This past week a chubby, short Korean man by the name of PSY (pronounced “ssai”) managed to pull off one of the most incredible feats in Internet history: his video, “Gangnam Style” garnered over 855 million views in just four short months after taking the world by storm. An overnight pop sensation in itself, the video represents more than the just the silly dance or the meaning it is trying to convey; it represents the beginning of the end of American dominance on pop culture and its declining influence around the globe.
Take as evidence the four other videos in the top five most watched videos on Youtube. Competing with all American music videos, this Korean pop star managed to beat out his competitors by a significantly wide margin: Justin Bieber (807 Million views), Jennifer Lopez (626 Million views), Eminem (518 Million views), becoming an international sensation unlike anything anyone has ever seen before all while barely speaking a word of English. The video has gone on to create countless parodies, spark flash mobs with upwards of 30,000 people and incite political protests in countries around the world using the dance as a symbol. Most recently, UN Secretary General Moon was the latest to join in on the craze as he stated that Gangnam Style was a “force for world peace”.
World Bank President, Jim Young Kim, however, was quick to remark that the success of Gangnam Style was due in large part to the South Korean government’s global strategy to make South Korea the world’s largest exporter of cultural goods. This statement, if true, has profound spillover effects in related goods like cosmetics, electronics, fashion, and travel. Recent reports have even shown that for every one dollar in cultural exports, there was a subsequent four-dollar increase in the exports of other goods.
This phenomenon known as “soft power” (as opposed to the “hard power” of tanks, missiles, and guns) has profound implications on the economic outlook and political influence of nations around the world. Countries that have strong cultural exports in goods such as movies, music, television, and fashion are able to leverage their power in social, political, and economic realms. And in a fully globalized world, any country, even one like South Korea has the potential to become a global leader by bypassing major institutions of power and going directly to the people.
Americans have long held a strong cultural advantage as one of the most revered countries for movies and entertainment, sparking pro-American sentiment in many nations who see America as a leader in many realms and anti-American reactions in countries that see pop dominance as a symbol of Western imperialism. The international popularity of many American international political positions, products, and companies benefited from this type of dominance. In fact, even today Obama’s global favorability is double that of his favorability in the United States.
Yet, the dynamics of American soft power are slowly changing. This morning, in a devastating blow to the global power of the United States, the United Nations General Assembly voted 138-9 to elevate Palestine to statehood, in one of the most contentious global debates this year. As the United States attempts to create a resolution to the crisis in the Middle East, it pleaded to the United Nations that any elevation of statehood would result in the internalization of the issue where direct bilateral talks may be the best avenue for success.
With its new non-member observer status, however, Palestine has a pathway to joining the International Criminal Court, prosecuting Israeli leaders for war crimes, further politicizing the matter on an international scale. While many other states in the majority may have sided with the United States on process, the timing of the vote given Palestine’s position would have resulted in political backlash in their home countries. And American soft power could do nothing to save the vote. If Gangnam Style is any indication of the growing disillusionment with American goods and culture, situations like these will no doubt continue to play out in the world stage over and over again. (South Korea, a strong American ally, voted to abstain on the vote).
Does this mean the end of American pop dominance? Not necessarily. If you travel to any city, you will probably still see the likes of Kanye West, Neil Patrick Harris, and Natalie Portman. But with increasing competition and a global cooling sentiment with all things American, the United States will undoubtedly have a harder time selling many of its ideas (and maybe even its products) to the people of other nations.
While the Palestine vote may have been with the best interests of the conflict in mind, the US Government should begin to reevaluate its dominance on the international stage with the assumption that the majority of countries simply will not side with the United States for soft power in their countries alone. With declining levels of political capital, the United States government would do well to limit its influence and start picking its battles on an international scale.