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Globalization and American Power

Is globalization the American phenomenon which many people assume it is?

April 21, 2002

Is globalization the American phenomenon which many people assume it is?

The idea that globalization equals Americanization is common — but also simplistic. For starters, the United States itself is the product of 17th- and 18th-century globalization, as Europe expanded to colonize other continents.

But it is also true that the United States is a giant in the contemporary phase of globalization.

Culinary sovereignty

It is understandable — and probably inevitable — that those who resent American power and popular culture use nationalism to fight it. Just remember that in the 1940s, French officials sought to ban Coca-Cola — and it was not until 1953 that it was finally approved for sale in France.

Or consider the case of José Bové — a French sheep farmer (who incidentally spent the early years of his life in Berkeley, California). He became a French hero and earned global press coverage in 1999 by protecting “culinary sovereignty” — through destroying a McDonald’s restaurant. No one forces the French public to enter the golden arches, but Bové’s success with the media clearly spoke to the cultural ambivalence toward many things American.

Or take Iran’s president who complained in 1999, “The new world order and globalization that certain powers are trying to make us accept, in which the culture of the entire world is ignored, looks like a kind of neo-colonialism.”

Diverse roots of globalization

While these critics overstate their respective cases by a long shot, it is also true that several dimensions of globalization are indeed dominated today by activities based in Wall Street, Silicon Valley — and Hollywood.

One should remember though that the United States has its clear limits. To give just some examples, the intercontinental spread of Christianity preceded by many centuries Hollywood’s discovery of how to market films about the bible. And the global spread of Islam, continuing to this day, is surely not “made in USA.”

The English language — which is spoken by about 5 percent of the world’s people — was originally spread by Britain, not the United States. Ties between Japan and its Latin American diaspora have nothing to do with the United States. Nor do ties between French-, Spanish-, and Portuguese-speaking countries, respectively.

But globalization also manifests itself in the contemporary spread of AIDS in Africa and Asia — which has nothing to do with the United States. Nor does European banks’ lending to emerging markets in Asia and Latin America. The most popular sports team in the world is not American: it is Manchester United, with 200 fan clubs in 24 countries.

And how all-encompassing is U.S. power in the global music industry? Well, three of the leading “American” music labels have British, German, and Japanese owners. Some of the most popular video games come from Japan and Britain. The rise of “reality” programming, which has enlivened or debased the standards of television entertainment in recent years, spread from Europe to the United States — not vice versa.

Transnational transmission

Moreover, U.S. culture does not always flow into other societies unchanged — nor does it always have political effects. The ideas and information that enter global networks are “downloaded” in the context of national politics and local cultures, which act as selective filters and modifiers of what arrives.

For this reason, McDonald’s menus are different in China — and U.S. movies are dubbed in varying Chinese accents to reflect Chinese perceptions of the message being delivered. Political institutions are often more resistant to transnational transmission than popular culture.

Although the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square in 1989 built a replica of the Statue of Liberty, China has emphatically not adopted U.S. political institutions.

Still, globalization today is certainly America-centric — in that much of the information revolution comes from the United States. And a large part of the content of global information networks is currently created in the United States and enhances American “soft power.”

French culture minister Jack Lang warned that soft power “moved mostly in one direction because Americans were so closed-minded and provincial, if not grossly ignorant of other cultures.” But Monsieur Lang misses the openness of U.S. society, which accepts and recycles culture from the rest of the world.

A selective influence

Moreover, some U.S. practices are very attractive to other countries: honest regulation of drugs, as by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA); transparent securities laws and practices that limit fraudulent dealing, monitored actively by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). U.S.-made standards are sometimes hard to avoid, as in the rules governing the Internet itself.

But other U.S. standards and practices — from pounds and feet (rather than the metric system) to capital punishment and the right to bear arms — have encountered puzzlement, or even outright hostility in other nations.

In conclusion, soft power is a reality, but it does not accrue to the United States in all areas of activity — nor is the United States the only country to possess it. Under any circumstance, globalization is much more than just Americanization — and the world as well as the United States itself benefit from this reality.