Dear President Obama: What works better than carrots or sticks?

The real soft power’: Cultural diplomacy

6 minute read
John Adams: But what would the fourth generation study?
John Adams: But what would the fourth generation study?
"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy… in order to give their children a right to study paintings, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain."

Thus John Adams explained to Abigail why it was important for their family to endure hardships while he was away in Paris engaged in affairs of state.

Since January 20 of this year I've been thinking a lot about our second president's famous explanation for his absence from home. More specifically, I've been thinking about his hierarchy of values, which identify increasingly advanced stages of civilization in the history of a country. These reflections have, in turn, led me to the concept of "soft power," much in the news of late as President Obama's and Secretary of State Clinton's newly embraced tool of diplomacy.

The phrase "soft power" was coined in the 1980s by Joseph Nye, the Harvard-based scholar of international relations at the Kennedy School of Government. "The basic concept of power," Nye wrote, "is the ability to influence others to get them to do what you want. There are three major ways to do that: one is to threaten them with sticks; the second is to pay them with carrots; the third to attract them or co-opt them, so that they want what you want. If you get others to be attracted to want what you want, it costs you much less in carrots and sticks."

A page from Churchill

After eight years of one failure after another by the Bush administration's heavy reliance on muscular diplomacy, it's heartening to learn that the Obama team is taking a page from Winston Churchill's playbook: "Jaw-jaw is better than war-war." My principal concern with the Obama strategy, however, is that, based on what I've heard so far, it interprets "soft power" too narrowly. In particular, it doesn't seem to include cultural diplomacy as part of the mix.

During most of the Cold War the U.S. used cultural diplomacy rather effectively as a form of "soft power." Twice during the 1960s I experienced the "soft power" of the U.S. Information Service's America Houses in winning friends and influencing people: early in the decade as a Fulbright Scholar in Marburg, Germany, and once again in 1969 as a Fulbright professor in Hyderabad, India. These houses, like their counterparts around the world, sponsored a flood of art exhibits, orchestra concerts and jazz performances, dance groups, readings by poets, lectures by scholars and novelists, Broadway musicals, and classical drama. Such programs didn't obliterate the widespread image of the Ugly American, but they embodied a powerful and frequently persuasive alternative.

Many other countries have continued to embrace this powerful tool for national self-promotion. In New York City alone, for example, you will find some 16 government-supported cultural centers created to display their respective artistic heritages, ranging from predictable countries (Germany, France, Austria) to less obvious ones (Romania, Venezuela, Taiwan). As recently as 2002, Austria opened a new, 24-story Cultural Forum on 52nd Street for the explicit purpose of using art to project a national image and as a tool in international diplomacy.

Libraries replaced by computer terminals

In contrast, the U.S. has not only been reluctant of late to use art to communicate its cultural heritage and national values but has also deliberately rejected cultural diplomacy as part of its foreign policy. In 1999 U.S. Information Service was swallowed into the cavernous maw of the State Department. The agency's America Houses and their very popular lending libraries virtually disappeared, to be replaced by a small number of "information resource centers," consisting in many cases of a single computer terminal.

Ironically, one element of America's negative image abroad is the charge that we practice "cultural imperialism." Would "cultural diplomacy" exacerbate that notion? Not so.

The phrase "cultural imperialism" refers to the laissez-faire spread of American popular culture— Madonna and MTV; "Dallas" and commercial television; McDonald's, and Disneyland— through market incentives. No one can deny that these examples of consumerism, materialism, sexual exploitation and general hedonism do indeed represent one aspect of American society. But this is merely the most visible tip of America's cultural iceberg.

An antidote to grubby commercialism

The cultural diplomacy in which so many other nations are wisely engaged— from which the U.S. has foolishly retreated— functions as an antidote to commercialized culture. It's not a product of commercial market forces but rather a deliberate, self-conscious government effort to use the full spectrum of the arts as a tool of foreign policy.

Art, intentionally selected and employed, is capable of exhibiting a larger palette of values than free market capitalism can afford to show. These values— freedom of expression; respect for diversity and cultural pluralism; celebration of individual rights and social responsibility; tolerance of ambiguity; the constructive role of criticism— are deeply embedded in the American character and must be acknowledged if any outsider is to take the full measure of the U.S.

This isn't to say that the fine arts in America are blind to pervasive materialism and hedonism; but unlike popular culture, they do not venerate them. In serving as a window on the national landscape of both our virtues and vices, the arts reveal who we are as a people and remind all who are attentive that much of our strength derives from an unwillingness to slavishly revere the past or to uncritically accept the present.

The arts, as a form of "soft power," affect those who experience them not by muscular acts of boasting, imposing, or exhorting but rather by simply being. The arts can be accepted or rejected; but they cannot be ignored.

A haven for artists

Not only can arts in America not be ignored by other cultures, they are also uniquely compelling. Historically the U.S. has been a haven for refugee artists and scholars (especially during the 1930s and "'40s), with the result that much of the American artistic and cultural imagination has been shaped by foreign styles and ideas. And given the heterogeneous nature of American society, its artists must of necessity learn how to speak to a variety of groups and classes, thus enhancing their appeal to an equally diverse audience abroad.

"What Americans have done more brilliantly than their competitors overseas is repackage the cultural products we receive from abroad and then retransmit them to the rest of the planet," the historian Richard Pells has observed. "In effect, Americans have specialized in selling the dreams, fears and folklore of other people back to them."

What John Adams did not write to Abigail— because he came too early in the democratic experiment— is that their grandchildren would study painting, poetry, music, and the other arts in order that later generations might be more skillful in the politics of cultural diplomacy and thus reduce the risks of war. During the Cold War we completed Adams's progression. Now we need to recapture the wisdom of that moment.

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