Gillian Jakab: Cultural diplomacy an underused instrument

By Gillian Jakab, Community & Culture Editor
Published September 1, 2014

The term “cultural diplomacy” negotiated its way into my lexicon this summer. Not that I hadn’t observed it at work in the world all along — international performance tours, educational arts exchange programs, cross-cultural festivals — but I hadn’t been aware of the phenomenon as a budgeted branch of State Department foreign policy.

Cultural diplomacy is the exporting of a nation’s cultural treasures for the purpose of winning the hearts and minds of the receiving nation through attraction rather than coercion. During the Cold War, efforts were made to give the public a glimpse into the everyday lives on either side of the Iron Curtain through publications such as Amerika, a U.S. Information Agency-produced Russian language magazine, and its Soviet counterpart distributed in the U.S., USSR/Soviet Life. These magazines acted as somewhat honest, curated windows to the cultures on the other side. In 1962, amidst U.S.-Soviet hostility, the U.S. State Department famously sponsored a two-month tour for New York City Ballet to perform Moscow.

Years later, in the aftermath of 9/11, the State Department tapped a well-known advertising executive to head up a cultural exchange program with Islamic nations designed to dispel myths of mistreatment of Muslims in America. More recently, the State Department has been experimenting with programs to help mediate historic tensions in other nations. This program, known as DanceMotion USA, sends American dance companies to different regions of the globe and sponsored the David Dorfman Company to travel to Turkey and Armenia this past spring. They brought the Korhan Basaran Company of Istanbul, as well as two Armenian dancers, back to the States. The artists created and performed a beautiful collaborative piece, produced by the Brooklyn Academy of Music, dealing with themes of reconciliation.

The U.S. government has gone through phases of pushing cultural diplomacy programs during periods of tension, and then letting them slip in importance alongside its self-interest in cultural influence. Sometimes, privately funded exchanges take up the slack without government sponsorship (though visas can be an issue). This summer, New York’s Lincoln Center Festival presented the Bolshoi Ballet and Opera amid another tense time in U.S.-Russian relations. Though non-governmental organizations make their own curatorial choices and certainly do not take it upon themselves to represent American diplomatic interests, the exchange is nonetheless influential.

Sharing art and culture gives soul to perceived national strangers, or enemies. Though these can help to some small degree when troubles arise, the power of cultural diplomacy doesn’t lie in its ability to provide instant strategies for conflict resolution. It lies in building ongoing collaborations and exchanges to facilitate mutual understanding that can prevent future prejudice and violence born of misinformation and misunderstanding. Could cultural diplomacy resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict? Of course not. But over time it could help, in its small way, stem the perpetuation of hatred in the conflict.

Cultural diplomacy is often an underused instrument in the toolbox of foreign policy. In fact, its funding at the State Department level is slated to be reduced for the upcoming year. International cultural exchange is vital if we are to live as nations of people, not just political figures. As a concept, it humanizes nations through person-to-person exchanges. In practice, it lets the world experience some great art and engage in intercultural dialogues separate from explicit political aims. It will not work, however, if funding for programs is sporadic. Friendship and understanding takes a long time to cultivate, and this form of soft power is designed for the long term.