An important and highly symbolic subset of cultural presentation is a nation’s cultural diplomacy. Based on my almost 30 years of experience doing cultural diplomacy in the U.S. Foreign Service and the changed political context in which our nation’s public diplomacy is presently conducted, I advocate a new way forward in presenting ourselves as a culture, whether in the area of performance, sports, the arts more generally or other collaborative endeavors achieved through exchanges.

In the international arena, a government’s cultural program communicates on at least two levels: firsts, the human level of substantive exchange between people and institutions, whether centered on artistic performance or production, sports competition or training or co-mingling of intellectual creation in think-tanks or the like. The second level is symbolic, as the context of the exchange and its creative results are echoed in the media. Implicitly at least, the interaction is modeled on this second level. Is the relationship patronizing, egalitarian and how does it empower the participants?

During the Cold War, USIA and the Department of State put their thumb in the dike, for symbolism’s sake and typically put a jazz Great on tour, to compete with the unabashed offerings from the Soviet Union and China. The result was a cultural diplomacy in which Dizzie met the Bolshoi Ballet with a Chinese acrobat swinging in the midst. All three Cold War rivals put their iconic acts forward acting out a kind of sublimated conflict.

On the level of symbolism, these widely heralded presentations were staged performances. The vector was the superior superpower performing down to “third world” audiences from under proscenium arches. To the thousands that witnessed these spectacles live and the millions that saw, heard, or read about them in the media, the message of superiority could not have been clearer.

I advocate an opposite approach for a new era and a new U.S. administration. The excesses and inherent resentment of the superpowers have mounted these past four decades, and the rest of the world is catching up in fits and starts. This is indeed an era in which President Obama’s tone of “respectful engagement “among equals needs to be a watchword of people- to-people interaction. The nation’s cultural diplomacy must therefore bring our cultural presentations “out from under the proscenium.” We must do this in the spirit of wanting to be known and wanting, in turn, to know others. In this age, where American juggernaut no longer garners automatic respect, we have no choice but to advance a cultural diplomacy of engagement.

Entry into the world of 2.0 communication further impels such a change in cultural diplomacy. 2.0 implies more than giving control of image, symbol and message. Creative presentation via the Internet is predicated on presumed equality among those who engage their international peers as equal co-creators, whether in the realm of the arts or ideas. The medium itself is a great leveler.

Ironically, in an age of instantaneous communication, the emphasis advocated here would require a commitment to longer-term exchanges on the ground, prepared and sustained by collaborative creation on platforms such as Second Life and other social media. Even in USIA, such longer exchanges, like “professionals in residence,” were only sporadically funded over time. To the good, they usually required some kind of cost or in-kind support from the host country institutions.

Our biggest and best acts still travel far and wide on the international economy and now in the digital universe. Driven by the market, America still sends out the big names and, seductively, the entertainment markets invite foreigners to see how “we do things better the American way.” Some critics may dub this as “hegemonistic” but I think we need to take this as a given.

A program initiative like this would project an image of America willing to engage on a level playing field. An American artist, for example, would apply to go to a country based on his/her initial interest in the arts in the host country. The U.S. Embassy in the country would arrange compatible hosting. The time the American participant spent on the ground would be dedicated to co-creation: of music, dance, graphic art, sport or intellectual endeavors. A grant under this scheme would include money to travel the emerging fusion and its co-creators around the host country and region and in some cases allow the artists etc. to bring their work to the U.S. This in turn would validate the country partner, and add to American’s knowledge of the outside world, creating a notion that fusion of culture and creative endeavor is something that enhances both cultures.

I fought hard to send a clean-cut group of Muslim-American rappers out of Washington D.C., Native Deen, on the road to Indonesia and Malaysia, where their music has a following in the key, under 25 demographic that post 9/11public diplomacy aims at. They finally traveled two years later. But a Malay critic quipped to me at the time, contemplating the prospect of a Native Deen performance on a Kuala Lumpur stage, under the proscenium: “The subliminal message will be, now Americans are even telling us how to be good Muslims.”

It hardly seems revolutionary to eschew mediums of “cultural performance,” epitomized by the big names and price tags, for a cultural diplomacy that travels Americans to meet their foreign counterparts on a level playing field, peer-to-peer. Such cultural diplomacy would generate a very different symbolic value—one that listens, respects and creates synthesis as an end-product rather than performance in the more traditional sense of our act on their stage.
There are, of course, historical examples; ping-pong diplomacy with China prior to former President Nixon and Chairman Mao’s diplomatic opening is a great example. We very consciously played the Chinese at a game far more theirs than ours. We probably lost more than we won. A basketball exchange I instigated in Bahrain in the early 1980s is another good example. I persuaded the old USIA to deliberately pick a Division III team from a good school, Case Western Reserve. This team I argued could conceivably lose a game or two with no diminution of effort—and they did, to the delight of Arab fans. Also, picking student-athletes from a top school guaranteed a greater degree of finesse in accommodating cultural difference. The basketball exchange gave us a unique access to the Shia majority underclass. It opened doors of access, of invitations to weddings, funerals and celebrations as well as a channel of serious dialogue that stayed open for years.

A recent private trip to Egypt by jazzman Darryl Kennedy, illustrates the point in a setting at the heart of U.S. post-9/11 diplomacy. Partnering with an Egyptian musician encountered during his earlier stint as “Jazz Ambassador,” Kennedy spent two months in Cairo, jamming with a local group. Finding a compatible Egyptian musical partner, Kennedy finally cut a joint CD with this Egyptian band and ended up doing a widely acclaimed combined concert tour in Egypt. Kennedy came across as humble, and as an American who listened and paid the highest compliment possible to his Egyptian counterparts, generating a fusion sound, a sound that did not value one cultural component over the other. This is the prototype of what I advocate. Had the group been funded to tour America, this cultural exchange, would have been a perfect prototype, with the Egyptians garnering press notice and belying American stereotypes.

About four years ago, a young political officer out of Appalachia, a professional bluegrass musician, reported for duty at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Encouraged by his embassy, he mixed it musically with some of Tunisia’s best pop and folk musicians. Their jam sessions eventually yielded a polished fusion; CDs were cut. The Department answered Embassy Tunis’ appeal for financial support. The young officer’s musical partners from Charlottesville, VA came out to Tunisia and soon the Tunisian-American ensemble launched on a tour of Tunisia and North Africa. Finally the Americans returned to the U.S. with their Tunisian friends for a tour that was highlighted by an appearance at the Kennedy Center. The media image of the collaboration was one of exchange writ large, of partnership of equals and co-creators.

In the “fusion” century, why not disperse a stream of pop musicians for longer periods to jam, mix it and finally integrate unique products that respect the local milieu and arrive squarely in the concentric space among participating cultures.

Renew the initiative of having an American university class share a curriculum between one and three other universities overseas “meeting” together on a biweekly basis by Internet visual conference.

Then there is performance and conflict resolution, USAID sent a master of drum circles to Northern Iraq three years ago to teach social drumming to Iraqis drawn from over a dozen confessional or ethnic communities. Those who worked in the Arab world or Israel in the 1990s will not soon forget the melding of young classical musicians from Israel and surrounding Arab countries gathered in New Hampshire for summer workshops, funded by the U.S. government. Together, these young Arabs and Israelis made music, shared living spaces, hiked and even developed crushes on Israeli contemporaries and vice versa.
The experiences with the peer-to-peer cultural diplomacy suggested here are not novel. What we need now is to brand the concept, package and fund it. One of the great things about this kind of programming is that it is easy to attract private sector or host country collaboration—either in cash or kind. With funding to share the fruits of the competition or art on both shores, and skillful media work to include millions more participating vicariously, the U.S. may happily be seen as a respectful equal—and our co-citizens may learn a thing or two about the world in the process. And the world will have some darn good art produced in the fusion; one I think even the most acerbic critic would label “non-hegemonic.”

By Peter Kovach

Peter Kovach is a career public diplomacy officer in the senior foreign service. Currently, he directs the Office of International Religious Freedom at the Department of State. He has taught at UCLA and UMass. Kovach currently teaches meditation to underserved groups and advocates absorbing wisdom from all traditions while cultivating life insight.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.