America's crumbling ideological hegemony

Last Updated 13 March 2011, 17:35 IST

 Fast forward a couple of decades and Hilary Clinton has announced the US is at war – an ideological war for the hearts and minds of the global community.

While Voice of America and other US-backed international broadcasters were aggressively assertive during the Cold War, Clinton laments the fact that, since then, funding has been cut back and US ideological global influence has weakened, especially with new kids now on the block, such as Russia Today and Al Jazeera, gaining influence.

Apart from Voice of America, Hollywood served as a de facto propaganda machine for decades, spewing out self-aggrandising messages about the US as a beacon of freedom and democratic ideals. Hollywood propagated the great 'American lie' of the great 'American Dream' -- the individual reining supreme, overcoming adversity and making it in life.

Transformed media landscape

Enter satellite TV, the Internet and social media and people now no longer turn to a single news source or are as influenced by the Hollywood propaganda machine. The media landscape has been transformed. During the past five years or so, the US has had to face up to the harsh truth that it is no longer able to monopolise the global debate, or even the terms of debate, when it comes to shaping the analysis and reporting of news, whether via CNN or any other US-based global outlet.

While the US may no longer be involved in a war over clear cut political ideology, as was the case in the Cold War, the problem for the US is that it thinks its point of view is the only point of view, or at least should be the only point of view that people get to hear. Its attitude to the changed landscape is revealing -- one day Hilary Clinton praises the Internet, the other she wants to control it, depending on just who is accessing information and whether or not it coincides with US political aims.

In her recent speech urging governments to end Internet censorship, she warned that countries such as China, which censor the Internet, risk going the same way as Egypt and Tunisia, where pro-democracy protests brought down governments.Perhaps Clinton should look closer to home. The Internet is already heavily monitored by the US government, but most revealing of all perhaps is the US attitude to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange.

The US has done everything in its power thus far to curtail its influence by shutting down its access to finance, notably by initially applying pressure on PayPal and MasterCard. Now Assange, with his impending extradition from the UK to Sweden to face charges of sexual abuse, is in real danger of eventually being extradited to the US to possibly face trumped up charges over WikiLeaks.

Non-US English language TV channels, such as Russia Today (RT), Al Jazeera and China Central Television (CCTV) have served to undermine US attempts at ideological hegemony. Hilary Clinton says that the US is losing the propaganda war to these channels, especially Al Jazeera. She also states that she has seen Russia Today in a few countries and that it is “quite instructive.”

As a recent convert to RT, I can see why she thinks this to be the case. RT's news coverage is highly critical of US international policies, and it's not crude anti-western propaganda or some unrefined throwback to the Soviet era. It's analyses are well grounded and based on credible sources and institutions.

Whereas many western news channels focus more on a need for humanitarian military intervention in Libya, RT focuses more on intervention as a cover for imperialism, pointing to the fact that hundreds were killed in Gaza last year but there was little talk of intervention there. The emphasis is completely different. If Hilary Clinton is worried, she has good cause to be.

Bullying and cajoling may be having an impact as far as WikiLeaks is concerned, but these tactics hold little sway when it comes to impacting the influence of RT, Al Jazeera or CCTV. If the upheavals in the Arab world show us anything, it may be that it's becoming more difficult for the West to continue to prop up authoritarian leaders and rely on such leaders to keep their populations in line. There is a new generation who are more well informed and tuned in and who are much harder to control.

The US is rattled by the new media landscape and the increasing sophistication of various populations whose expectations and aspirations are no longer constrained due to their access to a wider range of news channels, Twitter and other social media.

Francis Fukuyama mistakenly believed we had reached the end point of humankind's ideological evolution and that western liberal democracy was the final form of human government. That in itself was always a thoroughly depressing thought. These days, however, many throughout the world see through the charade of western-style democracy. And Hilary Clinton knows it.

(Published 13 March 2011, 17:35 IST)

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