Thursday, March 28, 2013

On Cultural Exchange

"No commodity is quite so strange/As this thing called cultural exchange."

--So wrote Dave and Iola Brubeck in their musical with Louis Armstrong, The Real Ambassadors.


Below a comment by yours truly to the following article: "Cultural Exchange and the Politics of Suspicion" - Robert Albro, PD News–CPD Blog, USC Center on Public Diplomacy:
Bob, Thank you for your article. In my view, what is particularly hard for congressional decision makers to accept is that cultural exchanges -- in and of themselves -- are worthwhile. Cultural exchanges are all too often seen by those in elected positions of influence as merely a "tool" for another, more "important" purpose, e.g., fight terrorism, convert the world to American "values," etc.
In other words, policy makers, concerned that the public could accuse them of wasting hard-earned tax dollars, are unwilling to "take the risk" that cultural exchanges, per se, are worth taking a risk, so these exchanges have to be "justified" politically by invoking a purpose other than themselves (see my piece at).
As Frank Ninkovich, U.S. Information and Cultural Diplomacy (1996) p. 58, puts it: "[C]ultural or informational programs cannot effectively promote narrow national interests (of which the United States has many). That sort of thing must be left to the traditional instruments of foreign policy. The programs themselves, like internationalism more generally, are based at bottom on an act of faith."  
"Act of faith" are the key words here, in my opinion; indeed, studying the liberal arts (and taking them seriously because what, in themselves, they have to offer) is "an act of faith."
(Of course, for all his good intentions, Ninkovich himself could be accused of seeing cultural diplomacy as a "vehicle" for promoting an agenda beyond cultural diplomacy -- laudatory "internationalism").
Still, his heart is in the right place, in my view -- that, as he puts it (pp. 58-59) "an open and human world can be constructed through dialogue. Without that assumption, there would be no need for such programs except as outright propaganda. But in that case Washington would be left with power as the only reliable medium for promoting U.S. national interests."
Image from

1 comment:

Robert Albro said...

Hi John,

Thanks for your thoughtful -- and, I think, a propos -- comment on my discussion of journalistic takes on culture and exchange.

I think we are largely on the same page, and your discussion helpfully highlights much of what is at issue with regard to why such exchange is held, as I suggested in my post, under suspicion in the D.C. world view.

These programs are largely resistant to the normal forms of accountability, that is, to metrics demonstrating any straightforward value-added for the investments of, in this case, government. Hence, it cannot be demonstrated in ways legible to the bean counters and ideologues of within government that such exchanges have "value."

I think you are correct, too, to suggest that the expectation is that any demonstration about such value should be tethered to the relatively short-term advancement of one U.S. "interest" or other.

Of course, public diplomacy is not the only arena of cultural work that suffers from perpetual limbo born from the conviction that it is a luxury, or a means to some other more important end. Funding for the arts in the U.S. is of course also always on the catbird seat seeking ways to justify the extremely modest public support it does receive, support, as we know, that is routinely threatened in budget wars of Capitol Hill.

On the idea of the effectiveness of cultural exchange left as a "matter of faith," I would only add that part of the reason why it often appears to be the case that cultural policy-based problem-solving can at best be promoted as a matter of faith is because the question of cultural agency is not taken seriously as a policy issue in the first place.

As I've argued in various ways in multiple places, within the U.S. foreign policy space of debate and discussion, "culture" continues to be seen not even as secondary, but even less than that.

A primary reason is the way that what are in large part cultural questions -- such as the variable global reception of U.S.-style democracy promotion -- are rendered, in this case, by journalists as something else. In the process, the critical centrality of cultural context is demoted, effaced, made to disappear.

The problem with this is that, while the U.S. often proceeds as if culture is irrelevant, this is not the case for others around the world, for whom culture is a critical variable of engagement in ways not secondary. A perception of the U.S's inability to understand others, esp. their cultural identity, actively undermines U.S. efforts in all sorts of hard-to-quantify ways.

Thanks for taking this up, John! I appreciate the opportunity to further the dialogue.