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The Triumph Of Soft Power: How United States Is The New Athens

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By Rhea Kumar:

The year was 479 BCE. The Persians advanced into Platea, clearly outnumbering the Greeks. Victory seemed certain. Yet Persian king Xerxes was to face a very humiliating defeat. Carefully planned phalanxes, men arranged in a tight formation with their shields, fell upon the Persian forces like a huge war machine. As Athens and Sparta, the forces of the sea and the land, joined hands to rid their land of this common enemy and fought the last in a series of battles, Persia was forced to retreat. The Greek city-states emerged victorious. But the happiness was short lived as a series of tensions and rivalries began between Athens and Sparta.

Sit back for a second and imagine. Imagine Platea as an arena of World War II, Persia as the Axis Powers, Sparta as the Soviet Union and Athens as the United States. Sounds scarily familiar to World War II and the subsequent Cold War, doesn’t it?


History tends to repeat itself, and the hegemony of the ancient Athenian city-state and that of modern United States is one of the most striking examples of this phenomenon. Both became dominant powers after a major war: Athens after the Persian War and USA after World War II. Both were pitted against a rival power in the aftermath of the war. Athens’ rivalry with the military state of Sparta is similar to the Cold War tensions between USA and USSR. In both cases, the Superpowers attempted to increase their military and political clout through alliances. Athens formed a naval alliance known as the Delian League with surrounding city states, similar to the formation of NATO, while Sparta formed the Peloponnesian League with southern city-states, similar to the Warsaw Pact formed by the Soviet Union.

The Cold War tensions ended with the 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union. This is where the similarity, according to many, ends. While Sparta emerged victorious over Athens in what is known as the Peloponnesian War, the US emerged as the sole superpower after the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In the decade that followed, US supremacy was more than obvious. As George H.W. Bush declared the ‘new world order’, US engaged in wars in Iraq, Iran and Yugoslavia, wars that were both terrible due to the amount of destruction caused and awesome because they revealed how US war technology was leaps and bounds ahead of other nations. 9/11 has only made the US more aggressive, with drone strikes becoming an integral part of the ‘Global War on Terror’. Slowly, the US has managed to eliminate its state enemies by establishing puppet governments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So while one superpower became stronger, the other declined rapidly in terms of traditional military power. But beyond the obvious contrast, lies a subtle and amazing similarity between the two nations. For both these powers have dominated and continue to dominate in a realm very different from wars and weapons: the realm of soft power.

In his book, ‘Soft Power, the means to success in World Politics’, Joseph Nye defines soft power as “the ability to co-opt and attract, rather than coerce, use force and give money as a means of persuasion.” It is through the flow of ideas, values, culture, policies and institutions that a nation can increase its soft power, and therefore, influence the behaviour of others to get its desired outcomes. In the years following the Persian War and World War II respectively, the Athenian and US culture was at its zenith. Athens saw the rise of playwrights such as Aeshcylus, Sophocles and Euripides, philosophers such as Socrates, historians such as Herodotus and Thucydides and doctors such as Hippocrates. US saw the rise of Civil Rights and feminist movements, the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in the visual arts, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, the hippie culture, low waist jeans, Hollywood, and, most importantly, the Internet. Both nations represented the most liberal and democratic regimes in their era, representing the ‘good life’ or, as Athenian leader Pericles put it, “I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.

When we look at the quotient of soft power the US and Athens secured clear victories over their rivals. In the case of the US, the victory was direct. While it was constantly struggling to overtake the Soviet Union in the arms race, in the end, it was not weapons, but ideas that won the Cold War for the US: ideas of liberty, openness, of McDonalds and Levis Jeans. The more the people of the Communist east were exposed to Western ideas, the more dissatisfied they grew with their own regime that stifled freedom of thought, rationed food out to each citizen as if to a prisoner and turned a deaf ear to the people’s demands. The fact that countries such as Estonia and Lithuania freed themselves from Soviet control and joined the NATO without any compulsion to do so and the migration of artists and intellectuals to the United States in the Cold War period speak volumes for the US’ soft power.

And what about Athens? True, it lost badly to Sparta in the Peloponnesian wars. But was Sparta ever a significant dot on the cultural landscape? In fact, the English world ‘spartan’ comes from Sparta, the military city-state that stifled all cultural expression to further its ambition. And in the Renaissance period that followed many centuries later, it was Athenian, and not Spartan culture that was remembered and revived. Hippocrates is regarded as the father of medicine, while Herodotus is seen the father of history. Even today, Athenian democracy stands out as a major success of this regime. So, in terms of cultural legacy and soft power, Athens has emerged as the victor, not Sparta.

Today, the US economy is declining and various players that want a more multi-polar world order are challenging its singular political domination. In varying degrees and shapes, the European Union, ASEAN, China and even players within the NATO exercise restraints on US hegemony. In some ways, the political decline of the US seems imminent from the pinnacle it has occupied for two decades. But a power is yet to emerge that will influence culture around the world the way the US has done, and continues to do. Despite the recession in the US economy, many still dream of studying in American universities, which are renowned the world over. Despite widespread resentment against racial profiling that has become commonplace after 9/11, the youth in many Islamic countries dress in jeans and Western clothing, smoke Marlboro cigarettes and listen to Britney Spears on their iPods. And the US is able to get away with many of its military expeditions by naming it ‘a war for democracy’, although everyone can discern the real agenda.

After the war with Sparta and its subsequent decline, Athens was taken over by Philip II of Macedonia, the father of the famous Alexander the Great. This marked a period of new cultural green shoots in ancient history. Now, China’s economy seems set to overtake that of the US by 2020, if not earlier. But can China take on the role of Macedonia and replace American culture with its own? Will we ever see a world where people prefer state control over liberal democracy, wheat noodles over pizza and burgers, green tea over coke and lemonade and kung fu over baseball? Without hesitation, today the answer would be a resounding NO. Only time can tell the truth and we must wait and watch.

All empires rise and fall, and history does tend to repeat itself in subtle and amazing ways. What endures is the cultural legacy of an empire, and what it symbolizes for people not only within its own borders, but outside the world. The US may not be engaging in wars or dominating the Security Council in the years to come. But when we eat at a McDonalds outlet or access our Facebook account, we know that the US is here to stay, it is very much a part of daily lives.

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  1. Raj

    Good article!

  2. Rhea Kumar

    thank you so much 🙂

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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