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Cultural Diplomacy

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As Martha Bayles reported in the Wilson Quarterly last summer, the post-war proliferation of American culture was a marriage of political convenience and capitalist enterprise. For the four decades between V-J day and the fall of the Iron Curtain, the State Department actively funded cultural exchanges, Hollywood churned out patriotic blockbusters, and the U.S., ultimately, triumphed as the indisputable victor of the era's "war of ideas."

In yesterday's IHT, Alan Riding picks up where Bayles left off. Riding notes how Congress slashed appropriations for cultural exchanges throughout the 1990s, and then airs aloud present concerns over the wisdom of those cuts:

"Yet, almost out of earshot, questions are now being asked whether it is wise for the U.S. cultural image to be shaped exclusively by the marketplace. More specifically, with Washington now dusting off public diplomacy as a strategy to combat rampant anti-Americanism, is it time to revive cultural diplomacy?"

The answer is yes, but it would have to be far more nuanced than the cultural diplomacy of the Cold War. For all its dogmatism and internecine conflict, socialism never quite became a religion (indeed, Lenin did nothing if not insure against the possibility that it would), and as a result it could be confronted on a conceptual level without concern for the sensitivities we attach to religious meaning.

Yet when it comes to brandishing America's reputation in the Arabic world — and let us be frank, that is what the current debates over cultural diplomacy are really about — there isn't nearly the same margin for error. Cultural overkill in Europe circa 1980 meant a casual shrug of the shoulders, perhaps even a wry laugh at the kitschy excess. Not so today. Cultural overkill now means further insulting the integrity and honor of the very populations that we hope to engage.

Finding the right balance will be an incredibly difficult task. I'd be all for it if I thought the State Department was up to the challenge — but after Karen Hughes' recent tour of the Middle East, I have precious little faith that it is. Until we have more competent figures in the White House, I'd just as soon we not further alienate the Muslim world in a blundered attempt at introducing it to our better, more amusing selves.