Hard questions about soft power


A provocative collection of essays edited by Fred Rosen provides clues to the future of US influence in Latin America


Empire and Dissent:
The United States and Latin America

Edited by Fred Rosen
2008, Duke University Press
263 pages

Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole

NOT FOR THE first time, and clearly suffering from exaggerated over-enthusiasm for the Obama presidency, the British Broadcasting Corporation has led the cheerleading outside the US about a coming era, under the highly-politicised UK state broadcaster’s favoured presidential choice, in which “soft power” will make Washington everyone’s best friend.

Writing for the BBC last month, for example, Henri Aster stated: “The Obama presidency could be a good test for the theory that America’s power to attract goodwill – its ‘soft power’ – is a key element of its influence around the world.”

Soft power – the ability to buy friendship through aid and lead through culture and example as opposed to military or economic might which Obama, inexplicably, would seem to embody to the BBC – has become the mantra of the moment, complementing the Global Trends 2025 assessment prepared for the president-elect by the US National Intelligence Council (NIC) that envisages a future marked by diminishing US power.

But the problem with soft power, as Alan Knight points out in an eloquent overview of the “informal” imperialism of the US in Latin America, is that it is difficult both to acquire and to deploy in a conscious, purposive way. He writes:

“The Alliance for Progress was, perhaps, the best example in Latin America of a bid for hearts and minds, but its success was both limited and short-lived. A more pervasive and durable – but very ‘soft’ – soft power may involve American culture and consumerism. But it is far from clear how very soft power – what one might call ‘mushy power’? – can be utilised by US administrations.” [pp.29-30]

Knight’s chapter sets the scene for the principal question begged by Fred Rosen’s collection, Empire and Dissent: what is the future of US imperialism in that multipolar world outlined by the NIC of competing powers in which Washington’s (relative) might has dwindled? Although this book does not provide answers, it gives some pithy clues to the likely reaction of the US within Latin America to its declining global power as the emerging economies of Russia, China, India and Brazil begin to assert themselves.

To Knight, the answer to this question almost certainly lies in the economy. He suggests that, in a globalised world, there is every reason to believe that it has been the slow and subtle extension of US power in Latin America through economic mechanisms that is of more enduring potency than past military or political incursions. He writes:

“Economic penetration confers power and may contribute to a kind of loose informal imperialism … Supposed soft power, derived from cultural penetration, is too amorphous and uncontrollable to facilitate purposive action. Thus, to the central question – what is the basis of US imperialism/hegemony in Latin America? – the principal answer must be the old and familiar one: ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’ And, pending a US economic debacle and/or a sustained European or Chinese commercial challenge, it seems likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future.” [pp. 44-45]

Debt negotiations

In his contribution looking at the relationship between US power in Latin America and debt, Carlos Marichal takes up this theme by focusing on the influence of governments of creditor nations, in particular the US, in key debt negotiations.

Analysing monetary or financial hegemony is a thankless task, not least because of the multiplication of actors in the global financial architecture over the last 25 years, and the complexities of the financial sphere, which make it easier to focus attention on politics. Marichal points out that state power and transnational power are not easily separated, and the hegemony of one state over others has always depended on financial strength on an international scale. The two phenomena are, therefore, inseparable, if, as such, hard to characterise.

Marichal examines the growing role of the US in resolving the debt crises of the 1980s and 1990s, and notes striking similarities between what occurred in Mexico in 1982 and in 1994 and the main actors involved in the subsequent financial rescues: the US Treasury, the IMF, the World Bank, and the private international banks. Their objective: not simply to get the Mexican government out of a hole, but to mount a costly bailout for the foreign and national investors (many based in the US) who, in 1994, had bought Mexican public debt indexed to dollars.

“Of particular interest with regard to the Mexican crash is the extraordinary role assumed by the US government, especially by the heads of the Treasury Department, in providing what they considered to be a necessary rescue mechanism for Mexican finance.” [p. 106]

With great prescience, Marichal notes that only a world financial crisis – “a gruesome possibility, which does not now seem so unlikely” – can force a radical change in the self-seeking behaviour of the international financial and investor communities under US tutelage.

While these provocative essays shed some light on the future, the principal objective of Empire and Dissent is to understand and conceptualise US imperialism and concepts of hegemony within Latin America, and to explore responses in the region to this – from ethnic resistance in Bolivia to state assertion under Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and chavismo in Venezuela.

As Rosen himself acknowledges, hemispheric domination today flows both from the US state apparatus itself, but also from transnational sources of power – and this has had polarising consequences within Latin America, one response to which has been an increasing effort to promote regional solidarity in the face of US domination.

Yet whatever the likely trends of US influence and Latin American resistance to it, judging by recent events and the observations of the expert contributors in this collection there seems little doubt that we have entered a new chapter in the story of this unequal relationship. Rosen writes:

“Both US dominance in the Americas and the global dominion of capital have reached critical phases in their lifespans. The future of both is unwritten.” [p. 18]

Gavin O’Toole is Editor of the Latin American Review of Books

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