Exporting the American Dream to the Axis of Evil (The Institute on the American Dream)

Proposed panel discussion, Fall 2003


Ideas for discussion:
Can the American model of society be transferred abroad?
Are the wealth, values, and security Americans enjoy obtainable in other cultures?

If yes, how might we help engage and encourage them? How might their societies benefit from such a model?
What effects on their own culture are they willing to endure in order to embrace American values?

If no, how will America handle the international backlash against its broken promises of prosperity?
What is really behind America's desire to culturally influence other countries/societies?
What price is America willing to pay in order to advance its cause?

For an interesting article on this topic, see the article below written by Francesco Sisci. (printed in the Asia Times, March 15, 2002).


Risky business: Exporting the American dream
By Francesco Sisci

BEIJING - A nation's conception of its history is important as it influences how the nation will move into the future; it's especially important now, when states with different civilizations, i.e. vision of their histories, are confronting each other.

The world is no longer divided into mutually excluding civilizations, as it was up to the 19th century, and it is no longer pervaded by Westernized visions of the world, as in the 20th century when capitalism and socialism - both European ideas - fought for supremacy.

The vision of its own history is extremely important for China, where the drive to modernization is also a move toward Westernization. This, in turn, is a great asset for the US. The United States' values helped win the Cold War; people in the Eastern bloc were won over to the cause of capitalist consumerism long before the fall of their system. The value of this "soft" power, as Joseph Nye calls it in his latest book, The Paradox of American Power, is enormous. The question is how to exercise this soft power.

It seems clear that the projection of values, i.e. soft power, can be accurately described as "soft war", and this kind of war was in fact waged by America during the Cold War years. Soft war did not end after the Cold War, as Nye admits; in fact, it has become much more complex.

The confrontation now is not between two exclusive systems trying to prevail over each other, but between different civilizations, some wanting a clash and others doing everything to avoid a clash. Their stance is roughly determined by their histories.

Rome, and before that the Greek empire of Alexander, and Persia, were conquering empires, greedy for land and resources. They craved the silk, porcelain, and spices of the Orient, but all had enormous problems of administration. The preoccupation with conquest and the lust for precious oriental wares and resources can also be seen in the wave of maritime exploration that in the 16th century brought Western vessels to Chinese shores.

At that time there were other traders too - Arabs, Persians, Chinese - but they differed from their Western counterparts in that they did not receive the full support and endorsement of their governments. In other words, the Western states prompted and supported trade and even piracy (remember the pirate and conqueror of the Spanish Armada, Sir Francis Drake?), whereas China didn't support its traders and at times even restrained them. For China, goods were obtained through the administration of territory which produced almost everything that was needed; trade was thus not a necessity.

Against this backdrop, the famous audience of Emperor Qian Long with English ambassador Lord Macartney can be seen in a new light. The Englishman argued for the benefits of trade as his nation saw them, and he considered it vital for English interests to open commerce with China. The Chinese retorted that trade was interesting but not essential, and that the emperor could do without it; in fact he spurned trade because he was afraid it would destabilize China. With hindsight, although all acknowledge that resistance to open trade was senseless, Qian Long's concerns about destabilization were not groundless. China was preoccupied with the effective administration of its territory. That is not to say that it did not try to expand its power and territory, but it tried always to avoid over-reaching; it did this by creating a galaxy of vassal states on its borders that functioned as buffers for the rest of the planet.

For mercantile Europe, foreign relations were conducted on two tiers: there was the balance of power between European countries, and then there was free-wheeling activism outside Europe, with the rest of the world considered open to conquest and to the Europeans' civilizing mission. For China, there was only the home base, and it worked to control this large swathe of territory and wealth by securing its borders with semi-independent minions.

Things now are completely different, as China no longer sees itself as "the world" or even a great part of the world, but recognizes that it is just a small part of the world. Yet the West, and its flag-bearer America, still proceed with the idea of exercising soft power (can we put it bluntly? Waging soft war), making others do what America wants through the immense influence of its cultural industry. After a brief bout of internationalism under Mao, when Beijing aided movements all over the world, China has moved back to its tradition of confining itself to its borders, while trying to assert its geopolitical interests without boasting a real all-encompassing global ambition. In fact, apart from a handful of extremist, diehard terrorists, no large organization or state is willing to stand up to America.

The US has won it all, so much so that there is not even any real resistance against soft war, despite some botched attempts to create competing cultural industries. Hollywood and its US clones dominate the cultural industry; even competing centers of production such as India and Hong Kong try to imitate Hollywood's style, and their best talents contribute to the growth of Hollywood. The whole information industry is dominated by Anglo-American news. No TV network or newswire is as comprehensive and persuasive as the Anglo-American ones. We know what happens in the world because we get the news from AP or Reuters, CNN or NBC. These media influence world opinion on right and wrong.

America is so successful that everybody would like to become American (including your modest scribe). But it is impossible for America to host billions of emigrants. If just 10 percent of the Chinese population (some 130 million) were to move to the US, this would forever change the social and cultural fabric of the nation.

To build a society modeled on the US in a different country is not easy either. For instance, for an American citizen who is ethnic Chinese, the history and social traditions of his ancestors are a heavy burden in the US environment. They would be more burdensome in China, despite the alleged desire of the Chinese to become Americans. The experience of Russia is telling: a simple embrace of some American values did not create the institutions and social web that holds the US together. In other words, it is impossible to transplant America abroad. This creates a huge paradox for the US.

The American victory in the soft war creates the desire of the citizens of the world to become American, with its values, wealth and security umbrella. However, it is impossible for America to grant the American dream to all people who dream it, either in the US or abroad. The danger of creating a desire that cannot be satisfied - whether desire for a certain product or a certain civilization - is the backlash that will follow: waves of protest and dissatisfaction that will translate into a wish to return to one's own history.

This has repercussions within the US too, as the country is composed of people coming from all over the world who will sympathize with their fellows outside America. We have an example here: some US residents and citizens supported the al-Qaeda terrorists.

But certainly the US victory in the soft war is based on the idea that American dreams can be the dreams of the world. How can the US now tell the world that these dreams can't be realized? While many Americans may contest the point that the dream cannot be realized abroad, the question remains: How and when will fulfillment come about?

America must come to grips with the fact that its values can't be easily transplanted, and recognize that total victory in the soft war can backfire.

Alarm in America over the September 11 terrorist attacks is justified because although the attacks were not a huge geopolitical threat, they pointed to a threat from within - the network of local accomplices that made the attacks possible. This weakness, leveraged by a geopolitical black hole such as Afghanistan, could be more deadly than any other threat the US now faces.

It is possible that waging an all-out soft war - judging all other countries by US standards - could increase the number of America's enemies and problems within and without. There is a fine line between isolationism - leaving another country's culture completely alone - and the need to engage everybody in the global market of exchange of ideas as well as of goods.

(c)2002 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.