Soft Power and the American Virus

I think Matthew Yglesias is letting his desire to disagree with Michael Goldfarb get in the way of his judgment, because McDonald’s on the Champs Elysées is not “soft power.” And if “that kind of thing is the real strength of the United States of America,” it is a strength that reflects cultural hegemony, as Goldfarb implies, not influence.

This gets to a growing misuse of the idea of “soft power,” which has to do with a nation’s ability to influence through attraction, not coercion. To begin with, the exercise of soft power for the most part resides in statecraft. Elements of soft power include credibility and reputation, combined with the ability — and willingness — to advance the other party’s interests in a cooperative relationship. Public perception plays a role inasmuch as it generates domestic political incentives for cooperation.

In terms of cultural penetration, that means exposing other countries to aspects and elements of U.S. culture that will generate that kind of domestic political incentive.

In that regard, the ubiquitous proliferation of McDonald’s franchises doesn’t qualify. First, it reinforces the worst negative stereotypes of America. Second, the vast majority of McDonald’s French employees do not develop any personal bond to America or Americans, nor, I suspect, do they leave with a newfound appreciation of the “American way of doing business.” Third, far from being perceived as a positive or even benign influence, McDonald’s represents a direct threat to some very entrenched elements of the “French way of doing life.” The same argument can be applied to most of the brands Yglesias lists, including IKEA (even if the objection to Starbucks is based on a widespread French delusion about the quality of the coffee served in their cafés).

Consistently over the eight years I’ve been here, the people I’ve met who have affection for and positive perceptions of the U.S. are those who have personal contact with America or Americans, whether through travel, business or family and friends. For the most part, that involves French people coming to the U.S., rather than American mass culture coming to France. But it also involves French people doing business with American counterparts, as opposed to American chain franchises.

There are, of course, exceptions. The outpouring of grief for Michael Jackson is just the most recent reflection of how mass media icons can help plant the seeds of a sympathetic inclination toward America. They also often serve as the initial impulse to come visit America, something you can be sure that McDonald’s rarely does. But for the most part, for the American “virus” to have beneficial effects, it has to be caught Stateside.

Where Goldfarb is wrong is to conclude that McDonald’s represents “a major triumph for American culture and cuisine.” In fact, a pretty consistent, if not universal, indicator of a French person’s stance on America is their appreciation of American cuisine. By cuisine, I mean the real kind, which exists in rich regional variety. I’m talking about Texas bar-b-q and biscuits and gravy, New England clam chowder, Cajun popcorn, jamabalaya and gumbo, Southern soul food, N.Y. deli and bagels, you name it. To say nothing of the foodies, which for better or worse represent American inventiveness and innovation. Nine times out of ten, French people who talk about a Thanksgiving meal as a culinary discovery are French people who feel a kinship with America.

On the other hand, those who talk about cuisine as a mixture of tastes and sauces — while refusing to acknowledge that bar-b-q sauce, gravy, or sausage recipes that date back fewer than 400 years qualify — nine times out of ten have never been to America, and therefore never eaten American cuisine, or else think of American cuisine, like Goldfarb, as what’s on offer at a McDonald’s.

So if McDonald’s qualifies as soft power, it’s of the negative variety. The positive variety exists, but it doesn’t, as Goldfarb put it, taste like hegemony.

More World Politics Review