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Jamming for Uncle Sam: Getting the Best From Cultural Diplomacy

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Recent years have seen a welcome resurgence in U.S. Cultural
Diplomacy, which after honorable service in the Cold War, sailed
into the doldrums in the mid-1990s. Today, the State Department
is reaching out to foreign publics in partnership with major
private sector partners including Jazz at the Lincoln Center and
the Brooklyn Academy of Music as well as maintaining its own
program of visits, exhibitions and tours. While the new
initiatives began under the administration of George W. Bush as a
'soft power' response to the challenges of the Global War on
Terror, they seem an ideal fit for the priorities of the Obama
administration, with its emphasis on 'engagement' and rebooting
the global perception of the United States. At such a moment it
is perhaps well to take stock and consider the nature of cultural
diplomacy and how best to harness its strengths to advance
America's international priorities.

Cultural Diplomacy is a type of Public Diplomacy, which is to
say that it is one method by which an international actor may
conduct its foreign policy though engaging a foreign public.
Unlike other forms of Public Diplomacy, Cultural Diplomacy works
best at arm's length from government and its benefits are clearest
in the medium to long term. Cultural Diplomacy may be subdivided
into four major types, some of which are more suited to
contemporary American needs than others.

The first form of Cultural Diplomacy is 'the prestige gift': the
international presentation of what one considers finest in one's
own society. When a nation facilitates international exposure for
its most accomplished artists or cultural products it falls into
this category, as when the Egyptian government sponsored the
Tutankhamen tour or when German patriotic organizations in the
nineteenth century promoted the spread of German orchestral music.

The second form of Cultural Diplomacy is 'cultural information':
the selective international presentation of elements of culture
which reveals a dimension which is not fully recognized abroad.
When a nation showcases an artist from a minority background or a
less known region it would fall into this category, as when the
British Council sponsors and international tour by a Black British
novelist or an emerging Northern Irish dramatist.

The third form of Cultural Diplomacy is 'dialogue and
collaboration': the use of a cultural form as an opportunity to
bring people together and create new relationships across
international lines. This might take the form of an international
festival or full-fledged co-creation project as artists from
different countries work together as with the State Department's
Jazz Futures Bi-Communal Workshop in Cyprus under which American
jazz musicians conduct workshops in the UN controlled Buffer Zone
which unite performers from Greek and Turkish communities, not to
win friends for the United States as much as promote stability in
the region.

The fourth form of Cultural Diplomacy is 'capacity building':
the strategic development of cultural skills in a target country.
Sometimes these skills open the way to deeper contact with the
practitioner's country as when a language is being taught. The
moot case here is China's massive investment in its network of
Confucius Institutes.

The best contributions to cultural diplomacy tick one or more of
these boxes and the truly remarkable programs may be considered to
operate under all of them. One such excellent program is The
Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad program operated by the
Department of State in partnership with Jazz at Lincoln Center.
This program certainly may be seen as a prestige gift, as Jazz at
Lincoln Center carries a special significance and Jazz is
acknowledged to be one of America's gifts to the world, but the
program is also transmitting cultural information. Besides Jazz
it includes the work of Bluegrass, Gospel, Blues and Hip-Hop/Urban
musicians whose work would probably not be known in the receiving
regions, and thereby counters the image for shallowness or even
profanity which might be inferred from commercially available
American culture. The Rhythm Road program is collaborative and
dialogic: the musicians involved routinely play with local groups
creating new cultural forms and fusions. They learn as much from
their hosts as they transmit about America (which also says a
lot). This program is capacity building: the musicians work to
inspire young musicians with master classes and out-reach sessions
in schools. It is all done with an annual budget of around $1.5
million, which would pay for 100th of an F-22 fighter or - if are
believe Senator Harry Reid's figures of May 5, 2008 - sustain the
Iraq War for just five minutes.

The problem is that an administration seeking a quick and public
win in the diplomatic field might easily pass over the qualities
of The Rhythm Road and pile resources into one or two 'prestige
gifts' which mirror commercial culture, and merely send Beyonce to
Beijing. Yet more worrying is the suggestion that Cultural
Diplomacy should focus only on capacity building and,
specifically, prepare the world for arts management in the 21st
century. In a much circulated blog post last fall, Michael Kaiser
- president of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC - proposed a
cultural diplomacy strategy focused on master classes in project
planning and eliciting sponsorship from philanthropists. Recent
inbound international musicians have found themselves treated to
special lectures at management school.

There is a lot wrong with Michael Kaiser's approach, beyond the
self-serving nature of the president of the Kennedy Center calling
for U.S. cultural diplomacy to focus on work which his institution
is uniquely well qualified to deliver. He caricatures cultural
diplomacy as "sending a symphony orchestra to play for a thousand
of the most powerful people in the capital of another nation" and
ignores the true breadth and reach of contemporary cultural
diplomacy. More than this, teaching arts administration
techniques cannot touch the souls of participants in the same way
the experience of hearing musicians born worlds apart coming
together to create new cultural forms or seeing the 'transmitting'
culture re-shaped by contact with foreign partners. Giving
something of one's best remains a powerful dimension in cultural
diplomacy. Does the United States really consider "top tips for
getting corporate cash" to bankroll culture the best that the U.S.
has to offer? It may actually be inadvertently revealing the
unhelpful 'cultural information' that the arts have a really hard
time in the United States. In fiscally tough times the
traditional cultural diplomacy seen in The Rhythm Road and similar
programs continues to offer a unique return on a modest investment
from the State Department. Long may it continue.