March 24, 2011

Does American Cultural Diplomacy have a pulse?

Mark Twain once said, “Culture is what is left after everything else is forgotten." Like Twain nailed it. It is impossible to be without culture. Richard T. Arndt, author of the "The Hush-Hush Debate: The Cultural Foundations of U.S. Public Diplomacy", discusses cultural diplomacy. He discusses its definition,

“To define cultural diplomacy, begin with cultural relations –which happen by themselves, a mosaic of human encounters fostered by films and media, trade, tourism, intermarriage, the arts of imagination, foreign study, books, neighborly gossip and chance encounters. Cultural diplomacy on the other hand only begins when a nation-state and its institutions step in and try to manage, to whatever extent they can, this natural two-way cultural flow so as better to advance broad national interests, preferably on both sides of borders. Some cultural relations are teaching opportunities, others learning situations; both processes educate the teachers as much as the student. The goal is to move from teacher-student relationships to collegiality.”

That said, American cultural diplomacy is highly reliant on its popular culture. But we have become too reliant on our inevitable popular culture to communicate to the world for us. While it is informal, it also convolutes the idea of American culture, which as John Brown points out is based on ideas rather than cultural tradition. Formal cultural diplomacy deserves greater attention and cognizance from the people, the government, and the private sector. Arndt points out that there used to be 200-odd libraries abroad and now we only have a dozen or so. Instead of cutting cultural staff overseas, US officials need to be increasing it. We may find that it would improve the international environment because of increased cultural understanding.

The US needs to be more careful of how other countries perceive us. For instance, while the movie Borat was a place branding nightmare in Kazakhstan, it also reflected poorly to some extent on Hollywood for its crude and culturally insensitive humor. Popular culture, as seen here, can prove to be a double edged sword- great for creating venue but it can also cause a lot of tension. In order to keep US cultural diplomacy alive, releases of movies like this one and formal acts of cultural diplomacy at US embassies around the world are the first step in creating a more solidified space to communicate through dialogue and collaboration with outside publics.

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