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Cultural Diplomacy: Where Is It When We Need It?

“Nor can it seriously be argued—as some have—that these tools of US foreign policy are no longer needed now that the Cold War is over and America no longer faces major threats....[F]ar from being on the verge of a new order, the world has entered a period of great disorder. In facing these new dangers, a re-examination of old priorities is needed. Cultural diplomacy, in the widest sense, has increased in importance, whereas traditional diplomacy and military power…are of limited use in coping with most of these dangers.”[1]

Walter Laqueur’s prophetic words, penned in a 1994 Foreign Affairs article, have gone unheeded, to the detriment of the position of the United States in the world. Laqueur and others have realized the critical role that America’s “soft power,” including cultural diplomacy played in undermining the Soviet Union and sowing the seeds for its eventual dissolution.[2] Far from “increasing in importance relative to traditional diplomacy and military power;” cultural diplomacy, which can be defined as “the use of creative expression and exchanges of ideas, information and people to increase mutual understanding,” has diminished to a shadow of its former self.[3]

Euphoria over the fall of the Berlin Wall and the break up of the Soviet Union fostered the belief that cultural diplomacy, a critical component of the broader category of public diplomacy—all a nation does to present or explain itself to the world—has outlived its purpose. This sentiment combined with short-sighted cost cutting and an anti-arts movement in the Senate in the early 1990s dealt cultural diplomacy a near-death blow. Unable to satisfy demands for accountability and proof of value for money, the United States Information Agency (USIA)—the agency for public and cultural diplomacy—was dissolved and merged into the State Department in 1999. Trying to put the best face on the situation, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright asserted at the ceremony marking the consolidation of USIA into the State Department that public diplomacy was a “national security imperative,” but the crippling budget cuts that preceded and followed the merger belied her words.[4] Time would reveal that the dissolution of an independent agency for public and cultural diplomacy represented both a misunderstanding of the nature of cultural diplomacy and a tragic mistake for America’s standing in the world.

Successful cultural diplomacy operates in the context of the long-term building and nurturing of relationships; it does not explain or justify policies, and it does not guarantee quantifiable results. But it does provide a virtually unlimited array of means to communicate information and ideas about the full breadth and diversity of the United States. Outsiders sometimes recognize the potency of American culture more than we do. The Dutch historian Johan Huizinga had this advice, “Anyone who wishes to understand America must first carry over his concept of democracy from the political and social field to the cultural and generally human. The best way to do this continues to be reading Walt Whitman….There is no stronger promoter of democracy in this sense than the cinema. It accustoms the nation, from high to low, to a single common view of life.”[5]

Hot Jazz in the Cold War

Cultural diplomacy saw its heyday during the Cold War when the United States armed itself against a Communist enemy with jazz, abstract expressionism and modern literature. In the context of today’s paltry budget for cultural diplomacy, which includes $4.5 million for cultural exchanges, it seems difficult to believe that once we sent entire jazz bands led by the greatest musicians of the day, Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, on month-long tours of Asia, Africa and the Middle East, not to mention Eastern Europe. Today’s political leaders, ranging from Vaclav Havel to Hungarian Ambassador to the United States Andras Simonyi, have testified to the powerful impact of American culture. For Havel, music was “the enemy of totalitarianism;” he described at a 1999 White House Millennium evening how listening to jazz kept hopes of freedom alive in the darkest days of oppression in Communist Czechoslovakia. Simonyi, himself a rock musician, has commented, “Rock and roll was the Internet of the 1960s and early 1970s. It was the carrier of the message of freedom…Rock and roll, culturally speaking, was a decisive element in loosening up Communist societies and bringing them closer to a world of freedom.”[6]

Given the past experience in cultural diplomacy, and given the dominance of the United States in the marketplace of cultural products, how has the image of the United States plummeted so dramatically in the last five years? As Henry J. Hyde queried when he was Chair of the Committee on International Relations in the House of Representatives, “How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has allowed such a destructive and parodied image of itself to become the intellectual coin of the realm overseas?”[7] US policies and actions from the war in Iraq to Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have alienated world opinion, and no amount of cultural diplomacy, however skillful, will compensate for unpopular policies. Even in a hostile climate, though, cultural diplomacy still should be able to build connections, to offer enjoyable and instructive experiences, and to enhance knowledge and mutual understanding through exchanges and programs. However, today, US government cultural diplomacy operates under particularly challeng­ing conditions: dissent is absent or negligible; the administrative structure compromises cultural diplomacy’s integrity; and the private sector dominates cultural perceptions of the United States.

Dissent and Cultural Diplomacy

Cultural diplomacy succeeded during the Cold War in part because it allowed and even fostered dissent. Artists, actors, musicians and writers in any culture act as a form of national conscience, reflecting, often critically, on society. Black musicians touring the globe during the Jim Crow era did not sugarcoat segregation. Dizzy Gillespie declined a pre-tour State Department briefing, “I’ve got three hundred years of briefing. I know what they’ve done to us and I’m not going to make any excuses….I liked the idea of representing America, but I wasn’t going to apologize for the racist policies of America.”[8] That the United States permitted critical voices as part of government-sponsored performances and emissaries astonished audiences everywhere, particularly behind the Iron Curtain. In the words of an American writer who traveled to the Soviet Union, “What I sensed they got out of visiting American writers was, to them, our spectacular freedom to speak our minds. I mean, there we were, official representatives of the US—sort of the equivalent of their Writers Union apparatchiks—who had no party line at all…and who had the writers’ tendency to speak out on controversial issues….In other words, the exchanges enabled Soviet writers, intellectuals, students et al to see that the ‘free world’ wasn’t just political cant.”[9]

Voices of dissent have been notably absent in the greatest diplomatic challenge of today, bridging the gap between the West and the Islamic world. Audiences in undemocratic societies, such as those in the Arab and Muslim world, have had little tangible experience of what freedom of speech means in America. Today, when the United States is criticized for violating the very democratic principles it seeks to disseminate, self-criticism and dissent might communicate democratic values particularly effectively. Under Secretary of State Karen Hughes has described her work as a “conversation” with the world; a conversation that begins by acknowledging our own flaws would demonstrate the strength and vibrancy of our democracy.

The current administrative structure of public and cultural diplomacy—as a bureau within the State Department—compromises the independence essential to cultural diplomacy’s credibility. Cultural diplomacy was persuasive during the Cold War because its “ambassadors”—performers, writers, thinkers—were perceived to be independent of the government, funding notwithstanding. From the first discussions about public diplomacy by the Creel Committee in 1917-1919, through the creation (1953) and dismantling (1999) of USIA, and in the reports and commissions of the last five years, the merits of housing public diplomacy activities inside or outside the State Department have been debated.[10] Recently, the Report of the Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy to the Secretary of State, an outstanding report whose recommendations have yet to be enacted, advocated an “independent clearinghouse, in the manner of the British Council.”[11]

Other countries realize the importance of an arm’s-length relationship between a cultural presence and the government. For example, although both the British Council and the Goethe Institute are funded by the British and German governments respectively, they operate independently. According to an official with the British Council, “We’re not prepared to accept the Foreign Office’s message for short-term political gain, because that would undermine our credibility.”[12]

US diplomats also understand that public diplomacy initiatives are more effective if they are perceived to be separate from any goal of advancing specific policy objectives. A Foreign Service Officer quoted on condition of anonymity stated, “Public diplomacy is not really about getting things in the press. It’s about long-term engagement. It can’t be just about supporting the policy—it has to be deeper than that.”[13]

Money (Profit) Can’t Buy You Love

Finally, cultural diplomacy is handicapped by its chief competitor, the thriving public sector cultural industry, which now has overtaken aerospace as the United States’ number one export. The vitality and dominance of America’s private cultural industries have no parallel elsewhere, with the possible exception of Bollywood. From Paris to Peking, TV, movies, music and literature are significantly supported by home governments, with varying degrees of autonomy. The division between the public and the private sector in America is an anomaly in much of the world, and, in particular, in the Islamic world. Do audiences elsewhere understand that they are seeing “Friends” or “Dallas” reruns at home and “Mission Impossible III” in the theaters because someone has judged them to be the most profitable options in a given market? By default, profit-driven popular culture is understood by much of the world to “represent” the United States; the public sector offers little or no counterpoint. Societies in which the lines between the public and the private sector are blurred have difficulty understanding that the images of sex and violence in American film and music are fictitious, emanate purely from the private sector, and do not reflect a government communication strategy. Polls indicate ambivalent sentiments about American culture; in general, “Americanization” is disliked and feared but individual cultural experiences are viewed favorably.”[14]

Rather than ruing the negative influence of the popular media, it would make sense for the US government to invest in shaping its image positively by funding the distribution of a broader range of programming. There will always be disagreement about the selections, but it would be difficult not to improve on the purely profit driven programming that now represents America to the world. Opportunities abound; the untapped potential is limitless. For example, the cable network in the Islamic world resembles the Internet in the early 1990s—lots of bandwidth without much programming. More effective than spending hundreds of millions to establish the American television station Al-Hurrah—which is, by definition, suspicious since it is entirely a creature of the US government—would be to offer programming for the hundreds of new locally owned stations in the Islamic world. Private ventures such as Layalina Productions, are doing just that.

The bottom line is that the United States has the most important and the most popular creative industry in the world. Through film, music, theater, literature, visual arts and dance we have the capacity to forge links with other cultures. Take, for example, hip hop music, which arguably is today’s answer to jazz—originating in America, and adapted all over the world. It began as the language of the disenfranchised, the disaffected, and has retained that character throughout the world. Hip hop is especially popular in the Arab and Muslim world. Although each country, each artist, adapts hip hop to his/her own circumstances, the American artists who originated the genre are still the touchstone. At a time when anti-Americanism has reached an all time high, there are still widely admired aspects of American culture. The challenge lies in striking the right balance between private production and public funding, and also catering to the particular market or client. What works in Moscow may not resonate in Muscat.[15] With cultural diplomacy, it is essential to listen to and understand your audience.

You Get What You Pay For

“While al-Qaeda and extremist movements have utilized the media for many years…we have barely even begun to compete in reaching their audiences,” opined Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld at a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. The need to improve our communications strategy with the world, to shape the climates which currently nurture terrorism, is widely acknowledged, by authorities from Secretary Rumsfeld to the September 11 Commission. Cultural diplomacy is key to succeeding in this critical task, but soft power requires hard dollars. Although the public diplomacy budget—used for both cultural programming and exchange programs—has escalated steadily over the last four years, the funds for 2006, still amount to a fraction of one percent of the military affairs budget or about 65 cents per capita, less than is spent by Sweden or Singapore.[16]

The miniscule budget allotted cultural diplomacy has all but excluded it from the reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, with predictably disastrous results. From the looting of the unprotected Baghdad Museum and other archeological sites to the demise of Baghdad’s lively literary life, personified by Mutanabi Street, the United States has shown little regard for the history and culture of the cradle of civilization. A bookseller described the impact of sectarian violence on the street that once was the lifeline of Baghdad’s literary life, “It means the death of education, the death of the history of the street, the death of the culture of Baghdad.”[17]

In the past, cultural diplomacy has played a critical role in reconstruction efforts. Even before the Allies marched into Berlin, plans were made to recuperate looted works of art and to return them to their rightful owners. During the reconstruction of Germany, the Marshall Plan allowed for hundreds of libraries and cultural centers to be built, not to mention the universities that were restored and re-opened. “If you really want to foster democracy and fight terrorism, send us 25,000 English teachers and rebuild our universities,” said the Afghan Minister for Higher Education at a conference on rebuilding Afghanistan held in July 2002. Cultural diplomacy, which could have informed a critical component of reconstruction, namely the reconstruction of history, has played a negligible role in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The puny size of the public diplomacy budget and consistently poor results from public opinion polls tell a tragic story about American efforts at cultural diplomacy. For all the reports on and declarations of the importance of public diplomacy—forty plus reports since September 11—the US government has paid only lip service to public and cultural diplomacy. Throughout the 20th century, cultural diplomacy endured peaks and valleys. Perhaps, the tide will turn. The recent Global Cultural Initiative, which will coordinate and expand cultural diplomacy activities undertaken by various agencies, represents a positive step, although it is unclear whether it includes increased funding.[18] Individual agencies, notably the Kennedy Center, embody “best practices” in cultural diplomacy by both hosting performers from other countries and sharing American expertise and talent. Programs such as the Kennedy Center’s “Gift of the Indus,” a newly inaugurated Web site for Pakistani and American schoolchildren dedicated to Pakistani arts and culture, give a flavor of the potential for increasing understanding through culture.

Telling America’s Story and Listening to Theirs

The USIA motto, “Telling America’s Story,” belies the essentially “two way” nature of cultural diplomacy. It is not only about projecting US values and ideas, but, equally important, it is learning about others’. Never has mutual understanding of different cultures been more important as extremist minorities drive a wedge between East and West. The preliminary results of a landmark Gallup poll of Muslim and Arab populations, projected to reach one billion people, indicate the prevalence of a feeling of humiliation that stems from a perceived lack of understanding and lack of respect from the West.[19] Building the understanding, respect and trust to alleviate this feeling of humiliation will require time, as well as cultural diplomacy. In the words of the Egyptian official interviewed by the Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy, “Developing respect for others and their ways of thinking—this is what cultural diplomacy does….We want people to know about real Americans. Let your people know that Egyptians are not just fanatics—Islam is one religion, but there are many ways of applying it…Americans should build bridges, they shouldn’t be afraid, they need to open up again.”[20]


Cultural diplomacy cannot compensate for, or explain unpopular policies, but it can build bridges, even in difficult times. Creative talent abounds; what is missing is commitment in the form of funding and independence for cultural diplomacy. At present, the very absence of American cultural diplomacy sends a message. Walking down the pedestrian main street of Belgrade last summer, I passed the Maison Française, the Goethe Institute, and the Institute Cervantes, the latter occupying the most prominent location, a building vacated a decade earlier by the US cultural center. My hosts, members of BalkanKult, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to rebuilding Serbia through culture, could not understand why the United States would fund a war in their country, but not a cultural center. I was at a loss for an explanation.

[1] Walter Laqueur. “Save Public Diplomacy: Broadcasting America’s Message Matters.” Foreign Affairs. September/October 1994, Vol. 73, No. 5., p. 20.

[2] Joseph Nye coined the term, “Soft Power.” See Joseph S. Nye, Jr. Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics. Perseus Books, 2004.

[3] Definition of cultural diplomacy from Milton C. Cummings, Jr., Ph.D. Cultural Diplomacy and the United States Government: A Survey. Center for Arts and Culture, 2003, p. 1.

[5] Johan Huizinga. America: A Dutch Historian’s Vision, from Afar and Near. New York: Harper & Row, 1972, pp. 240-241.

[6] Bill Nichols. “How Rock ‘n’ Roll Freed the World.” USA Today. November 6, 2003.

[7] Henry J. Hyde. “Speaking to Our Silent Allies: Public Diplomacy and US Foreign Policy.” December 2002. See (accessed June 16, 2006).

[8] P.M. von Eschen. “Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz, Race, Empire in the Cold War.” Here, There and Everywhere: The Foreign Politics of American Popular Culture. University Press of New England, 2000, p. 170.

[9] Yale Richmond. Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003, p. 154.

[10] On the history of cultural diplomacy in the United States, see Richard T. Arndt’s The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2005, especially pp. 27-74, 264-337.

[11] “Cultural Diplomacy: The Linchpin of Public Diplomacy.” September 15, 2005. See the Executive Summary on pages 14-15. Also, view the document online at (accessed July 15, 2006).

[12] Op. cit., p. 15.

[13] Nicholas Kralev. “Cultural Diplomacy Pays Off, Envoys Say.” The Washington Times. See (accessed June 14, 2006).

[14] Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes. America Against the World: How We Are Different and Why We Are Disliked. New York: Times Books, 2006, pp. 142-143.

[15] Cynthia P. Schneider. “Diplomacy That Works: Best Practices in Cultural Diplomacy.” Center for Arts and Culture. See

[16] Margaret J. Wyszomirski, Ph.D., Christopher Burgess and Catherine Peila. International Cultural Relations: A Multi-Country Comparison. Cultural Diplomacy Research Series, Center for Arts and Culture. See, p. 24.

[17] Sudarsan Raghavan. “Violence Changes Fortunes of Storied Baghdad Street.” The Washington Post. September 18, 2006, p. A1.

[18] Jacqueline Trescott. “Cultural Diplomacy Gets a New Worldview.” The Washington Post. September 26, 2006, p. C2.

[19] Meredith Buel. “New Poll of Islamic World Says Most Muslims Reject Terrorism.” May 2, 2006. See

[20] “Cultural Diplomacy: The Linchpin of Public Diplomacy.” p. 14.

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Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy, Georgetown University;
United States Ambassador to the Netherlands, 1998-2001