We Are (Not Really) the World

Alexis Frasz and Holly Sidford

We live in a world of "widespread hostility toward the United States and its policies."1 This antipathy is not limited to the countries and peoples that are directly affected by the U.S. "war on terror" and its attendant pol-icies, but includes many of our former allies and fellow democracies. A friend who just returned from a year in Spain reports that she spent a significant amount of time and energy convincing people she met there that the U.S. is not an undifferentiated swarm of ignorant, jingoist consumers obsessed with dominating the rest of the world economically, politically, and culturally, as if we were all part of an elaborate video game.

This situation is not just unpleasant for international travelers, it has severely negative consequences for this country's ability to do many things in the global arena. As a September 2005 report on cultural diplomacy commissioned by the State Department asserts, "put simply, we have lost the goodwill of the world, without which it becomes ever more difficult to execute foreign policy."2 Although our government has made attempts to improve this situation recently, the results have been mostly counter-productive. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes' recent tour of Islamic states was by most accounts a diplomatic failure, if success is measured by improvements in U.S. relations with the Muslim world. Ms. Hughes only reinforced perceptions of the American political regime as defensive, dogmatic, and uninterested in the complexities of the Muslim countries. She spoke, but she did not listen.

That the State Department commissioned a report on cultural diplomacy, and such a thoughtful and well-written one besides, is a step in the right direction. First and foremost, the report acknowledges the urgency of addressing the negative image of the United States worldwide. As America's image darkens in the eyes of the rest of the world, its ability to generate consensus around any policy is exponentially weakened. Secondly, the report suggests that it is through its culture, not its foreign policy, that a nation reveals its sympathetic self — its “soul” — to the wide world. The effect that culture has on the course of political events should not be underestimated. The report observes: “history may record that America's cultural riches played no less a role than military action in shaping our international leadership, including the war on terror. For the values embedded in our artistic and intellectual traditions form a bulwark against the forces of darkness. And cultural diplomacy, which presents the best of what American artists, performers, and thinkers have to offer, can enhance our national security in subtle, wide-ranging and sustainable ways.”3

Culture's importance to realizing foreign policy goals is not a novel realization for the U.S. government, although the strategies reflecting this understanding have waned in recent years. The U.S. sponsored some of the most extensive and successful cultural diplomacy initiatives in modern history during the post-WWII period, including exchange programs for U.S. and foreign artists, educational exchanges between foreign and domestic academic institutions, tours by musicians abroad (jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong were particularly effective), and the distribution of American books throughout U.S. sponsored libraries in foreign countries. Many of these initiatives were administered through the United States Information Agency (USIA) and (covertly) the CIA, and they are widely considered to have been instrumental in expanding the U.S. sphere of influence and winning the battle for “hearts and minds.” At the time all parties understood that hearts and minds would determine success.

The world has changed since the height of the USIA's work in the 1960s and ‘70s. In the decades immediately following World War II the U.S. enjoyed widespread admiration and affection in areas of the world that were not part of the Communist bloc. We seemed not only to have won the war but also to be winning the peace. Since the 1980s, however, the phenomenal growth and universal distribution of U.S. commercial culture (not always a pretty picture), the sometimes adverse effects of globalization, and our steady march toward more rigid and doctrinaire foreign policies have altered perceptions of the U.S. abroad. Whereas thirty years ago we could assume that most countries held a generally open and friendly attitude toward the U.S., its citizens and its cultural products, (despite any issues they might have with aspects of our foreign policy) the same cannot be said today.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the booming world economy of the mid-1990s, the U.S. emerged as the clear global leader in multiple domains. International cultural diplomacy declined as a government spending priority, and much of the infrastructure for managing cultural programs during the Cold War was dismantled. By 1999, USIA programs had been substantially cut in size, and the organization was absorbed into the Department of State.

As the public sector investment in cultural exchange diminished, a number of private foundations expanded their programs for cultural exchange with the former Communist bloc, while others turned their attention to cultural exchange with the developing world and countries of Latin America, Africa, and Asia. However, compared to the opportunity and need, private funding for international cultural exchange still comprises a minor proportion of overall “global philanthropy.” Between 1998 and 2002, foundation funding for international programs more than doubled, but only 6.5 percent of the $2.2 billion invested in 2002 (approximately $142 million) was allocated to arts and culture, down from 8.6 percent in 1998.4 Funders cite a “greater urgency to address global issues,” but the arts fell well below health, relief, environmental issues, and education as giving priorities, even as total international giving increased.

Even many who would be instinctive supporters of international arts and cultural exchange consider the arts of tertiary value in the face of the overwhelming number of catastrophic events and devastating chronic problems in the world. But evidence from the field suggests the contrary. The Report of the Commission for Africa, for example, states, “we believe that the inattention to culture in the policy-making of many donor countries goes some way to explain the failure of so many development initiatives in Africa over the years.”5 The Report goes on to demonstrate with examples of the AIDS epidemic, the Rwandan conflict, and the famine in Somalia, that it was only when culture was taken into account that aid programs were truly effective in achieving the desired results. The conclusion of the Report is that culture should become “a way of working as well as an end in itself.”6

Finding a new model for cultural diplomacy that fits the needs of the twenty-first century and that can help to bridge cultural divides is one of the most urgent and necessary challenges for the world today. Those who know the power of arts and culture, the cultural sector, and its supporters must articulate a new rationale and powerful, fresh strategies to propel us forward. Members of the current administration, career diplomats, and those focused on unbridled development of commercial markets, are unlikely to know how to take advantage of the opportunity.

In his book The Gift, Lewis Hyde talks about the bond that the artistic gift creates between those who experience it and a “wider self” of which we all are a part. He says, “these creations are not ‘merely' symbolic, they do not ‘stand for' the larger self; they are its necessary embodiment, a language without which it would have no life at all.”7 The gift is something that is given without expectation of return and whose value is augmented the more it is shared or transferred, rather than diminished by use as a commodity would be. It is through arts and culture that people make sense of and interpret the world, it is not merely ornamentation after the essentials are taken care of. Through the exchange of art and culture with others we are able to understand that we are part of a larger whole and can respond to difference with compassion and understanding.

The gift bond of cultural exchange cannot be created through an ever-expanding global marketplace for commercial culture, manifested in the reach of Hollywood and the wide distribution of Putumayo world music albums. As the recent UNESCO vote allowing countries to protect their heritage from the free market shows, culture is widely understood by the world to be different from other types of commercial goods. What united the 151 countries who voted for the agreement — only the U.S. and Israel opposed it — was “their agreement that cultural products have a double quality: they involve identity as well as commercial value.”8 Although the UNESCO agreement may lead to protectionist practices that ultimately harm cross-cultural understanding, it does indicate a general acceptance within the world community that culture is intimately linked to the unique character of a nation or a people and therefore must be nurtured and treated with care. An appropriate follow-up to this, perhaps led by the U.S., would be a joint effort to create a system that encourages and supports broadbased and reciprocal cultural exchange between nations but outside of the marketplace in order to communicate and share the value of what countries care so deeply to protect.

The beginnings of an effective and responsible system of international cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy for the U.S. would most likely involve the following elements:

• Working to lower the economic and political barriers to international cultural exchange for both foreign and U.S. based artists and audiences.

• Educating audiences about the artists, artworks, and traditions of other cultures and our own nation's increasing cultural diversity through contextualizing programming through scholarship.

• Incorporating anthropological and cultural expertise in all U.S. activities abroad (by both government and NGOs) regardless of whether or not they are focused on arts and culture.

• Expanding opportunities for artists, students, and citizens of other countries to visit the U.S. and to experience the work of U.S. artists in their own countries.

• Long-term investments and collaborations.

Specific initiatives that can be undertaken by funders, arts organizations, and policy makers include:

• A web-based information network about international exchange that can coalesce the now widely dispersed and disorganized information, reduce cost of entry into this field, and promote collaboration and knowledge-exchange.

• Pursue partnerships with international funders and organizations for research, commissioning, presentation, and interpretation projects. Include ventures with international funders interested in health, environment, education, and other non-arts sectors, to enable artists and cultural organizations to bring their talents and creativity to bear on projects in these sectors.

• Travel support for artists and arts organizations to defray the cost of international work, and affordable insurance to protect against losses incurred by unforeseeable circumstances (artists denied entry at the border, international incidents, etc.).

• Sponsor a series of cultural summits (informed by research) bringing policy makers, funders, and practitioners together to discuss policy issues such as immigration policy and visa regulations, definitions of art and culture employed by major policy bodies (funders, UNESCO, etc.), and the relationship of U.S. foreign policy to cultural diplomacy.

• Recognize the vast resource of information and assistance represented in our immigrant communities, and engage these communities more extensively in various kinds of international cultural exchange and cultural diplomacy.

In a world splintered by parochial interests, where “identity politics” play an increasingly important role in determining actions of nations and individuals, art has a critical role to play in mediating the images and information that are communicated across national and cultural boundaries. Through creative mediums we can experience, and even come to understand, a foreign culture in a way that we cannot through logic and analysis of policy alone. Art is not the panacea for global problems, but it is one means that can and should be promoted more widely, in conjunction with other political and social strategies, to foster dialogue and compassion between individuals, communities, nations, and religions.

1. “Cultural Diplomacy: The Linchpin of Public Diplomacy.” Report of the Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy. U.S. Department of State. September 2005. p. 3.
2. Ibid, p. 6.
3. Ibid, p. 3
4. Renz, Loren et. al. International Grantmaking III. The Foundation Center. 2004.
5. Our Common Interest: A Report of the Commission for Africa. March 2005. p. 122.
6. Ibid. p. 130.
7. Hyde, Lewis. The Gift. Random House: New York. 1983. p. 153-4.
8. Fraser, Graham. “Cultural diversity policy voted in.” Toronto Star. October 18, 2005.

Holly Sidford is a strategic planner and program developer with more than twenty-five years' experience in leading and developing nonprofit cultural and philanthropic organizations. Most recently she orchestrated a national effort to enhance support for individual artists in the U.S. She is currently a principal with AEA Consulting.

Alexis Frasz is a research consultant for AEA Consulting with prior experience at the Center for an Urban Future. This piece was published in The Platform, Volume 4, Number 3, November 2005, published by AEA Consulting. It is reprinted here with permission.