Public and Private Cultural Exchange-Based Diplomacy

New Models for the 21st Century

András Szántó


   Public and Private Cultural Exchange-Based Diplomacy (2.2 Kb)

In 2005, the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation began to conduct research on U.S. cultural diplomacy and cultural exchange. Like many other American institutions, we were concerned about the precipitous decline in global attitudes toward the United States following the U.S. attack on Iraq in 2003. In the intervening years there had been multiple calls by scholars and public officials to determine why the government seemed incapable of recapturing the sympathy and good will expressed toward the United States following the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Our research, which covered the period from the early 1980’s through 2008, revealed that the public diplomacy functions of the U.S. government were largely eliminated with the demise of the U.S. Information Agency in 1999. The remaining functions were dispersed among multiple agencies, none of which had either the authority and/or the funds to conduct public diplomacy activities with the same efficiency as that exhibited by USIA during the period following the end of World War II. In addition to this investigation, we commissioned research on foundation support for cultural exchange–based diplomacy from 2003 through 2008. Our research revealed that many large foundations, including those with historical commitments to international engagement such as Ford, Rockefeller, MacArthur and the Open Society Institute, had turned their attention elsewhere. Moreover, there were no new foundations that had picked up the slack. Our research findings are published under the title Promoting Public and Private Reinvestment in Cultural Exchange-Based Diplomacy, and can be accessed on the Clark Foundation website.

Based on our research, the Foundation initiated a new grants program in 2008 aimed at stimulating interest in and providing support for international cultural engagement. The program was designed to account for factors that are emerging globally that have begun to alter the way we think about cultural diplomacy and the way we do business with other countries. Until recently, cultural and public diplomacy fell largely within the purview of nation states. However, technological advances in the mid-to-late 20th century, including ease of communication and transportation, have resulted in accelerating globalization as we enter the 21st century. We now have population migration driven by economic opportunity or the lack thereof, international commerce, an international system of banking and finance, dispersion of an educated workforce, widespread use of social media, and a digitally interconnected world. Collectively, these transformative events have served to expand participation in public and cultural diplomacy to include interactions among and between individuals, nonprofit organizations, corporations, and many other entities that are increasingly populating the public diplomacy space. We call this phenomenon cultural engagement.

In 2010, the Foundation noted that many participants in the field seemed to be looking at past practice to guide them into the future. Believing there might be an alternative, we began to organize a forward-looking conference to explore what cultural engagement in the 21st century might become.

The resulting convening in Salzburg provided the opportunity to reflect on the following themes:

  • Re-Imagining Public and Private Roles in International Cultural Engagement for the 21st Century;
  • Shifting Economic Power: New Parameters of Engagement in our Multi-Polar World;
  • Creating an Enabling Environment that Promotes Cultural Diversity Within the Context of Cultural Relations; and
  • Global Communications and the Rise of Social Media: The Future of international Cultural Engagement.

While participants reflected a sense of optimism and opportunity with regard to the field, they identified a number of hurdles in the path of more active engagement, including:

  • Outdated legacy systems for transacting global cultural exchanges;
  • Uncharted paths of engagement;
  • Lack of common ground with regard to attitudes and practices relating to cultural engagement;
  • Conceptual and rhetorical deficits in the field;
  • Inadequate documentation of the value of international engagement; and
  • Absence of strategic communication and coordination among participants.

At the same time, participants identified several areas of opportunity where joint action is possible, including:

  • Collaborating to provide better education and training for the general public as well as arts professionals with regard to arts engagement;
  • Generating appropriate resources for developing trans-national partnerships among arts professionals;
  • Rethinking the relationships among arts organizations, and in particular, creating opportunities for collaboration among small and large groups;
  • Making use of social media to generate new sources of financial support for this work;
  • Supporting strategic leadership in the field through improved communications and coordination;
  • Developing research instruments to measure the impacts of cultural engagement; and
  • Making use of new technologies to facilitate cross-border communication, exchanges, and artistic collaborations.

In addition, participants suggested a number of action steps to promote cultural engagement and strengthen professional activity in the field.