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US Cultural Diplomacy As Imperialist Foreign Policy by N Taneja

People's Democracy
(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)

Vol. XXX
No. 34
August 20, 2006

US Cultural Diplomacy As Imperialist Foreign Policy

Nalini Taneja

THE US State Department is extremely worried that the ideological hegemony it had enjoyed following the days of Cold War is being gradually eroded in the wake of the exposures regarding Abu Ghraib prison tortures, the Guantanamo Bay prison, and the invasion of Iraq in general. The US department has called for a return to the active cultural diplomacy of the Cold War period, and a more active stance in winning over intellectuals and artists from third world countries, particularly "Islamic" countries. The blueprint for its expansionist and interventionist cultural diplomacy is spelled out clearly in a document titled "Cultural Diplomacy, The Lynchpin of Public Diplomacy" prepared by the US Department of State in September 2005.

Authorised by Congress and PL 107-228, an Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy (ACCD) was appointed in March 2004, and given charge of "advising the secretary of state on programmes and policies to advance the use of cultural diplomacy in US foreign policy, paying particular attention to&developing strategies for increasing public-private sector partnerships to sponsor cultural exchange programs that promote the national interest of the United States."

The Report of the Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy clearly states that "America's cultural riches played no less a role than military action in shaping our international leadership, including the war on terror." The aim of cultural diplomacy is spelled out as creating "a foundation of trust" between influential sections of society in all countries, which policy makers can then "build on to reach political, economic, and military agreements."

The report recommends "a similar commitment of funds, expertise, courage, and time" for this activism, which may find its reward in inculcating in the minds of the people of other countries a "presumption of shared interests" which will translate into support for specific foreign policy moves of the US government.

The target groups, as expected, are "influential members of foreign countries" who can be reached and influenced over the heads of their respective governments in the name of cultural exchanges and expanded educational opportunities in the US, even as it also makes sound economic sense with education becoming one of the "services" opened up under GATS. It sums up its recommendations as aimed at "winning the hearts and minds of reasonable people" through creating "a cultural diplomacy infrastructure and policy for the twenty-first century", with the visible enemy characterised as Islamic terrorism.

This report synthesises the findings of several academic studies, independent task forces, and various committees and commissions on public and cultural diplomacy, incorporates "insights" gleaned by the Advisory committee on a fact finding mission to Oman, Egypt, and the UK, as well as DOS sponsored visits to Greece, Norway, Malaysia, and discussions with a range of foreign officials, journalists, writers, artists and theatre persons abroad, particularly in "Islamic' countries.

"There's a worldwide debate about the relationship between Islam and the West, and we don't have a seat at that table," it quotes an official as saying, and concludes that "Cultural diplomacy is a means by which we may engage and influence that debate". Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the "stakes" for American foreign policy have "never been higher", and large majorities in many Islamic countries which the US was beginning to take for granted, are today beginning to feel that George Bush is a greater threat to the world order than Osama bin Laden is. America's power to persuade has certainly come down.

The report attributes this complacency and the significant reduction in American cultural presence abroad to the end of the Cold War. It points out that since 1993 the budgets for cultural intervention have fallen by 30 per cent overseas and 20 per cent in the US, and dozens of cultural centres, libraries and branch posts have been closed. Between 1995 and 2001 the number of exchange participants in ECA programmes fell from 45,000 to 29,000. It laments that the abolishment of the USIA in 1999 marked the end of a formal cultural diplomacy policy, whose achievements included the success in the war of ideas against the Soviet Union, and a very positive response to the US on part of world leaders like the late Anwar Sadat, Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher, Harmid Karzai, Gerhard Schroeder "who benefited from international visitor programs." It lists Encounter as one of the most dynamic publications resulting from direct participation of the CIA. It quotes Colin Powell as saying that "I think of no more valuable asset to our country than friendship of future world leaders who have been educated here", and thousands who return home and are grateful for their privileged education and often serve as goodwill ambassadors for the country.

The Report makes clear and specific recommendations. It lays special stress on funding through public-private partnerships for increasing the influence that results from American popular culture, specially films and music, exchange programmes involving artists and writers, funding of NGOs and cultural centres in the countries themselves and increasing the number of talented foreign students in the US. All this it sees as necessary for achieving a "soft power", which is defined as "the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals," and which is "as essential" as the "carrots and sticks of economic and military might."

The use of media is given special mention. Al Hurra, the television launched in the wake of 9/11 is outperformed by Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya and other satellite stations, the report states. In order to be at the cutting edge of the "cultural wars" going on in the Islamic countries, it advises that it is easier to move in through "technical assistance", training programs, American teachers and so on. There is, it emphasises, a "need to return to the field", and reopen as many centres in foreign countries as have been shut down, to "increase funding and staffing for cultural diplomacy, and to provide advanced training for officials who are public affairs officers and have responsibility for cultural diplomacy throughout their careers, with "particular attention to research, polling, and the uses of new media".

The recommendations include the creation of independent clearing houses, in the manner of British Council, to promote national interest, develop public-private funding partnerships with separate housing from embassies to make them 'unofficial' and 'apolitical' and to attract wider audiences, to set aside translation funds, to build an American Knowledge Library, and make its contents available to all the thousands of cultural centres and libraries.

It talks of creating "American Corners, with links to digital libraries and online books" - which will no doubt flood countries like ours with American social science and undermine our intellectual self reliance - and establishing special film units for creating documentaries to project a certain view of US abroad.

The revamping of the channel Al Hurra "in keeping with the highest traditions of American broadcasting" is given a special mention and it is strongly recommended that initiatives in broadcasting to the Arab world be given much larger resources, as should the programme for sponsoring internships for young men and women from the Islamic world.

The Report of course only lays down policy and stresses increased funding and outlines the instruments through which cultural intervention is likely to be made by the US State, for purposes of pure propaganda in its favour and against democracy. But the content of these cultural interventions could be varied and sometimes quite sophisticated. To the military conflict and the media war we may now add another arena through which pressure on us is likely to increase - cultural diplomacy, through which the US intends to highjack debates on and influence the discourses on religion, identity, sports, and other concerns of everyday life, in the interests of imperialism.

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