Monday, March 22, 2010

In Defense of Culture

The main goals of U.S. public diplomacy are to promote foreign policy and national interests, protect national security, and create harmonious relationships between the United States and citizens of other countries. But it's awfully hard to harmonize if you're the only one singing.

This truism seems to have been overlooked in the strategic PD approach from Judith McHale's office, which emphasizes a uni-directional message approach and gives only passing attention to the importance of collaboration and dialogue with foreign publics. Last week, I mentioned Neal M. Rosendorf's support for cultural public diplomacy, and I'd like to return to his argument here. Rosendorf suggested the following as potential improvements to cultural PD outreach:
  • Increase funding to support cultural PD.
  • Erase war imagery from official speech.
  • Make embassies, consulates and libraries more accessible.
  • Make traveling to the United States easier for foreigners.
  • Scale back broadcasters with a propagandistic reputation (like Radio Marti) and replace them with a beefed-up version of the VOA, based on a BBC model.
  • Re-engage the United Nations.
  • Encourage Hollywood to export U.S. values.
  • Promote Internet freedom.
  • Encourage free travel of journalists.
Some of these bullet points have been addressed since the essay was published. In general, remarks by high-ranking U.S. officials are less bellicose today than they were five years ago. And U.S.-UN relations have certainly grown more collegial. But many of these areas have not yet been addressed. U.S. public diplomacy remains underfunded, particularly in comparison to the nation's military budget. And many foreign embassies, consulates and libraries are still difficult to access. Of course, security concerns prevent these locations from being fully accessible to all people at all times, but greater openness could improve the balance between security and effectiveness. Improving information flows, particularly those related to Internet freedom, is an issue of increasing importance to USPD, and one which has been frequently in the news this year.

Some people will disagree with Rosendorf's prescriptions. Encouraging media companies to export U.S. values, for example, will strike some as inappropriate and potentially propagandistic government meddling in private affairs. And some will argue, justifiably, that the success of such measures is unsure. Even the best public diplomacy cannot satisfy all audiences. For some individuals and groups, opposition to U.S. policy is insurmountable. But the U.S. government clearly recognizes that cultural diplomacy has some value.

Judith McHale's recently published PD strategy acknowledges the importance of personal connections, and recommends the following tactics for improving people-to-people relationships:

Revitalize and establish American Centers/Corners as spaces for Public Diplomacy activities and engagement. Identify the best means of upgrading and maintaining publicly-accessible, secure American Corners/Centers. Design models for new American Centers as venues for programs beyond fortified compounds and as symbols of our desire to engage.Actively seek private sector partners in making these places showcases for American culture and technology. For example, Embassy Jakarta is developing plans for an American Place in a shopping mall.

Reinvigorate cultural programming to drive engagement and collaboration. Scale up cultural programming that presents American art, theater, music, dance, and literature to create apolitical space for building relationships and to counter negative stereotypes about American culture. Extend American culture’s collective reach by facilitating the overseas work of other public and private cultural institutions and organizations (e.g. the Smithsonian or regional arts councils), using technologies to multiply linkages (e.g. online arts management courses taught by U.S. experts or online fora for sharing artistic content), and encouraging artistic collaboration as a springboard for enduring relationships.

The document also recommends expanding the ECA budget, increasing cultural and educational outreach, and increasing partnership with NGOs and the U.S. private sector. But the framework, for all its strengths, doesn't emphasize the importance of collaborative partnership with other countries. Whereas Rosendorf's cultural PD strategy focuses on making the U.S. more open and accessible to foreign publics, McHale's strategy emphasizes exporting the U.S. message abroad. The difference lies in their attitudes toward interaction and dialogue, an essential element of PD that is largely absent from McHale's framework.

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