This discussion comes in three parts. In the first I briefly look at the concept of ‘reference cultures’, assuming that the kind of reference mechanism we are talking about is not simply the perceptions and traditional ways of thinking which identify Greece with the foundations of western philosophy, Italy with the heritage of Rome, India with Hinduism, or Brazil with soccer, but is in some way a model or orientation point for patterns of change, innovation, modernity, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘progressive’ or otherwise.

In the second part I survey the key formative moments in America’s role as a ‘reference culture’, from the start of the twentieth century to recent times. I then treat one of the most prominent ways in which America proposes itself these days as a reference culture, through the concept and reality of ‘soft power’. Throughout I try to demonstrate that America’s unique ability to invent models of ‘modernity’ lies at the heart of its continuing role as a ‘reference culture’, but that this role has a profoundly dividing effect on every society with which it comes into contact. The consequent cleavages, I suggest, are an inescapable outcome of any engagement with America’s power as a reference culture of modernity. For the sake of clarity, the divisions are presented here in their most obvious binary forms. In reality, they are, of course, usually more complicated.

A Reference Culture of Our Own

It is to sociologists we must turn when looking for ways to expand our understanding of the concept of ‘reference cultures’. Peter Wagner, talking of the French revolution and Britain’s industrial revolution, points to the universal nature of the commitments these great movements made, ‘because they contained normative claims to which, one presumed, every human being would subscribe and ... because they were deemed to permit the creation of functionally superior arrangements for major aspects of human social life … they were seen as globalizing in their application because of the interpretative and practical power of (their) normativity and functionality’.1 It’s what Gerard Delanty calls the ‘normative salience’ of authentic reference cultures.2

In the final chapter of his book, Towards a World Sociology of Modernity, Wagner notes how non-European societies responded to this European challenge, resisting its presumption, recognizing its potential for menace, but also understanding that its dynamic ensured that certain choices had to be made. He describes how debates about facing up to ‘Westernization’ emerged first in the Russian and Ottoman empires in the eighteenth century, and then sprang up in China and Japan towards the end of the nineteenth century. The result of these encounters was not ‘westernization or the assertion of a long-standing cultural programme’, says Wagner. Instead, echoing many years of debates between historians and social scientists about the alleged ‘Americanization’ of Europe and elsewhere, he talks of ‘selective perception, active interpretation and modified introduction of certain features of “European modernity” in the given context’.3 This is the dynamic that Rob Kroes calls ‘selective appropriation’. Or what Philip Curtin, in his 2002 volume, The World and the West. The European Challenge and the Overseas Response in the Age of Empire, identified as ‘defensive modernization’.4

Reconstructing America as Reference Culture in Europe up to World War I

When then, and how, did the civilization of the United States acquire the ‘normative salience’ of a true reference culture in the eyes of leading opinion makers in Europe? Among all that early ‘great body of European commentary on America’ (Vann Woodward), without parallel in volume and intensity in the relations between one nation and its outside observers (yet almost never comparative), was there any which anticipated America’s future normativity and functionality, and the practical power that would grow out of these features? Overwhelmingly negative in tone and content, the outpourings of those European élite members who dared the ocean crossing in the nineteenth century deposited layers of negative stereotypes. These would harden over time to form a fundamental component of the ‘anti-Americanism’ so often associated with French writers in particular.5

But by the end of the nineteenth century élite observers could see that Europe itself was starting to change under a range of new American influences. Many did not like the consequences. In 1882 the most renowned philosopher of his day, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote:

The breathless haste with which the [the Americans] work – the distinctive vice of the new world – is already beginning ferociously to infect old Europe and is spreading a spiritual emptiness over the continent.6

Nietzsche denounced the obsession with production and productivity he saw dominant in the American way of life, the urge to ever more intense and competitive work, what today we would call the ‘present-mindedness’ of everyone. And worse, this attack on the heritage of every cultural standard worth respecting was spreading across the Atlantic: ‘[t]he faith of the Americans today is more and more becoming the faith of the European as well’.7

Contrast this with the quite different prospect offered by H.G. Wells, the inventor of science fiction, the greatest prophet of his age. His 1906 account of The Future in America stands out as one of those which came closest to identifying the problems in America’s present most likely to challenge the future of western civilization as a whole. To Wells America was irresistible because in no other land was the tension so great between the ‘mob-like rush of individualistic undertakings’ and the promise of a ‘planned and ordered progress’. There might be found the clues of how the nineteenth century experience of industrialization could finally be superseded, replaced by electricity, knowledge and rational public management.8 What the author of The Discovery of the Future went to find in America was neither model nor metaphor, but an inspiration, a source of energy and ideas, which could be used to reinforce his own great dreams for the reform of post-Victorian Britain, tired, bloated and chaotic.9

But even Wells could not imagine how deep and enduring would be the splitting effect on societies of America’s ever-growing sources of influence and inspiration: between those who detested them – ­intellectuals, churchmen, conservatives of all sorts, figures of traditional authority – and those who would come to embrace them: lovers of technical invention like Wells himself, the commercial classes, the workers, women, young people, rebels and emigrants.

From Woodrow Wilson to the Second World War and After: the Birth of the Great Cleavage

First came Woodrow Wilson then, close on his heels and not by chance, came Hollywood. In the short term, as is well known, the leaders of the victorious nations in the Great War succeeded in containing Wilson’s vast popular success, and neutralizing his subversive political design. His specific political legacy was undermined at home and abroad. But Wilson had a precocious understanding of how the forces of public opinion had been transformed by the war, and of America’s capacities for reaching them.10

Wilson had encouraged Hollywood’s creation and quickly gave it the blessing of the White House. He understood that the new communication technologies and entertainment industries could give the United States unprecedented access to the public opinion of nations everywhere, and he intended to use it. The President said that the cinema ‘was increasingly associated in the eyes of the world with the modernity of the United States’. Launching the first Films Division of the Committee on Public Information in September 1917, he declared:

The film has come to rank as the very highest medium for the dissemination of public intelligence, and since it speaks a universal language, it lends itself importantly to the presentation of America’s plans and purposes.11

What Wilson could not imagine was that the new Los Angeles film industry would set off a ‘revolution of rising expectations’ across the world with the potential to destabilize traditional hierarchies of values and authority, wherever it was left free to do so. With radio, jazz, advertising, chain stores and the booming prospect of 1920s America also before their eyes, traditional élites in Europe – politicians, educators, religious authorities, intellectuals, judges – rushed to stem the flood and set up bulwarks of cultural protectionism against the onslaught.

But at the same time as such people in Britain were creating the BBC – designed explicitly so that radio in that country would not follow the American pattern12 – masses of young people were giving American films 95% of the UK cinema market. Young women especially embraced Hollywood’s alternative world of abundance and glamour, confirming its irresistible and enduring appeal.13 Here was a genuine alternative reference culture to the predominant universe of drudgery and poverty, which held so much of post-war Europe in its grip. To escape into a dream world of fantasy and happy endings proved irresistibly attractive to vast swathes of popular society, to the point where conservative voices were denouncing the transformation of British film-goers into beings who ‘talk American, think America, and dream America’.14

The 1920s represent a very distinctive crossroads of modernity. Beyond the evolution of mass democracy and mass entertainment, there was yet another force for innovation coming from America which proposed itself as an alternative reference culture of progress: Fordism, promising a revolution in the mass production and consumption of the fruits of technological development. And once again the splitting effect of such a force for change would be seen across European industrial societies. This time though the division would not be between the masses and their desire for cars – not yet awoken – and élites defending their privileges and status symbols. Instead the tensions would arise between traditionalists and innovators in the world of industrial production. The tormented world of Weimar Germany was the place where the fiercest debate on the meaning of Fordism broke out. ‘All were convinced that Ford and Fordism spoke directly to the German condition’, says Mary Nolan, ‘even if they disagreed bitterly on what the message was’.15 At best what could be hoped for was what British industry thought it might aspire to: not simply the exchange of ‘tradition’ for ‘modernity’, but ‘a selective amalgamation of elements inherited from the past with introductions from the continuously evolving present’.16

By the time the Second World War broke out, the notion that ‘America’ might offer a comprehensive civilizational point of reference for the future of the world would have found very few takers in Europe. Instead a vast litany of complaints against the models of modernity flowing out of the United States added a new stratum of rejection to that accumulation of negative stereotypes laid down by the nineteenth century’s travellers. From Spengler to Ortega y Gasset, from Huxley to Heidegger, from Freud to a wide selection of French writers, a dirge of horror arose to denounce the massification and standardization of the individual seen in the United States, the prevalence of technological and materialistic priorities in the organization of life there, the ‘levelling down’ effects of America’s commercialized mass culture.

But this was not the whole story by any means. Thanks to Hollywood, the ‘American Dream’ of freedom and abundance went transnational, sought universal horizons and would even survive the great depression. A popular egalitarian spirit could be seen at work in America’s ways of producing cinema, music, advertising, retailing and celebrities, all of which started to generate in the European folk imagination a distinctive and stimulating sense of desire.17 Woolworth’s department stores, Max Factor’s cosmetics, Disney’s comics and films, Ford’s cars all seemed to offer not just material products but their own specific ‘reference cultures’; taken together they legitimized an idea of society whose effects could be seen catching on to some degree in every corner of Europe.18

The Second World War: America Becomes a Missionary Power

By the time the uncertain, unsettled United States of the 1930s, half in the international system, half out of it, entered the war late in 1941, it had astonished the world by turning into a revolutionary, even evangelical nation. In order to prevent a third world war, and to realize what Roosevelt called its ‘destiny’ as a nation with universal force and presence, the American state now decided consciously to organize the projection of the nation’s military, political, economic and cultural power.

The Four Freedoms of January 1941, the Lend-Lease Act of March of the same year, the Atlantic Charter of August, all proclaimed the new American mission: the idea of a global New Deal to renew collective security, liberalize trade relations – eliminating Europe’s colonial empires along the way – and above all raise living standards everywhere. Henry Luce, founder of Time and Life magazines, proclaimed the arrival of ‘The American Century’, and noted how ‘America and only America can effectively state the war aims of this war’.19 Commenting on this proclamation, the historian Alan Brinkley writes:

The critical ingredient that now set the United States on its new path…was the determination of many Americans to use the nation’s great power actively and often very aggressively to spread the American model to other nations, at times through relatively benign encouragement, at other times through pressure and coercion, but almost always with a fervent and active intent.20

The necessities of total war and then the Cold War mobilized these impulses as an American ideology for the second half of the twentieth century, and made clear that America’s perceived experience of the link between democratic stability under capitalism and popular prosperity was at the heart of its concept of modernity. This promised an evolution that was private, consumerist, open-ended, and interdependent; it would in fact only work properly if all nations joined the revolutionary project.

The Marshall Plan was the moment when the most expansive and benign version of this design was turned into practical policy. With its arrival from 1947–48 on, the global New Dealers of wartime sought to convince Europeans that if they followed the Plan’s great normative commandments of productivity and economic integration, they too could enjoy living standards comparable to America’s. In so doing, said the Marshall Planners, they would eliminate the miseries that had made the totalitarians so attractive before the war, and communism after it. Finally too, in this vision, the evil genie of European nationalism would be killed off, guilty of provoking not one but two world wars and dragging America into both.

Looking at all this through the prism of the ‘reference culture’ concept, what kind of America emerges? Once again we see an America half real, half imagined – the proportions shift continuously – that divides those who contemplate its workings between the enthusiasts, the sceptics and the critics. ‘The people of other continents look to America half in hope and half in alarm’, wrote the British Catholic writer Evelyn Waugh in 1950, ‘They see that their own future is inextricably involved with it…’.21 In this way a very distinctive politics of modernization emerges (or re-emerges) which constantly challenges the superpower status recognized by everyone in and out of America from 1944 onwards. Each phase and episode reveals how post-war Europeans in all their variety (and others of course), negotiated their own form of ‘reference culture’ from all the propositions the United States was projecting at the height of its military, economic and cultural power. The history of these confrontations is an ever-present theme, as conceptions of identity, sovereignty and modernity evolved in every society caught up in them.

While political and military élites tried to turn ‘Atlanticism’ into a reference culture to unite North America and Western Europe into a civilizational bloc for the Cold War, others embraced neutralism, pacifism, or even the logic of the pro-Soviet Communist Parties.22 Even as conservative politicians adapted to the economics of growth and turned the vision of ever-increasing gross national product into their own reference culture, the Left offered the culture of the welfare state: collectivism, social security, equality.

For every teenage enthusiast of rock ‘n’ roll and Marlon Brando, blue jeans and James Dean, there was a churchman, an educator, a politician – in East Germany a party functionary – who deplored what was happening and tried to halt or contain it. For every entrepreneur eager to import America’s model of commercial television into Britain, there was a writer, broadcaster or noble lord anxious to defend the legacy of the BBC. Every film of France’s Nouvelle vague or Italy’s Commedia all’italiana which paid tribute to Hollywood’s legacy would find its censors, its disparagers, its satirists. Feminism, reports Stephen Gundle, talking of Italy, ‘was seen [by the traditional Left] as an imported phenomenon of American origin that was of concern to middle-class women with no experience of the world of work’.23

In many ways the normal politics of change turned into a politics of Americanization in Europe down to the end of the 1960s. This was change by emulation, co-optation, adaptation and defiance. The story and outcome of these negotiations would depend on the weight and energy of the cultural resources each society brought to the experience. In reality of course, American power in all its manifestations usually interacted with local processes of change happening in Europe (as elsewhere), in a completely disorderly manner, one which often created friction and ‘anti-Americanism’. Meanwhile every group, generation, locality, productive or cultural sector set out to elaborate its own accommodation with whatever America was offering, according to their own priorities and needs, just as they did with all the other sources of innovation in any given era. ‘More often than not’, writes Rob Kroes, ‘the American option served as a counterpoint to established [cultural] repertoires, providing groups with the expressive means for cultural opposition and revolt against a prescribed mold of cultural affiliation’.24

But there was a distinct break in the dominant pattern of exchange towards the end of the 1970s, after Vietnam, the Watergate scandal of 1974, the evident failure of many of America’s most ambitious development programmes, and United States foreign policy’s alignments with anti-democratic forces in various corners of the world. Dismay set in among all those American policy-makers, public diplomats and propagandists who had actively promoted a unified idea of the nation as one great uplifting package of civilization, through the war and Cold War years. Now foreigners everywhere were rejecting this ideologically motivated totality, and starting openly to cherry-pick: to choose some elements of American life to use as reference cultures, and reject others.

Anxiously recounting this shift Glen Fisher, an American specialist in official communication with Asian experience, said that his fellow citizens had become used to their nation’s vast missionary effort dedicated to explaining why America’s experience should serve as a model for adoption.25 But after all the disasters, and with the onset of global interconnectedness, and access to an ever-increasing number of cultural sources via television and tourism, peoples abroad were taking an ever dimmer view of American preaching on the theory and practice of democracy. Instead they were looking simply to specific, non-ideological elements of American life: technological innovations, management training and ‘styles of modern living’. Only the output of America’s pop culture industries retained its hegemony, but to judge from teenage styles and behaviour around the world, this was, Fisher suggests, ‘acculturation in its most frightening form’!26

The Third Great Surge: the 1990s

In the first decade after the West’s outward triumph in the Cold War, a pattern of projection and adaptation across the twentieth century became clear. This third post-war wave of American predominance resembled in some striking ways the first one of the 1920s: spontaneous, chaotic, market-oriented, with cultural concerns particularly prominent, and the United States government encouraging the forces of commerce and finance to make the most of the freedoms they demanded. With the Cold War connections based on security and Atlanticism fading in significance, America’s role as creator and seller of uniquely-appealing models and myths reasserted its vitality. American products, fashions, stars, symbols, icons and languages (including the computer versions) reconfirmed their ubiquitous and compelling features, available for appropriation, adaptation – and rejection – by everyone. Inter-war Europeans had dreamed of replicating California’s Hollywood on their own soil. Now, from the same state came Silicon Valley, heart of the booming software industry. Promptly, ambitious west European governments – as well as many others – worried about how to copy it.27

The 1990s were different though because of a new awareness of the mechanisms and the stakes involved in the confrontation between makers and takers of reference cultures. After decades in which they had seen how their nation’s propositions could be criticized, ostracized and even rejected, American commentators showed concern about the reactions abroad that their new-style hegemony was likely to provoke. Even boosters of the new creed of globalization could see that it might have costs as well as benefits. In 1999, Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times proclaimed: ‘Globalization-is-U.S.’ But he warned that it came at a heavy price for its lead-nation, demanding a sense of responsibility, of proportion, and above all awareness that as ‘the biggest beneficiaries and drivers of globalization, we are unwittingly putting enormous pressures on the rest of the world’. Accusations of ‘global arrogance’ were on the rise, suspicions of yet another form of American imperialism.28

In 1993 Samuel Huntington, America’s foremost student of international relations, had attempted to warn the United States – and the West in general – that it should not mistake the latest successes of its mass culture products, services and icons for a new form of effortless dominion. With the world becoming ever smaller, ‘civilization consciousness’ was increasing, a ‘return to the roots phenomenon’ which would want to ‘shape the world in non-Western ways’.29

Taking a broad, anthropological view of culture, Huntington insisted that the pressures of economic development, which originated in the West, were producing new fractures within and between societies of all sorts. ‘Indigenization’ was on display everywhere as the fault-lines of globalization appeared around issues such as language and religion. ‘What is universalism to the West is imperialism to the rest’.30 Benjamin Barber echoed him: ‘Responding to McWorld [Barber’s definition for the overlap between globalization and Americanization], parochial forces defend and deny, reject and repel modernity wherever they find it’.31

While identity politics rose up as never before in Europe in the 1990s, the tensions they reflected were never as dramatic as those evoked by Huntington and Barber. For a while the Germany afflicted by the end of the Cold War and re-unification echoed some of the old 1920s language of denunciation when writers spoke of ‘this melting down and stamping into uniformity – this McDonaldization … inhumanity itself, utterly desolate’.32 And with the arrival of the EuroDisney theme park outside Paris in 1992, certain French intellectuals seemed anxious to confirm the old stereotypes surrounding them when they damned it in the most horrible terms.33

Yet the splitting effect of so many old and new United States cultural products persisted in these years, and for many to come. Those who felt alienated by them were easily distinguishable from those who felt empowered, but they all inhabited the same world. The McDonald’s story was emblematic of the processes at work, since food began to be thought of as an essential component of national identity in many countries. The spread of the hamburger chain provoked a wide variety of protests all over the Old World (and elsewhere), from Glasgow to Cracow, from Hampstead to Rome, the Vatican, and Venice.34 French protests in the 1990s were particularly virulent, led by a militant farmer and trade unionist, José Bové, whose group destroyed the site of a new McDonald’s restaurant in Bové’s home town. Yet at the same time the company was opening eighty franchises a year in France. In Italy the Slow Food movement was founded in 1989 by a small-town intellectual, Carlo Petrini, in explicit opposition to McDonald’s and its like. As the new century opened, the project expanded into a worldwide movement of food culture, with a formidable commercial arm: the EataLY chain.

The Italian experience in this sector, when contrasted with France’s, demonstrated the difference between creating alternatives to the mass cultural propositions of the American hegemony, and striking antagonistic postures to it, between searching for a synthesis of local traditions and American-inspired novelties, and rejecting them dogmatically. While Bové dwindled into the European Parliament, Petrini became a national hero.35 But by mid-2015 open ideological warfare had broken out between Petrini and McDonald’s. When the former objected to the presence of the latter at the great Milan world’s fair – ‘Expo’, dedicated officially to ‘Food for the World, Energy for Life’ – McDonald’s accused Petrini of ‘half-baked Third Worldist rhetoric which will never feed the planet ... it’s sad that Slow Food feels the need to fight McDonald’s in order to give itself an identity’.36

Norms, Interpretations and ‘Soft Power’

Coined by the Harvard political scientist Joe Nye right after the end of the Cold War, ‘soft power’ is supposed to be a means to turn a country’s attributes and achievements into an instrument for gaining advantage in international power games of all sorts. The aim is to leverage the force of a national example in order to build influence, and – ideally – reach specific foreign policy ‘outcomes’, as Nye puts it.37 The competitors in the soft power race want you to look to them as your reference culture of choice, and to others less. They use an increasingly wide and self-conscious series of devices to help you to do so, some rather old and marginal, such as public diplomacy, others much more ambitious such as Expo’s, giant arts festivals, world class sports events, gatherings of celebrities, displays of technical advances. They want their economies, their brands, their personalities, their health systems, their universities to top the world rankings of those things. The most serious players – and none more so than the United States – also deploy systems for measuring the results, for estimating how much you really do want them as your reference culture.

In the spirit of what has been said in these pages up to now, I would like to suggest that a fourth attribute of a nation be added to the three Nye cites as lying at the heart of a nation’s ‘soft power’. Nye’s three are ‘1. its culture (in places where it is attractive to others) 2. its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad) and 3. its foreign policies, (when they are seen as legitimate and having moral authority’, i.e. when consistent with those values.38 Clearly, the disastrous Iraq War of 2003 and the financial crisis starting in 2008, have greatly undermined those strains of Nye’s soft power argument which are based on America’s political values and its foreign policies. But I propose that the soft power notion might still be used to reinforce the concept of reference cultures.

We need to go beyond Nye’s narrow, instrumental view of soft power, and add a fourth feature to his list. No society better than America demonstrates that what a soft-power superpower deploys always is a special ability to generate and deploy models of change and innovation, of modernity, of progress: showing the world, society, the individual, ways to change for the better, however defined, offering ‘the interpretative and practical power of (their) normativity and functionality’ (Wagner) to all.

In the by-gone days of ideology, whole societies – or their ruling cliques at least – claimed that they maintained these keys to the future. America, the sole survivor of the eighteenth-century notions of general progress based on an ideological project, no longer claims an exclusive franchise on the evolution of the world, as it did from the days of the Four Freedoms onwards. Nevertheless, it is easy to see that the United States still possesses some of the most powerful sources of cultural and economic innovation and attraction, from Silicon Valley and its products to its great universities, from Hollywood to its Nobel Prize winners, from its foundations to its outstanding personalities.

All of these represent forces of change and disruption which the rest of the world must come to terms with as long as people and societies want to be considered as modern, competitive, up-to-date, with-it, well-up-there in those rankings of what’s considered best that the United States private sector has been so adept at producing in these years. This is what I’ve called – following Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber’s classic example of 196839 – the American challenge, an ‘invitation to participate in a competition’, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, or a ‘a bold and defiant summons’, as Webster’s puts it, provocative, inciting, arousing. But very often with a hint of menace: if you don’t respond, we can overwhelm you – look at Hollywood and the cinema industry, youth culture and fashion, social media, finance and ratings agencies, ask Alsthom in France, Astra-Zeneca in Britain, Nokia in Finland. Ask Airbus any time, ask the EU’s sponsors of would-be rivals to Google…

In 2003, in the context of the Euro-American intellectual debate over the Iraq war, Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, Europe’s leading philosophers at the time, launched a manifesto to explain what they believed to be at stake. They pointed out that European concepts of citizenship, political and juridical, pre-dated the arrival of full-blown American-style capitalism by a very considerable length of time, during which the evolution of class politics and industrial society had rendered Europe’s peoples at all levels particularly sensitive to ‘the paradoxes of progress’. So the rise of American power in all its forms, accompanied by an invidious missionary impulse, brought a massive new source of tension and division to Europe. Habermas and Derrida explained the consequences in terms of a fundamental dilemma:

Do the benefits of a chimerical progress outweigh the losses that come with the disintegration of protective, traditional forms of life ? [In other words] do the benefits that today’s processes of ‘creative destruction’ promise for tomorrow outweigh the pain of modernity’s losers?40

To all those who answered ‘yes’ to this question, there was another significant proportion – the ratios changed according to the issue and the circumstances – who voted ‘no’. The case of the Über taxi application – contested up and down Europe and elsewhere by tradition in the form of owners of standard taxis – is a classic case of this contrast. America: a reference culture whether we like it or not.