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Mike and Ike
And the source of American influence
Machiavelli famously advised his prince to favor fear over love as a motivator of his subjects. The Italian thinker was writing in the context of the state, where the subjects were essentially a captive audience to the prince’s actions. If he squeezed them, the boundaries of the state contained the pressure the subjects felt.
The advice doesn’t work so well for the world at large. Absent borders, no walls contain the prince’s pressure; its application can easily cause the objects of the pressure to fly apart, to scatter like leaves before the wind. Within a single state, people can be driven; in the broader world they must be attracted. Dictators can be dictators to their own people, and sometimes to immediate neighbors; to other people they must be diplomats.
This distinction overlaps the difference between hard (military) power and soft (cultural) power. It appears in American foreign policy in the personas of Michael Jordan and Dwight Eisenhower. General Eisenhower commanded the Anglo-American-French forces that reclaimed Western Europe from the Nazis in World War II. After the war he headed NATO coalition gathered to keep the Soviet Red Army bottled up in Eastern Europe. No American ever wielded greater military power nor used it to such effect.
Michael Jordan’s arena of action was not the battlefield but the basketball court. Jordan never held command authority over anyone. In his prime he was never even a boss, merely a salaried worker. Yet no American of his time had larger effect on the status of America in the world. Jordan's exploits made him the idol of millions who saw him as the epitome of the American dream. If they couldn't be quite like Mike on the hardwood, they could adopt his style on the street by buying his shoes.
In fact, though, many did take to the court. Basketball blossomed globally during the Jordan era, until Europe produced scores of players who displaced Americans on teams of the NBA, and other continents supplied smaller numbers.
Culture globalized in other ways. Foreign markets, especially China, became crucial to the success of Hollywood films. Music knew no borders, as American blues crossed the Atlantic to Britain and echoed back in the songs of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, while African and Caribbean artists created "world music" and Korean pop stars became the biggest acts on earth.
By no means was America the only winner from these developments. Precisely because they occurred in the marketplace—of tastes, ideas, aspirations—and not on actual or potential battlefields, they reflected choice and not compulsion. In the marketplace, both parties to an exchange come out ahead; if they didn't, one or the other would decline the transaction.
Yet America, as the biggest producer and consumer of culture, benefited the most. People in other countries equated America with opportunity and hope. People in other countries saw what America had to offer and wanted more of that for themselves.
Not all people in other countries, and not in every instance. Yet the waiting lists for visas to immigrate to America were vastly oversubscribed, and millions tried to jump the line by entering illegally.
Strikingly, when foreigners complained about something the United States did, it usually wasn't Mike they blamed but Ike. America's military misadventure in Vietnam had primed the critics of American imperialism; the feckless war against the Taliban of Afghanistan and the dubious invasion of Iraq confirmed the critics' distrust.
Some suggested Ike should be retired. Available armies invited fiascos like Vietnam. Perhaps a modest nuclear arsenal sufficient to deter nuclear attack still made sense, but expeditionary forces had outlived their usefulness. Better to leverage the persuasive power of Mike.
Not so fast, said Ike's adherents. The reason Mike had such influence was that Ike had rescued democracy from fascism, enabling the spread of American goods and American ideas in the postwar period. Cultural exchange presupposes political security only military power can provide. Ike's heirs defeated communism in the Cold War, giving Mike entrée to countries and peoples previously beyond his reach.
Now you wait a minute, said Mike's guys. Communism fell to American consumerism, not to American militarism. East Berliners brought down the Berlin Wall not by demanding democracy's weapons but by clamoring for the democracies' standard of living.
The debate continued, and continues still. In the spirit of Ike, Joe Biden has funneled arms to Ukraine, with the support so far of most Americans. The U.S. government has persuaded the Philippines to grant American naval forces access to Philippine ports, the better to discourage Chinese designs against Taiwan.
Meanwhile in the mode of Mike, America continues to trade with China, selling films and food while buying phones and fashion goods. Globalization slowed in the 2010s, but it continues to provide the context for the way most countries deal with one another.
And America remains a magnet for aspirants from abroad. More people tried to enter America last year than during any previous year. A larger proportion of American residents were born abroad than at any time in the past.
A few joined the military, emulating Ike. Vastly more pursued the civilian American dream, mimicking Mike.