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Op-Ed, Boston Globe, September 4, 2005

Art as Diplomacy

by Ellen McCulloch-Lovell

The appointment of Karen Hughes, one of President Bush's closest advisers, as under secretary of state for public diplomacy signals the administration’s recognition of the importance of repairing the United States’ image around the globe, especially in the Arab world. It is also time to call for one of public diplomacy’s most valuable tools—cultural diplomacy—to be redeployed.

Cultural diplomacy, the exchange of ideas, arts and cultures, is a long-term strategy to increase understanding among peoples who are often divided by sharp policy differences. Portraying the United States through cultural expressions presents America’s greatest strengths: freedom of expression, democratic participation, tolerance and creativity.

Politics polarize; arts humanize. That lesson was first learned when cultural diplomacy was better supported and used to demonstrable effect. During the Cold War, the State Department sent Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie to the Soviet Union. When Ellington insisted that his concerts be open to everyone, not just selected ticket holders, he demonstrated the American concepts of openness directly to Soviet citizens.

For over 45 years, the former U.S. Information Agency (USIA) trained cultural officers who promoted the flow of ideas and art between nations. In its first four years, the agency sent over 100 U.S. artists and scholars to 89 countries—part of a Cold War strategy that emphasized innovative American artists as well as scientists.

Despite the obvious impact, cultural diplomatic efforts suffered from severe funding cuts over the years. In 1999, USIA was absorbed into a Department of State largely unsympathetic to its goals. One of the most damaging results of funding cuts was the closing of embassy libraries and cultural centers, which had long served as valuable resources for people throughout the globe to learn about American democracy, history and society.

In the soul-searching that followed the shock of the September 11 attacks, numerous reports called on both government and the private sector to convey our best values abroad. As Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) commented in early 2003, “the missing ingredient in American public diplomacy between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the September 11 attacks…was a firm commitment by the American people and the American leadership to all the painstaking work required to build lasting relationships overseas and advance our vision of fairness and opportunity.”

Despite a 2003 Senate Appropriations Committee request for the State Department to submit a public diplomacy strategy by March, 2004, no formal strategy has been announced. Reports from the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States, the U.S. Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, the Heritage Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Public Diplomacy Council and the Center for Arts and Culture all reinforce this urgent need.

For all the failures in its approach to cultural diplomacy, the State Department has recently shown signs of change. After September 11, it sent an exhibit of photographs by Joel Meyerowitz of the tragedy to embassies and other international venues; viewers told Meyerowitz that the photos of firemen, policemen, volunteers and citizens struggling with the devastation humanized the superpower they knew as the United States.

Last year, the State Department celebrated the 40th anniversary of its Art in Embassies program; earlier, it quietly launched a new “Culture Connects” program to send abroad some of our most accomplished artists, Yo-Yo Ma and Denyce Graves among them. These programs, which use a tiny portion of the Department’s budget, are important but modest steps. The challenge of reversing this low point in world attitudes about the United States demands much more focus and funding.

During a time of war in which soldiers’ and civilians’ lives are at stake, a call for intensified cultural diplomacy might seem too idealistic. What choice do we have but to employ the lessons of cultural diplomacy? To use our freedom of expression and creativity to increase understanding and reveal shared values is a strategy too beneficial to be ignored.

Were Ms. Hughes to revitalize this strategy, she would do much to heal the venomous misperceptions of the United States around the world, assist our own citizens in understanding those who seems most alien to us and assure a lasting legacy for the Bush presidency.

Ellen McCulloch-Lovell is president of Marlboro College in Marlboro, Vermont. She was formerly president of the Center for Arts and Culture and served as Deputy Assistant to President Clinton and Advisor to the First Lady.

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