In the late 1940s, a visiting American dowager gushed to young USIS officer Armin Meyer in Baghdad, “Oh Mr. Meyer, tell me about USIS. Is it very hush-hush?” Meyer’s response: “Not at all, madam, it’s very blah-blah.”
Things have not changed in sixty years. Anyone seeking to learn about Public Diplomacy (PD) today, with minimal internet skills, can easily find ten thousand words a day pouring out of the collective fingertips of our great nation. Six fine universities, including the host of this publication, have established strong programs to foster research and guide students into this world, be it for business or public service. The books on the subject pile higher by the year.
And yet Cultural Diplomacy, arguably the base on which American PD stands and the deep substance in the idea of Soft Power, is mentioned only in passing, usually as a component which has been overtaken by change and its new magical tools. Thoughtful Americans early began writing pertinently on the subject, beginning with Franklin, Jefferson, Hawthorne and Henry James and producing world-scale monographs —even before the French—like McMurry and Lee’s The Cultural Approach (1947), inspired by three-time Pulitzer winner Archibald MacLeish. The analytical output flourished during the 1950s and 1960s, culminating in masterpieces by Coombs and Frankel, with hearty support by the university world and the foundations. The historians began with Walter Adams add Francis Colligan and dug deeper with Akira Iriye and his student Frank Ninkovich. Today it is left to the novelists.
The hushing of the debate about the role of culture in diplomacy puzzles many but bothers few. The foundations await evidence that someone cares; and the universities, finding “no one to talk to in Washington” (Robert Goheen, 2007), have lost heart and turned their attention to other matters.
This is curious in that Edmund Gullion’s phrase Public Diplomacy (PD), for which the most honest definition I have yet found is “what USIA used to do,” has always rested on a broad cultural foundation; anywhere from 70-95 % of USIA’s field activity, depending on the country situation, focused on cultural affairs since the formal beginnings in 1917. It is even more curious in that what is now called PD, from 1938 until 1946, was subordinated to CD and only took charge under the pressures of the undeclared Cold War, never to spring back to “normal.” Now academic stars like Dean Nye deplore the downward drift of the US image around the world, attribute the slump to inadequate PD, and list its tool as exchanges, libraries, cultural centers, English teaching, books and other programs–all cultural tools, many of which were funded until 1977 and of course since USIA’s death in 1999 by the Department of State, the favorite target for blame by the PD exponents. Soft Power, however it spells out, means the diplomacy of cultures.
In personal terms, it seems strange too that my comprehensive if ponderous tome on cultural diplomacy (The First Resort of Kings, 2005) circulates more and more widely, is adopted in more university classrooms, and has attracted the attention of the English-reading world abroad, while stimulating various translation efforts. Invited here and there by foreign scholars and practitioners, I discover that the world has noticed the disappearance of the good people and fine products of American cultural diplomacy, launched informally by Franklin and Jefferson, taken over by the private world, and since 1938 supported in part by the formal apparatus of government. The world has also realized that cultural diplomacy is an inexpensive way of advancing national interests and that the American experience of the art is worth studying..
One journey in 2008 helped me discover a great bastion of the Public Diplomats at the University of Southern California. With a colleague from culture-drenched Mexico, we argued for rescuing the diplomacy of cultures from the embrace of propaganda and the misleading context of PD. We pointed out that, even in good years, the practitioners of cultural work abroad must struggle to keep their values intact in the hard-nosed context of the world of foreign affairs, as it is has been formulated since the Congress of Vienna. USIA, that beloved club (and whipping-boy) we all miss, was in fact “a propaganda agency, and don’t ever forget it,” as the late Richard E. Neustadt warned a new entrant to its cultural service in 1963.
A careful search of the proliferate writing on PD since 9/11 will turn up little evidence that its cultural base is the sine qua non of the idea; the random lip-service to CD in such writing tends to liken culture’s role to some kind of dainty charm dangling from the foreign policy bracelet. The British scholar Nicholas Cull, admittedly a historian of political propaganda, in a recent 35-page typescript on the demise of USIA (with Juliana Pilon), by-passes USIA’s and State’s Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs (CU/ECA) which, after being kidnapped by Carter’s USIA in 1977, was still being digested with nagging dyspepsia at USIA’s end in 1999.
Today ECA is the only remainder of USIA recognizable to old-timers. It survives relatively intact, its annual budget edging past half a billion dollars (8% up this year), in contrast to the $27,000 given to its founders in 1938. It has slogged ahead, in fair weather and foul, for seventy years. Its tenacity is notable, its survival impressive, its intellectual base sound, its steady support thought-provoking, and its visibility bordering zero. Of late, celebrations pop up regularly around the world as Fulbright Commissions toast fifty or sixty years of operation; but the seventieth anniversary of the founding of State’s Bureau of Educational Affairs on May 23, 1938 passed unnoticed.
Meanwhile, the new administration has tapped Secretary Clinton’s close entourage for key appointments to ECA and the UNESCO staff, capped by an Assistant Secretary who must fill the shoes of giants like Ben Cherrington, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Thayer, Philip Coombs, Charles Frankel and Alice Ilchman, among those who have tussled with the job.
When “America’s Salesman” William Benton, in one of Harry Truman’s better-concealed mistakes, took over the Bureau of Cultural Affairs from MacLeish at the peak of his stride in the fall of 1945, the scholar-lawyer-poet-editor bowed to the ultimate PR-genius: advertising seized the reins from intellect. Benton’s line of successors from PR and the media would lead the new USIA after 1953, while MacLeish’s ECA successors spoke ever more faintly from and for the university world and then fell into the media line after 1992.
Once in charge, the information function—what foreigners see as propaganda— gradually wove its nets around the cultural officers and drove them back to their universities or into internal exile, leaving a few dedicated officers to do their best with what they could squeeze out of tense colleagues from the pitiful funds Congress allocated to USIA each year. American political parties have never distinguished themselves by deep commitment to foreign affairs, so that the trends and cycles of USIA had little or nothing to do with US party politics: culture flourished under FDR and Eisenhower, Johnson and the senior Reagan; USIA’s swallowing of ECA was ordered by Carter’s team, the unkindest cuts of all were made in the well-intentioned Clinton-Gore, and Helms’ trimuph came without opposition from Madeleine Albright.
Today some say it is all over. Step by step, the structure built carefully over six decades after 1938 has been dismantled, especially in the field. From 200-odd libraries abroad, we have slid to a dozen or so. Cultural staff overseas, US and foreign, has been halved or worse. The U.S. has left direct English teaching to the less qualified—Iran took over the giant Iran-America Society network and trebled its teaching capacity, at the expense of quality. Exchanges, including Fulbright, have held steady in funding but suffer from inflation, over-extension and conflicting policies; in recent decades, Fulbright has tolerated shorter-term purposes which would have shocked the founders. A few cultural centers in private hands hang on, funded by English-teaching, but US government support is gone. A thoughtful staffer from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee recently traveled abroad to press Congress’s interest in what are now called “American Corners,” with three scheduled for Mexico (Guadalajara, Chihuaha and Tijuana). The cultural attachés, once a stout breed of university dons adept in the language and culture of their host-countries and gently resistant to the pressures of US politics and “public affairs,” have given way to bright neophytes who have never practiced cultural diplomacy, who may or may not carry the values necessary to understanding its unstated rules, and for whom there are few mentors left in the service brave enough to speak out.
Within the memory of the oldest child, I called on a US Cultural Attaché in a major partner nation and offered a signed copy of my book; the officer thought it amusing to assert that in ten years, like all books, mine would be “totally obsolete.” I refrained from noting that such a development would delight illiterates, single-interest ideologues, and non-readers, in the Islamic world among other sectors.
The decay is not universal. In Mexico City the flagship Benjamin Franklin Library, i history the second major private US library to be established abroad (after post-World War I Paris), is now part of USIS; its collection of 30,000 volumes is supervised by the Press Officer; it occupies a handsome space shared with the US Trade Office and the embassy’s student counseling center. Its director, a literate and book-loving internet expert, is dedicated to outreach, free circulation, research assistance, efficient inter-library loans, and English conversation classes. Half a dozen outstanding staff spend their time assisting a near-capacity stream of research-oriented visitors; its collection is linked to the burgeoning libraries of Mexico and the plucky but embattled universities; many libraries are managed by former Franklin staff. Elsewhere, USIS libraries have disappeared, except in India and Africa, where libraries survive because the host political climate will not permit their closing.
Exchanges have fared better: thanks to the humanism of the late Senator Claiborne Pell, they persist at a funding level just below inflation. In the case of the Fulbright Program, there is more to be said: various short-range diversions have been tolerated, against all the rules. A look at the last three appointments to its ten-member US supervisory board (FSB) is revealing. Originally non-partisan and appointed by the president, reporting directly to the White House, it comprised, in its first twenty years, major university presidents and educators plus General Omar Bradley representing the GIs; today’s appointees to this once-imposing body tell another story: a prep-school football coach from the president’s youth, a former secretary from his father’s White House, and the go-between who brought him together with the future first lady. Despite such depletion, total funding for the binational Program rises every year as foreign government contributions mount, to the irritation of those die-hard USIS field chiefs who lament their loss of control. No other nation in the world receives contributions to the costs of its university exchanges with foreign nations.
The new post of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, put in place after USIA’s demise, has not found its mission; it has had seven directors in ten years, uniquely chosen from the PR/Media world–six women and one man (in order: Lieberman, Beers, Tutweiler, Harrison (acting), Hughes, Glassman, and McHale. One of these stumbled into a classic diplomatic gaffe by announcing to a counterpart in an allied nation’s foreign ministry that the U.S. was not interested in cultural affairs because it had only one four-letter priority—I-R-A-Q. Another boasted of supporting a presidential visit abroad by collecting thousands of e-mail addresses from all embassies in the region and regaling their owners with what Americans would surely consider Spam.
Below the Undersecretary, this year’s appointments are bright “policy wonks,” all from the ranks of the young. without clultural diplomatic experience. The post of Assistant Secretary for Educational and Cultural Affairs, created by and for MacLeish and filled since 1938 by university figures with extensive foreign experience (with two exceptions), continued the academic tradition as late as the Bush I eras by naming PhD-educators. Clinton opened a new door, appointing a party worker who had served at mid-level in the Endowment for the Humanities; since then, four appointments from two parties have come from political campaigns or the PR world. The first, a fine manager with a nose for excellence, trusted staff to carry on while acting for absent Undersecretaries, then left for a leadership role in public broadcasting. Two others came from White House offices (Appointments, Social Secretary); one had extensive PR experience; another was a young mother who spent munch of her tour on two extended periods of maternity leave. The last was a bright Iranian woman, a living product of international education and exchange, eager to learn and quick to appreciate. Before 2000, only one woman had headed the Bureau; since 2000 all have been women. In the move to feminize Public and Cultural Diplomacy, the score is 4-0 for ECA and. 6-1 for the Undersecretaries, not to mention UNESCO.
The US private world has sadly learned not to rely on government, but it persists in trying. The universities and foundations, told by Sumner Welles and Cordell Hull that they would have to carry 95% of the burden, accepted a bargain in which the government played little more than a facilitative, cooperative and coordinative role. The percentages did not turn out to be 95-5, more like 60-40 at their high average and closer to 80-20 today, private institutions are still the heart of cultural outreach because the level of knowledge involved in cultural diplomacy cannot be expected from government employees; the private world has maintained and stands ready to expand its commitment. We must remember that the private world and the universities in 1938 dealt with only a few dozen countries worldwide, now there are nearly two hundred, all requiring daily attention. The private world’s impact today, as a function of cultural diplomacy, is barely visible.
Non-funded student flows survive, but new problems surface every year. Without competition until the 1990s, the U.S. easily amassed and maintains well over half a million foreign students on its campuses at any given moment. Now attractive new European programs like Erasmus make the interchange of students in continental university systems as easy as boarding a bus. In the wake of 9/11, rigidified US visa rules repelled thousands; and the world’s perception of random violence in US cities and on campuses has discouraged others.
Good omens these days are occasional but invariably have downsides: the universal growth of English as a second language has long lulled the self-indulgent American myth that Yanks are genetically incapable of learning a foreign language; today it becomes clear that it also conceals the shallow and approximate quality of the new globalized version of English, limiting the depth and quality of communication. If reading is in decline, it explains why a recent question from an intelligent and sophisticated foreign student caught me short: she was puzzled by my reference to the outflow of intellectuals from Europe in the 1930s. In a quiet corner, I tried to explain the racial, anti-intellectual and anti-scientific theories of Hitler and Mussolini and their impact on education and science in Europe, hence their contribution to both North and South America. With fewer readers, US book publishing has become precarious and sales-driven. The first cuts fall on foreign translations: today only 3% of all US publications are translated from a foreign language, and only a third of those, i.e. 1%, are literary or imaginative. The spread of technological fads like texting and tweeting feed the new “sound-bite society,” replacing knowledge with information and reducing human exchange to what can be coded in 140 characters; as Gary Trudeau’s Roland Hedley says, tweeting is “the first rough draft of gossip.” Such addictive gadgets contribute nothing to the deepening of human knowledge and learning. Meanwhile, the easy and growing availability in any laptop of vast stores of information, as in Wikipedia, is creating a small epidemic of plagiarism in classrooms, turning teachers into sleuths and demanding new software to unmask the misguided and self-corrupting dishonesty of the writers.
As always, downsides go unnoticed. There was worldwide consternation when the U.S. virtually destroyed UNESCO in 1983 by withdrawing and taking Mrs. Thatcher’s UK with us (a 40% budget cut for the stunned multilateral). Yet the UN subsidiary dealing with Education, Science, Culture and Communications remains the only way to attack global questions of culture, to preserve art and monuments around the glove, to fight the tsunami of information drowning knowledge, learning and wisdom. Global jubilation greeted the US return on September 12, 2002, but the return was half-hearted. A sound ambassadorial team assembled in Paris; but the indispensable US National Commission for UNESCO was hamstrung, perhaps deliberately, by anti-UNESCO elements in the administration. The base of any nation’s participation in UNESCO, the one hundred members assigned by Congress in 1948 from specified fields to represent US intellect and funnel its thinking upwards into the work of the Paris-based organization, the US National Commission when finally assembled was hamstrung. Members were collected, feted at the White House, attended a celebratory event every years, but sat idle. Inadequate appointments and legislative camouflage had reduced the Commission to little more than a PR trumpet for the party in power. The widespread US support needed to exercise US leadership in UNESCO was squandered. UNESCO remains the right vehicle through which to attack the word’s mega-problems, global issues like education, hunger, immigration, and violence. Its Dialogue of Civilizations is specifically addressed to putting the lie to Huntington’s thesis of inevitable clash, especially with Islam. Ther stirring new administration now taken office, after over a year, has assembled a well-intentioned UNESCO team, wise enough to know it must rectify their predecessors’ sabotage but not brave enough to see that it comes first. The hard work has begun, but UNESCO remains seriously under-utilized and US leadership is crippled..
There are other mini-signals, in personal terms my warm welcome at USC and other campuses where PD is in vogue, my two visits to Mexico, a more recent visit to Spain and the UK. In February 2010 in Madrid, the cultural dilemma was analyzed by a scholarly gathering of young historians under the challenging theme (Culture and Propaganda in the Cold War). The Dutch scholar Jan Melissen encouragingly seems to take a more European view of PD, insisting on its humanist substance.
The Department of Defense, no longer able to rely on USIA to advise on its public affairs, has moved to develop its own PD outreach; it shows openness, with the US military’s traditional respect for education, to understanding that more is needed than press releases, spin-control and free chewing-gum. And the calibre of the new Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, former Iowa Congressman James Leach, raises many hopes.
Still, these straws dance about in strong winds. The present administration has inherited two wars, a damaged economy, a crushing national debt, an inadequate health-care system, and long-simmering issues like education and immigration. Amidst these dramatic challenges, Cultural Diplomacy is understandably not the first priority. But there is much that could easily be done, even within present budgets and staff-limitations. For one example, surplus war materiel in Iraq, as it was in the first Gulf War, is being destroyed or sold locally with no memory of Fulbright’s ingenuity in hammering war’s swords into plowshares through exchanges.
Another blind spot in broader public policy: economists know that employment lags far behind in recoveries from recession; yet no thought seems to have been given to creating tens of thousands of low-cost jobs for unemployed university graduates for work which might advance US foreign interests–expanding the Peace Corps, trebling Fulbright exchanges, extending Teach For America abroad, creating new overseas outreach programs in public health or infrastructural development, or global language-acquisition programs in hard-language cultures. Unemployment, to young motivated university graduates, is a matter of launching a career rather than a living. Thousands of overseas jobs for the best and brightest of the new graduates might do what the GI Bill did for education and society after World War II.
Without sophisticated leadership, our nation talks about Soft Power and PD as the quick fix to all problems; but it has little idea of what went into the US mix of culture and information we call Public Diplomacy. What USIA did was based on binational and multinational cooperation and thus was special, indeed unique in human history, a remarkable American exception. With no advice to the contrary, Americans equate PD with PR and advertising; their representatives in Congress are no more alert to the point. In the American hegemon’s attempt to project itself in depth to foreign friends as a benign world leader, this blind-spot will be costly. Enlightened CD is the best and the least expensive way to reduce the threatening quality of US power. But it lies stored away in the files.
While this deficit is not the fault of the universities, the power to bridge the gap might be said to rest in university hands. In this publication guided and edited by students, it may be permissible to speculate: might a focused university effort, during the tenure of an administration inclined to listen to the young, turn things around? In particular, is there an initiative for the six universities where PD programs are in place? Students of PD are equipped to spark such a campaign on their campuses and help it spread, first to other disciplines and then to other campuses. PD waves the banner of Communications: what better flag to enlist other disciplines and departments? The trick is to help the university community recognize that Public Diplomacy abroad, without a quasi-independent Cultural Diplomatic base, is mere PR, and that the Pd/CD mix can be achieved inexpensively by enlisting young people. To lead the academic disciplines, alert young young minds need commonsense language spelling out PD’s relevance to all aspects of foreign endeavor.
A first step might be to articulate a simple, accessible theory of Cultural and Public Diplomacy. Characteristic of PD prose is the elastic quality of its definitions; more poignant is the elusive search for an understandable theory. In a democracy, only clear theories can bridge the gap between the conceptualizers and the implementers, thousands of groundlings at their daily work. Perhaps it is not out of order for an old-timer to suggest a simple approach, based on functions and field realities.
Seen by a cultural diplomat, PD is the art of shaping, adjusting and communicating national policies to foreign governments and publics, based largely on the tools, methods and cultures of the various media. CD on the other hand aims at a longer-range of policy: it aims to strengthen the dialogue between a nation’s intellectual and professional leaders and their students with counterparts in every country in the world, based largely on the culture of the universities. At their best, PD values reflect the New York Times, while CD’s reflect Harvard, Stanford, Michigan and USC.
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.
It then follows that a cultural diplomat’s first duty in a new country, while deepening his or her understanding of that nation, is to review and assess what is already happening between his/her home-country and the hosts. This survey by the new arrival will continue throughout the tour of duty and perhaps over a lifetime. Its conclusions invariably fall into three baskets: 1) relations that are flowing well and need no intervention other than awareness, back-pats and social interaction; 2) relations which have been established but which are not working as well as they should, requiring delicate reshaping and deepening over time; and 3) relations which are not yet in place, yet important enough to warrant pump-priming and jump-starting efforts to start things moving—a perfect example, five decades ago, might have been a genuine and widespread dialogue on Islam and its relationship to other religions, political systems and ideologies (it is not too late, by the way).
In all three cases, as in all education, the desideratum is change through growth: the long-range purpose in each is to bring bilateral relations up from the teacher-learner model to the exchange practiced by relative equals—to move from the undergraduate student-teacher level to “associating” with professors and earning admission into their club. Fostering change in another country requires subtlety; cultural diplomats are like acupuncturists, in that they seek to inject tiny intrusive ideas into a body-politic and stimulate adaptive responses, new thinking and different attitudes, to narrow gaps in communications between the two nations over time. (When tensions are too high, as in wartime, bilateralism may have to cede temporarily to multinational institutions like UNESCO.)
Diplomats do five things: they represent their country, they negotiate differences which threaten conflict and forge agreements like Fulbright to strengthen relations; they advise in the shaping of their nations’ policies towards the host-nation; they develop and use networks inside and outside the host-country, bringing useful friends to support their work, and they “program,” arranging situations where learning can take place, sometimes no more complicated than a shared cup of tea or a walk in the woods, sometimes involving a costly performance by a symphonic orchestra or ballet before thousands, sometimes the gift of a single book.
Good diplomats perform all five functions, but programming is the central preoccupation of diplomats of culture, education and ideas because they alone have an array of tools at hand. Every conversation, lunch, film-show, book-gift, short-term or long-term visit to the U.S., performance by a jazz group, visit by an American student, exhibit of photographs or painting, Fulbright selection process, or translation of an important book—in short, virtually every act of the cultural diplomat’s daily life–is dedicated to narrowing the gaps in bilateral perceptions and to deepening knowledge on both sides. The cultural diplomats take the lead because of their tools: they can call down the perfect visitor to lecture to the think-tank of the Ministry of Labor, or find the right teacher for a class in Library Science, or recruit a humane economist who can defuse the fear of higher mathematical methods, or send a bright young marxian historian to the right US university to deepen awareness of his/her limited vision.
In conclusion, I once asked a prominent professor of PD whether my message was pointless chaff in the wind. His answer lifted my spirits: he said that the culturalists must persist, that without the values and history that cultural substance brings to bear, PD was incomplete. So I continue unrolling my particular brand of blah-blah, trying to bring the issues buried in PD out into the open so that its students—and all American citizens–may come to see the need for protecting the fragile cultural dimension of US overseas outreach and, working together, to reach out to neighbors abroad.
By Richard T. Arndt
Richard T. Arndt worked for Unied States Information Agency for 24 years after earning a doctorate and teaching at Columbia University. Since retiring from the USIA, he has served as the president of the U.S. Fulbright Association, coedited The Fulbright Difference, and chaired the National Peace Foundation and Americans for UNESCO. He lives in Washington, D.C. and is the author of The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century.