When Babel, a tale of far flung fates linked by the threads of
globalization, won the Golden Globe for Best Drama in 2007 as well as
seven Oscar nominations, its Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalez
Inarritu, voiced the hope that such recognition meant Hollywood was
entering a new era. "In the global age," he said, "films must show the
point of view of others, with respect and compassion, not as
caricature." That is exactly what Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire has done so splendidly, despite the misplaced rumblings of some Indian
critics that it is "poverty porn." And, true to Gonzalez Inarritu's
hopes, this film about class and social mobility on the dark side of
shining India has garnered a stunning ten Oscar nominations, including
for Best Picture.
Echoing a similar sentiment, President Barack Obama pledged in his first
TV interview -- with the Arab satellite channel Al Arabiya -- that
America under his watch would "listen with respect and not dictate" to
the world. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has further announced that
this country will no longer just throw around its military might, but
would pursue a "smart power" approach by tempering the use of hard
weaponry with the "soft power" of persuasion and cultural attraction.
Or, as Madame Secretary's husband Bill has put it, America would now
lead through the power of example instead of the example of power.
Here lies the connection between Hollywood and Washington as America
seeks to refurbish its luster so tarnished during the Bush years.
Though the Connecticut Avenue think tanks might like to believe
otherwise, the fact is that, for good and for ill, most Americans see
the world -- and the world looks at America -- as much through the prism
of our mass culture as through the formal institutions of our foreign
policy. Through the Internet, we are all exposed to each other.
Unlike most countries, we are seen not only for what we are and what we
do, but through the images we project globally through pop music, TV
shows and Hollywood films. The warblings of Sinatra, Madonna and
Metallica have been the muzak of the globalizing world order. The Bold
and the Beautiful still has viewers in 82 countries. Films like Batman
Lives and the Simpsons dominate silver screens across the planet.
From the outside looking in, this Hollywood prism is a double-edged
sword. Back in 1986, Regis Debray, the old pal of Fidel and Che Guevara,
presciently remarked that "there is more power in rock music, videos,
blue jeans, fast food, news networks and TV satellites than the entire
Red Army" because they carried the vibes of freedom across the Iron
Curtain. Thanks to satellite technology, Oprah has become a subversive
presence on the TV screens of shuttered Saudi wives. Yet, the spread of
"entertainment values" where anything-goes-for-market-share has made
many in the Muslim world wary of Hollywood. Her experiences trying to
bridge the gap between traditional Islamic societies and the permissive
West have led Queen Rania of Jordan to quip that American women are
often seen in the Muslim world as "desperate housewives seeking sex in
Looking out from inside is a similar story. Since less than ten percent
of the famously insular and post-textual American public travels abroad
annually, we get most of our impressions (and misconceptions) about the
world beyond our borders from the image media, particularly from
Hollywood films like the Mission: Impossible, James Bond or, god
forbid, the Rambo series.
If politics in the information age is about whose story wins, then,
given this reality, America's storytellers -- Hollywood -- have a
starring role in defining America's presence globally. For that reason,
they ought to to be recruited for the new "smart power" campaign, which
must be two-fold -- projecting America abroad and projecting knowledge
of others to ourselves at home.
The most important image to project abroad is that America is a plural,
cosmopolitan society that works; a society in which each individual can
write their own narrative despite race, creed or gender. Barack Obama,
of course, is the poster child for this American idea. A film like
Crash shows our pluralism with all the attendant frictions.
We should, however, toot our horn globally with a good dose of humility.
After all, Britney Spears, with her celebrity meltdowns, and John Thain,
with his scandalous bonuses, are also poster children for our way of
life. To avoid hubris, we best remember the famous dictum of Reinhold
Niebuhr that, for all our qualities, Americans are not "tutors of
mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection."
Perhaps more important, traditional public and cultural diplomacy, which
is aimed at persuading foreign publics of America's merits, should be
inverted. In the global age, Americans have become inextricably tethered
to others of whom we often have little understanding. As we move into
the future, Americans not only need to develop a cosmopolitan capacity
for empathy and understanding of those with whom we share this shrinking
planet; we need to be educated to embrace the rules of engagement for
globalization which require forging common and fair rules of the game.
If there is any singularly poignant lesson from the disastrous course
America took after 9/11, it is that any alternative like "smart power"
must be sustained by informed public support at home. Every shortcoming,
misadventure, misstep or outright catastrophe of American foreign policy
can be traced back to the insularity of the democratic public of the
world's superpower. The cultural knowledge gap in our time is every bit
as much a threat to national security as any military gap during the
Imaginative knowledge, whether literature or cinema, is key to closing
this gap. "Literature, " Salman Rushdie has said, "can take away that
part of fear which is based on not knowing things. " Similarly, Azar
Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, says, "The news media is
supposed to serve on aspect of our needs -- information. The other aspect
must be satisfied elsewhere through imaginative knowledge. Part of the
reason people liked my book was because they could experience through
reading it what a young girl experienced in a country called and Islamic
Republic. And they realized that her desires and aspirations were not
very different from their own." Marjane Satrapi's 2007 film Persepolis is a fine example of cinematic insight into others. So, of course, is
Clearly, one important component of America's "smart power" strategy
must thus involve the storytellers themselves who so influence the
world's image of America and America's image of the world -- Hollywood's
producers, writers and filmmakers. They themselves must be educated to
adopt a globalized mentality, whether through their own efforts or
prompting by the State Department.
In this way, Hollywood could become more than the purveyor of amusing
distractions in hard times. It could be part of the "deep coalition" to
help make the world safe for interdependence, which must be America's
global strategy as it moves into an era where it will not always be on top.
In what Fareed Zakaria calls the coming "post-American" era, we will
have to compete for hearts and minds just as Chinese epics like
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon vie for the silver screen and Mexican,
Brazilian and South Korean soaps challenge Days of Our Lives on the
global boob tube. The "rise of the rest" wrought by globalization and
the spread of technology has changed the equation. The John Wayne-era
assumption that America could write the script for the whole world is
over, both in Washington and Hollywood.
Nathan Gardels and Mike Medavoy are co-authors of American Idol After Iraq: Competing for Hearts and Minds in the Global Media Age.