiral of chaos and conflict.

The strong assertion of national cultures by Germany and Japan -- often founded on works and practices of art that we would now consider essential parts of our collective human patrimony -- was very much part of their aggressively seeking a place in a new global order. In short, culture could be much closer to hard power than we often allow.


We might look at the cultural competitions of the Cold War era, where the U.S. (and Europe to some extent) competed with the Soviet Union on artistic excellence -- novels, symphonic music, theater and so on acting as testimony to the claims of either empire to represent best the future of humanity. Better than a war, certainly, but in the end this civilized cultural competition did nothing much to prevent a war that threatened to break out at anytime. Mutually assured destruction, not ballet, did this.

Or perhaps it did. Perhaps one of the reasons the U.S. won the Cold War was that the Soviet Union simply stopped believing in itself. If so, then this was due in no small part not so much to artistic culture as it was due to popular culture. Especially rock music.


We can see at play a third problematic aspects of soft power here. It is very nice to assert the diversity of cultures in a globalized world -- marked by high velocity and dense flows of money, information, goods and services, people, images, sounds and texts. This diversity is in reality dependent on some very hard issues of finance, intellectual property rights, communications infrastructures, market framing devices (ownership of formats, cinemas, platforms, distribution networks etc.) and skilled know-how.

For China, the problem is that it is an emergent global hegemon but has not managed to articulate this into a "soft" cultural influence in the way the U.S. has so successfully managed to do. In fact, whilst China has used globalization to outplay the U.S. economically, culturally it has been much less successful.

When it comes then to discussions about formats, IP, access to markets, joint ventures and distribution platforms the stakes are high and the soft power not very soft at all. The stakes are first, the global "cultural" or "creative economy," which China has convinced itself is a new growth area waiting to happen; and second, influence. Influence not just on the global scale but amongst its own citizens. Will the Chinese population become "Americanized," the Chinese state somehow undermined from within by a foreign culture and a foreign power?

These questions are by no means only asked by China. They long-dominated Europe -- perhaps less so recently because they have more or less given up. But opposition to these global cultural flows was to found in the global south -- or as it was called then, by its one time leader, China, the third world. And China called it "cultural imperialism" -- for which "soft power" is often simply a euphemism. This challenge -- in the name of the new global communication order -- was beaten back by the U.S. in the 1970s.

This gives us a deeper context for the 2005 convention -- not, as we noted above, on "cultural diversity" but on the "diversity of cultural expressions." The difference is important.

It set out to challenge the dominance of U.S.-led global cultural industries by asserting the right of nations to introduce legislation to protect their own cultural production systems -- and to this end asserted that cultural goods are not commodities like any other and may be excepted from various WTO rules.

That is one aspect; the other is that it talks about diversity of "cultural expression." That is, not simply asserting that there are different cultures, mapped neatly onto different nations and ethnic groups, but that all individuals and communities have the right to the means of cultural expression. That is, some education, some minimum of material resources and the legal-political rights to engage actively in cultural production and consumption.

This is a kind of cultural citizenship, but it also means a framing of the cultural economy system so that it provides diversity of access and is not dominated by one or two large (local or international) players, or that these larger players have the responsibility and accountability of securing diversity and cultural citizenship -- not just between nations but within them.

This seems to me where issues of soft power really bite.

One of the major critics of the international system that was broken by the two world wars of the "short 20th century" -- Karl Polanyi -- argued that what undermined the 19th century system of nation states was an unregulated, aggressive capitalism. Instead of ensuring peace -- as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant had suggested in his 1798 essay, where peace allowed trade to happen and brought increased prosperity to all and thus the "perpetual peace" of his title -- it led to catastrophic war.

It seems to me that "soft power" is frequently another version of the Kantian proposal -- let's be nice to each other so that we can continue to compete economically. But as we know the injustices, the power asymmetries, the ecological and human catastrophes of unbridled economic growth have brought peace to some but endless poverty, chaos and war to many others. What is special to our era is that culture is one of the stakes in this increased economic competition, and itself contributes to these global injustices and asymmetries.

Talk these days of the creative economy as soft power and a harbinger of world peace, ignores the huge struggles taking place between Google, Facebook, Baidu, We Chat, Tencent and so on, pitching the U.S. and China directly against each other in a cold digital war of online platforms, search engines and aggregation algorithms. This is before we talk about IP, film distribution, TV rights, international standards and protocols and the other panoply of global cultural trade.

I would say soft power, cultural diversity, harmonious world order -- these things are not just built between nations but within nations. They are about extending cultural citizenship to all, and providing the means for this citizenship to have real meaning not just in terms of consumption but also production. This is how to develop cultural soft power. Let your citizens do it for you within a framework you have set and which is responsive to them.

And between nations we might add the word solidarity to that of cultural exchange: not stripping nations of their asserts and leaving a cultural hole behind.

Walter Benjamin once wrote that every document of art is at one and the same time a document of barbarism. He was talking both about the social inequality and suffering of capitalism and the rise of fascism. But his words could apply today. To use culture as a means of soft power without acknowledging the claims to individual and community autonomy and their capacity to creative divergent and diverse expressions for and between themselves is liable to quickly degenerate into soft barbarism.