How successful has the United States been in making its policies and values better understood among Muslims in the Middle East and Southeast Asia? Based on my experience last summer as a Fulbright senior specialist in Indonesia, the answer is: hardly at all. During May and June, I spent three weeks giving a series of lectures on American history and the global impact of American culture to students and faculty members at several universities in central Java. I was based in Yogyakarta, which the guidebooks describe as the “intellectual” capital of Indonesia. Leaving aside the characteristic hyperbole of guidebooks, I anticipated that I would meet a number of people who had some familiarity with the United States. Moreover, since Indonesia is a country with the largest and (along with Turkey) the most moderate Muslim population on the planet, I assumed that it would be a focal point for the Bush administration’s efforts to win “hearts and minds” in the Islamic world.
The disparity between my expectations and my experiences could not have been greater. Since 1978 I have been a visiting professor abroad on many occasions — not just in relatively tranquil places like Western Europe, Scandinavia, or Australia, but also in Eastern Europe during the Communist era, Turkey, Thailand, Malaysia, and Brazil. But never have I had as difficult a time communicating with audiences, or deciphering what they were saying to me, as I did in Indonesia. Ironically, the original intent of the Fulbright program, when it was launched in 1946, was to promote “mutual understanding” between Americans and other people around the world. What I encountered in Indonesia was mutual incomprehension.
Indeed, I often felt like the Bill Murray character in Lost in Translation: jet-lagged, surrounded by people eager to please, bemused by my inability to fathom their version of English, trying to remember to nod and smile even when I was clueless about what was going on around me. As my frustration and sense of isolation grew, I recalled the advertising slogan in the movie: “For relaxing times, make it Suntory time.” In my case, it was Smirnoff time — I sometimes suspected that the only personal relationship I established in Indonesia was with a liquor salesman who kept saying to me as I left his emporium: “I see you again, Mister.” More seriously, Lost in Translation is one of the most discerning films ever made about culture shock. And that, in fact, was what I felt in Indonesia almost every day.
The breakdown in communication, however, did not result simply from the struggle many Asians have in pronouncing certain English words. In the “discussions” that followed my lectures (which frequently took the form of someone delivering a 10-minute speech before arriving at a question), and in the conversations I had with individual students and faculty members, I found myself repeatedly saying, “I don’t understand what you mean.” That was true even when their comments or queries were translated into recognizable English. The problem was not one of language, but of context. What I didn’t grasp, at least not for a while, were the political and cultural assumptions behind the questions Indonesians were posing.
My dialogue with Indonesians often became surreal. “Is there grass in Texas?” I was regularly asked of my home state. Obviously Indonesians — having seen far too many old Westerns — supposed that Texas, with some of the most heavily populated urban areas in America, was a veritable wasteland of sagebrush and dust. Indonesians also seemed obsessed with the prevalence of what they called “free sex” in America. Someone finally explained to me that they meant the tendency of Americans to engage in sex before marriage or after divorce — whereas in Indonesia such activity is forbidden, in theory if not in practice. And since many Indonesians in my audiences had seen Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, they were convinced that students in American high schools were heavily armed, just waiting for the opportunity to open fire.
But it was their questions about Moore himself that left me truly befuddled. I was asked continually if the Bush administration had subsidized Moore’s movies, including Fahrenheit 9/11. Eventually I realized that such a question revealed an entirely different set of ideas about the relationship between government and culture. Since Indonesians believed that movies, plays, and novels could scarcely exist without the political and financial support of the state, it was hard for them to imagine the existence of a “private” sector in the arts, or the absence of an American ministry of culture.
Indonesians are by no means the only people, in Asia or elsewhere, who cherish their stereotypes about America. One can find similar misconceptions all over the world, notably among Europeans currently hostile to American foreign policy as well as to what they regard as America’s economic and religious “values.”
Yet in Indonesia I did not confront the usual anti-Americanism. Nor did I come across students, even at privately financed Muslim universities, whose knowledge consisted exclusively of what they’d memorized from the Koran. Although I was certainly asked whether the Bush administration was genuinely committed to the promotion of democracy in the Middle East, or only to fulfilling America’s imperial ambitions, no one shrieked at me about the war in Iraq or Washington’s support for Israel.
On the contrary, there is — at the moment — a great deal of affection for the United States. That fondness is the result, in part, of America’s financial and military assistance to Indonesia after the tsunami devastated most of Aceh Province in Sumatra. The favorable attitude was reinforced by the highly visible presence of American journalists covering the tsunami’s wreckage, and by the well-publicized trips of the former presidents Bush and Clinton to devastated areas.
Moreover Indonesians are as sensitive as Americans to the menace of terrorism. In 2002 two nightclubs in Bali were bombed, killing 202 people, including 88 Australian tourists. In 2003 the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta was severely damaged. Soon after I landed in Indonesia, the U.S. Embassy and its consulates closed down for several days because of a terrorist threat. Meanwhile the English-language Jakarta Post persistently warned Western tourists to beware of congregating at shopping malls. Those threats and warnings have turned out to be all too realistic in view of the most recent suicide bombings on Bali that killed 22 people and wounded more than 90.
Perhaps as a result of both their gratitude toward and shared vulnerability with Americans, many Indonesian students told me after my lectures that they were eager to learn more about American culture, and that they wanted to find out how to obtain grants to study in the United States. They also pointed out to me that I was the first visiting professor from America they had ever encountered who had talked to them — however impenetrably — about the history of America’s politics and its culture.
The trouble, therefore, is not so much with the clichés that Indonesians have in their minds about America, just as it is not with our mutual failure to comprehend one another’s language. The central problem is that Indonesians know almost nothing about the United States, beyond what they’ve seen in Hollywood’s blockbuster movies. What they really need is some in-depth instruction about the complexities of American life — about America’s history, its political system, its economic and social structures, its foreign policy, and its cultural institutions.
In short, Indonesians — and people in other Muslim countries — could benefit enormously, as would Americans, from the sorts of overseas cultural activities to which the United States committed itself during the Cold War. From the late 1940s through the end of the 1980s, the American government — along with the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations — sponsored lectures and conferences abroad on American history and literature; art exhibitions featuring America’s Abstract Expressionists and postmodern painters and sculptors; international tours of jazz musicians, symphony orchestras, and ballet companies, as well as of Broadway musicals and dramas; visiting professorships where American academics taught in foreign universities; fellowships for foreign graduate students to study in the United States; and cultural centers like the America Houses in West Germany and Austria that showed American movies, displayed works of American photographers, and offered symposia on American social and cultural life.
In addition the State Department, the U.S. Information Agency, and the foundations helped build up library collections of American materials — especially books, magazines, and newspapers — in foreign universities. For example, in the 1950s and 1960s, at the John F. Kennedy Institute for North American Studies at the Free University of Berlin, the Ford Foundation helped subsidize the creation of what became the largest research library for American topics on the European continent.
Even the Congress for Cultural Freedom, though secretly bankrolled by the CIA, was instrumental during the 1950s in publishing magazines and holding symposia that provided outlets for debates between American and foreign intellectuals. More important, the congress arranged for manuscripts written by Eastern European dissidents to be published in the West.
After the end of the Cold War, many of those global cultural efforts and institutions either were eliminated or suffered dramatic cutbacks in financing. The stipends for Fulbright lectureships, including the better-endowed Fulbright Chairs in Europe, failed to keep pace with rising faculty salaries, making it tougher for the program to persuade American professors to teach abroad. The Clinton administration, presuming that the United States no longer had to contend with an external enemy like the Soviet Union, reduced the financing of American-studies conferences and lecture tours abroad, discontinued the practice of underwriting concerts and art exhibits, closed all the America Houses and other cultural centers overseas, and shut down the American libraries housed in U.S. embassies.
Furthermore the infrastructure that supported America’s public and cultural diplomacy was severely weakened. The U.S. Information Agency, which had supervised most of our international cultural and educational programs since 1953, was absorbed by the State Department in 1999, thereby losing its independence and becoming more subservient to the department’s political and foreign-policy priorities. Meanwhile, according to statistics from the Defense Science Board and the Government Accountability Office, the staff and funds for public diplomacy (i.e., cultural programming and public relations) have been eroded by more than 25 percent, adjusted for inflation, since 1989. That means that there are fewer U.S. consulates overseas that organize conferences and fewer cultural affairs officers in American embassies. Those officers who remain are stretched too thin, having to serve too many masters, and they are increasingly aware that the road to promotion and influence in the Foreign Service lies not through culture but through press and public relations.
It was only after the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon in 2001 that many outside observers (among them, journalists and academics) and some government officials recognized that the United States needed once again to communicate, culturally, with the rest of the world, particularly in the Middle East and South Asia. Nevertheless, that communication has been awkward at best, much of it marred by an emphasis on advertising techniques and an excessive reliance on the Internet rather than on direct, face-to-face interactions between Americans and foreigners. Nor have the ventures been inspired by the long-range vision that characterized America’s cultural efforts during the Cold War.
There are, of course, many differences between the Cold War and the war on terrorism. The Cold War was primarily a contest between two nation-states, the United States and the Soviet Union, both with a lot to lose in the case of a possible nuclear conflagration. Consequently each country understood that there were limits beyond which neither could go, particularly when it came to threatening the spheres of influence or national-security interests of its adversary. Terrorists, on the other hand, are stateless and fanatical, with nothing to lose and no conception of what is and is not permissible.
Still, America’s cultural activities during the Cold War were not designed to convert Communists, nor today can such programs expect to persuade terrorists to alter their tactics of intimidation and mass murder. Instead, the libraries, symposia, magazines, and concerts were aimed during the Cold War at people in Western Europe, Latin America, and Asia who were agnostic about the virtues of American culture or reluctant to choose sides between the United States and the Soviet Union. Similarly a resurrection of America’s cultural diplomacy in the 21st century has to focus on those in the Islamic world who remain ambivalent about the United States and what it stands for — and who are uncertain about how America’s policies and values will affect their own cultures, social institutions, and religious beliefs.
The best way to begin is by launching a sustained effort to make America more intelligible to Muslims. Indonesia could be an ideal test case for how effectively the United States can inform people in other countries (and diminish their stereotypes) about life in America.
And the place to start is with libraries. Indonesia, like many countries around the world, desperately needs books about the United States, subscriptions to American newspapers and periodicals (both mass-circulation magazines and professional journals), and DVD’s of classic American films. But such collections should be located within Indonesian universities rather than at separate cultural centers, as in the past, since Asian versions of Europe’s America Houses could be tempting targets for terrorist bombings.
After the demise in the 1990s of American libraries overseas, the Bush administration placed its faith in what were called “American Corners” — mini-libraries that, at least in Indonesia, contain a few out-of-date magazines and books about American history. But American Corners are pathetic simulations of authentic libraries like the kind that exist at the JFK Institute or in British universities. So if Americans truly care what the Muslim world thinks, then university collections of American materials must be substantially enlarged and improved.
Second, the State Department should consider financing semester-long visiting professorships to Indonesia, and perhaps elsewhere in the region, instead of relying on the small and underfinanced Fulbright program or on ad hoc faculty exchanges between American and foreign universities. Those professorships ought to match the salaries of American academics, to be more financially appealing than the paltry stipends for Fulbright grants. Such a program would also require that the State Department actively identify and recruit scholars in American history, literature, sociology, economics, political science, and law, rather than depending on whoever happens to apply for the positions.
The purpose of the visiting professorships, however, would not be simply to send American academics to Indonesia or to other Muslim countries to teach courses and advise local faculty members on curricula. Instead, just as the American government after World War II dispatched scholars to Europe to help establish university departments and institutes of American studies, so the State Department should define the role of the new professorships as training one or two generations of Indonesian and other Muslim Americanists, who could then transmit what they know about the United States to their own students.
That training should not be devoted merely to developing a cadre of indigenous academic specialists in American subjects. As in the case of postwar Europe, the ultimate objective would be to provide students who will some day enter business, law, politics, or the media with a greater knowledge of and sophistication about America’s political and economic system and its cultural traditions.
Third, the State Department and the Fulbright Program, along with private foundations, could increase the number of fellowships for Indonesian and other foreign graduate students to study American history, literature, law, or politics in the United States — not just for a year or two, but with a view toward earning a Ph.D. and returning to teach their fields to their own undergraduates. Again, fellowships like those were indispensable during the Cold War in helping to produce several generations of Americanists in Europe, Latin America, and Japan.
Finally, the Foreign Service itself could require more people who are interested in American culture and willing to devote their careers to making our culture more comprehensible to foreign audiences. If a broader set of cultural initiatives is to materialize, U.S. embassies abroad, not only in Indonesia, urgently need more personnel and more support from Washington.
All these efforts will cost a great deal more money than the Bush administration has allocated for public diplomacy. But, despite their intermittent disdain for the use of “soft power,” important members of the administration are aware of how precarious America’s image is in Muslim countries, if not also among America’s wary allies in Europe. Condoleezza Rice, after all, was in her earlier life an expert on American-Soviet relations, and she knows how crucial culture was as a component of the Cold War. Karen P. Hughes, the new under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, is a confidante of President Bush and may be able to encourage the administration to pay more attention and devote more resources to the role of American culture overseas.
Yet no matter what happens during the next three years, the significance of and opportunities for cultural diplomacy extend well beyond the life span of the Bush administration. Right now Indonesia could be a place for pilot programs that, if successful, might eventually be expanded to Malaysia and (if circumstances permit) Jordan and Egypt. But such programs require imagination, energy, adequate funds, and above all time to work.
Thus, unless people in the State Department begin to think of the distant future, rather than of immediate propaganda payoffs, America will never duplicate the cultural accomplishments that characterized the cold-war years. Instead, we will continue to find our views and our values distrusted, misinterpreted, and lost in translation.
Richard Pells is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin. His books include Not Like Us: How Europeans Have Loved, Hated, and Transformed American Culture Since World War II (Basic Books, 1997).