Pakistan's view of the US, and three models for cultural exchanges
The Times has this glum assessment of the US image in Pakistan, which is pretty bad in spite of the advent of Obama.
However, a close reading offers reason for hope. The primary negative statistic is that 80% of Pakistanis reject US assistance in Pakistan's fight against terrorism. This may simply mean that Pakistanis feel that the terrorists are the enemies of Pakistan as much (or more) than of the United States, so Pakistanis should bring them to justice. Indeed, the US presence might feel humiliating, as it suggests that the American military does not believe that Pakistan is capable of pursuing Al Qaeda. With more trust flowing both ways, the American military could back down and let Pakistani security forces handle the problems, but I'll leave such matters to the politicians.
Of more immediate concern is the final paragraph of the article: "The new effort included spending about $30 million on educational and cultural exchanges between Pakistan and the United States, and providing more Fulbright scholarships for Pakistanis to study at American universities."
Why won't arrangements be made to send more American students to Pakistani universities? What will these exchanges look like? Will they consist of Pakistan and the US trading their respective artists and scholars to perform or speak in an echo chamber for the elite? Or will they follow the egalitarian, collaborative model of Cultures in Harmony's project there?
Journalist and anchor Kamran Khan says that “The American side of the story is not available to the people.” Is that story best told by talking at the Pakistani people, or by listening to them and allowing the act of listening to be the message they receive?
The article doesn't clarify which model will be used: isolated presentations of prominent people in traditional venues; teaching-based; or learning-based. That first type of cultural diplomacy comes under criticism in this thought-provoking piece by Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center. I sent Mr. Kaiser the following letter in response, and I hope those considering what model of cultural exchange can work for Pakistan and the US consider the model offered by Cultures in Harmony's project there, which we would be happy to replicate.
Dear Mr. Kaiser:
Thank you for your September 21 article in The Huffington Post: "How Helpful is Cultural Diplomacy?" As the founder and director of Cultures in Harmony, I wanted to respond to the points you raised, and also ask your advice about funding for cultural diplomacy.
Performing for "a thousand of the most powerful people in the capital" does have limited value. Cultures in Harmony projects engage all levels of society. In Pakistan last month, we performed concerts for thousands of children at seven schools run by The Citizens Foundation. In Papua New Guinea in August 2008, we worked with the Yoro tribe to create compositions about cultural preservation, AIDS, and the environment. Successful cultural diplomacy projects can and should reach across all socio-economic barriers.
American popular culture saturates the globe. But foreigners—even those who have a generally positive view of the U.S.—do not have positive, sustained contact with individual Americans. The universal language of music makes this easier. For four years, we have been to Tunisia to teach young classical musicians; many of them end up as our friends. As 16-year-old violinist Amal Boubaker put it: "You’ve changed the image that I had about Americans because you’re completely different. You’re nice, kind, friendly, generous, awesome, beautiful."
Finally, I am concerned about the idea that the most successful cultural diplomacy involves teaching abroad. In The First Resort of Kings, Richard Arndt writes at length about the problematic history of such unidirectional exchange, which reinforces the view of Americans who go around the world telling others what to do, without feeling that they have anything to learn. Since musicians can easily demonstrate what they have learned, we are well positioned to disprove this stereotype. Cultures in Harmony has learned and performed local music in countries from Cameroon to Qatar. This establishes a relationship of equals in a very public way.
Cultural diplomacy is the cornerstone of foreign policy, and effective cultural diplomacy can be carried out in a sustainable way by small organizations facilitating bidirectional exchanges. Though we have received generous support from various Embassies, it is difficult to find organizations interested in funding cultural diplomacy. I would be delighted to hear any advice you may have, and would be happy to come to Washington to meet with you.
Thank you so much for your consideration.