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Public Diplomacy, Sports, and the Waning Influence of American Popular Culture

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Some years ago, I wrote a piece, Is the U.S. High Noon Over? Reflections on the Declining Global Influence of American Popular Culture, in which I suggested that:

Pundits of all nationalities are convinced that American popular culture will remain the dominant world culture for decades to come.

But I have my doubts about this triumph-of-American-pop-culture view, just as I was unpersuaded by assertions that the conflicts of history had ended after the U.S. prevailed in the Cold War.

In my view, there are growing indications that American popular culture, in its current form, is losing its global influence.

As I watched the corporate US evening "news" the other day, which gave extensive coverage to the World Cup in South Africa, I realized that in the above article I neglected to mention another indication that the 21st-century world will not necessarily be culturally "American."

I am referring to sports.

Soccer, an international sport par excellence, has only feeble roots in North America. Some overseas audiences may like the National Basketball Association (especially if their own nationals are among its highly remunerated basketball players), but baseball and American football are not exactly world favorites.

Yes, they do play baseball in Japan and Latin America, including in our "mortal enemy" Cuba. And in Germany, where "American football will never come close to challenging soccer's dominance in Europe," there is a "thriving subculture that has embraced the American game."

But soccer, that non-American sport, is no. 1 worldwide in a big way. All-American sports -- baseball, football, basketball (all sports that, interestingly, use hands rather than feet) haven't been able in our century to electrify the global masses as much as soccer.

Of course culture, including in its popular form, is not a zero-sum game. Just because the world prefers a ball being kicked for most of a game doesn't mean America is on the road to perdition. Indeed, we Americans are becoming more interested in soccer, which may bring us closer to the rest of our planet, and that's just as well. And at one point we may come to realize that the baseball "world series" are not world series, after all.

We may even call soccer "football" (as much of the world does identify it) one day, but that's unlikely, given how the NFL will want to hold on to its brand name.

Whatever we Americans name it, the prevalence of soccer as the universal sport suggests that "identifiably" American idols in the field of entertainment -- and what else are spectator sports but entertainment -- are not necessarily what the world prefers in our new millennium.

True, in the twentieth, so-called "American" century, US sports never had the overseas impact of our music, film, or language. But the universal popularity of soccer vs. our "own" sports suggests "the American way" is losing its "soft power," as was the case, arguably -- and I don't want to sound apocalyptic -- with other militarily overextended geographical expressions that declined economically -- Rome, Spain, France, England -- and lost their cultural cachet, the last remnant of the power they once held.

These speculations may have implications for those who formulate US public diplomacy -- how the American government deals with overseas publics to advance its national interests.

As the worldwide popularity of that up to now quite un-American sport -- futbol/футбол (the Italians have resisted the Anglo-Saxon linguistic temptation and call it calcio) -- tells us, US soft power, as concerns sports, may not be as automatically seductive to the rest of the world as we Americans sometimes naively assume it to be.