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The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century Paperback – February 28, 2007
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About the Author
Richard T. Arndt worked for USIA for twenty-four years after earning a doctorate and teaching at Columbia University. Since retiring from the USIA, he has served as the president of the U.S. Fulbright Association, coedited The Fulbright Difference, 1948-1992, chaired the National Peace Foundation, and is currently the president of Americans for UNESCO. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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Arndt conveys the struggle to agree on a definition for cultural diplomacy. The titans of the field, whom he quotes and describes to great effect, give it their best. Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish writes that "In a divided world in which the real issue of division is the cultural issue, cultural relations are not irrelevancies. They are everything." Secretary of State Cordell Hull wrote Ben Cherrington, founding director of the Division of Cultural Relations: "The relations among our nations must not rest merely between diplomat and diplomat … . They must rest also on contacts between teacher and teacher, between student and student…This is not a task for government alone but for all of us." Only at the end of the book does Arndt risk his own definition: "Cultural diplomacy takes place when diplomats, i.e. governments, try to shape the flow of cultural relations between two or more countries in the interests of all."
That the Hull and MacLeish quotes come from the era of World War II is no coincidence. Arndt's story is one of decline: the slow, sad transformation of an America that sincerely believed in respectful engagement with every level of foreign societies, to an America that saw itself as a mere brand to be sold like toothpaste, with rather less humble attention to the ideas and philosophies of the consumer. We have come a long way from presidents like Eisenhower, who confided in 1965 that the budget for the United States Information Agency should be 2 percent of the military budget (as Arndt points out, this translates to $20 billion for "public diplomacy" today, a far cry from the actual amount).
Obama also speaks of the importance of reaching out, but it will take a while to restore American cultural diplomacy to its heyday. Through the book, five flaws in the American approach to cultural diplomacy reveal themselves.
First, that approach trended towards unidirectionalism, eschewing truly egalitarian partnerships because of an unquestioned and misguided belief in inherent American superiority. Formal American cultural diplomacy originated in the 1930s, focused laser-like on Latin America. The Interagency Coordinating Committee facilitated the exchange of Americans and foreigners, reporting by 1948 that in its first decade, it had sent 1700 Americans abroad and brought 2,000 foreigners to the US. Yet Arndt correctly observes that "ICC's two-way flow was misleading. It was in fact a one-way program: 'teachers' moved south and 'learners' north." Summing up the issue a couple pages later, he notes that "reluctance to admit that Americans needed to learn about others was feeding the…tilt—toward unidirectional information flow."
That tilt, valiantly fought by numerous well-intentioned bureaucrats, slid towards a status quo in the past thirty years in which the general assumption that sending Americans abroad to tell the world what to do constituted a valid cultural diplomacy. In fact, this belief has exacerbated every problem cultural diplomacy seeks to address, by reinforcing negative stereotypes (and realities) of Americans as deaf to foreign concerns. Every Cultures in Harmony project includes both teaching and learning, and I've been so bothered by the American predilection for unidirectionalism that a South Asian conductor recently suggested that I've gone too far the other way: "It's great that you go to Pakistan and learn their music, but there are a number of people, myself included, who then say: why do you keep Beethoven from us?"
Second, American cultural diplomacy is far from the consistency of the UK's British Council or the French policy of rayonnement, initiated by Louis XIV and maintained by every monarch and president since then. As mentioned, Latin America was the focus of US cultural diplomacy at its birth, both formally in the 1930s and informally much earlier, dating back to the first true Cultural Affairs Officer, Albert Giesecke, whose admirable Peruvian activities began in 1908. Following World War I, the US gradually lost interest in Latin America, and as Arndt notes, "Roosevelt wanted better relations…after years of neglect and random interventionism." Humorously summarizing the reaction to Nelson Rockefeller's "overwhelming style" of ill-conceived, large-scale, inconstant attention, Arndt writes: "it was obvious to Latin Americans that the foul-weather gringo friends were at it again."
The brilliant phrase aptly summarizes American outreach: when a population appears to be on the brink of becoming our enemy, suddenly the hand of friendship extends, as it did to Latin America during World I and then again during World War II, and to the Muslim world after September 11. Learning from history, now would be an excellent time to reach out to the island nations of the Pacific and Indian oceans before our inattention to global warming radicalizes enemies. America's commitment to our friends must be as strong as our commitment to those peoples we perceive, rightly or wrongly, to stand in opposition to us. This is why Cultures in Harmony goes to Pakistan—and Mexico. Egypt—and the Philippines. Tunisia—and Papua New Guinea.
Third, Arndt meticulously outlines the 90-year-old battle between the "informationists," who believe in promoting America's story through relentless explication of policy bordering on propaganda, and the "culturalists," who believe that the apolitical exchange of citizens, with an eye towards the long term, is a better recipe for good relations than short-term, tone-deaf focus on policy and narrowly-defined interests. Charles Thomson, a reluctant addition to the new Division of Cultural Relations, outlined the conflict in 1942: "The technique of propaganda is generally similar to advertising; it seeks to impress, to 'press in.' The technique of cultural relations is that of education,… to 'lead out.' … The goal of cultural relations is something deeper and more lasting, the creation of a state of mind properly called 'understsanding.'"
By any measure, the advocates of information, or propaganda, or "public diplomacy" (the term die-hard informationist Edmund Gullion coined to avoid the American public's aversion to "propaganda") emerged victorious. The US Information Agency, swollen with thousands of staff from the worlds of advertising and politics, swallowed up the tiny Division of Cultural Relations in 1978. The terms "culture" and "education" became distorted a la Orwell, explaining an e-mail I received declining Cultures in Harmony funding. The letter, from the Cultural Affairs Officer of the US Embassy in a strategically important country, contained the paradoxical sentence: "Our new office director has placed our programming emphasis on speakers and hosting seminars rather than culture/music." Before reading Arndt, I would not have understood how a Cultural Affairs Officer could blandly announce that he does not fund culture. Sadly, now I am wiser.
Fourth, the quality of cultural diplomats steadily declined. Arndt's dedication to the university world shines on every page, and is in fact the source of one of my primary critiques of his approach, on which I will expand later. Yet I agree with his general premise that cultural diplomacy can and should attract the best, and American anti-intellectualism contributed to a steady decline in the number of cultural diplomats with doctorates and with specialized knowledge about the language and history of their destination country. The Foreign Service began to prefer career generalists who could do anything competently, moving away from the lateral entry of brilliant specialists from the university world.
Arndt's frequent portraits of diplomats from the Good Old Days at the height of their powers do indeed astonish. In Ghana in 1962, librarian Emma Skinner needed to move the US Information Service library to a new building on the other side of Accra. She organized a book parade in which "thousands of sign-carrying Ghanaian students bore eighteen thousand books three miles across the city, to the music of a marching band, with free Pepsi for all. 'The circulation of books tripled in one month and stayed that way for two years,' recalled Mark Lewis, then chief of USIS Accra."
Portraits of other noted CAOs, such as Wayne Wilcox and Lois Roth, are a testament to Yankee ingenuity. I have been privileged to work with extraordinarily successful CAOs, but I've also borne witness to embarrassing anecdotes, such as the CAO who told me she requested her country posting because she wanted to speak her second language: a language that had not been spoken in that country in over a century. That same CAO, upon receiving a request for funding, asked me how Cultures in Harmony could commemorate the moon landing through music.
Fifth, the US government has never decided on a satisfactory institutional home for cultural diplomacy, lodging the concept in an alphabet soup of agencies over its history. Too many cooks spoil the kitchen, and cultural diplomacy frequently suffered under a confusing and constantly mutating set of overseers. USIS libraries served four masters: "they were designed, staffed, and stocked by ALA and Milam, funded and protected by Rockefeller [the Coordinator], managed by OWI and OSS, and coveted by the division [of Cultural Relations]." Inconsistency did more than alienate foreign publics: the frequent relocation of programs that must cater to long-term interests made a difficult task needlessly harder for the feds.
Arndt's accounting of Uncle Sam's dithering on this subject creates oases of farce in his desert of dry, dense, plodding prose. Agency for International Cooperation was floated as a new name for USIA, and then rejected in 1978 because the acronym spelled CIA backwards. The new director Reinhardt triumphantly inverted the acronym, coming up with International Communication Agency. Sly Thai officers pointed out that in that language, "ica" means brothel, so some misunderstanding might result from signs in Bangkok promoting United States ICA.
The role of the CIA is one of the more fascinating aspects of cultural diplomacy's heart-tugging trek through a dozen agencies under a score of pseudonyms, in search of a home. It is also the sole facet of this trek that the bureaucracy-loving Arndt gives insufficient attention. The perception of the CIA as a bogeyman—from 1978 when its acronym was already feared to the secret prisons of our present century—belies its history as the more aggressive but still aboveboard cousin of cultural diplomacy.
George Creel's World War I-era Committee on Public Information handled both cultural diplomacy and deliberate misinformation about Germans bayoneting Belgian babies—lies to which Creel would later confess in front of an astonished college audience including the young future newscaster and head of USIA, Edward Murrow. In the next world war, CPI gave way to OWI (Office of War Information) and OSS, ancestor to the CIA. Referring to the colors of propaganda, Arndt reveals that CIA founder Col. "Wild Bill" Donovan "agreed to go black," while OWI director Elmer Davis "would deal with whites and greys."
What if Donovan had not sought to keep the disreputable heritage of Creel on life support? The agency that began with the troublesome manufacture of false information might have never descended the slippery slope towards cloak-and-dagger espionage, the overthrow of governments, and the rendition and torture of prisoners. When I laughingly reassured Pakistani friends who asked that no, I did not work for the CIA, I had not then learned from Arndt that in an alternate, sunnier version of twentieth century history, the CIA might have been nothing more than a cultural diplomacy agency.
Arndt fails to sufficiently discuss the covert cultural diplomacy the CIA maintained until a 1966 exposé in Ramparts magazine compelled the severing of the agency's last link to its more innocent roots. Also, he fails to emphasize that by then, the CIA already felt that American cultural diplomacy was so poor that Langley needed to step up to the plate.
He does, however, exhaustingly trace the various other back-room deliberations, all of which are maddening to a committed culturalist like myself. I'll second the recommendations of the thwarted 1975 Stanton Commission, which proposed equal status for the political, economic, cultural, and information sections of an Embassy, rather than placing both culture and information in an uneasy marriage supervised by a Public Affairs Officer. The politicizing of "culture" has blurred the line to the point where foreign audiences are understandably uneasy with all cultural efforts, knowing how culture and blatant propaganda share the same bed, with propaganda too often ending up on top.
If my own writing is starting to veer towards unintentionally amusing metaphors, the stylistic issues with Arndt's massive book are legion. He ignores the most important guideline for anyone setting out to successfully write a book of this scope: it must be fascinating and useful to non-academics as well as those with an assortment of certificates hanging on the wall. His concern for the reader's tender tastes is touching, as when he places a couple hyphens in the phrase "artsy-fartsy" for fear of offending us. He labors to alleviate the turgidity of his prose with frequent figures of speech, ignoring the resultant nonsense. In one paragraph, he depicts culturalists professing sorrow, shrugging their shoulders, fearing that cultural relations had been sold down the river, biting their tongues, and trying not to rock the boat. Packed so densely, these metaphors sound more like a new Cirque de Soleil show than good descriptive writing.
The most frustrating stylistic flaw is his refusal to characterize, perhaps stemming from an academic belief that real scholarship studiously avoids anything that might be humanizing or diverting. The triumph of great scholarship is that it can bring the topic alive for any number of audiences; after finishing Descent into Chaos, Ahmed Rashid's engrossing, encyclopedic tirade against governmental misadventure in South Asia, the figures of the region came alive as characters for me. Arndt parades more names before the reader than a Russian novelist, so excessively allusive sentences such as the following send the reader scurrying back and forth from the index to the text: "Smoothing Hoover's sharper edges, Rockefeller-Johnson's abridgement had defined the IIA question." Only occasionally does a figure, such as the poet-librarian-diplomat MacLeish or the curmudgeonly obstructionist Congressman Rooney, emerge as a three-dimensional character.
Yet the most serious concerns with Arndt's narrative are substantive. His proud bias towards elite university education is problematic on two fronts. First, he ignores the advice of the great George Allen: "Intellectual cooperation must not be confined to cooperation among intellectuals." Arndt pays lip service to engagement with all levels of society, yet his interest in anyone without post-secondary education is questionable (to say nothing of the vast swaths of humanity who never finished, or even had access to, primary school). A meaningful cultural diplomacy must engage the illiterate and uneducated, to whom Arndt refers only sparingly.
Second, he all but ignores the tremendous importance of the visual and performing arts in cultural diplomacy. He devotes huge sections of prose to the Fulbright program; Louis Armstrong doesn't even rate a mention in the index. Fulbright's genius is undeniable, but the broad impact of Armstrong, related in Penny von Eschen's Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War, is one of the few programs of cultural diplomacy to remain a reference point in our ahistorical society. An epigraph of the sole performing arts chapter is Dave Brubeck's assessment of Armstrong's impact: "He's the real ambassador."
Yet Arndt belittles the role of artists more often than not. He makes fun of informationist USIA director Frank Shakespeare, who exploded at a staff meeting, "What does Fulbright want me to do, learn to play the violin?" Arndt chides Shakespeare for confusing "culture" with the "arts," just a paragraph after Arndt lambastes USIA for rebutting criticisms of agency anti-intellectualism by citing the musicians among its ranks. Mr. Arndt, musicians are most emphatically intellectuals, and we are also cultural diplomats as successful or more so than the intellectuals you delight in deifying. I invite you to try to engage intellectually with Milton Babbitt, or to try to match the cultural diplomacy achievements of any CAO of your choice with those of Yo-Yo Ma or Daniel Barenboim.
While Arndt's neglect of the arts is personally troubling, two more flaws seriously mar the study. I am usually reluctant to criticize another white male for not being sensitive enough to the perspective of women and minorities, yet the story of America is so emphatically one of inclusion that to employ the paternalistic perspective from which nearly the entire book is written is a disservice to what should be one of the central selling points of the American experience.
Arndt stereotypes, referencing "stormy Latin passions." USIA director Reinhardt is a "successful American black," rather than a successful black American. An offensive and inexplicable metaphor claims that cultural work combined with information lent "Fred Astaire's class to Ginger Rogers's sex." Women, if mentioned at all, are the "woman diplomat," or "bright," or "engaging." He criticizes the inclusion of women and minorities in USIA as part of the decline of academic quality, failing to consider that when it comes to presenting an America as an attractive place where opportunities are open to all, it helps to show foreign audiences that "all" does not refer to "wealthy white university-educated males in certain professions."
Yet the most serious flaw is the near total absence of foreign perception in the entire 600-page book. Arndt writes about the success of the reorientation of Japan without citing a single Japanese person. This is astonishing beyond comprehension. Is there no quote anywhere from any of the millions of Japanese who experienced this massive cultural diplomacy effort to justify this claim? Arndt delights in depicting the tedious back-and-forth of bureaucrats in featureless office buildings; what do foreigners actually say about the results of those efforts?
The near total absence of foreign reactions to American cultural diplomacy makes their occasional appearance jarring. "Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, haunting USIS libraries in Nigeria as a youth, learned that books are 'objects of terror to those who seek to suppress the truth.'" (A success!) A nameless Turkish person tells Tom Friedman about the new, forbidding US consulate in Istanbul, "Birds don't fly there." (A failure.) A graffito in English on a bridge in Rome: "America, we are so bored with you!" (An amusing failure.)
This omission of foreign perspective would be comical if it did not unwittingly reflect the unidirectionalism and arrogance Arndt expertly limns in other ways. He writes at length of Lois Roth's successes as CAO Tehran during the reign of the shah. Obviously, our work in Iran was a cataclysmic failure. Arndt does not discuss the relationship between what we didn't do in Iran and the 1979 revolution, nor does he quote a single Iranian to shed some light on why Ms. Roth's considerable efforts ultimately proved fruitless. I agree with his comments in the afterword that "inflated assertions…plague CAOs. … Converting no one to specific causes, education most certainly does not make the learners love or even like their sponsors, their teachers, or their institutions. … The long-range payoffs of cultural and educational exchange are unpredictable and unmeasurable." However, Arndt carries on at such length about Roth's "success" in Iran that more discussion is in order.
In general, he gives alarmingly short shrift to a discussion of our cultural diplomacy failures in the Muslim world, given that 9/11 prompted a spurt of interest in cultural diplomacy which is the only reason a non-academic might pick up Arndt's book. He briefly mentions that Wahhabi control over education in Saudi Arabia elicited no response from State or USIA, given the narrowing and increasingly misguided focus of those agencies.
Still, it is possible to glean ideas for a better way to engage the Muslim world from the best aspects of Arndt's book. In the last pages, as he starts to pull back to reveal the big picture and offer some corrective prescriptions, he is mesmerizing. He correctly lambastes Bush for naming advertising executive Charlotte Beers as Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy. Arndt intones that in the wake of 9/11, "it was too late for Madison Avenue slogans." He also humbly observes the limits of cultural diplomacy: "Does a great corporation blame its public relations or its ad agency for an inferior product? ... Cultural channels once destroyed cannot be easily rebuilt. … Image is a surface manifestation of what lies beneath."
Earlier, he quotes CAO Robin Winks on the problems of the field. "If anyone has any empirical evidence that cultural diplomacy furthers our national objectives overseas, even the most general or long-term objectives, I have never seen it. Yet we believe. … First, information programs can do little and cultural programs almost nothing to make up for unpopular policies. Second, cultural programs can help keep good relations good. Third, they can build a climate in which we can work things out over time."
Arndt's "Greatest Generation" perspective, with the attendant paternalistic, white-male-centered, elitist viewpoints, can be frustrating, and his omission of foreign perspectives prevents this book from being the "complete" history which has yet to be attempted. As a former CAO himself, he focuses almost exclusively on bureaucracy, which can be tiresome for those of us who are more interested in changing minds in Faisalabad than on Foggy Bottom.
Yet by virtue of his exhaustive scholarship, he has penned a definitive book, and his trenchant and tragic critique of the slow decline of federal support only motivates those of us who operate independently, are happy to accept logistical or financial aid from those government officers who extend it, but who will soldier on in the brave pursuit of mutual understanding no matter the setbacks.