May 19, 2024
The End of the Soft-Power Delusion
After decades of wishful thinking, it’s finally become clear that cultural influence is no substitute for economic and military strength in foreign policy.
After decades of wishful thinking, it’s finally become clear that cultural influence is no substitute for economic and military strength in foreign policy.

On the night of October 2, 2019, Comedy Central broadcast the South Park episode “Band in China,” a devastating satire of the way Beijing has used access to the Chinese market to shape how the U.S. entertainment industry operates. The plot involves one of the main characters’ going to China to try and sell marijuana, getting arrested, and being rescued by Mickey Mouse and the Disney corporation, whose subservience to China is emphasized. Disney agrees to kill Winnie the Pooh, supposedly for resembling the Chinese leader, in exchange for opening up the Chinese pot market. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., some of the other main characters are trying to make a movie while being supervised and censored by the Chinese military.

“Band in China” made it clear that Hollywood’s soft power was no match for Beijing’s economic hard power. Indeed, the American entertainment industry has failed to have any cultural influence on China, while China has used its hard power to neutralize the influence of American culture.

After the episode’s release, the idea that somehow soft power — which is to say, cultural influence — can be used to decisively change the behavior of foreign nations is, or should be, dead and buried. Soft power, when it does exist, flows directly from hard power. In the case of China, the belief that exposure to U.S. cultural products would help soften and democratize the country has been proven utterly false. In fact, as “Band in China” showed, it has been the Chinese Communists who’ve influenced America.

In the mid 1990s, the idea that somehow soft power, by itself, would shape the post-Cold War world began to take hold. It emerged, naturally enough, from American universities, where an academic elite was all too happy to imagine that its influence on the intellectual and cultural landscape would correct the ugly and vulgar reality of military and economic strength that had, up to now, shaped human history.

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