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Cultural diplomacy serves who?

When it comes to guns and butter, gimme margarine any day and not just 'cause I hate to bite the bullet. Considering that for the last six years, the Bush administration has indulged in gunboat diplomacy and still refuses to publicly admit how poorly it's fared, I was intrigued to see this Washington Post article where it looks like they're now taking baby steps to also initiative a soft option to win hearts and minds. But I also wonder how successful cultural diplomacy would be now and what the perils are for the people who try to practice it now.

Mind you, this isn't anything new. As the article notes, Yo Yo Ma and B.B. King made the rounds and way back in the 1950's, no less than Dizzy Gillespie toured for the cause (claiming in the Cold War climate that he would introduce "the cool weapon," referring to his trumpet).

The Peace Corps was also founded for a similar initiative, to wind hearts and minds overseas. I joined them in 1987 and served for two years in Botswana (southern Africa). Along with a bunch of other bleeding heart do-gooders, we only vaguely thought of ourselves as employed by the State Department, even if that happened to be the case: we received propaganda about George Bush Sr. that we laughed at and promptly discarded. If I was speaking to anyone about America, I was frank about my opinions and never felt compelled to defend Bush I or any of his policies.

Similarly, I wondered how compelled more official cultural ambassadors are to express or not express their opinions. I remember that Henry Rollins had visited Iraq and met with troops- not exactly a guy who holds back his thoughts but he later admitted that he supported the troops and was not there to stir up anti-war sentiment. Hell, even Al Franklin made the trip also and he's definitely not a guy to soft-pedal a war he doesn't agree with though again, he was there in support of the G.I.'s and not the war effort per se.

What makes the recent push by Bush II interesting is that it's so contrary to his previous "shoot first, ask questions later" diplomacy. Maybe this is a minor admission that the previous policy isn't having good results. After his tenure in office, what did Colin Powell have to show for his efforts except for an embarrassing misguided U.N speech that he now regrets and which in the end didn't sell the war policy well? Ditto for Condi Rice. So now comes Bush strategist Karen Hughes who had previously been on a listening tour of the Middle East to hear gripes, figure out why we weren't popular and figure out how to counter that. Obviously, one option isn't getting at the root of the problem- doing diplomacy in good faith rather than just as a mask for future wars- so it's time for some little band-aids to solve the problem, hence the recent cultural initiative.

But honestly, are a couple of overseas concerts going to counter six years of failed foreign policy? Of course not. The intended audience isn't anyone who already see us as devils but anyone who might be somewhat sympathetic or at least open-minded enough to think that we ain't all bad. To prove that, we can show off our cultural goods to impress foreign audiences and in effect say "See, we're not the evil empire you think we are." But again, that's small stuff when you compare to the bellicose language that the White House lobs about their noble goals for democracy abroad (but not when it comes to the faulty voting procedures here in the States).

But in the end, despite these problems, we need to support these cultural initiatives because no matter how flawed the administration's foreign policy is otherwise, this program is a good idea that needs to continue its work (though If they were serious about cultural exchanges though, the State Dept would work harder to ease the Visa burden for foreign musicians who want to tour in the States). As the Post article notes, it means not just helping train arts programs overseas but more cultural exchanges and more money for translation of works (not just into English but from other languages into English). It's not going to solve any foreign policy problems but it will be part of a continuing, necessary dialog that we need to have more of.

I'd even go as far to say that it doesn't even necessarily mean that all of this dialog has to be civil. Part of the problem that we have with our foreign policy now isn't just that Bush II is too trigger-happy but also that the idea of engaging in tough, difficult dialog with other countries that doesn't just involve threats is foreign to Bush II: say what you will about Clinton or Carter but they both understood how important peace agreements were to Middle East stability, hosting the principles together at Camp David.

Part of this is means trying to address and understand controversies like this: Mozart opera cancelled. Because this German production was seen as insulting to Muslims (though it's been staged before), it's been called off for now, though it might later be staged. Immediate comparisons were drawn to the Dutch cartoons that lampooned Mohammad last year and the furor that arose because of that. Just as in that case, there is similar opposing views about proclaiming free speech and being culturally sensitive. This isn't something easy to reconcile and it's something outside the scope of regular diplomacy but definitely the important kind of issue we need to consider if we really want to have an open, frank dialog with other cultures.

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