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Why Culture Matters in International Relations: On Cultural Diplomacy

A series on the relationship between the arts and international affairs

by Alana Chloe Esposito


by Alana Chloe Esposito

Freelance journalist focusing on international relations and contemporary art Contributing writer to Streaming Museum with a series of essays: “Art – A Seductive Tool of Diplomacy”


. Introduction

“You get the weeds out when they are small,” former Secretary of State George P. Shultz once remarked. “You also build confidence and understanding. Then, when a crisis arises, you have a solid base from which to work,” he continued in attempt to convey the value of diplomacy through metaphor.

Taking it one step further, Juliet Antunes Sabolsky posits that within this context, the role of cultural diplomacy is to plant the seeds: “ideas and ideals; aesthetic strategies and devices; philosophical and political arguments; spiritual perceptions; ways of looking at the world, which may flourish in foreign soils.(3)” In other words, cultural diplomacy is the practice of leading by example and using the power of attraction to shape others’ preferences. Defined as “the exchange of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples to foster mutual understanding(2),” it emphasizes fostering friendly, long-term interstate relations through dialogue.

Cultural diplomacy’s intrinsic value lies in its ability to connect people on a human level, which can go a long way in creating an atmosphere of trust, essential in international politics. But, how exactly does it work and to what extent is it effective? To further explore this concept, this paper analyzes the concept of cultural diplomacy as a tool of conflict management. Specifically, it focuses on the use of high culture by official diplomats to support long-term foreign policy goals(4).

On Cultural Diplomacy

“A nation’s culture is the sum total of its achievement, its own expression of its own personality; its way of thinking and acting. Its program of cultural relations abroad is its method of making these things known to foreigners.” Ruth Emily McMurry and Muna Lee, The Cultural Approach: Another Way in International Relations (1947)

While the ancient Babylonians and were already adept at using culture to serve their ‘national’ interests, the concept of cultural diplomacy did not emerge as a tool of statecraft until the mid-Twentieth century. At the height of the Cold War, the State Department made it a priority to export attractive aspects of American culture from Coca-Cola to Hollywood to Rock n’ Roll, as evidence of the superiority of the American values and way of life over Communism. Music proved especially powerful in undermining authoritarian rule and promoting freedom of expression and the State Department capitalized on it.

Between 1954 and 1968, the United States government funded Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie, and other iconic American jazz musicians to tour the Soviet bloc and emerging nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Jazz, the improvisational, uniquely American musical form characterized by a spirit of freedom resonated with audiences living under authoritarian rule. Beyond the power of the music, the very presence of the musicians communicated a symbolic message. At the height of American unrest over civil rights, these musicians, many of whom were African American freely criticized their country, despite receiving federal funding. Louis Armstrong even canceled a trip to Moscow after President Dwight D. Eisenhower refused to send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce school-integration laws in 1957. “The way they are treating my people in the South, the government can go to hell,” he said. “It’s getting so bad, a colored man hasn’t got any country. (7)” Soon after, Eisenhower sent the National Guard to Arkansas and Armstrong praised the move and agreed to go on a concert tour of South America. By speaking freely and taking a stand against racial discrimination, the “jazz ambassadors” personified the notion of free speech enshrined in the American Constitution. They attracted many to the American dream and the American capitalist brand of democracy(8). The success of jazz diplomacy, as it came to be known, prompted a 1955 New York Times article to claim, “A blue note in a minor key is America’s secret sonic weapon…and Louis Armstrong is America’s best ambassador(9).”

The Art-in-Embassies program established in 1964 and still in place serves as another successful State Department initiative. It places American art in the public areas of diplomatic residences worldwide to acquaint local populations around the world with the some of the most creative and artistically talented Americans. Without any specific agenda, it offers an opportunity to for visitors to develop a nuanced understanding of the United States and might render he or she more likely to distinguish the contentious policies from the national culture.

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the United States slashed its budget for cultural diplomacy and let the practice fade out of fashion. Since 1993, budgets have fallen by nearly thirty percent, prompting staff cuts by about thirty percent overseas and twenty per­cent in the U.S., and dozens of cultural centers, libraries and branch posts have been closed (11). In 2006 U.S. funding for cultural programs was equivalent to one-seventh of one percent of the Defense budget (12). In the words of former Federal Communications Commission Chair­man Newton Minnow, this amounts to “less than $1 to launch ideas for every $100 to launch bombs.” One explanation for such a lack of support stems from deep-rooted national ambivalence toward the promotion of “high culture,” especially since “Culture Wars” of the early 1990s during which U.S. Senator Jesse Helms controversially attempted to dissolve the National Endowment for the Arts, citing outrage over its funding of “indecent” art. In addition, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright abolished the United States Information Agency, the department responsible for cultural diplomacy, and its operations were split in two with nearly half (Voice of America and the Television Service) moving to the Broadcasting Board of Governors and the rest into the Department of State in 1999.

In a 1994 Foreign Affairs article, Walter Laqueur argued that cultural diplomacy would continue to be relevant beyond the context of the threat of Communist ideology and even gain significance as the use of traditional diplomacy and military power diminished (20). At the time, this argument earned him ridicule. Yet the turbulent start to the 21st Century has revived support for the concept of cultural diplomacy, if not for its funding. Sparked by the explosion of anti-Americanism that erupted in the wake of the 2003 U.S. -led invasion of Iraq, cultural diplomacy is enjoying a newfound appreciation.The staggering results of a 2004 Pew Research Center survey led the United States government to ask where it had gone wrong in the eyes of the rest of the world and how it might be able to redeem its image. The answer, at least according to the Obama administration, is to renew American efforts at engaging in dialogue with the rest of the world. As President Obama stated in his 2009 inaugural address, “Our power comes not simply from our military might, but also from our values.” One way to express those values and make them known to others is through cultural diplomacy.

Although Rhythm Road, the current State Department jazz diplomacy project, is scaled down in comparison to the Cold War era programs, it prompted the following reflection from a jazz player who recently gave a concert in Turkmenistan and learned a few local songs for the occasion: “They saw Americans paying homage to their cultural traditions…and said in effect, ‘Wow, you’re not all imperialists out to remake the world in your image.(10)’” It is with these small gestures that the United States, or any other state, might begin to truly “win the hearts and minds” as it seeks to exercise influence.

For example, when the U.S. State Department authorized the New York Philharmonic to accept North Korea’s invitation to give a concert in Pyongyang at the height of tensions over North Korea’s nuclear program in 2008, the BBC heralded the move as “a remarkable display of cultural diplomacy (6)”. Audiences of the live performance and televised broadcast alike, including North Koreans, applauded loudly. Comprising over 300 musicians, staff, and journalists, the delegation constituted the largest U.S. presence in the country since the Korean War. The decision made no pretense of attempting to impact the conflict over North Korea’s nuclear program. Rather, it was a symbolic gesture that stirred hope for improved relations in the long run. Such confidence-building measures set the stage for North Korea’s eventual integration into the international system.

Still, cultural diplomacy can only produce desirable effects under the right set of conditions, including consistent financial and structural support, and enough patience to give one’s efforts the opportunity to bear fruit. Moreover, a nation’s policies must be perceived as legitimate for its diplomatic efforts -cultural or otherwise -to succeed. Fundamentally, cultural diplomacy must communicate a palatable message to attract others‘ toward the state that practices it. However, under the George W. Bush administration, certain controversial US foreign policies (the invasion of Iraq, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib detention center in Iraq, and government spying on American civilians in the US, among others) undermined positive American values disseminated through its culture. In this context, skeptical audiences perceived any promotion of American values as hypocritical and cynically asserted that American promotion of cultural exchange must be a disguise for American imperialism.

Another obstacle lies in reaching the target population appropriately. Highbrow initiatives such as sending the New York Philharmonic to North Korea tends to reach elites, excluding the majority of the population. On the other hand, popular culture may attract large numbers of people, but often fails to produce tangible benefits. Coca-Cola, for instance, is widely consumed in countries whose population strongly voices anti-American sentiment. Yet, if sipping the soda does not impart positive ideas about democracy, individual rights and freedoms, and other American values, it cannot be considered an instrument of cultural diplomacy.

So, is it realistic to expect a fundamental shift from hard to soft power in the near future? The American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan and frequent use of economic sanctions and other coercive measures evidenced continued reliance on hard power over the past decade. Nonetheless, as the last troops depart from Iraq and President Obama outlines a plan to decreasing the size of the military, it appears the United States is re-evaluating the benefits of hard and soft power tactics. This may create more room for cultural diplomacy initiatives.

One should be careful, to avoid mistaking cultural diplomacy for a quick fix to a crisis or simply a way to market or “window dress(13)” an unpopular policy. Even when diplomats exercise the best practices of cultural diplomacy, its power is limited vis-à-vis international security threats and violent conflict. Neither does it always manage to persuade target audiences in the intended manner. Nonetheless, those who criticize cultural diplomacy for failing to render a convergence of ideas on controversial issues miss the point: Cultural diplomacy does not assume that the target population shares one’s values and aspirations nor does it seek to impose these on anyone. Rather, it uses cultural exchange as a flexible, universally acceptable vehicle for rapprochement with countries where diplomatic relations are strained or absent.At best, the practice leads to a sounder understanding of the parties’ respective values and a reduced susceptibility to cultural stereotypes. Working toward that end, cultural diplomats, in the form of government officials or civil society, facilitate cultural exchanges with an aim to promote national interests, build relationships, and enhance socio­cultural understanding (5).

1-Nye, Joseph S. Jr. 2-Milton C. Cummings, Jr. Ph.D., Cultural Diplomacy and the United States Government: a survey. Center for Arts and Culture, 2003, p.1 3-Sablosky, Juliet Antunes. “Recent Trends in Department of State Support for Cultural Diplomacy: 1993­2002. Center for Arts and Culture, 2003. 4-Caveat: This paper explores cultural diplomacy from the American perspective because the United States has used it effectively in many examples and furthermore American scholars provide much literature on the subject. However, obviously cultural diplomacy is not unique to the United States; on the contrary it is widely used by countries as diverse as China and Saudi Arabia. 5-Institute for Cultural Diplomacy: 6-Story from BBC NEWS: Published: 2008/ 02/25 09:14:50 GMT 7-Quoted in Kaplan, Fred “When Ambassadors had Rythm” New York Times. June 29, 2008. 8-Davenport, Lisa. Jazz Diplomacy: Promoting America in the Cold War Era. University Press of Mississippi. 2009. 9-Belair Felix, “United States has Secret Sonic Weapon – Jazz” New York Times. Nov 5, 1955 10-Quoted in Kaplan, Fred “When Ambassadors had Rythm” New York Times. June 29, 2008. 11-Sablosky, Juliet Antunes. “Recent Trends in Department of State Support for Cultural Diplomacy: 1993 12-Ambassador Cyntthia P. Schneider, “Diplomacy and Culture” class lecture. Georgetown University, spring semester 2006.

About the author

Alana Chloe Esposito is a civil society leader with more than 12 years of combined experience in journalism, human rights advocacy, foreign policy, and the arts. She currently directs international policy and engagement for Common Ground, a Greek initiative to accelerate progress on social issues from greening the economy to reducing inequalities to safeguarding refugee rights -- through strategic cooperation.

In her previous capacity as a journalist, she wrote about art and cultural diplomacy for publications including The New York Times and served as UN correspondent for several media outlets, reporting through the lens of gender equality on topics including refugee experiences, sexual violence in conflict, and the UN's global development agenda.

She holds a B.S. in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a M.A. in International Affairs from Sciences Po Paris and is a Senior Fellow of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute.


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