Seven Myths About Cultural Diplomacy

7 minutes read time
Duke Ellington greets members of the Bhartiya Kala Kendra school of the arts in New Delhi, September 24, 1963.
Duke Ellington greets members of the Bhartiya Kala Kendra school of the arts in New Delhi, September 24, 1963.

Seven Myths About Cultural Diplomacy

The U.S. Department of State has a long history of promoting culture as a means to create connections with people around the world. Musicians, dancers and artists have traveled beyond their borders for more than 75 years on State Department-sponsored exchange programs. We believe in the power of the arts to help us advance our top foreign policy objectives, from championing human rights to supporting resilient societies. As diplomacy has evolved from government interactions to include people from all sectors of society, cultural diplomacy has brought communities closer together and increased awareness of important global issues.

However, myths persist. Here are a few misconceptions and some lesser-known facts about cultural diplomacy. And as African American History Month draws to a close I highlighted throughout this blog entry, a few noteworthy examples of African Americans -- both past and present -- engaging in cultural diplomacy.

Myth One: Cultural diplomacy is a newer type of diplomacy.

A poster promoting a Louis Armstrong appearance, distributed in Beirut, March 24, 1959.

Not so much. The informal exchange of culture has existed for centuries, and official cultural diplomacy programs have a long history within the U.S. government. In 1946, Senator J. William Fulbright created the first cultural exchange program through the Fulbright Act for the "promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science."

The first official use of the term “cultural diplomacy” was in 1959 by Robert H. Thayer, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State for the Coordination of International Educational and Cultural Relations. He said foreign relationships were now determined by the “way people think and live, and eat, and feel,” and that “today we have in the forefront of the implementation of our foreign policy, cultural diplomacy, and to my mind the most important means of bringing complete mutual understanding between peoples, which in turn compels mutual understanding between governments.” That same year, the Department of State formally defined cultural diplomacy as, “the direct and enduring contact between peoples of different nations."

One of the most famous examples of cultural diplomacy is the Jazz Ambassadors program in the 1950s and 1960s. The State Department enlisted famous U.S. jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong and Dave Brubeck, to share this uniquely American genre of music with the world. The freedom of jazz made it the “artistic counterpart to the American political system,” which not only showcased American arts but was also a tangible symbol of American values.

Dave Brubeck Quartet at Congress Hall Frankfurt/Main (1967). From left to right: Joe Morello, Eugene Wright, Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond.

Myth Two: You have to be a famous artist to be a cultural diplomat.

Although famous artists have participated in cultural diplomacy exchanges, cultural envoys at all levels share their unique artistic expressions with audiences overseas, regardless of the size of their fan base. For example, American Music Abroad looks for artists committed to educating and engaging with global communities outside of more traditional Embassy outreach events.

There are, of course, famous names as well, as every U.S. embassy creates a cultural calendar to bolster its engagement with its regional population and engage communities surrounding themes that resonate greatest with them. Whether it’s Lady Gaga offering tickets to the embassy for a concert in support of human rights, Audra McDonald relating the ups and downs of her career path with ambitious music and theater students, Gibney Dance conducting gender-violence prevention workshops, or study-abroad Berklee College of Music musicians commemorating International Jazz Day with a concert at an American Space, each embassy conducts cultural diplomacy on a daily basis, expanding its reach and creating new people-to-people ties.

Myth Three: Cultural diplomacy is just about the arts.

False. The State Department defines cultural diplomacy as, “providing Americans with access to international artists while sharing America's rich culture of performing and visual arts with international audiences.” Arts programming is only one part of cultural diplomacy. The definition of cultural diplomacy includes exchange programs, educational programs, language teaching, broadcasting, gifts, ideas, social policy, history, and religion.

Myth Four: Cultural diplomacy must be led by governments.

False. When we refer to cultural diplomacy, we’re talking about how governments and nations organize and promote cultural programs to build understanding and relationships. But the beauty of culture is that it can be shared by anyone. We encourage Americans to employ culture as citizen diplomats. Every time you share a piece of your own culture with someone else, you’re serving as a cultural citizen diplomat.

Leading U.S. rapper Wordsmith joined forces with the Israeli Jewish-Arab rap band “System Ali” for the “Rap for Humanity” event in Tel Aviv to honor the memory and the legacy of the U.S. journalist and musician Daniel Pearl.

Myth Five: Only Americans can be Department of State cultural diplomats.

False. The State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs administers several programs that bring international artists (writers, musicians, dancers, hip-hop artists, filmmakers, actors) to the United States for cultural exchanges. These programs provide unique opportunities for collaboration and increase the capacity of Americans to understand and engage globally.

Programs like OneBeat unite diverse groups of musicians in the United States to write, produce, and perform original music with Americans and each other. The Center Stage program brings international contemporary performing artists in direct contact with U.S. audiences.

Myth Six: Anything related to culture counts as cultural diplomacy.

Not necessarily. The purpose of cultural diplomacy is to connect cultures and build bridges. As former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said, “Cultural diplomacy is about presenting the diversity of your own country and listening to what people are saying to you. It is not one-way.” In that same vein, an international tour of a famous pop-star on its own would not be cultural diplomacy. But if that artist made a concerted effort to engage with the local community on a U.S. government program or in collaboration with a U.S. embassy, that would be cultural diplomacy.

Myth Seven: Cultural programs are mostly about attending museum exhibits and listening to concerts.

Next Level participants perform in Washington, D.C.

False. Over the years, State Department programs have expanded to include exchanges like Next Level, which promotes international cultural exchange and conflict resolution through hip-hop music and dance. Through this program, MCs, DJs, beat makers, and hip-hop dancers conduct public concerts, interactive performances with local musicians, lecture demonstrations, workshops, and jam sessions with diverse audiences.

There are also programs like the American Arts Incubator, which uses new media and/or digital  arts to engage youth, artists, and underserved communities. Other programs like DanceMotion USA prove that cultural exchange is interactive, incorporating dance workshops for people of all levels and from all backgrounds in addition to offering top quality performances.  And American Film Showcase brings the best of U.S. documentary and feature film to audiences worldwide, exploring current issues through film as well as providing needed capacity-building for up-and-coming filmmakers. 

Just like culture itself, cultural diplomacy efforts will adapt as our society changes. Technology will influence and create culture faster than we can keep up. But as long as there are cultural diplomats willing to facilitate an open exchange of ideas and beliefs, cultural diplomacy will exist for years to come.

About the Author: Lauren Aitken serves in the Bureau of Education and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.

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