Boxing Out: Assessing the United States’ Cultural Soft Power Advantage in Africa Over China

Boxing Out: Assessing the United States’ Cultural Soft Power Advantage in Africa Over China
AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
Boxing Out: Assessing the United States’ Cultural Soft Power Advantage in Africa Over China
AP Photo/Themba Hadebe
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Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.


Scott Martin is a career U.S. Air Force officer who has served in a multitude of globally-focused assignments.  He studied Russian and International Affairs at Trinity University and received his Masters of Science in International Relations from Troy University.  He is currently assigned within the National Capitol Region. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  Boxing Out: Assessing the United States’ Cultural Soft Power Advantage in Africa Over China

Date Originally Written:  July 16, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  September 14, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author believes that as a mechanism to counter China’s rising influence in Africa, the U.S. can leverage some of its soft power advantages. In particular, the popularity of American cultural offerings, such as the National Basketball Association (NBA) offers an opportunity for the U.S. to counter China and its soft power efforts in a geographically critical area of the globe.

Summary:  Chinese investment in hard and soft power in Africa over the past several decades presents a challenge to the U.S. role on the continent. While the Chinese focus in Africa is yielding positive results for China’s image and influence, there are still areas where the U.S. outpaces China. American advantages in soft power, such as the popularity of its cultural exports, like the NBA, offer an opportunity for the U.S. to counter Chinese efforts in Africa.

Text:  Since the Cold War, Chinese investment and engagement in Africa is a strong point of their foreign policy. For several decades, China has pumped billions in economic aid, estimated at over $100 billion[1]. The combination of presenting economic assistance on business terms only without dictating values and lack of historical barriers (ala Western Europe’s colonial past and American insistence on adherence to values such a human rights for economic assistance) has made China a formidable force on the African continent, offering an attractive “win-win” relationship[2]. However, while China dominates when it comes to economic engagement, they have not shut out the West when it comes to various forms of soft power. In particular, U.S.-based forms of entertainment, from movies to sporting events, still out-pace Chinese variants.

Since political scientist Joseph Nye first defined “soft power” in the 1990s as the concept of “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants…in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants”, the concept has gained many political and academic converts[3]. The Chinese look to promote their soft power capabilities, and it is a stated goal of Chinese leaders since Hu Jintao in 2007[4]. These efforts appear to pay off, as surveys show Africans with positive opinions related to China[5].

Yet, while China makes strides in promoting its soft power, it still faces challenges. For all the positive responses it engenders with its efforts, it has not won over all Africans. In various surveys, many ordinary Africans do not always feel that China’s continued investment in their respective countries benefits them as much as it does political leaders[6]. Additionally, Chinese efforts for the promotion of soft power lack the impact of its Western/U.S. competitors. In cultural examples, to include entertainment, the Chinese lag far behind the U.S. It is in this area that the U.S. can leverage its soft power capabilities to help promote itself and counter some aspects of China power projection.

Many aspects of American culture and entertainment find a home in Africa. American cinematic offers dwarf all other international offering by a significant margin, to include China[7]. American music, especially hip-hop and rhythm and blues, dominate African music channels. An American traveling through the continent is considerably more likely to run across American music than the Chinese equivalent[8]. While the Chinese promote their educational capabilities, more African will look towards American colleges/universities if given the chance to attend[9]. While hard power economic and military investment numbers might favor China, the U.S. continues to hold a significant lead in soft power ratings over China in Africa[9].

In one key example, the U.S.-based NBA is arguably the most popular U.S.-based sports league on the continent. While professional football/soccer might be the most popular international sport, the NBA has grown in global popularity over the past 20 years, which includes Africa. Prior to the suspension of the NBA season due to COVID-19, 40 players born in Africa or descended African-born parents were on NBA rosters, to include reigning league Most Valuable Player Giannis Antetokounmpo and All-Star Joel Embiid[10]. Factor in NBA Hall of Famers such as Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon, and the NBA has significant connections with Africa. Additionally, NBA merchandising and broadcasting takes in significant money, and previous games played in Africa posted sell-out crowds[11]. At the start of 2020, the NBA established an NBA Africa league for the continent, with participation from multiple countries. While COVID-19 disrupted plans for this league, the NBA will be eager to re-engage with Africa post-pandemic.

For the U.S., the NBA efforts offer an opportunity to counter Chinese activity, playing to America’s significant soft power advantage. While the NBA is becoming a more international game, the league is still an American corporation, with mainly American stars. While jersey sales focus on the individual names, which will include African players, the designs and logos are still from the American-based teams. Additionally, with the NBA’s current relationship with China severely curtailed after Houston Rockets’ General Manager Daryl Morey retweeted a message support Democratic protestors in Hong Kong, the NBA, facing a pre-COVID-19 shortfall of $400M from Chinese boycotting, is looking for additional revenue streams[12]. A U.S./NBA relationship in Africa can be a version of “win-win.”

While most view soft power as more effective when it is not directly promoted by the power projecting country, the U.S. can leverage its soft power advantages to counter Chinese actions in Africa. When it comes to the promotion of American cultural imports, U.S. officials, while not explicitly stating that the U.S. government supports that activity, can do things such as promote their attendance at such events via social media as well as take advantage of other communication forums to promote the successes of such ventures in Africa. Additionally, when applicable, the U.S. government can promote favorable messaging at efforts to expand U.S.-based cultural exports, such as the release of American-owned movies and music recordings and clear any governmental administrative hold-ups for entities like the NBA to promote their games and products in Africa.

Granted, promotion of American-based culture and entertainment, such as the NBA, cannot offset the extensive Chinese economic investment in Africa, and the U.S. will have to face its own challenges in soft power projection. However, by playing to its strengths, especially in soft power realm, the NBA in Africa can open the door towards showing a positive image and outreach of American and Western values. This NBA actions can also open the door toward future engagements that can both benefit Africa and challenge Chinese efforts. American cultural offerings are not a cure-all magic bullet, but the U.S. does have the ability to leverage them for soft power advantages, which could stem an increasingly powerful China whose influence across Africa is growing.


This article appeared originally at Divergent Options.

Endnotes:

[1] Versi, Anver (Aug/Sept 2017).“What is China’s Game in Africa?” New African, 18. https://newafricanmagazine.com/15707.

[2] Tella, Oluswaseun (2016) “Wielding Soft Power in Strategic Regions: An Analysis of China’s Power of Attraction in Africa and the Middle East” Africa Review, 8 (2) 135. https://www.academia.edu/30299581/Africa_Review_Wielding_soft_power_in_strategic_regions_an_analysis_of_Chinas_power_of_attraction_in_Africa_and_the_Middle_East.

[3] Lai, Hongyi (2019) “Soft Power Determinants in the World and Implications for China: A Quantitative Test of Joseph Nye’s Theory of Three Soft Power Resources and of the Positive Peace Argument.” The Copenhagen Journal of Asian Studies, 37(1) 10.

[4] Schmitt, Gary J (19 June 2014) “A Hard Look at Soft Power in East Asia” American Enterprise Institute Research, 5. https://www.aei.org/research-products/report/a-hard-look-at-soft-power-in-east-asia.

[5] Tella, Oluswaseun, “Wielding Soft Power in Strategic Regions” 137.

[6] Langmia, Kehbuma (2011). “The Secret Weapon of Globalization: China’s Activities in Sub-Saharan Africa” Journal of Third World Studies, XXVIII (2), 49. https://www.academia.edu/31196408/THE_SECRET_WEAPON_OF_GLOBALIZATION_CHINAS_ACTIVITIES_IN_SUB-SAHARAN_AFRICA_By_Kehbuma_Langmia.

[7] 2015-2020 Worldwide Box Office, IMDb Pro, Accessed 13 June 2020, https://www.boxofficemojo.com/year/world/?ref_=bo_nb_in_tab

[8] Tella, Oluswaseun. “Wielding Soft Power in Strategic Regions” 161.

[9] Lai, Hongyi. “Soft Power Determinants in the World and Implications for China” 29.

[10] Mohammed, Omar (2 April 2019) “NBA to Invest Millions of Dollars in New African League” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nba-africa-idUSKCN1RE1WB.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Young, Jabari (2020, 16 Feb). “NBA will Lose Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Due to Rift with China, Commissioner Says” CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/16/nba-will-lose-hundreds-of-millions-of-dollars-due-to-rift-with-china-commissioner-says.html.



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