The U.S. State Department has enlisted a cadre of cultural figures to make appearances abroad to combat rising anti-American sentiment. The group includes cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Pulitzer Prize winning author Frank McCourt, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, actor Ron Silver, former Supremes singer Mary Wilson, and Orlando Magic basketball star Tracy McGrady. All are taking part in a worldwide series of U.S. government-sponsored performances, master classes and workshops aimed at turning leading exponents of American creativity into inspirational mentors for young foreigners. Some are scheduled to tour the Middle East as goodwill ambassadors. The new program comes not a moment too soon, but it represents only a fraction of what is needed.
The United States faces an urgent task in confronting discontent around the globe. Resentment and distrust has grown most vociferously in Islamic societies, but the increasingly pressing question “Why do they hate us?” is being asked almost as frequently regarding Europeans. Harnessing the power of the arts can actually be a cost-effective way to help ensure U.S. national security. Cultural initiatives — partly by displaying the complex diversity of opinion in America — can help break down stereotypes and combat hostile disinformation, while keeping open the lines of communication between the U.S. and other nations when official ties are strained or broken.
Cynthia Schneider, President Clinton’s ambassador to the Netherlands, found that strategic use of culture can also pay off in business terms. She invited high-ranking Dutch military officials to view the film “Saving Private Ryan.” That event led to closer ties with the American military; a bond she says helped enlist Dutch support for Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter jet.
Nonetheless, the precise benefit of cultural initiatives is not easy to quantify since, like any true human exchange, they involve a long-term commitment that goes beyond the bottom line. For years Congress has been loathe to fund such efforts, regarding it as a fuzzy feel-good practice with little tangible benefit. The State Department spends little more than $2 million annually to present U.S. culture abroad; by comparison Germany’s Goethe Institut spends about $7.5 million a year to showcase German cultural achievements in the United States alone.
The numerous American cultural initiatives that existed during the cold war years came to a halt once the communist threat waned. For decades the United States Information Agency (USIA) flooded much of the world with American orchestras, dance groups, art exhibits and jazz performances. The recognition that Washington has done a glaringly poor job of countering the new brand of anti-American sentiment may inspire some politicians to consider the value of exporting the best of our culture again.
Cultural initiatives abroad could get a big boost from an endowment — supported by private individuals, corporations and foundations — that would give a far more nuanced picture of American society than conveyed through commercial films, theatre, books, and music. A non-profit entity comparable to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting could oversee the endeavor, avoiding the stigma of propaganda that inevitably clings to officially sponsored arts programming.
Some thinkers, among them Joseph Nye, dean of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, argue that commercial exports already exert a form of “soft power” that influences other societies by implicitly promoting American values like personal freedom, upward mobility and democratic openness. But fast food and show biz do not present an adequate picture. Targeted distribution of independent films like the Oscar-nominated documentary Spellbound, chronicling a multicultural mix of kids as they compete in the National Spelling Bee, would give foreign audiences an entirely different image of what American society holds dear than the far wider shown Terminator films.
The new State Department program — under which Yo-Yo Ma has already gone to Lithuania — creates opportunities for the kind of person to person contact that is too often missing in an era of instant global communication.
When measured in military power, U.S. strength is unparalleled. But while this may evoke fear and respect it does not necessarily engender admiration and affection. The vitality and ingenuity of American artistic creation and ideas are a wellspring of inspiration. By helping present a realistic picture of democracy’s benefits, they offer a way to export hope as well as fear.