by Renee Earle
What do James Brown, Joseph Heller, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and the U.S. Sixth Fleet Band have in common? They all supported U.S. cultural diplomacy abroad. Not all of our cultural ambassadors are as famous— most are not — but together a very wide variety of American artists, performers, and writers have had positive impact on the image of the United States throughout the world. U.S. cultural diplomacy also includes many examples of citizen diplomacy and philanthropy, whether in partnership with U.S. embassies or independently. Together, these programs positively project our values abroad.
Why Cultural Diplomacy?
Every year, embassy public affairs staff throughout the world organize hundreds of U.S. government-sponsored cultural programs at the largest venues in global capitals and in more modest spaces in distant countries. The programs go beyond public performances or exhibitions to include encounters with local counterparts.
While “culture” is most often identified with the arts and literature, U.S. cultural diplomacy, as carried out by our missions’ public affairs sections, includes programs on economics, environment, political process, racial equality, and every other topic under the sun that concerns our global community. This cultural interaction also includes the thousands of exchange programs among professionals and students that are administered by the State Department.
The purpose of all these activities is to increase mutual understanding and cooperation between the U.S. and other nations. The programs serve to counter stereotypes and reinforce images of shared values and interests. In turn, perceptions of shared values help persuade other countries to support our political and security efforts. Most foreign service officers can tell inspiring stories of their cultural diplomacy experiences. Here are some of mine.
The pursuit of cultural and intellectual activity in general has a strong tradition among the Czechs, and Prague in the late 1990’s was re-emerging as a European cultural capital, attracting the world’s premier artists, including many from the United States. Most often, the USG does not have the means to sponsor the very famous directly, but sometimes the very famous allow us to piggyback on their foreign appearances for related programs. One such program was with Joseph Heller, whose bootlegged copies of Catch 22 had resonated loudly with the Czechs during their own decades-long absurdities with Communist bureaucracies. Heller understood that past, and he made new fans with his open and gregarious presentations, demonstrating that an American could well relate to the Czech experience of totalitarianism. Hundreds of Czechs lined up for Heller’s reading, and I treasure my autographed copy, in Czech translation, of his later novel, Closing Time, (Zavirame) — as well as a hand-written note I received from Heller about some missing laundry from his hotel (which I am happy to report we were able to retrieve effortlessly).
During my four years in Prague, at least one encounter with America’s celebrities teetered on disaster. There was understandably great excitement in 1996 about a series of performances at the Czech National Theater by Mikhail Baryshnikov, who defected to the U.S. from the USSR in 1974. Our ambassador offered to host a reception in his honor, and I set about making the request. After some scheduling negotiation, Baryshnikov’s manager came back with a positive response, and we sent invitations to as many of the Czech Republic’s cultural and political elite as the Ambassador’s residence would hold. I still feel the knot in my stomach as I remember the call from Mr. Baryshnikov’s office a few days later. Apparently, there had been “a mistake” and he would not be able to attend the reception. Many desperate phone calls later, the event was rescued by the graciousness of the artist. The night of the reception not only did Mikhail Baryshnikov make more than the cameo appearance we had finally agreed upon, he spent the entire evening showing sincere interest in meeting his many admirers.
Brussels – U.S. Mission to the EU (USEU)
Our work with European Union institutions in 2008-2011 covered an astonishingly wide array of economic and political issues, bilateral and global, from shoring up support for Afghanistan and fighting global corruption, terrorism, and trafficking in persons, to the intricacies of digital and product safety regulations. While we shared many goals with the EU, not all EU Commission and Parliament representatives believed our goals were based on similar societal values, a factor that often added difficulty to our ability to persuade them to join the U.S. proposed course of action. With the EU, as with individual member states, it became important to demonstrate that culturally we shared values that were reflected in our policies.
Two negative stereotypes about the U.S. endure in many countries, even those that are close allies: America is often viewed as a racist society and as a country where consumerism and the bottom-line reign supreme. Through our cultural programs, we aimed to counter these stereotypes, or at least ensure that fact informed opinion.
Embassies around the world mark Martin Luther King Day and Black History month with a variety of programs. In my last year at USEU, we planned a movie night for local guests at one of the historic theaters in Brussels. We chose a film that had not been seen in Belgium at the time, “The Great Debaters,” Melvin B Tolson’s inspiring story of the debate team at HBCU Wiley College, Texas in 1935. Tolson pioneered interracial debate in the U.S. Thanks to the State Department’s Cultural Affairs Bureau, who secured the rights to the movie, actress Jurnee Smollett joined us in Brussels for a discussion of the film and broader civil rights questions in the U.S. The response was overwhelmingly positive, many in the audience remarking that they understood better African American life in the U.S. and America’s history with race.
U.S. economic achievements have often contributed to a perception that U.S. values are driven by material success. In Brussels, we wanted to showcase the other side of American values. Fortunately, our mission’s Commercial Attaché, Robert Connan, in addition to leading our efforts to promote a level regulatory playing field in Europe for U.S companies, was also a published photographer. Connan’s large-format, eye-catching photographs depicted nature and society in several countries including the U.S. and showed large audiences at the European Commission that a government bureaucrat focused on economics also appreciated the beauty and uniqueness of what he saw as he traveled the world.
Notwithstanding Turkish membership in NATO and excellent cooperation between the Turkish and U.S. military through, for example, the Joint United States Military Mission for Aid to Turkey (JUSMMAT) in Ankara, the presence of U.S. troops was not always welcomed by Turks in the late 1980s, especially the younger generation. During my years at the embassy in Ankara from 1986 to 1989, we worked hard to project a positive image of our forces there.
One such opportunity came with the Sixth Fleet Band’s visit to Ankara for the July 4 celebration at the embassy. Based in Naples, these superb and versatile young musicians sometimes perform in support of U.S. outreach efforts to local populations. We asked the band to extend their visit for events with their break-out rock and roll combo as well as their slightly larger swing band. As the band cranked out Prince’s “It’s Gonna Be a Beautiful Night,” hundreds of students in the university stadium broke out dancing and cheering the young American military members they saw on stage. It was indeed a beautiful moment and offered a stark contrast to negative stereotypes of U.S. military personnel. The 6th fleet band accomplished more than a thousand policy statements could to convince these young people that U.S soldiers might have more in common with them than they assumed.
Minorities and their treatment by majority populations presents a common challenge to many of our societies, not least the U.S. and Turkey. To capitalize on Turkish interest in American musicals, we brought theater director Nancy Rhodes, founder of Encompass Theater in New York, to Turkey as our Artist-in-Residence to produce a cross-cultural production of “West Side Story” with the Turkish National Ballet. The hit production provoked many discussions and sharing of experiences of how our societies might better approach diversity and inclusion of minorities.
With France, the U.S. shares more history than with most other nations, making France “our oldest ally.” Alongside contributions by de Tocqueville, Lafayette, and Rochambeau, many 18th century Franco-American discussions about enlightenment and government included Jefferson and Franklin. Yet, despite our long relationship, many French maintain mixed images of America: of the soldiers who had come to the rescue of Europe in 1944, but also of a country of philistine exporters of fast food. Fears of U.S. cultural hegemony are also of long duration and include apocalyptic descriptions of the McDonaldization of the world. There was much work to be done to persuade many in France that shared values fundamentally underpin our societies.
One way to reinforce the idea of shared values, often as effective as showcasing America’s own achievements, is to demonstrate respect for another country’s culture, as we do through the State Department’s Cultural Heritage grants. U.S. private cultural diplomacy through philanthropy shines a bright light on this important aspect of the American character that is visible throughout France. In addition to contributions to Versailles and other major French heritage sites by prominent U.S. philanthropists, several U.S. organizations also celebrate French cultural heritage and our historic connections in less well-known places. These include the American Friends of Blérancourt, who support the Franco-American Museum established in the Château de Blérancourt by Anne Morgan after World War I, and the American Friends of the Château de Compiègne, which originated in North Carolina. Such benefactors are avidly sought in a country where state support for culture, while still very important, has decreased and where private philanthropy is less customary.
When the Phillips Gallery in Washington permitted Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” to travel to France’s Luxembourg Museum, we organized visits to the museum to highlight how much such works were prized and cared for in the U.S. At the request of the Minister of Culture, we also organized a visit for the Phillips Gallery director to tour the chateaux of the Loire and offer some ideas on fundraising to the private owners struggling to maintain their properties there. Visits to all of these sites by the U.S. ambassador and other embassy personnel were important in helping raise the profile of the U.S. support.
Some cultural doubts notwithstanding, there is an abiding love of American music in France, from the jazz era to today. In the early 2000s, James Brown was scheduled for concerts in Paris. One day the ambassador’s protocol secretary came into the embassy’s Public Affairs office to say she had received an offer of two complimentary tickets to the concert from Mr. Brown’s manager. Was anyone interested? James Brown, we learned, made it a practice in every country he toured to offer tickets to embassy staff in recognition of the work they did abroad. In this case, while Mr. Brown’s cultural diplomacy reached thousands of eager French fans, embassy officers also benefitted. In pre-performance curlers and bathrobe, James Brown graciously received us backstage and talked about his work in the context of international outreach.
Some question the utility of these soft-power efforts to build relationships around the world through culture. Admittedly it can be challenging to draw direct lines of cause and effect between a cultural program and a positive opinion of the U.S. Decades of experience with these programs and direct feedback from hundreds of participants, however, have led me to conclude that cultural diplomacy, while subtle in its methods, is an effective tool in achieving our national security goals.
Renee M. Earle is a retired Public Diplomacy Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor. She served at embassies in Turkey, USSR/Russia, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, France, and the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Domestic positions with the Department of State included Diplomat-in-Residence at Duke University in North Carolina, Acting Office Director of Public Diplomacy in the European Bureau, and Chief of the Central Asia Division of the Voice of America, where she directed the Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Uzbek, Azeri, and Turkish language services. She currently serves as the Publisher of the American Diplomacy Journal.