While America’s cultural power is arguably unparalleled across the globe, it is often overestimated.
It would be hard to dispute the notion that American culture has great global power. According to the Pew Research Center, “In countries throughout the globe, people continue to embrace American popular culture and to admire the U.S. for its science and technology.” While people in many countries are skeptical about America’s business practices, says Pew, 66% of people surveyed across the globe have a favorable impression of American television, movies and music – and 45% have a favorable opinion of American ideas about democracy.

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These numbers are significant, because cultural power affects a great deal more than preference for movies. According to Scientific American, culture effects everything from the words we write to the steps we dance – and it also affects our brains. Research, says the magazine, shows that it influences “the way a person’s brain perceives visual stimuli such as scenes and colors.” Therefore, influencing the cultures of other nations may affect the way in which each nation’s people sing, dance and perceive.

Cultural power is also important, because it has become a tool of battle. Marc C. Eades of Foreign Policy suggests that America and China are engaged in a soft-power war. Most Americans, he says, don’t really think about this, but China is very focused on it. While America takes it cultural influence for granted, says Eades, China struggles to maintain the loyalty of its own people. Joseph S. Nye describes “soft power” as “The ability to get what one wants by attraction and persuasion rather than coercion or payment.” Much of America’s soft power comes from its culture. Nye notes that China has had a hard time gaining any sort of soft power, because even when it hosts attractive events such as the Beijing Olympics, it chases those who might have been interested in living in China or adopting Chinese culture away by engaging in human rights violations or censorship initiatives. America’s idea on Democracy are for more attractive to many, because they allow people greater personal freedom. It is likely that it also wields more cultural power than China because it allows for more variety in areas including music, movies and television.

Yet China is not the only entity with which the US is fighting a war of soft-power. It is also fighting such a war against ISIS. ISIS has recruited around 4,000 westerners since the time of its founding. 550 of these recruits are women who have been recruited as mothers for what Simon Cottee refers to as “the next generation of jihadist ‘lions’.” According to Cottee, these recruits come because they feel estranged from Western Society and they are looking for a superior system. Cottee suggests that today’s ISIS recruits are similar to the Western intellectuals who traveled to places like China and the Soviet Union in the 20th century after becoming disillusioned with America, because they imagined them to be models of a good society. He writes that these intellectuals wanted to be deceived by the countries they traveled to because they had a psychological need to believe that a perfect social system existed. They needed to think that there was a society that was in line with their strongest ideals and that expressed the problems they had with their own cultures. This, he says, is also true of the Westerners Isis is recruiting. They have misgivings about their own cultures and are searching for a better culture in the Islamic state.

One alleged ISIS fighter gives voice to this idea, saying that he joined ISIS to “be free from the corruption and oppression of man-made law…in which a Muslim doesn’t feel oppression when practicing their religion. In which a parent doesn’t feel the worry of losing their child to the immorality of society.”

The west, though, is also using culture to fight against ISIS. ISIS fighters have defected to Western nations because life in ISIS is too hard. American culture is much more laid back and peaceful. And Isis Recruits have been known to listen to American music and to watch American films. There is, therefore, a very active cultural battle between ISIS and the west. So determined to win this culture war is ISIS that it has taken sledgehammers and bulldozers to antiquities.

Americans can control their cultural power to some degree. Some have suggested that it can use radio and television broadcasts to try to win over enemies or foster inside opposition to help destabilize enemy governments. Yet some theorists may overestimate America’s cultural power – or, at least, the speed with which it can operate. According to Christian Whiton, Aemerican cultural power and the appeal of its democratic government are frequently misunderstood; however, they could be powerful parts of a strong communications strategy. Nevertheless, he says that they could not have worked against Saddam Hussein in Kuwait, because there was not enough time for ideas spread through tools such as television and radio broadcasts to really take hold and influence dissenters to rise up against Hussein’s regime.

America can also try to influence China and ISIS through cultural incentives – but any changes that these influences might bring about would be achieved slowly. In the meantime, the country must address more immediate threats such as combatting terrorism and maintaining an economic lead. It is probably wise for America to continue to try to win over the hearts and minds of those with whom they are engaged in cultural warfare with – but they should not overestimate their cultural power.

  • Binns, Corey. “The society in which we live influences the way our brain perceives the world.” 1 August 2007. Scientific American. Online. 25 April 2016.
  • Chulov, Martin. “A sledgehammer to civilisation: Islamic State’s war on culture.” 7 August 2015. The Guardian. Online. 25 April 2016.
  • Cottee, SImon. “Pilgrims to the Islamic State.” 24 July 2015. The Atlantic. Online. 25 April 2016.
  • Eades, Mark C. “Soft Power, America vs. China: America Still Wins.” 22 January 2014. Foreign Policy Association. Online. 25 April 2016.
  • Nye, Joseph S. “China’s Soft Power Deficit.” 8 May 2012. The Wall Street Journal. Online. 25 April 2016.
  • Whiton, Christian. Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War. Washington: Potomac Books, Potomac Books2013. Print.