Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2023.08.23

Is America’s soft power eroding?

San Francisco is no longer the hub of hippie culture and freedom it was in 1960s and '70s

the Japan Times on Aug 8, 2023

International Politics/Diplomacy The U.S.A.

Two weeks ago, I visited San Francisco for the first time in many years — a city that has seen massive change over the years from what it once was and represented.

In the late 1960s and '70s, the city was a dream destination for many young people from around the world. Beginning in the late '60s, student protests raged in many Western universities — including in Japan — and San Francisco became a mecca and a symbol for the hippie movement.

It all started with the "Summer of Love" era in San Francisco beginning in 1967. Up to 100,000 so-called hippies and young people from all over the U.S. and Europe gathered in the Haight-Ashbury district. At the time, the city became a venue for psychedelic music, the drug culture, free sex and new political self-expression. Everything looked so free, creative and innovative.

Around that time, famed concert promoter Bill Graham opened the Fillmore West, a live music venue in downtown San Francisco. To me and many of my Japanese contemporaries, the Fillmore West, together with the Fillmore East in New York City, have always been places of special sanctity.

Political scientists have argued that the movement was an example of American “soft power,” and indeed it literally was. The new political culture emanating from San Francisco was so powerful, it influenced and changed the mindsets of many young people around the world, including not only in the United States, but also in Western Europe and Asia, including Japan and South Korea.

This American soft power was also strong enough to penetrate the iron curtain separating the Soviet Union and socialist Eastern European nations from the West. This cultural power did not extend to communist China, where teenagers were struggling to survive the dark days of Chairman Mao's Cultural Revolution (1966-76).

Where has the soft power gone?

Half a century later, San Francisco is now a completely different place. Artists can no longer afford to live in the beautiful city because the tech revolution in nearby Silicon Valley has caused rents and prices to skyrocket. A homeless crisis continues to plague the city, and culturally, the young people moving there are no longer interested in the kind of social revolution that was taking place back in the day.

What surprised me the most this time was the number of shuttered businesses, including famous department stores and brand-name boutiques near Market Street, a major transit artery for the city, and Union Square. Those areas of the city were so crowded with business people and tourists just a decade ago.

Due in part to the impact of COVID-19 and the deteriorating safety conditions, people no longer go to the center of San Francisco — with parts of the city resembling a ghost town. It seems as if San Francisco's wealth is no longer in the city but rather the suburbs. The San Francisco culture and its soft power that I so cherished and adored in the past no longer exist.

As San Francisco's culture is disappearing, so too is my admiration for the American culture of freedom, creativity and innovation that I had been so fascinated with since my younger days. This is something that I had been feeling for some time. But after my recent visit to San Francisco, my feelings only deepened.

Will such U.S. soft power ever return?

Is what I just witnessed in San Francisco a frightening omen that portends the future decline of America’s soft power? Or are these just the growing pains before American society regains its cultural vitality? The answer will likely be revealed in the not too distant future, perhaps as early as the November 2024 elections.

My intuition, however, tells me to remain positive.

When I visited the San Francisco Bay Area two weeks ago, I had a chance to visit the headquarters buildings of Google, as well as other IT giants. I was overwhelmed by the sight of a wide variety of creative young researchers and innovative programmers from all over the world gathered in one small location. They were neither politically active nor culturally radical. And most were millennials.

They probably had no idea about the essence of hippie culture in the '60s or the atmosphere at the Fillmore West. For them, the revolution in San Francisco is nothing but a side note of history. While I was lost in such deep emotion, I found a road named “Bill Graham Parkway.” I was happy to know that at least someone at Google remembered the Fillmore West.

The San Francisco of the 1960s and '70s is long gone, but perhaps those young scientists or programmers in the Bay Area are the ones who will revive America’s soft power. Imagine what those young Americans can achieve in such a large country with a population of over 300 million and one that is so rich in natural resources.

As for human resources, unlike Russia and China, America accepts hundreds of thousands of free-thinking, creative, innovative and, most importantly, very ambitious young immigrants coming to its lands where people compete in one of the most competitive markets in the world.

These are sources of soft power that will always elude China and Russia and which they can never hope to gain no matter how hard they may try.