US Summit and Initiative for Global Citizen Diplomacy
That was the logic behind the summit, held in Washington, DC, which concluded one week ago today. I was there thanks to Cynthia Schneider, former Ambassador of the United States to the Netherlands, and Frank Hodsoll, former Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. As co-chairs of the task force on International Cultural Engagement, they had honored Cultures in Harmony by selecting it as a Best Practice, along with such prestigious organizations as the Kennedy Center, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, and the Silk Road Project.
The summit encompassed much more than the arts-focused diplomacy from which I draw inspiration, and which is the context for Cultures in Harmony. One of the repeated themes was the rapid growth in new media technology and the opportunities it provides for citizen diplomacy. I agree that media like Twitter and Facebook have positive applications in the realm of citizen diplomacy, but in my view, the summit was overly ecstatic about the limitless possibilities of new technology, rather than acknowledging that human-to-human interaction remains the most powerful tool of diplomacy. A web-literate, affluent Pakistani can easily click "like" on the Facebook page of the US Embassy in Islamabad, but it’s a bit more difficult and far more necessary to actually make friends with that person, let alone develop a national policy which both preserves American security and earns Pakistani friendship.
Outside of Wednesday's presentation of the task force on international cultural engagement, at which Cultures in Harmony was honored, the most prominent mention of culture as a medium of citizen diplomacy was in the introductory remarks of the Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, Judith McHale. She positively cited the recent award given by the Asia Society to the New York Philharmonic for its work in North Korea and elsewhere; certainly, the Philharmonic has made it easier for all of us in arts diplomacy to be able to cite a famous touchstone so that people can begin to have a clue what we are doing.
Mostly, the summit focused on other areas of importance to cultural diplomacy, ranging from women’s issues to impact evaluation to corporations. At the session on women’s issues, the panel made a strong case for the need to engage more women in conflict resolution. Kerri Kennedy, Executive Director of Women’s Campaign International, cited a memorable anecdote about a conflict in Sudan in which men from the North and South were arguing with no resolution about possession of a particular river on a map. When after several months, women were brought into the negotiations. They took a look at the map and said, “That river is dry.” The men had not known this.
Evaluating the impact of citizen diplomacy is tremendously difficult to do, and Cultures in Harmony’s past inability to effectively evaluate the impact of our projects has adversely affected our ability to win grants. A representative of the Open World Leadership Project gave a fascinating presentation on that organization’s use of data to evaluate its projects. The Center for Social Development presented the findings of their International Volunteer Impact Survey.
Corporations spoke of the value of their work. After Ingrid Saunders-Jones of the Coca-Cola Foundation spoke about their many laudable efforts, including a $30 million commitment to clean water in Africa, the moderator joked that she would be picking up a case of Diet Coke on the way home. The State Department acknowledges work by companies like Coke with the Secretary of State’s Award for Corporate Excellence, perhaps one of the reasons that Stanley Litow, a Vice President of IBM, flatly declared: “If you don’t care about Corporate Social Responsibility, you’re making a bad corporate decision.”
Most interesting for me were statements regarding the effectiveness of past citizen diplomacy efforts. Azar Nafisi, best-selling author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, stated that Iranians who opposed the regime opposed it because of the books they read by authors like Nabokov. Former US Ambassador Thomas Pickering said that when Alvin Ailey Dance Company toured Tanzania around the time of the MLK and RFK assassinations and the rise in opposition to the Vietnam War, the dancers "turned things around" in public perception of Americans.
Pawel Potoroczyn, Director of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, Poland’s cultural diplomacy agency, said that the USIA helped the Polish publishing industry revitalize after the fall of the Iron Curtain. As a former publisher himself, he confessed that "we knew how to print underground books, but not how to market them in the free market." He memorably closed his remarks with an assertion every politician in Washington can ignore only at America’s peril: "If you think cultural exchange is expensive, try ignorance."
These statements of effectiveness only served to underscore how the government pays lip service to citizen diplomacy while generally failing to provide the massive support needed for cultural diplomacy in particular. At a packed session about the role of the State Department, I launched the Q and A with an incendiary question: "Hi, I’m William Harvey, founder of Cultures in Harmony, a not-for-profit dedicated to promoting cultural understanding through music. I want to begin by thanking you. The State Department, through its Embassies, supported our projects in Tunisia, Egypt, and Pakistan. Without your support, our projects would not have been so successful. As an example, in Karachi, Pakistan, a music student urged us to come back, saying, ‘Don’t just make a link. Build a relationship. You are feeding an entire nation.’ However, although the Embassies involved agree that our projects have been successful, whenever we go back to them to build or expand on a project, they say, ‘We funded you last year; this year we have to fund something different.’ I get it: you want to showcase a variety of American culture, and this is important. Yet it also ignores that the central ingredient in citizen diplomacy is specific human relationships. Given the importance of making cultural diplomacy sustainable, what are you doing to change or modify this policy of showcasing a variety of American culture to the detriment of lasting relationships?"
The State Department folks on the panel were defensive, saying I should get funding from other sources. (I would if I could.) Yet many in the audience, including a former Ambassador, agreed with me.
Madam Xu Lin, Chief Executive of the Confucius Institute of China, offered an anecdote that testifies to the importance of sustained citizen diplomacy. When Americans send an e-mail asking for dissenting proposals to an idea they have outlined, they will assume agreement if they do not receive a response. However, Chinese will be exceptionally reluctant to disagree in writing.
Her remarks were also quite funny. She began by saying that with all these people, she felt that she was speaking at a wedding feast. She concluded by saying that nations engaged in citizen diplomacy are like lovers who spat occasionally. When Martin Davidson, Chief Executive Officer of the British Council, chuckled and agreed that a marriage was a good metaphor, she piped up, “I said lovers, not marriage!” This brought the house down.
Her good humor only highlighted one of the flaws of the summit: its painstakingly serious tone. This unwillingness to laugh and to appreciate the lighter things in life reflects a flaw in citizen diplomacy. The US Peace Corps was not asked to do a major evaluation for its first 47 years, so before doing one, they made a development model which showed that they should be operating at the intersection of national priorities, local needs, and Peace Corps programming. The evaluation confirmed most of the idealistic hopes of the Peace Corps, but also showed that social contact with a Peace Corps volunteer was far more important than contact during work. If the summit is any indication, citizen diplomacy needs to absorb that socializing can do more than work and that laughter can communicate more than lecture.
Also, much of the summit consisted of ways to improve America’s image around the world, of figuring out how to "get them to like us." While in many cases only a major and irreversible policy change would accomplish this, a woman from Trinidad provided a needed corrective when, during the final plenary at the State Department, she reminded everyone to consider that the goal of citizen diplomacy should be building partnerships of equals, a point I have been making for five years now.
To its credit, State is doing some of this. I love the Center Stage program, which will bring international performing artists from around the globe to tour throughout the U.S. in 2012. This shows that much of the work of citizen diplomacy actually involving getting Americans to like the world, rather than getting the world to like Americans.
More of this spirit would have infused the summit with greater dynamism. I loved the playing of Salman Ahmad, the founder of the Pakistani rock band Junoon, at a reception on Tuesday night. Yet why not have him perform a duet with an equally prominent American rock star? He has done this in the past. What better way to symbolize citizen diplomacy and the partnership of equals?
Also, while I received many compliments about my presentation about Cultures in Harmony, those remarks were strikingly similar: people appreciated that I played my violin, rather than just talking. Citizen diplomacy is about creatively engaging populations, but at the summit, many sessions steered clear of new and innovative ways of engaging the audience in favor of the tried-and-true panel discussion format.
Still, it was extraordinary that the summit finally took place at all, after an inexcusable gap of 54 years since the first (and most recent) citizen diplomacy summit. These summits should take place more regularly, and should be opened by the President of the United States, appearing in person, if he or she wishes to truly demonstrate a commitment to citizen diplomacy.
Laura Freid of the Silk Road Project best captured why citizen diplomacy is important: “What happens when strangers meet? They look for what they share.” At its best, citizen diplomacy can help those strangers in their search, and once they finish it, hopefully they will become friends.