ASPEN, Colo. -- President Clinton is concerned about American isolationism. In his realm, that's appropriate. But in a more important arena -- global "soft power" -- there has been a recent positive quantum jump in American internationalism. After talking here with entertainment entrepreneurs at an Aspen Institute conference, one can look beyond the mountains and see the possibility of one more American Century.
Such musings stem from the two new mega-mergers of corporate communications giants: Disney with Capital Cities/ABC and Time Warner with Turner Broadcasting. What is in sight seems clear: There will be about half a dozen global communications giants (including Viacom, which owns Paramount, and Newscorp, which owns Fox).
All of them are American corporations. The products they purvey -- movies, television, music -- are almost entirely American, as American as apple pie, crime in the streets and upward mobility.
These products have no serious competitors; foreigners can make jet aircraft or television sets, but the only international competitor to an American movie is another American movie. The global reach of these media megaphones will grow rapidly due to technological, political and demographic change, and because these American companies which produce and peddle Americana are more likely than before to have the huge amounts of capital necessary to exploit such changes.
All this may well constitute a major advance in American foreign policy. How so? America's foreign-policy goal is to live in a world hospitable to American views and values. During the Cold War we needed "hard power," military muscle and geopolitical clout, to ensure that such hospitality would survive. But without a serious hard-power adversary, the importance of hard power is diminished. Increasingly, real power is soft power. (The phrase is Harvard professor Joseph Nye's, author of "Bound to Lead," and now assistant secretary of international security affairs at the Department of Defense.)
The hero shapes destiny
The range and penetration of American pop culture's power and influence should not be underestimated. In late September, in Australia, Ireland, Germany, Holland and Sweden, all 10 of the top box-office movies were American. In Brussels, Spain and Italy it was nine of 10. In Paris it was eight of 10, and in Japan, seven (courtesy Screen magazine).
Some were good, like "Apollo 13," and some were terrible, like "Waterworld."
But good American entertainment and bad American entertainment have American-ness in common. The director Sydney Pollack ("Tootsie") has said that most American movies have a common theme: "The hero shapes destiny," a notion that entrances global audiences.
The views and values that geopolitical America is offering to the world today concern democracy, markets, individualism, pluralism and merit -- very much in sync with the idea of human beings as destiny-shaping heroes. American foreign policy is moving from Kissinger to Schwarzenegger.
Meanwhile, the audience grows by bounds and leaps. Communication satellites, fiber optics and digitalization will offer ever-fuller program menus. Restrictions on media access are being diluted, de facto or de jure, because in a high-tech time, politicians can't control it anyway.
And people most everywhere are moving up the economic path. China scholar Anne Thurston said in Aspen that in recent years somewhere between 100 million and 200 million Chinese have moved from farm to city, a vantage point from which they can more easily buy a movie ticket and the advertised goods that support commercial television.
What America will they see?
These emerging conditions, driven by former Chinese peasants and American entrepreneurs, serve as force multipliers of American soft power. Our views and values will be exposed to an ever-increasing audience of billions. Which leaves only a couple of questions: What will they see? How will they react?
Will it be an America, still strong, working to rejuvenate what was once so easily called the "American way of life" that will be applauded and accepted? Or will it be an America drenched in crime, dependency and bitterness that will be scorned and rejected?
All that depends partly on what the entertainment entrepreneurs choose to purvey, but mostly on what we do to ourselves and for ourselves.
Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the author of a new book, "Values Matter Most," soon to be a public television special.