Thursday, November 5, 2009

"Culture's Purpose and the Work of Cultural Diplomacy" Conference

From noon to 4:00 pm on November 5 I took part in a conference at American University (AU), Culture's Purpose and the Work of Cultural Diplomacy. The well attended event was held at (AU's) School of International Service.

Glassman Speaks

The keynote address by given by James Glassman, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the previous administration (the last of four Bush appointees to hold that position).

Stressing policy-making must take culture -- the "mental code" of societies, he called it -- into consideration,

Glassman made the following points:

--It is difficult, if not impossible, for Americans to fully understand cultures other than their own (or indeed parts of their own culture; he cited New Orleans, where he lived for many years, as an example);

--The most effective American public diplomacy is not about "us" -- the United States -- but about "them," other countries;

--US cultural diplomacy, rather than focusing on America and its story, should "expose" countries with repressive regimes to their own, authentic but forbidden culture. He cited the USG-supported Radio Farda as an example of such an initiative;

--Public and cultural diplomacy should be "strategic," with a well-defined direction rather than just day-to-day "tactical" concerns. The State Department, unlike the Defense Department, considers itself "too cool" to worry about long-term goals, and currently has no leadership in strategic communications. Outsiders who try to change Foggy Bottom's muddling-through culture "will be devoured" by its bureaucracy because they are "showing disrespect" for set ways of doing things.

The personable Glassman was articulate, provocative, and oh-so-serious about cultural diplomacy, an activity (in my view) closely connected with the playful side of our humanity (see my below comment, last paragraph), but which for Glassman is essentially just another dimension of "national-security" policy.

I found a slight contradiction in his argument: If the U.S. is unable to understand other cultures, how can it -- the United States, through its government -- possibly be capable of informing authoritarian, closed societies about their own authentic culture?

Also, Mr. Glassman mentioned, as he has in the past, his aspiration that public diplomacy engage in a "grand conversation" with the rest of the world by digital means; but how can one possibly engage in a conversation, digital or not, without understanding, at least in part, one's interlocutor? Mr. Glassman, perhaps, would approve of these verses of Tyutchev,

as translated by Nabokov:

How can a heart expression find?
How should another know your mind?
Will he discern what quickens you?
A thought once uttered is untrue.
Dimmed is the fountainhead when stirred:
drink at the source and speak no word.
Live in your inner self alone
within your soul a world has grown,
the magic of veiled thoughts that might
be blinded by the outer light,
drowned in the noise of day, unheard…
take in their song and speak no word.
Panel Discussions

The panel discussions, consisting of academics, a think-tanker, and current and former diplomats, was filmed for a podcast which (in the words of one of the conference organizers, Professor Robert Albro), "will be hosted both on !Tunes and on the website of the International Communication program" at American University. Clearly the podcast will be the best source to turn as a record of the conference's proceedings.

But let me make some general statements about what the panelists said:

--Cultural diplomacy is an important dimension of international relations;

--It is a government-supported tool of foreign policy (David Firestein, East-West Institute; Kathlenn Brion, President of the Public Diplomacy Alumni Association);

--It can be expanded (and enriched) if it becomes more than just a narrow national-interest instrument, and when it is used to create multi-layered connections between peoples of various nationalities (Robert Kurin, Smithsonian Institution);

--Educational exchanges like the Fulbright Program are a major element in (and a success story of) U.S. cultural diplomacy (Nancy Snow, Syracuse University);

--The historical setting in which American cultural diplomacy was carried out during the Cold War has changed dramatically and cultural diplomacy must adapt to these changes, many of them Internet-driven (Firestein; Helle Dale, Heritage Foundation);

--The cyberspace social media may be creating new ways of carrying out cultural diplomacy, but they are no substitute for real-world human contact (Lawrence Wohlers, Smithsonian);

--The purpose of cultural diplomacy is not necessarily to spread democracy as we know it throughout the world, but establish personal connections between Americans and other countries (Wohler, Brion);

--While it is difficult to measure the results of cultural diplomacy (contended by some panelists), it is still possible to have metrics of what cultural diplomacy has actually accomplished (Frank Hodsoll, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts).

Russian Ruminations of a Culture Vulture

As one of the panelist, I devoted my remarks on my work as Cultural Affairs officer in Moscow, 1998-2001. Based on my experience in the country, I made the following generalizations, noting, however, that Russia is not a static society that it too is being changed by the new social media:

--For Russians, high and even low culture is an important element in their national self-definition (we Americans, in contrast, tend to stress the ideas/ideals of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution as to what "makes us Americans");

--The Russian state, since at least the eighteenth century, has been promoting and indeed creating an official culture far more than the U.S. government ever has or intends to do (in America, we have no Ministry of Culture; as I pointed out in the Q&A, the statement of the Under Secretary of State during the Roosevelt administration Sumner Welles -- that "the concept of an official culture is alien to us" -- is shared my many Americans.)

--Russians see their achievements in literature, music and art as their perhaps most significant contribution to mankind, whereas we Americans are more likely to underscore our economic successes, political system, and popular culture as what makes us no. 1 wordwide.

Regarding Russians' perception of American culture, I noted they:

--Still have a great interest in American culture, but less than when the USSR still existed (at least among the intelligentsia);

--Consider that what was a forbidden fruit in Soviet times -- American culture, both high and low -- can now lead to severe cultural indigestion if consumed (I mentioned the large number of third-rate American movies shown on Russian TV when I was there);

--American culture, as characterized by Hollywood, is imperialistic in nature and wants to "take over" Russia [see the article which just appeared in Newsweek, "Young Russians’ About-Face From the West: When the Berlin Wall fell, young Russians clamored for all things Western. Now they rail against anything that is" by Owen Matthews and Anna Nemtsova];

--Americans do not "reciprocate" culturally: while Russians feel they are interested in American culture, Americans do not show an equal interest in Russian culture. A sore point is that Russian artists face obstacles in getting visas do go to the U.S.

I stressed that, for my work as Cultural Affairs Officer in Moscow (98-01), there were quite large USG resources for educational exchanges, but only limited ones for cultural presentations. Major State Department exhibits, such as the Andy Warhol Exibit, were rare (for the exhibit as an example of public/cultural diplomacy, see my article, "The Purposes and Cross-Purposes of Public Diplomacy").

Knowing the importance of culture in Russian life -- and the expectation among the Russian intelligentsia that the US government should communicate with it culturally (as did, they often told me, other countries like France and Japan) -- I tried to organize cultural events as often and as best I could, often "piggy-backing" on American artists visiting Russia privately or commercially. The support of the Ambassador for such post-generated (rather than Washington-funded) undertakings was essential, especially by his opening the doors of his sumptuous residence -- Spaso House -- for that purpose.

I also obtained funding for cultural events from the private sector, as was the case for one exhibit, "Propaganda and Dreams," which Washington headquarters was not interested in supporting through "Democracy Commission" funds because it felt the show was not pertinent to democracy-building.
The exhibit, co-sponsored with the Ministry of Culture, first opened at the Corcoran in Washington and consisted of U.S. and Soviet photographs taken in the 1930s.

The Value of Cultural Diplomacy

Regarding the value of cultural diplomacy (which I defined as the government-supported presentation of US culture overseas), I closed my remarks by suggesting that:

--Cultural diplomacy is a way of accessing, of opening up to audiences that can lead to more discussions and exchange of ideas (David Firestein made the same point, mentioning country music as a way of introducing himself and the Embassy to his foreign interlocutors);

--It shows other countries that Americans, through their government, have an interest in them, that we want to share our culture with them;

--It produces a reservoir of good will toward the U.S.: often, cultural presentations (e.g., an exhibit, a concert) are remembered by local audiences more than policy statements. Cultural diplomacy, in other words, creates long-lasting memories about the United States, based upon esthetic experiences that make strong impressions. I cited the VOA jazz programs of Willis Conover (see below image) during the Cold War as an example of this.

In the Q&A session, in response to a question on whether the U.S. was "hardwired" to carry out cultural diplomacy, I answered that it was not, citing historical factors that I have discussed in a lengthy article. I stressed that, in my opinion, the extensive U.S. cultural diplomacy during the early Cold War was an exception, not the rule. In contrast to other industrialized nations, the U.S. neglects the artistic side of cultural diplomacy.

What More Could Have Been Said

In hindsight, I should have made two additional points during my presentation:

--The main trouble with "post-generated" cultural events is quality control: They lack a long vetting process judging them by their artistic merits by cultural specialists, as is supposedly the case with programs first set in motion in Washington;

--All too often discussions (and appreciations) of cultural diplomacy omit one of its key elements: that it's meant to be a joyful and pleasurable activity (but one, however, which can tell us -- Americans and others -- important things about who we are as human beings). In contrast to the more "serious" sides of public diplomacy (e.g., being an arm of national security), cultural diplomacy is at heart a playful, often unpredictable, enterprise, one that appeals to the homo ludens element of our humanity; play being, according to the noted Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, "primary to, and ... a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture." (I am citing Wikipedia; see also my articles, Rejuvenate Public Diplomacy! Bring Culture Back to the White House and Public Diplomacy: Stop the Solemnity!.)


mpolman said...

I don't know why Glassman persists with this nonsense about "public diplomacy is not about us".

So does this mean that we are supposed to all of the misperceptions that people overseas have about the U.S. go uncorrected? We're not supposed to explain how our society works to outsiders because that is "about us"? If Pakistanis think we are all a bunch of fanatical Christians and hedonsits we are just supposed to let it go because responding would be too much "about us"?

Foreigners find America to be a baffling and complicated country. They WANT to learn about us. We most definitely SHOULD be making understanding "us" part of the equation.

If you allow misperceptions and misunderstandings to persist between America and others then you are running the risk that foreigners will miscalculate politically with respects to their dealing with the U.S. That can have tragic consequences. It is most definitely the job of public diplomacy people to explain "us".

PDWorldwide said...

Perhaps it would be better to say that public diplomacy is about both "us" and "them". Finding the commonality of interests between societies is at the essence of public diplomacy. Unless both sides of the dialogue are interested in the subject matter there can be no dialogue. A skilled practitioner of public diplomacy sees how the "audience" can become interested and structures the "message" to appeal to the audience, adjusting the message in response to how the audience responds and in turn receiving the "message" that the other party to the dialogue is sending. One could write a book on just this aspect of communication but this is the basic point.

PHK said...

PD WW is right on. Cultural diplomacy, in fact, any form of bilateral diplomacy are two way streets.

Glassman's point that we as Americans don't understand other cultures has, in my view, multiple dimensions. I disagree that Americans are not capable of doing so. Problem is neither the USG or US academia are teaching foreign languages and cultures they way they once did during the Cold War. And State makes it very difficult (thank you Henry Kissinger for GLOP way back when) and now "anyone and everyone can do anything" to develop the expertise. Breaking up the hard language "clubs" is one of the problems. It takes years to develop such linguistic and cultural expertise and the USG should be encouraging it, not destroying what little we have left.

Anyway, John, thanks for the synopsis. Most appreciated.