Today's cultural diplomacy efforts look dramatically different than they did twenty or thirty years ago. In the post-Cold War, Internet, Twitter and Facebook era, government-sponsored cultural initiatives focus on fostering the types of cross-cultural encounters that can ultimately engender mutual understanding, and less on disseminating specific political messages or supporting defined foreign policy initiatives.
One cause for this shift has been the revolution in communications technology. In recent years, technological innovation and the ease with which people can access information from an ever-expanding range of sources have led them to become more skeptical of a state-sponsored cultural or political message delivered via cultural diplomacy. In a world where people can seek out whatever type of cultural experience they are looking for, American culture has generally been associated abroad with Hollywood films and popular television. In response, it seems that the State Department's objective would organically transition to focus on bringing diverse audiences and communities together through cultural activities, using technology to facilitate those interactions.
Throughout most of the Cold War era, American cultural diplomacy encompassed State Department and CIA-sponsored artistic and educational programs designed to achieve specific foreign policy goals. It included programming in foreign countries to shape perceptions of the U.S. abroad and was believed to be a means of disseminating information and ways of thinking that challenged Communist ideology and its political claims. Today, however, American cultural diplomacy programming has developed into one of several tools for creating mutual understanding and building stronger relationships. The arts have transformed from being the message to being the messenger.
No longer is the emphasis on promoting a particular message, but rather on the human-interaction involved in the exchange. As Acting Assistant Secretary Maura Pally of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) at the U.S. State Department explained to me, the objective is for cultural programming to "build mutual understanding and relationships, and get people to meet and connect with each other in real time [...] hopefully, maybe even to counter some stereotypes, and give U.S. citizens and people from abroad an opportunity to meet each other, to find common ground and where we share things rather than where our differences are." This perspective reinforces the universal nature of the arts, which are used around the world to express personal values and sentiments.
The transformation in cultural diplomacy objectives can be observed in the State Department's current cultural affairs programming. Soon after I wrote my first post on cultural diplomacy, the New York Times featured "The Soft Steps of Diplomacy" - an article on the State Department's project DanceMotion USA, a cultural exchange program that took the form of a major dance initiative tour abroad. The project involves three American contemporary dance companies, each traveling to three countries in a region, to perform, give master classes, put on workshops, and meet with in-country artists. The emphasis placed on the human exchange and one-on-one interaction through workshops and discussions, in addition to traditional performances, demonstrates the desire to use cultural activities as a platform for dialogue.
Moreover, the rise of new communication technologies is enhancing and facilitating the State Department's cultural programming efforts, multiplying the opportunities for cultural events that build connections, relationships, and mutual understanding across international borders.
For example, the Carnegie Hall Cultural Exchange Program, sponsored by the State Department, offers American students the opportunity to engage in music-making projects with other students around the world (this year in India and Mexico) through an online community and two video-conferenced concerts. Technology in this instance enables an interaction that would most likely not have occurred otherwise.
These are just two of the many cultural programs that the State Department sponsors, but they each highlight the emphasis on building networks for human communication and using technology in innovative ways. As Acting Assistant Secretary Pally reiterated at the end of our discussion, "there is no substitute for cultural diplomacy -- the ability to reach people and audiences that we wouldn't normally reach, and get people to connect with each other in a way that transcends religion, language, and politics." It is with this goal in mind that we must continue to support cultural diplomacy efforts and measure their continued success.