A Softer Hand in Foreign Policy: The Value of Cultural Diplomacy

By Jack Philbin


Cultural diplomacy is a form of interaction between citizens of different states through educational exchanges, books, and performances, and which seeks to persuade groups of people to adopt a better view of the country offering the programs. Joseph S. Nye J., Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics 8, 11 (2004). It is a form of “soft” power that seeks to create a favorable view of the origin country for the people of the target country. It is often equated with public diplomacy or considered as a subset of it. Ien Ang, et. al., Cultural Diplomacy: Beyond the National Interest?, 21 International Journal of Cultural Policy 365 at 369 (2015)

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This is contrasted with “hard power,” which is the traditional use of military force. However, in comparison to the latter’s relation to propaganda meant to sway a populace based on policy, cultural diplomacy seeks to both listen and present, without an overt policy goal. Instead, it is a set of broad visions and interactions meant to induce people in the target country to question and come to differing conclusions than they would have otherwise come to without that interaction. Ang at 372, 378. However, cultural diplomacy has already had its golden age and a gradual disassembly in favor of the national budget. Richard T. Arndt, The First Resort of Kings 554 (2006). During its heyday, cultural diplomacy was incredibly effective and significantly influenced the populace of the Soviet Union


Perhaps the best example of the success of cultural diplomacy was the American project under the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Relations in the Soviet Union. Through American cultural offices, jazz musicians were supported and encouraged to tour throughout the Soviet Union, along with ballet performances and other art exhibitions. Yale Richmond, Cultural Exchange & the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain 132 (2003). While an art exhibition toured, a guestbook recorded visitors and their comments. As the tour continued, American cultural officers noted more and more Soviet citizens defending the exhibit against criticism from other citizens. Michael L. Krenn, The History of United States Cultural Diplomacy: 1770 to the Present Day 124 (2017).


These programs, along with cultural exhibits where American college students could have frank discussions on social issues of the age, brought new perspectives and helped influence Soviet citizens to demand more from the state. A notable example was Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who argued during a Writer’s Congress for loosening restrictions on published works. Richmond at 141. A high-up KGB official even commented on these programs calling them a “trojan horse” that “infect[ed] more and more people over the years.” Richmond at 32. In essence, by providing alternative perspectives from books, exhibits, and performances, the Soviet people were introduced to perceptions of the United States that were fundamentally different from the government line.


Are there any lessons to learn from the past use of cultural diplomacy to improve modern foreign policy? Generally, cultural diplomacy is a preventative measure, meant to stop problems from arising from international tensions. Nye at 49, Richmond at 130. During the throes of the Cold War, several reports were filed on recommendations to improve the foreign policy apparatus for culture. In “The First Resort of Kings,” Richard Arndt details the history of American cultural diplomacy and its eventual mothballing as a primary focus for diplomacy. A reformer, Charles Frankel, advocated for the separation of a cultural foreign policy institution from the USIA and the State Department because those agencies had obvious political objectives that people who interacted with the cultural institution could discern as political messaging. Arndt at 386 (2006). The other, Frank Stanton, chaired an advisory committee that made recommendations through several reports to improve American cultural diplomacy for the Carter administration. 26 U.S. Advisory Commission on Information, The Commission’s 26th Report on the Information, Educational, and Cultural Programs Administered by the United States Information Agency, 603 PUBLIC LAW 80-402 (1973) (hereinafter “Stanton”). Stanton’s report came to similar conclusions, finding that an independent cultural agency with independence from other foreign policy institutions would be more effective than as part of another agency. While the creation of a new administration and foreign policy apparatus may seem extreme, it is necessary to separate the parts of the government that focus on policy and the parts that would provide educational exchanges because it could create skepticism about the intentions of the cultural programs. See Stanton; Nye at 103, 106, 110.


If the United States wants to prevent future conflicts and preserve national security, cultural diplomacy may be a valuable alternative to the use of “hard” power. Listening and tailoring the cultural projects to each country could provide a more nuanced and relatable view of America. See William G. Crowell, Official Soft Power in Practice: U.S. Public Diplomacy in Japan at 217 (2008). Either way, it would take a significant amount of time before the programs become strong again after the budget cuts in the late 90’s, but it would be better to start now than never.

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