The Connectivity of Culture: Innovating in Cultural Diplomacy

Rich high fives female players

Rich Cho, the general manager of the Charlotte Hornets basketball team, high-fives female basketball players in Burma. Photo courtesy of the US Department of State.

Ask anyone to describe their first exposure to, or memory of, another country, and it is very unlikely that their answer will involve debating politics, analyzing economic statistics, or dissecting history. That is almost never how we first discover each other. It is far more likely that their first introduction to another country occurred through culture, like the tens of thousands of American children who visit the museums of the Smithsonian Institution each year, or the many Americans that have stood upon the Great Wall of China, or walked the ancient grounds of Giza, Macchu Picchu, or Angkor Wat.

Culture is more, however, than heritage sites and the art we find in museums. Culture is also the living, vibrant expression of a people’s way of life. It is the traditions, habits, patterns, and even the quirks and idiosyncracies that define a people and make them unique and special.

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Evan Ryan is the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. Photo courtesy of the US Department of State.

Many of us may have gained our first cultural exposure through music. The 1960s brought the “British Invasion.” In the 1980s, at the height of apartheid, Paul Simon wove the harmonies of South Africa into popular songs. In our own time, the Internet has brought a world of music into our homes.

Sport can also be a tremendously exciting opportunity to share culture. Athletes around the world are universal role models. The first time many of us saw a country’s flag and heard its name may have been during the opening ceremony of an Olympic Games, as we watched the athletes of the world parade into a stadium ten thousand miles away.

Film and television are, of course, incredibly powerful purveyors of culture. Each week, millions of Americans tune in to British television shows and head to the theater to watch British films. Likewise, much of the world first experiences America in the same way. Millions around the world begin to learn English through our movies and television shows, and familiarity with English opens possibilities to learn more. Culture, in its broadest definition, provides a virtually infinite number of ways for Americans to discover the world, and for the world to discover us.

In some cases, a dialogue on culture is the only dialogue possible. There are countries with which the United States does not even have formal relations and others where those relations are strained and fraught by political disagreements. Even in those difficult circumstances, we are able to have a conversation thanks to culture. At the height of the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union maintained one of the largest programs of cultural and academic exchange in the world. For decades, we have maintained relations with the Iranian and Cuban people through academic and sports exchanges, even while our governments’ relations were fractured. Those ties not only preserved some ability to communicate, they were often the first steps toward building the trust, familiarity, and assurances of good faith that lead to political progress and resolution. Such words ring true again today.

Our Mission

American popular culture, including myriad forms of entertainment, cinema, television, and music, is enormously influential. Wherever you go, citizens of other countries watch our television shows, go to our movies, and download our music. When I travel, I am routinely asked about the latest popular trends and stars: the films of Jennifer Lawrence; the music of Jay-Z; the writing of Gillian Flynn. On one particularly memorable occasion, I was asked to fulfill someone’s dream by arranging a meeting, not with a Senator, a Governor, or a “Senior State Department Official,” as we say – but with Oprah Winfrey.

Our challenge, and our mission, is to harness the influence and appeal of that culture, reach out to audiences around the world, and connect it to the broader context of American society.

At the State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and at over 200 American Embassies and Consulates worldwide, public diplomacy professionals work every day to develop and implement innovative and cutting edge arts-based programs that allow us to forge human connections amidst the difficulties of our times. The real focus of these programs for us is human connection: the exchange of experiences and ideas among Americans and international partners that help our global relationships.

This capability of our cultural diplomacy programs to open dialogue is a critical dimension of our efforts to tackle important issues, such as empowering women and girls, promoting economic prosperity, giving venues to free expression, combating climate change, and countering violent extremism.

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Members of an American dance troupe at a dance workshop for children in Amman, Jordan. Photo courtesy of the US Department of State.

Moreover, although international exchange programs have been part of the State Department fabric for decades, each new decade brings with it unique circumstances and challenges that require constant innovation. Our programs must not just be policy-relevant, but policy-responsive. We cannot just reflect the world, we must try to anticipate the next cultural shift, and respond to new developments. Cultural diplomacy is sometimes the best – and sometimes the only – approach available to respond to changing circumstances, political shifts, and growing crises. It is our responsibility to find opportunities where we can build bridges between communities and foster greater understanding that will advance our most critical, and often urgent, policy priorities.

The power of art, of music, of dance, and of sports, is the power to inspire, to lift spirits and move the soul—and to go where traditional diplomacy cannot. Traditional diplomacy most often happens in the halls of government, but cultural diplomacy plays out where people spend their time – in performance halls, community centers and stadiums. Our cultural diplomacy programs are also designed to be active and engaging: performances and exhibits are paired with workshops, conversations, dialogues, and mentoring opportunities.

Shared Values

Cultural exchange gives people an opportunity to explore both their differences and their similarities, and to learn from each other. In many cases, we find that even radically different cultures have elements in common. The purpose of two traditions from two cultures is congruent, even if the individual expressions are completely unique. Culture may give people the opportunity to discover, in non-threatening ways, that they have shared values and shared interests. It can reveal the potential for working together, and create the desire to do so.

We have sent American musicians in Turkey to foster the will to work on conflict resolution with refugees. An American deaf theater troupe can engage disabled artists and students in China, and encourage them to consider opportunities they might not otherwise have considered. American authors lead writing workshops for youth in Iran preserve a channel for dialogue. Our American Film Showcase program uses entertainment and popular culture to foster this type of discovery across cultures, and highlight our nation’s ability to openly debate issues. AFS brings award-winning contemporary American documentaries and feature films, filmmakers, and film experts to audiences in approximately 40 countries annually, in partnership with the University of Southern California. In the four years since the program was created, it has reached 73 countries and thousands of individuals. Through AFS, we are launching MediaMakers Studio, a program aimed at elevating influential voices through film, television and new media to address cornerstone values such as human rights, pluralism and the advancement of women. The program will connect talented, socially-engaged film, video and new media professionals around the world together with leaders in the American entertainment field for the purpose of developing new storytelling capabilities through mentorships.

Bridging Cultural Distance

Differences in culture are not the only challenge we face. Sometimes even geography is a hurdle. Engaging people who are at least familiar with the United States from our media is one type of interaction. Reaching out to people who may not know us at all is an entirely different challenge, and exchanges of culture are an indispensable way to reach far and wide.

• In 2014, the State Department sponsored the Good Movement Dance Company’s visit to a town in Siberia, a region known for its vast areas and low temperatures. Young people who never thought they would meet an American participated in workshops and quickly warmed up to a unique taste of American values: professionalism, diversity, and friendliness.

• Grammy-winning bluegrass band Della Mae played to school groups, orphanages, women’s colleges and hospitals in the far reaches of Pakistan, and connected with the locals, musicians, children, and women. A reaction from one of the band members told us the impact of our outreach: “After one of the performances we were handed a pile of evaluation sheets the girls had written about our concert. Many of the students had never actually met Americans. One response was, ‘I learned today that Americans aren’t racist,’ and another, ‘I realized that they are all just like us.’ This is why we are here. To broaden our vision of the world through relationships with the precious people from these places and hopefully give them a new view on who we are as well.”

Importantly, we try to foster cultural outreach in the other direction. In 2014, we reached out to Hoba Hoba Spirit, a crowd-wowing Morocc’n Roll group, among the best of the Maghreb. They shout truth to power with post-punk wit, high-energy delivery, and droll plays on words. They toured around the US and were able to share a far more accurate picture of the US to their young fans back in Morocco.

We also know that the benefits of exchange can have amazing endurance and impact, years or even decades later. The film, “Song of Lahore,” shows how a program from the 1960s helped revive cultural expression decades later, and protected cultural expression from those who sought to destroy it. During the 1980s, music and other public performances were severely restricted in Pakistan. The artists who tried to revive the traditional music genre faced an uphill battle until their director remembered a US-sponsored visit by Dave Brubeck to Pakistan in the 1960s. He got the idea to fuse traditional Pakistani music with Brubeck’s “Take Five” jazz masterpiece. It went viral online and helped open the door to a new era of inspiration in Pakistani music.

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Della Mae, a Grammy-winning bluegrass band, performs for a crowd of schoolgirls as part of their tour of Pakistan. Musical performances are an effective conduit for cultural diplomacy. Photo courtesy of the US Department of State.

We also use a variety of other cultural tools to bridge the divide. Sports diplomacy uses the universal passion for sports as a way to transcend linguistic and sociocultural differences and bring people together. Through the State Department, American athletes and coaches travel overseas as Sports Envoys to hold clinics for young people and their coaches, participate in community outreach activities, and engage youth in dialogue on the importance of leadership and respect for diversity. We partnered with the NBA and the US Embassy in Rangoon for a first-ever sports diplomacy initiative in Burma during the early stages of Burma’s transition from a military dictatorship to a more democratic state. Burmese-American Rich Cho (General Manager of the Charlotte Hornets), Allison Feaster (former WNBA player), Darvin Ham (Assistant Coach of the L.A. Lakers at the time), and Marty Conlon (former NBA player) traveled to Rangoon to play basketball and connect with the people of Burma, particularly the youth. Reopening a relationship with the Ministry of Sports after a 40 year shutdown created a friendly, approachable tone that had ramifications across the bilateral relationship and served as encouragement as our government sought democratic reform in Burma.

Alternatives to Violence

The State Department’s exchange programs have no greater mission than inspiring people to believe in their own strengths and talents and creating the positive social environment that inoculates a society against violent extremists. Creating alternatives to violence is a priority of US foreign policy, and cultural exchange has a leading role to play in opening possibilities. Few have said it better than Sparlay Rawail, lead guitarist from the Pakistani hyper-folk band Khumariyaan who, after touring the US on one of our programs, observed that “back home, and everywhere, art is like water for the fire of fundamentalism.” On a recent AFS exchange, American documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney met with aspiring young filmmakers in Ukraine. Reflecting on his time spent there, Cheney noted the important role filmmakers play in documenting the Ukrainian conflict and helping their country to “heal” after the violence. He said he “…was moved by the senses of community and purpose behind these films. You got the impression that these filmmakers were trying to help their country figure itself out.”

Innovation

In order for our programs to be successful, we need to be as innovative as the creative people we work with. We strive to use social media; engage inventive artists, musicians and athletes; and stay on top of pop culture trends. Whether it is leveraging Lady Gaga’s tour in Latin America, inviting one of Morocco’s hottest bands to tour the United States or engaging young video makers in the Middle East, our work provides a forum that is often far more powerful than our efforts in traditional diplomacy. And while these performances showcase artistic quality, it is the encounters with local community members that have the most impact – both on the artists and on the communities.

Our Center Stage project is among the most ambitious programs to bring contemporary international performing artists into direct contact with a wide range of American communities. Working closely with our partner, the New England Foundation for the Arts, we bring top-line performing artists from around the world to the United States, for an enduring artistic and engaging opportunity. Americans have the chance to experience cultural diplomacy firsthand, on stage, off stage, and online as we offer performances, workshops and community gatherings that are open to the public. We enhance participants’ professional development with sessions on trends in the music industry, while advancing economic policy goals to support intellectual property rights protection.

The written word is one of the oldest forms of cultural exchange, but even there, we seek to be on the front of the wave. Our International Writing Program brings rising and established literary authors from across the world for a fall residency at the University of Iowa. They benefit from America’s finest traditions in professional creative writing and emerge as true believers in the power of free expression. The program has been a leader in the development of Massive Open Online Courses for writing for several years now and is breaking new ground abroad. Just this year, the program’s online course “How Writers Write Poetry” premiered in Kazakhstan, with its full menu of class videos, teaching discussions, and peer feedback. The teacher told us that the idea of a creative writing workshop had been nonexistent in the country and opened a bridge into US culture, which is normally off limits.

Defining Success

I have seen the transformative effect that sharing culture can have on our relationships with people from other countries. It is often easy for critics to see an artistic performance or a comedy routine as “just entertainment,” without looking at the tremendous value it brings to cross-cultural understanding. I have shared only some of our most compelling stories. Many of the more enduring effects will happen far down the road and well after programs end. While the exchange program proves to be a catalyst for social good, the idea or action might take years to come to fruition.

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President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro watch an exhibition game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national baseball team in Havana, as part of Obama’s March 2016 trip to Cuba amid thawing tensions. Photo courtesy of the US Department of State.

One way we work to capture the impact is by maintaining strong relationships with the tens of thousands of alumni of our exchange programs who are making a real difference, sometimes small, sometimes global. Each of these programs, along with the dozens of others sponsored by the State Department and embassies around the world, is designed to engage in particular with young audiences. And while these programs might just be a moment in time, we are working on maintaining our growing number of alumni engaged in our efforts.

For example, through our partnership with espnW, the Global Sports Mentoring Program pairs emerging women leaders from around the world with top American female executives in the sports industry. During their time in the United States, these emerging female leaders learn how to develop and grow their sports initiatives. We are learning just how true this is in Brazil, where three alumnae of the program are collaborating to bring Title IX legislation – ensuring equal opportunity in education for all – to their country. By bringing together the Ministry of Sport and REMS, the Sport and Social Change Network in Brazil, Cassia Damiani, Daniela Castro, and Paula Korsakas urged government officials to support a Title IX-like action plan for Brazil. If enacted, such legislation could offer equal access and opportunity for women and girls seeking federally funded sports programs.

The anecdotal evidence of our work is strong and emotionally moving, but we recognize as equally important the need to quantify the impact of exchange programs. It is a difficult challenge, given the well-known complexities of measuring perception, attitude, and goodwill, but it is a challenge that we undertake avidly. We track all types of audience reach, including face-to-face and through traditional and social media. The ability to reach ever-increasing mass audiences through online platforms has brought a force multiplier to our cultural diplomacy capabilities. And we have been conducting consistent social science analysis to measure the impact of these programs.

Cultural Diplomacy for Tomorrow

Secretary Kerry has said that “whether it was Nixon’s Ping-Pong diplomacy or today’s cultural diplomacy… and whether it’s the pianists or dobro players, Zydeco bands, jazz singers, filmmakers, dance companies, and artists that we send to every single corner of the globe, this is about citizen diplomats who go to remote and troubled communities and open doors for conversations with the young, with the poor, and the too-often overlooked.”

Last year alone, our arts- and sports-based programs engaged people in more than 130 countries. These programs represent a small but powerful portion of the State Department’s international exchange efforts, which span across a large array of activities, focusing on education at every level and professions in almost every field imaginable. The State Department’s power to convene people is actively working to empower voices for social good around the world. We continue to build programs that are at the cutting edge of our foreign policy efforts. We collaborate with artists and athletes as leaders who can be far more impactful than traditional or political leaders, especially with the young. And we have seen that cultivating relationships across societies creates common ground which catalyzes real change and collaboration. Today, more than ever, our exchange programs are helping the United States achieve our foreign policy goals.

About Author

Evan Ryan

Evan Ryan is the Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State.