Weapons of Mass Distraction: Soft Power and American Empire

Article excerpt

Matthew Fraser

Toronto: Key Porter, 2003. 288pp, $32.95 cloth (ISBN 1-55263-250-4)

"If the United States abolished its diplomatic and consular services, kept its ships in harbour and its tourists at home, and retired from the world's markets, its citizens, its problems, its towns and countryside, its roads, motor cars, country houses and saloons would still be familiar in the uttermost corners of the world...The film is to America what the flag was once to Britain. By its means, Uncle Sam may hope some day, if he be not checked in time, to Americanize the world" (p. 44). That striking prediction was made by London's Morning Post as long ago as 1923, and Matthew Fraser, editor in chief of the National Post, believes it has something to tell us about our world today.

Fraser's central thesis is that while US military and economic power is indispensable to America's superpower status, "soft power historically has been a key strategic resource in U.S. foreign policy" (p. 9). Quoting this reviewer, he defines soft power as "the ability to achieve desired outcomes in international affairs through attraction rather than coercion" (p. 18). He argues that "no empire--Greek, Roman, French, Ottoman, British--has been indifferent to the effects of its soft power resources" and that remains true for contemporary America (p. 13).

The book is divided into four main parts that deal with movies, television, pop music, and fast food that he characterizes as America's soft power arsenal of "awesome weapons of mass distraction." I found these chapters extremely informative, full of interesting history and observations. As someone who has written on American soft power, I was impressed by the extent of his research and the amount of new material that he has uncovered. I was particularly impressed by his history of film, both in Hollywood and its competitors like Hong Kong and India's Bollywood. He describes the interaction between Washington and Hollywood well, and illustrates the way the two have used each other over the years.

Fraser refutes the simplistic view that the spread of American popular culture is leading to homogenization on a centre-periphery model. He recounts how early prophecies that television would lead to a central global network were misleading, and have been replaced by local controls despite the popularity of some American shows. In fact, the United States has proven to be less dominant in television than in cinema. In the popular music industry, four of the five major companies are controlled outside the United States, and MTV in the 1990s had to decentralize into regional and country units to keep up with its competition. The formula remained the same, but the content varies. He might have added that in the popular new genre of "reality" television shows, the formula originated in Europe and was imported to the United States. And in the matter of fast food, from the French ban on Coca Cola after World War II to Jose Bove's sophisticated political manipulation of MacDonald's in the 1990s, Fraser shows that much of the political agenda related to French domestic politics rather than global issues. He also illustrates how MacDonald's replied by adopting local menus and adapting to local politics.

I am less convinced by Fraser's discussion of empire. …

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