+ A

U.S. cultural diplomacy matters

Feb 10,2017
GWANGJU – At a moment when disruption and division seem to be haunting our world, it is time more than ever to get creative and double down on diplomacy in all its forms.

And, as this city in Korea and a dance company from New York are showing us, that includes connecting through the soft power of “cultural diplomacy.”

Roughly defined as the use of an exchange of ideas, traditions and values to strengthen relations and encourage engagement, cultural diplomacy is perhaps most easily seen in the use of music, arts and sports to build cross-cultural understanding.

Famously, in the early 1970s, an exchange of table tennis players between the United States and China helped pave the way for a visit to Beijing by then President Richard Nixon. Then, it was “ping pong diplomacy.”

Today, it could well be the power of American football, or of jazz, or of dance that helps America and Americans to better connect with other countries and their citizens — and that includes with counterparts in long-time allies, such as Korea. Likewise, the power of Korea's culture from its rich traditions to the new wonders of K-pop and Korean TV dramas are advancing Korean interests and "brand Korea."

This week in Gwangju, we also see cultural diplomacy in action. "With support from the U.S. Embassy in Seoul, some 100 participants and their families and communities have come together with a team of dancers from Battery Dance, a New York-based contemporary dance company, to help build understanding and bridge divides."

“Inclusion is the name of the game,” says Battery Dance founder and director Jonathan Hollander, “with disabled students working with high school dance majors; Filipino young women and a high school hip hop dance club; North Korean defectors; middle-aged ladies from a community dance group; and the Gwangju Ballet.”

I first came to know Hollander when I served some 15 years back on the bipartisan Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy under U.S. Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. That committee was authorized by the U.S. Congress and established in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as security concerns led to increased restrictions on travel and greater scrutiny of visitors, including from some Muslim-majority countries. I now serve on the Battery Dance international advisory board as part of my own efforts to encourage cultural exchange.

“Cultural diplomacy becomes a real live thing when you get diverse people into a space together and differences are erased, borders crossed, preconceptions challenged [and] cooperation engendered,” says Hollander. “Both the U.S. and Korea are experiencing social upheaval at the same time. Tensions are high. What does the future hold?”

Perhaps, we should once again look to the past to answer that question amidst talk of new U.S. visa restrictions and temporary travel bans.

Nearly 12 years ago, in September 2005, the eight-person Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy issued a report to the then-U.S. Secretary of State underscoring the importance of strengthening U.S. engagement internationally as positive perceptions of the United States fell, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world.

Our committee included Republicans and Democrats in the worlds of academia, culture, business and government.

In our report, “Cultural Diplomacy: The Linchpin of Public Diplomacy,” we urged the Secretary of State to consider a number of recommendations that would strengthen America’s “soft power” in the ongoing battle of ideas, and create a cultural diplomacy infrastructure and policy for the 21st century.

While the mandate and work of our committee finished years ago, here are two recommendations from then worth reconsidering in today's environment. The new U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his team should read and revisit these and other suggestions in our report.

First, we recommended providing advanced training and professional development opportunities for U.S. Foreign Service Officers who are public affairs officers and have responsibility for public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy through their careers. This would include particular attention to upgrading their ability to use research, polling, and new media, including social media.

Second, we recommended expanding international cultural exchange programs. We sought to underscore the power of open, not closed, doors. At that time, we focused on inviting more Arab and Muslim artists, performers, and writers to the United States, and sending their American counterparts to the Islamic world. But today, the need for smarter, enhanced U.S. engagement extends around the world, including to the Asia and Pacific region as China continues to assert itself in the South China Sea.

Certainly, the challenges of budgets and bureaucracy remain, as does the continued need to balance access and security concerns with regards to visa issues.

Back in 2005, the advisory committee wrote that “cultural diplomacy can enhance our national security in subtle, wide-ranging, and sustainable ways,” and underscored that such diplomacy efforts require a generational commitment of funds, expertise, courage and time.

Those words still ring true.

In 1848, the British statesman Lord Palmerston is said to have commented that nations have no eternal allies or permanent enemies, but only eternal and perpetual interests. Working to win the hearts and minds of reasonable people everywhere remains very much in America’s interests.

It is time for the United States to recommit to diplomacy — cultural, commercial and educational – through efforts big and small. The work of the Battery Dance Group in Korea is one example of that.


*The author, a former U.S. Ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin.

Curtis S. Chin