America's record promoter

Could it be that the impeachment process has increased American influence in the world?
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The Independent Culture
THE BILL and Monica show is over at last. So what? A couple of weeks ago at the first session of the Davos forum, the international editor of a US magazine asked the assembled panellists whether the impeachment of the US President had had any impact on the power of the US in the world. All agreed that it had had none.

At the time, that seemed the only possible answer. It is certainly very hard to see any negative impact, for the US dominance of global politics seems as absolute as ever. But since then a further thought has struck me: could it be that the impeachment process has, if anything, even increased American influence in the world? Influence is, of course, a more diffuse, abstract concept than power, but arguably it has become the more important one. We are in a world where "soft power" - the ability to imbue people in other countries with your ideas, values and objectives - has become more important than "hard power" - dropping bombs or sending gunboats.

If the idea that the impeachment of a US president should have increased America's influence seems preposterous, consider these two facts. First, during the last year this newspaper has devoted a higher proportion of its foreign coverage to American affairs than at any time since it was founded 12 years ago. Second, this higher profile for the US has come at just the moment when there is a new, US-dominated communications technology available to project American influence, the Internet.

For good or ill, the US has a higher profile in the world than ever before and, in part, we have Bill Clinton to thank for that.

The shift of emphasis from hard power to soft power is so recent that we are still coming to terms with it. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US has for a decade completely dominated the world in a military sense: it is the sole superpower. But the US rarely deploys that power and when it does, by, for example, bombing Iraq, the results are mixed. However, during that same period US dominance has increased in other ways. There has been the gradual switch of the world to the Anglo-Saxon model of market capitalism (which is really the American one), a switch given new impetus by the evident weakness of the alternative East Asian model. There has been the export of American ideas of business management to European companies - including its more brutal facets, witness the sackings of the two top executives at BMW. There has been the global adoption of US standards for personal computers and the Internet. There has been the explosion of Hollywood products (and the export of Hollywood values) to the rest of the world.

And there has been the exporting of President Clinton's approach to communications. Just as, in the Eighties, the British Tories had a big idea that swept the world - privatisation - so in the Nineties the US Democrats have had a big idea that is also sweeping the world. There isn't yet a single word for it, but let's call it "opinion poll democracy", for one of its key elements is fitting what a politician says, and the tone in which he or she says it, to the current mood of the electorate.

Thus a set of ideas and expressions developed by Clinton have been exported first to Britain, where Tony Blair has been a star student. In fact he has been more than that: he has become the messenger, taking the Clinton model and packaging it into a product that can be exported further, to Germany and beyond. Blair modelled his political approach on Clinton; several young Labour party brains behind the last election worked in (and watched) the original Clinton campaign. Many of the Labour slogans - eg "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" - were dead ringers for Democrat ones.

Most important of all, though, is the tone. You can be unkind about this and note the faux humility, the earnestness, the mock "ordinariness" (this from a millionaire US Rhodes scholar and a millionaire British public schoolboy), the lip-biting when things go wrong, and so on. But not only is it devastatingly successful; it is a sight more attractive than the pomposity and unconcealed arrogance of earlier generations of politicians.

Of course, some other politicians are not so good at it. Gerhard Schroder presented himself as a German Blair, but was less credible than his more youthful mentors. Besides, he dyes his hair. In Japan the leader of the Democrats, the main opposition party, Naoto Kan, has been dubbed Blair- san. His party offices have the same "advertising agency" feel as Labour's campaign HQ in Millbank Tower, and the advertisements mimic those of the US Democrats and New Labour. But though he tops the polls as Japan's most popular politician, pure popularity in Japan has to be buttressed by an effective political machine and the party has yet to make a breakthrough there. However, he may make it in the future.

If Clinton's successful election and re-election have had a profound influence on democratic politics elsewhere, will his recent escape from having to pay the price for a scandal do likewise? I think it will. Expect politicians in trouble everywhere (and I mean different sorts of trouble from Mr Clinton's) to adopt a similar defence. Apologise to voters, crave forgiveness, be very, very humble at the appropriate moment (but not for too long), and meanwhile watch every nuance of the opinion polls to fine- tune policies to meet the perceived fears and hopes of the electorate. This is what people want.

Or at least it is what people want while the good times roll. America's rising influence in the world is partly the result of the political triumph of its President, but to a greater extent it is a result of the success of the American economy. Of course, in one sense the two are related; were the economy in recession, Mr Clinton would hardly be the most popular president since the Second World War. But the relationship works only one way. Neither Mr Clinton nor the Democrats are responsible for the explosion of entrepreneurship and new technology that is driving the US economy forward.

Mr Clinton has unintentionally created additional global interest in the US. But it is American business that, with perhaps a little help from the Federal Reserve, has been responsible for the eight-year-long boom. Insofar as business people in the US are political at all, they tend to vote Republican. When the boom ends, as it surely will, people may adopt a different tone to the current indulgent one.

In that sense, the big idea of Mr Clinton's politics may prove less durable than the big idea of Mrs Thatcher's privatisation.

But the exporting of American business culture, ideas and values will, I am sure, continue, because the US is the only country in the world that has developed a successful exportable popular culture.

This is relevant to Britain, for we benefit as the principal sub-contractor to the US entertainment industry. Our own cultural exports are booming - they are the fastest-growing segment of our invisible exports, which are now second only to those of the US in size. But we ride on the back of American funding and distribution. We can do the creative side stunningly well, but we seem unable to do the business side.

That is all right. The US information and entertainment industries will race on. US technology, in particular its pioneering of new uses for the Internet, will also race on. The world will remain tremendously interested in America.

Just as Mr Blair has, so to speak, developed the export version of the Clinton political model, so our own creative industries will continue to help some of the fastest-growing parts of US economy to sell their wares to the rest of the world. In return, we will also get access to the US market for our home-produced creative exports.

So, if Mr Clinton wants to help All Saints sell more records in the United States, then we should be grateful. He is a genius of an entertainer himself.