Is the Role of Cultural Diplomacy Evolving in the 21st Century?

While recently visiting friends in Tel Aviv, I attended a monthly discussion group run by one of my hosts that addresses global issues and trends. On the evening my friends invited me to join them, the topic for debate was "What is the role of diplomacy in the 21st century?" The group discussed the ways in which supranational organizations, the increase in broad-base public diplomacy initiatives, trade and other economic flows, and technology are all changing the role of traditional diplomats in influencing world events.

What was omitted from the conversation, however, was the role of cultural diplomacy in influencing interstate interactions. This lacuna made me wonder if globalization, the changing role of technology, and the increasing relevance of private sector initiatives are making traditional cultural diplomacy initiatives and state-sponsored cultural messages obsolete.

Cultural diplomacy is defined as the promotion of art, educational customs, value systems, and other forms of cultural production by national governments with the objective of fostering mutual understanding and ultimately better foreign relations. Traditionally, state-sponsored cultural diplomacy took two forms. The first was government-sponsored programming in foreign countries, which was intended to shape perceptions of that government abroad. The other was an attempt to enhance domestic understanding of foreign cultures, which would improve cross-cultural sensitivity when engaging in future political and economic cooperation.

In the U.S., as financial support for cultural diplomacy has decreased, the burden of undertaking substantial cultural exchange initiatives has migrated to the private sector. During the Cold War, the U.S. State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded cultural activities abroad that supported their political objectives. The CIA in particular created the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which was a covert operation that funded exhibitions of Abstract Expressionist painting - a style believed to convey American notions of free thinking and free markets, cultural publications such as Encounter, and scholarly conferences; the objective of the Congress was to negate the appeal of Communism to artists and intellectuals in Europe and behind the Iron Curtain. In the post-Cold War era though, the interest in supporting cultural diplomacy projects waned, and initiatives were less generously funded. Today, the discussion about the utility of cultural diplomacy is resuming as some see cultural dialogue as a necessary tool to improve America's image in the world and its relations with Muslim countries in the post-9/11 world. However, in contrast to the Cold War era, today, privately funded organizations have taken the place of governments in promoting cross-cultural exchanges including global tours by symphonies and dance companies, international traveling art exhibitions at private museums, and privately funded organizations dedicated to creating cultural dialogue between people of different nationalities. A perfect example of this phenomenon is the three-day Israeli video program that took place at the Tate Modern in London this past weekend and was sponsored by the Ostrovsky Family Fund.

While many may lament the decline of state-sponsored artistic exchanges, globalization and changing communications technology may have irreversibly changed the landscape of cultural diplomacy, and may explain the increasing dominance of the private sector in this field. The speed and ease of global communication, as well as political developments, have perhaps made people more skeptical of a state-sponsored communication because people are no longer reliant on governments to obtain information. We face a situation where the shifting balance between state-sponsored messages and private exchanges of information are having an unprecedented effect on cultural programs.

What will be the result of this shift from government-sponsored messages and cultural diplomacy to private sector, market-driven cultural exchanges? One strong possibility is that an international cultural exchange landscape dominated by the private sector will allow for greater risk-taking by the organizations that sponsor cultural initiatives, resulting in more avant-garde and critical programming. Whereas in the past, national interests ultimately determined which cultural activities to support so as to best reflect the national viewpoint, today's market may steer cultural exchanges to mirror a more multidimensional and complex cultural dialogue.