quarta-feira, 10 de dezembro de 2014
Shifts and shocks on the soft power scale
It used to be asked how the US could deploy its soft power in the Middle East more effectively. That was in the days of the Iraq and Afghan wars and President George W Bush’s ill-advised warnings to the world that “you’re either with us or against us”.
There was no easy answer. Many people in the Middle East loved US brands and Hollywood movies, and wanted the American dream. None of that, though, could convince them to accept US foreign policy
Washington tried ever harder to sell what’s good about America. There was a television channel dedicated to Arab audiences, as well as a radio station, a magazine and diplomatic initiatives to promote freedom and democracy, and target youth and women. Nothing worked. No amount of soft power could mitigate harsh American power or counter damage to the US’s image from revelations of torture of al-Qaeda detainees, the full scale of which were detailed in this week’s Senate report on the CIA.
And then a miracle happened. It was Barack Obama. Just by being elected the first black president, he shifted perceptions of America. In the Middle East, it certainly helped that he also called for a new beginning with the Muslim world, based on ending old wars and not starting new ones.
The Obama magic faded quickly, however, and not just among Arabs. This year, it has been damaged further by the National Security Agency spying scandal, further displays of dysfunctional federal government, police shootings and race riots. Not to forget that Mr Obama turned out to be rather uninterested in deploying US might overseas, whether hard or soft.
So it is with some surprise that I find the US tops the 2014 list of Monocle Magazine’s soft power survey. Now in its fifth year, the survey — conducted with a UK think-tank, the Institute for Government — bumped Germany to second place.
Admitting that the winner is “controversial”, the report argues that American soft power today is measured by Silicon Valley more than Washington. With the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon and Netflix, the US tech industry’s influence is indeed both formidable and unprecedented. The fact that Silicon Valley stood up to the White House — as it did in the NSA affair — in the name of personal freedom also accentuates US virtues.
The problem with the survey, however, is what it actually measures. According to Jonathan McClory, who developed the methodology, it is a reflection of the resources available to a given country to deploy its soft power rather than the actual impact. “It’s more an illustration of reality in terms of resources, and perceptions take time to catch up with it,” he says. On that score it is difficult to beat the US. It should win every year.
What’s interesting about such measurements, beyond the fact that they make for a good read, is that the soft power available to one country can be used and abused by others, sometimes to devastating effect.
Take the group that calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), for example. It has mastered the use of social media to such a degree that it can terrify adversaries into surrendering territory; and persuade Europe’s troubled Muslim youth, including women, that it is building a caliphate utopia. Isis is using the best soft power tools the US offers — Twitter, Facebook, and others — to promote its monstrous behaviour.
Perhaps a more useful reflection of soft power politics can be found in another ranking that doesn’t specifically refer to soft power but measures its influence. The Anholt-GfK Nation Brand index looks at the image of 50 countries as filtered through international public opinion.
There might be problems with this methodology, too, but the results are more convincing. In the latest findings, published in November, Germany knocked the US off the top spot. Germany, argues this survey, not only won football’s World Cup, always a boost on the soft power scale, but has also shown leadership in Europe.
Also pleasing in this survey is that Russia, despite a relentless campaign to advance its soft power, receives the strongest criticism from international public opinion. Until recently it was a fast-rising star. This year, with its support for Ukrainian separatist rebels and annexation of Crimea, it has slid precipitously down the rankings.