Cultural diplomacy is an essential US strategy
The Senate’s recent investigation into the Professional Golfers’ Association’s merger with Saudi-backed LIV made it clear — the Saudis have the upper hand. In the words of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), head of the investigation, “the PGA tour will be dominated in this agreement.”
The near downfall of the 107-year-old PGA at the hands of a foreign government is but one example of America’s waning cultural influence. Even with their deep pockets, it is hard to imagine the Saudis making this attempt a decade or even just five years ago.
There are other signs U.S. cultural influence is ebbing. Hollywood studios, Disney theme parks and the NBA have all come under fire for making concessions to Chinese censorship. Young Americans are just as likely to encounter content from Chinese-owned TikTok as from a U.S. movie or TV show. And Korean pop music, or K-pop, now has a good claim to being the most popular music in the world.
As the world realigns in the post-Cold War era, our cultural influence is a key factor that will help to determine whether we can build a new international system aligned with American interests. We need to use every resource we can to give our soft power a boost, including state support — something for which there is plenty of precedent in diplomatic history and U.S. policy.
On the defensive after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the great diplomat Talleyrand used French cuisine to entice Prussia, Russia and England to the table — quite literally. Begging for support from Paris to his embassy at the Vienna peace conference, Talleyrand is said to have quipped, “Sire, I need saucepans more than written instructions!” Talleyrand got his saucepans, and the result was a treaty that stabilized Europe for a century.
At the Cold War’s start, it was Eisenhower himself who added “American” to the name of the Ballet Theatre in New York, creating the ABT, which still tours the world. At the same time, MoMA began to mount touring exhibits of Abstract Expressionist painting to showcase American creativity, which Kennedy later formalized as the Art in Embassies program. Now, the Art in Embassies collection has work by 20,000 artists.
Up to now, the U.S. has largely kept pace with our rivals. Yet in the Belt and Road project that extends through Africa and Southeast Asia, the Chinese government is promoting the arts and academic exchanges alongside infrastructure. The global Russian propaganda machine is relentless, as are their systematic attempts to destroy Ukrainian culture. That the majority of countries in the Global South do not agree with the U.S. policy in Ukraine suggests that something about the Russian influence strategy is working.
Right now, our cultural diplomacy is anchored in the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, which does outstanding and essential work with only about $770 million of funding. By contrast, as of 2017, it is estimated that the Chinese government spent $10 billion.
We need more financing and to expand our horizons. One way forward is to capitalize on our existing strengths, like education. The State Department in the past has estimated that 300 current and former heads of state were educated in America. Education is a service export, creating jobs here at home and influencing the next generation of leaders around the world. Yet the recruitment of foreign university students is not guided by any long-term strategy.
There is also a rich opportunity in public-private partnerships. Why not incentivize a world-famous museum like MoMA, which already partners with private companies and international artists, to open branches in other nations, as the Louvre has done in Abu Dhabi? The same could be said for The Getty, the Smithsonian and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, all among the top 10 most-visited museums in the world.
Some branches of the Smithsonian — in particular the National Museum of the Native American and the National Museum of African American History and Culture — could be a great way to showcase the breadth and richness of American culture, a unique strength of ours.
It has been a long time since Talleyrand’s saucepans. Cultural diplomacy now has many digital tools available to it. To make use of them, we can launch hybrid or virtual artists exchanges, or recruit foreign students to U.S. online educational programs. American performing arts companies and museums still struggling to rebuild post-COVID could become “digital touring companies,” mounting live-streamed performances geared toward specific foreign audiences.
With the explosion of AI-enabled internet, online gaming, new social media platforms, and augmented reality in the near future, there are unlimited options for what a digital cultural diplomacy policy could look like. The challenge is to expand our efforts to experiment early, to be ready for whatever medium scales next.
All of these new efforts rest on an old truth: that alliances are not built only on shared economic and military interest. There are always flesh-and-blood human beings on the other side of the negotiating table. It is only by consistently displaying the best of America that we can keep them there.
Fred P. Hochberg served as chairman of the United States Export-Import Bank under President Obama from 2009 to 2017. He is the author of “Trade is Not a Four-Letter Word: How Six Everyday Products Make the Case for Trade.” He is currently chair of Meridian International Center, a D.C.-based nonprofit.
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