There’s Only One Superpower Left and It’s Not America

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Professor Nicholas J. Cull. Photo courtesy of Nicholas J. Cull/USC.

Public diplomacy, the engagement between nations built through communication and diplomatic efforts, is at the root of what is considered soft power. And yet, while clearly more desirable as a form of international engagement than hard power exerted through military pressure and violence, soft power comes with its own dangers, beginning with but not limited to the prevalence of propaganda. One of the foremost experts on the topic, Professor Nicholas J. Cull, the founding director of the University of California’s Master’s in Public Diplomacy program and future director of a new initiative on Global Communication, joins Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer on the latest installment of his podcast “Scheer Intelligence” to discuss the pitfalls of soft power and what a more effective, more honest form of diplomacy might look like in the future. 

In a wide-reaching conversation steeped in global histories, Scheer, a lifelong journalist, admits to Cull that his understanding of public diplomacy was that it was “lying with another title,” until he read the scholar’s most recent book, “Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age.” Cull’s scholarship on communications is especially pertinent, Scheer points out, at a time in which journalism is constantly being undermined as “fake news” by the president of the United States. 

“Because of Donald Trump representing such an egregious figure, and himself hurling this charge of fake news,” the Truthdig Editor in Chief says, “we're in this kind of weird moment when we're talking about lying or distorting news, information, as if it's an aberration, as if it just came here now.” 

Cull, who’s written extensively on propaganda through the times, understands the dangers in the current political climate. “My position is that propaganda is an element in the structure of communication,” explains the USC professor. “It's not a moment in the history of communication. And I think that's really, really important. Right now, because we have new technologies of communication, people are newly---or once again---susceptible to being deceived and manipulated by a new medium. And I think that's what defines our current moment. I do not see manipulation as being new; I think it's as old as human civilization.” 

While Cull and Scheer both identify historical moments, such as during the Vietnam War, in which soft power was used to mislead Americans as the U.S. committed war crimes on their behalf, the public diplomacy scholar still has hope the future will allow for more genuine international engagement which will be spurred on by none other than climate change. 

“What we need is not a force of elevating one above another, or manipulating one above another, but rather bringing people together,” Cull goes on. “And I'm very taken by a quote that I use early in the book, that there's only one superpower left in the world, and that superpower is global public opinion. The problem is that the ability of global public opinion to fix the problems we have is disrupted by the narratives of nationalism. Which say, no, Chinese people and American people don't have the same interest. Well, you know, if we have a two or three degree temperature rise over the next hundred years, as is projected, we’ll find our interest pretty much the same. Because Shanghai underwater and New York City underwater are going to be pretty much inconvenient for both peoples. So we need to get dealing with it now, because there is no alternative to fixing these problems. The problems are bigger than the nation state. Therefore, nation states have to find a way of dealing with them.” 

The climate crisis, however, will not be enough on its own to overcome the obstacles nationalism introduces into global communications. Rather, as the need for this form of diplomacy becomes increasingly urgent, “the real challenge is to work out, how can we cooperate,” Cull posits. 

Listen to the full discussion between Cull and Scheer on historical propaganda, modern communication, diplomacy and the many challenges that need to be overcome as we face a global crisis that can no longer be ignored.



Joshua Scheer