This position article applies the concept of soft power as developed by Joseph Nye to the Arab world and US public diplomacy in that area. Evaluating public opinion and the challenges of public diplomacy in the Arab world is difficult because of the absence of hard data on polling and public diplomacy issues. However, American diplomats who have served in the Arab world, including this author, know that most Arabs are critical of US foreign policy but that they have positive attitudes towards America as a country, due in part to American cultural and commercial products and education. This essay first discusses the impact of the digital revolution on the American public diplomacy effort and on soft power. The expansion of private communication channels has provided challenges to the US effort and has impacted its soft power. Many Arabs have exaggerated expectations about America’s ability to solve their problems. Sometimes the behaviour of private American citizens has created new challenges for our public diplomacy and damaged our soft power. This essay then analyzes several other new issues that have arisen recently affecting American soft power. One is the private dissemination of American cultural products abroad. Another is the question of whether foreign audiences still regard the US political system as a model, which they once did. A third is the exchange of persons programme, which remains an important vehicle for soft power, but which is underfunded. New security measures made necessary by terrorism also impact US soft power and public diplomacy. Fu[r]thermore, the Pentagon’s communications “mission creep” competes with the State’s public diplomacy. At the end of the essay the author takes issue with the thesis that American power generally has declined. This article is published as part of a collection on soft power. ...


In summary, the primary responsibility for making use of America’s soft power assets in communicating with audiences abroad rests with the US government’s public diplomacy professionals. In the twenty-first century, they have faced a number of new challenges in carrying out their responsibilities. The most wide-reaching challenge has been the digital revolution in communication technology, which has made possible a wide array of competing private communicators who do not always present positive aspects of America’s soft power. Foreign audiences know more about America from non-USG sources and some of this information is negative. The private dissemination of American cultural products abroad does not always convey a positive image of America. The behaviour of private American citizens, conveyed by social media, is sometimes misunderstood abroad. Meanwhile, other developments, such as the increase in security requirements as a result of terrorist attacks, and the development of Pentagon communication with foreign audiences in peacetime, have also complicated the efforts of the US government’s ability to make best use of America’s soft power. These trends are likely to continue. Finally, the judgment that American power has declined generally is probably premature, so this does not substantially impact the effect of American soft power.