Whatever Happened To Cultural Diplomacy?

Brubeck.jpgIn his eighty-eighth year, Dave Brubeck is going to have to add another shelf to his trophy room–or another trophy room. His most recent honor came yesterday from the US State Department. Here’s a paragraph from the Reuters report in The New York Times.

“As a little girl I grew up on the sounds of Dave Brubeck because my dad was your biggest fan,” U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the ceremony where Brubeck received the department’s Ben Franklin Award for public diplomacy.

To read the whole story, click here.

It is admirable that the State Department is honoring Brubeck for the valuable cultural diplomacy he and his quartet practiced with government sponsorship as recently as the 1980s. But what is the policy of The United States today in using culture to reach out to the world? Sad to report, official cultural diplomacy is largely dormant at a time when the country’s international image is at its lowest point in decades. I recently delivered a speech entitled “Jazz Roots In The Bill Of Rights.” Cultural diplomacy was not the main theme of the talk, but this paragraph touched on it.

Not long after the Berlin Wall came down, the United States Information Agency asked me to go to Eastern Europe as part of its US Speakers program. That program no longer exists because the USIA no longer exists. The Clinton administration killed the agency in a budget move. The function shifted to the State Department and under the Bush administration, nothing has been done with it. Cultural diplomacy exists on paper, but it is not being practiced. That’s a shame because there is intense interest in the world in how democracy and the concept of individual freedom work. We have laid aside a tremendously effective tool for making friends in the world by the simple, inexpensive means of sending Americans abroad to talk about America.

Let us hope that the next administration will understand the importance and impact of what the USIA did–when there was a USIA–and revive the agency or create one like it.

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  1. John Birchard says

    You are on target – once again – with your comments on the USIA and the Bush Administration State Department. As a news broadcaster with the Voice of America (which used to be part of USIA), I have witnessed close up the damage done by the elimination of the USIA and to my own agency. It started with the ill-advised Clinton move (“reinventing government”) and accelerated with the ideologically-motivated Bushes. Cultural diplomacy is gone, USIA is gone and is the Voice of America as the world has known it, is nearly gone. And people scratch their heads and wonder why America is getting kicked in the teeth at every turn by the rest of the world. It’s not hard to figure out.

  2. Ryan White says

    FYI – I am working on a documentary project, titled CAMP UNITY, about a really amazing cultural diplomacy project that American Voices is implementing in Iraqi Kurdistan this summer. In July, 400 talented Iraqi youth will travel across their war-torn nation and converge upon peaceful and prosperous Kurdistan to study with eight American music, dance and drama teachers at the Unity Performing Arts Academy 2008.
    Arabs and Kurds, Sunni and Shia, Christian and Muslim, will all participate in the 20-day educational event which will culminate in gala concerts held in Iraqi communities. The academy will offer intensive, high quality study opportunities to students and professional musicians, actors and dancers at all levels of advancement. Classical, symphonic, Jazz and popular styles of music, Hip Hop and Broadway dance and theater arts will be the primary subjects of the curriculum. Students will be provided opportunities and access through full scholarships covering travel, accommodation and tuition costs. Artists from all over Iraq will work together, respect their differences and collaborate with the American Staff to create a unified performance piece.
    The CAMP UNITY film project will document the events of the Unity Academy 2008 with the aim of raising international awareness of music, dance, and theater’s ability to bring hope to nations isolated by current conflicts and work as a catalyst for peace, unification, and cultural understanding. To find out more about the documentary, and ways you can support the production, please go to: http://www.indiegogo.com/CAMPUNITY
    Or check out the Soulbird Music Project website: http://www.soulbird.org/