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Gulliver

August 6th, 2003

Josef Joffe’s Bonython lecture, reprinted in full in the SMH represents the United States as Gulliver in Lilliput, a military, economic and cultural hyperpower of unprecedented dominance, but argues

Power exacts responsibility, and responsibility requires the transcendence of narrow self-interest. As long as the United States continues to provide such public goods [global order, a stable world trade system etc], envy and resentment will not escalate into fear and loathing that spawn hostile coalitions.

I don’t think the hyperpower premise stands up to scrutiny. In military terms, it’s certainly true that the US can defeat any likely non-nuclear adversary with ease, but the lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq is that defeating the opposing army is the easy bit. The US military is now stretched to, and arguably beyond, the limit, occupying a country that is, as we have been reminded so often, the size of California. It can’t or won’t muster the additional resources to stabilise Liberia (effectively a former US colony).

In economic terms, war and domestic profligacy have put the US in the classic imperial position – running an empire on borrowed money. It’s hard to put a precise time limit on current US fiscal policies, but it’s most unlikely they can be sustained for another decade.

Finally, there’s the issue of cultural ‘soft power’. I plan a big post on this Real Soon Now, but for the moment I’ll just observe that the most striking cultural trend of the past few years has been ‘reality’ TV. This phenomenon would be the epitome of the dominance of American low culture, if it weren’t for the fact that it was invented by the Japanese and modified for a broader market by the Europeans before reaching the English-speaking world.

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  1. Dave Ricardo
    August 6th, 2003 at 08:47 | #1

    But does any other country have The Block, which so brilliantly combines imported reality TV low culture with the Australian cultural obsession with real estate?

  2. August 6th, 2003 at 09:30 | #2

    Pr Q falsely claims that the US is not pre-eminent in the low-brow/no-brow sector of culture:

    the most striking cultural trend of the past few years has been ‘reality’ TV. This phenomenon would be the epitome of the dominance of American low culture, if it weren’t for the fact that it was invented by the Japanese and modified for a broader market by the Europeans before reaching the English-speaking world.

    In fact Reality TV, Ancient and Modern, was initiated by American TV producers.

    But the granddaddy of the reality TV genre is Candid Camera, which has been on television on and off since 1948…almost since the dawn of the medium itself


    Cops provided the first modern dose of No-brow verite:

    Long before Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire, the network’s bread-and-butter was the likes of Cops…The show debuted in 1989 and remains on the schedule.

    Contrived Reality TV, per placing real people in unreal situations, eg Big Brother, was invented and prefected by non-Americans.
    But it should be noted that this non-American form of pop culture is distributed on broadcast TV – which is itself on the down hill slide in terms of eyeball coverage. R-TV gets a bigger share of a smaller market – not really a sign of increasing cultural power. The power of R-TV is an indication of the medium’s morbidity, not vitality.
    And how many Americans watch non-American R-TV – the prevalence of the R-TV format is a public good, not something which can be used as “Soft power” leverage by the creators.
    Also, the best quality TV that gets global coverage is still AMerican, think Sopranos, Sex and the City, etc
    But in general there are signs that US’s soft cultural power are weakening, or is not hegemonial and that the US is using it’s Hard Power lead to make up the difference.
    One is the decline of America’s dominance of global mass popular cultural formats:
    rock/pop/jazz music songs
    film star system
    Tin Pan Alley et al is no longer “the leader of the pack” and Hollywood is no longer has imperial dominance in mass films.
    Both of these mediums have clearly passed their hey-day: no one hums pop songs or respects film stars anymore.
    This is partly due to increasing customisation, where America’s advantage in mass production is no longer so great. Non-Hollywood Indy producers can carve out market niches in films and songs.
    Also, the drive to seek quality designer goods advantages Euros & Asians with their history of aesthetic craftsmanship. Euros and Asians can better fill market niches for high status goods which are more in demand in unequal societies.
    And then there is soccer, which continues to capture an increasing share of the entertainment dollar of the developed and developing worlds. This will only increase Euro (French!) dominance in the only global sport that really matters.
    Finally, there is coffee, much beloved by Pr Q. Although coffee itself is not nationally branded, it is clearly European in cultural valency.
    Coffee is the beverage of post-modernity, just as Coke was the beverage of modernity. Coffee shops have replaced soda shops as the hang-outs of youth.
    A political implications of the relative loss of Soft Power by the US was the spontaneous growth of global protest movements against the US’s drive to pass Resolution 1442 and Operation Iraqi Freedom. If the US really ruled loving hearts, as well as greedy minds and fearful butts, these protests would not have been wide-spread.
    Thankfully they failed. Iraq’s repressive fascist polity has now been liberated by the Pentagon whilst it’s dilapidated statist economy is now being re-constructed by Haliburton.
    Even so, the signs are that the US ruling class is fearful of losing it’s global dominance.
    Ultimately, the US ruling class faces threats that it cannot prevail against alone:
    laggard performance of domestic minority groups
    PRC’s economic growth
    rogue state nuclear proliferation
    OPEC fundamentalist terrorist’s Hubbert Curve windfall
    Hence the somewhat desperate attempts by the psuhy sections of the US ruling class to “get it while they can” in terms of hard power of “lawyers, guns and money”:
    unilateral withdrawal global legal treaties
    massive regressive tax-cuts
    preemptive military interventions

  3. cs
    August 6th, 2003 at 12:15 | #3

    There’s something wrong with this post John … looks like a link not closed.

  4. wmb
    August 6th, 2003 at 14:11 | #4

    In the meantime, hopefully this works:
    http://www.cis.org.au/

  5. August 6th, 2003 at 16:38 | #5

    I don’t think the hyperpower premise stands up to scrutiny. In military terms, it’s certainly true that the US can defeat any likely non-nuclear adversary with ease, but the lesson of Afghanistan and Iraq is that defeating the opposing army is the easy bit.

    How long is a piece of string?
    How capable the US of defeating any non-nuclear power depends on how much it wants to win – ie the perception of threat or desire for retribution.
    During the VN war, the US spent better than 10% on defence in a war against a nation that had not attacked it, posed no strategic threat to it’s vital interests and represented an ideology (nationalist anti-colonialism) with which it had some sympathy.
    Currently it is only spending 4% of GDP on defence, about half/two thirds the Cold War average.
    If the US faced a greater strategic threat to it’s vital interests (Gulf oil/Israel), from a nation that had attacked it or it’s allies (eg Saudi/Iraqi) based on an anti-thetical ideology (eg fundamentalism/fascism) then I don’t think that there would be much doubt that it could raise the extra funds to seriously prosecute a major war.
    If a conventional war and pacification proved ineffective in neutralising a real threat, then it would escalate to a Carthaginian solution.

  6. derrida derider
    August 6th, 2003 at 20:00 | #6

    .. the US [is] in the classic imperial position – running an empire on borrowed money … it’s most unlikely they can be sustained for another decade.

    Its true they’re currently running on borrowed money, but for once I agree with Jack – that’s a choice, and a recent choice at that, not something they’ve been forced into. They’ve certainly got more than enough taxable capacity to maintain their empire for the foreseeable future if they choose.

    If the British Empire is any guide it will take a long time before the working stiffs wake up that the empire is costing, not benefiting, them.
    I think it was AJP Taylor who described the British Empire as ‘a gigantic system of outdoor relief for the younger sons of the ruling class’ – this new empire can be thought of as a gigantic system of outdoor relief for very rich old men.

  7. John
    August 6th, 2003 at 20:37 | #7

    In this context, willingness to pay is everything. Europe’s economic resources are very similar to those of the US. Its relative military weakness is primarily a result of lower spending and lack of desire to project force throughout the world.

    The US has demonstrated the desire, but not, as yet, the willingness to pay for it.

  8. August 6th, 2003 at 21:49 | #8

    a pet beef
    We are always talking in dread tones about the US’s heinously unsustainable negative flow of funds epitomised by the twin deficits:
    trade: debt US to RoW
    fiscal: debt of young to old
    One supposes that these flows are unsustainable, they have been unsustainable for a generation. Meanwhile the US has gone onto increase it’s power in these areas:
    trade:increased it’s share of trade
    military: dominates world security
    Shouldn’t we be talking about stocks rather than flows?
    The stock of US financial liabilities to the RoW are indeed large, but they are dwarfed by the aggregate stock of US domiciled assets, estimated at $40 trillion + given housing boom.

    The stock of US fiscal liablities to the future are huge, estimated at $43 trillion worth of unfunded but claimable income and health services.
    Still the USE is in much worse fiscal shape than the USA and you can forget about CIS.

    Thus the US is in good financial shape but poor fiscal shape. I conclude that if the US is serious about it’s welfare and warfare state committments it will have to raise taxes.
    I predict that this will happen sometime in the next presidency.
    Read My Lips.

  9. John Quiggin
    August 7th, 2003 at 11:45 | #9

    One of the problems with a housing bubble is that housing assets are of little or no use in repaying overseas debts. By contrast, as long as the bubble persists, overpriced shares can be offloaded onto foreigners.

  10. Dave Ricardo
    August 7th, 2003 at 11:53 | #10

    “One of the problems with a housing bubble is that housing assets are of little or no use in repaying overseas debts.”

    Not entirely true. High priced Australian real estate is bought by foreigners. There is an American magazine devoted to advertising luxury houses around the world, and it regularly features Australian houses, Paul Hogan’s palace at Byron Bay being a recent example.

    Australian real estate might seem expensive, but not compared to many other places, and not to those with $US to spend.

  11. wmb
    August 8th, 2003 at 15:34 | #11

    Gulliver, it seems, is a fiction of realpolitik. I hope somebody tells Secretary of Defense, Rumsfield, and Secretary of State, Wolfowitz, before the next adventure. Nevertheless, the invasion of Iraq did show that some cultural media are not quite ãthe mainstay of American preponderance.ä The density and diversity of communications makes the formation of new global publics possible. The mediums carry the messages of soft power. In the first instance the American Imperium proved unable to control the broadcast of Arabic satellite stations, which mostly opted to relate their news in English as well. then there is the internet, with a cultural significance yet to be realized. The internet reach is potentially great: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/3132023.stm

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