Background to the Question: This one-day event will build upon last year’s successful conference, “Culture’s Purpose and the Work of Cultural Diplomacy.” Our previous meeting provided an opportunity for productive exchange among central stakeholders in the future of cultural diplomacy. It encouraged them to address the question of the efficacy of the concept of culture – how culture works – in the context of cultural diplomacy efforts, as at once: an expressive tool, representative of particular “values,” a vehicle of communication, carrying out creatively transformative effects upon international relationships, or a variety of soft power, among others.
While representing diverse starting points and conceiving the role of culture in multiple ways, a notable emergent consensus among the participants in last year’s conference was the urgent need to better understand the cultures of the people with whom we are engaged rather than to continue to promote the virtues of our own culture. This was expressed in a variety of ways, including: a call to think more about the rest of the world, an emphasis upon the need to depart from an exceptionalist “superiority” model of cultural diplomacy, a stated preference for “mutuality” as opposed to the one-sided pursuit of national interest, more attention to the relationship between our message and other national narratives, taking a more active and non-unilateral part in the public discourse of other societies, the belief that other people should not be conceived merely as an “audience” for messages that we circulate, and more emphasis upon the as yet still neglected role of “mediator-as-translator” in representing one culture to another, among other themes.
We might summarize the diverse concerns expressed during our previous conference as convergent calls for better “listening,” that is, the need to become better participants in a cultural diplomacy more thoroughly conceived as dialogue. Indeed, we might suggest that, regardless of how culture is understood to be relevant for diplomacy – conceived as a constituent element of public diplomacy, strategic communication, cultural exchange, nation branding, or as initiatives in culture and the arts – a persistent failing of cultural diplomacy as a dimension of public diplomacy has been its radically underdeveloped appreciation for the process of communication as a meaningful cultural act. We propose the need for greater attention to the relationship between culture and communication in diplomacy.
The history of U. S. public and cultural diplomacy, as communication, has largely been characterized by diverse goals of message delivery. The USIA, of course, was primarily concerned with “telling America’s story” to the world. We find little here to suggest the importance of listening to other peoples’ stories about themselves. Policy and practitioner discussions of strategic communication are primarily about how best to control and to disseminate messages, with global publics assumed to be “target audiences.” Madison Avenue-inspired approaches to cultural diplomacy as public relations tend to treat their subjects as “consumers,” if sometimes active ones.
Prevailing soft power conceptions, which include the rhetoric of “winning hearts and minds,” are typically invested in “getting them to want what we want” rather than considering other wants. Even cultural exchanges have most often been described as “representational,” that is, as opportunities to express or to display U. S. values abroad to others. Most recent has been significant attention given to cultural diplomacy conceived as a global “war of ideas,” a way of framing international affairs as seemingly antithetical to the possibility of participating in the same conversation. What these many approaches share is a relative absence of dialogue alongside a disinclination to plumb the depths of communicative acts as complex and as reciprocal. But this leaves us permanently vulnerable to the possibility of the wholesale misrecognition of our interlocutors, friends and enemies alike, at once to take them to mean what they do not while missing or not taking seriously what they are telling us.
And yet the present Obama administration came into office, in significant degree, under the sign of increasing dialogue with the rest of the world. But do we know who we should be listening to, or how? Currently we can point to several distinct initiatives explicitly meant to encourage dialogue, such as the new program of the National Endowment for the Humanities on “bridging cultures.” The present appears to be a propitious moment to consider a new kind of cultural listening project more attentive to the ways that “culture” is increasingly globally relevant as differently incorporated into an expanding variety of interventions and undertakings: as a basis for international political, economic, and legal claims; treated as a problem-solving resource and as utilized in different policy-relevant contexts; as part of an explicitly cultural globalization; as a recurrent source of conflict, creativity, and uncertainty; and as a subject of growing international legal and regulatory attention. In contrast to the U.S., multilateral organizations like UNESCO have emphasized cultural diplomacy as commensurate with “intercultural dialogue.” And rather than continued unilateral attention to “our message,” such developments call for more attention to how culture is coming to matter for others in diverse ways. What this listening project might look like, however, remains a question to explore. With this conference, we plan to take an initial step in that direction.