February 14, 2011

Fight culture with culture: cultural diplomacy to counteract pop culture

“It is an American knack to present high culture not in a stuffy academic way but in a way that is both respectful and down to earth. To quote a favorite saying of Cole Porter's, "Democracy is not a leveling down, but a leveling up."” - Newsweek

As John Brown pointed out in his conversation with our class, as well as in his blog, cultural aspects of diplomacy, primarily from the US to other countries, are not a focus of most current foreign policy programs.

Back in November, he pointed this out in a post aptly titled “"Out" for the U.S., "In" Overseas?” Even during his tour in Russian ten years ago, he had to create many of his own cultural events for the embassy. Even for an audience, as he points out, very open and appreciative of these types of events. But I get regular invites to classical performances at a European embassy, German films at the Goethe Institute, or other cultural film festivals at a local museum, all funded by the respective embassy or cultural organization. All for an American audience that isn’t known for being overly culturally- or world-aware. Granted, DC is a microcosm and is somewhat unique from other US cities, but it certainly shows the difference in thinking between diplomats from the US and abroad.

Maybe foreign policy leaders assume that many countries already watch primarily US films, we don’t need to fund art-house viewings in other countries for people to attend. But as Van Ham points out, the spread of pop culture is hard to control, and the benefits of cultural diplomacy are equally hard to measure.

Van Ham also points out the concerning results of what “America is associated with abroad: “sexual amorality, domination, warmongering, materialism, and violence” (54). Maybe its hard to measure the benefits of cultural diplomacy, but its easy to see how pop culture makes us look to the rest of the world.

As an example, there are some countries as well that produce a lot of their own pop culture content where a little cultural diplomacy might go a long way. An NPR story just featured the “Go-to” American star for any Chinese films, the token white guy with flawless Chinese that fits any part. He said in the interview that while Americans usually aren’t the enemy in Chinese films, they are hapless and arrogant, and they never get the girl. China’s media market produces much of its own content, but a little high culture to counteract pop music and movies couldn’t hurt.

Back in 2008, Newsweek even featured an opinion piece stressing the need for cultural diplomacy that cited the same examples as Brown, like jazz beamed into the Soviet bloc. “The American cultural ideal has always been to recognize art on its merits, regardless of where the artist hails from, and to make the finest fruits of civilization available to all. This ideal has never been fully realized. But that is no reason to abandon it, especially now when the country's ideals in general are in need of refurbishing.”

“Public Diplomacy: "Out" for the U.S., "In" Overseas?” John Brown, 28 November 2011.


“China's 'Go-To' Typical American Guy,” NPR, 13 February 2011.


“The Return of Cultural Diplomacy,” Newsweek, 31 December 2008.


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