Appointments in the Obama Administration make it clearer every day that the President-Elect fully understands the fundamental economic principle taught in every freshman econ class around the world—there is no such thing as “free” culture.
President Elect Obama also is an unambiguous supporter of the doctrine of “smart power” as articulated by the Report of the Smart Power Commission of the CSIS. Secretary of State Select Hillary Clinton mentioned the importance of “smart power” many times during her confirmation hearings.
“Smart power” is a foreign policy doctrine that balances the use of “hard power” (such as weapons or bribes) with “soft power” that uses a country’s cultural attractiveness to persuade opponents. Or more simply—stick and carrot.
Soft power includes the dissemination of popular culture, and there are few countries that have benefited more than the United States from the attractiveness of its popular culture. Soft power does not expressly offer a metric of the commercial success of popular culture as a driver for the success of a country’s soft power in the struggle for the hearts and minds of other peoples, but at the time it was written, that metric was unnecessary as the Pirate Bay did not exist when Joseph Nye introduced the concept in his seminal 1990 book Born to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power and was not fully part of the public debate in 2004 when Professor Nye published Soft Power.
But it is now. Because in order for popular culture to remain part of the tools available to those charged with operating a successful foreign policy for the United States, it is of critical importance for that culture to survive and grow, not fail and be regurgitated. The importance of these tools are not to be underestimated. Professor Nye notes in Soft Power “Long before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it had been pierced by [music,] television and movies….Lennon trumped Lenin….One [Chinese] dissident told a foreign reporter [during the Tiananmen Square massacre] that when she was forced to listen to local Communist Party leaders rage about America, she would hum Bob Dylan tunes in her head as her own silent revolution.” (Soft Power 49-51.)
These are all examples of the importance of maintaining cultural contact with both our friends and enemies. Unfortunately, the engine that drives the production of popular culture, including that of the U.S. and the U.K., is under a historic level of attack in the virtual world that undermines smart power options.
The thought leaders of the anti-copyright crowd (such as Lessig, Fisher and Geist) lead the grand apology for piracy from the amen corner (see In Defense of Piracy, about Lessig’s new book). They have a distorted view of the artistic world they study but never experience. These ivory tower academics position an artist’s struggle for economic freedom as a “war” that pits Silicon Valley Leviathans like Google (aka “innovation”) against “Hollywood” (aka “Hollywood”)—while incongruously trumpeting the democratizing influence of the Internet to open up new distribution channels for the “little guy” to go around “Hollywood”. But when the little guy gets to the promised land of innovation, she will find The Man 2.0 lunching on her work—for free.