Rare Cultural Diplomacy US-China Relations Hearkens to the Past

Ever wonder what cultural and public diplomacy looks like?  These pictures of the “Jazz Ambassadors” will help, and a related NPR blog tells the story.  So will this story focusing on a successful and important Asia Society program that appears to be a rarity in this era of budget shortfalls and short-term thinking:

The event was part of the U.S.-China Forum on the Arts and Culture, which brought over such artists as Mr. Ma, the actress Meryl Streep, the director Joel Coen and the authors Amy Tan and Michael Pollan. It included an organic cooking class (in the land of MSG and pesticides), a discussion on media censorship (in a country with elaborately monitored Internet), movie screenings and, at the Friday night concert, the improbable sight of Mr. Ma and Ms. Streep mock-kowtowing to each other, ending up prostrate on the floor and leaving the mostly Chinese audience in stitches.

via Cultural Exchange Offers Respite in U.S.-China Tensions – NYTimes.com.

Don’t miss the observation of public diplomacy’s slow death by  Nick Cull, one of the top experts in the field at USC.


5 thoughts on “Rare Cultural Diplomacy US-China Relations Hearkens to the Past”

  1. At BYU we are surrounded by returned LDS missionaries and many study abroad-goers, making the international exposure a relatively common occurrence among our student body. Though not falling into these two categories, I too have spent significant time overseas living in China teaching English to elementary school children. As international experiences often do, this brief four-month encounter with Chinese culture has completely altered my view of this majestic society, oozing with history and tradition. Prior to my experience in China, I had studied the country’s history, found the people fascinating, but essentially considered the region to be so oppressively controlled by Communists. Although this is still true to a heavy degree, going to China, living, working and teaching in a school, being completely inundated in the culture, I felt my eyes open to the PEOPLE of China, not just my understanding of the government. I connected with the people on a human level, and the impact has had lasting effects on my perception of the nation. Now, before I move to swift conclusions on Chinese policies or mindsets, I consider the people I met, the culture they shared with me, the conversations we had and the values I learned that we shared. This allows me to more objectively make judgments.

    I only engage in this personal travelogue to say I strongly support cultural diplomacy, particularly as evidenced in this posted piece, and promote the need to put more money into this form of foreign relations. As with any relationship, the more you know about what makes someone laugh, what they see as talent, who they value as leaders, how they like their music, what fashion styles they prefer, the better you are able to communicate with them. Cultural diplomacy allows individuals to focus on what they share and what makes them unique without the baggage of political policies and economic viewpoints. This connection can make ALL engagements more civil. As this article mentions, cultural diplomacy can diffuse tension, as it shows the human aspect of each society. Again, I feel cultural diplomacy must become more of a priority in our government. This border-crossing technique may be a risk, but can really pay off in enhanced understandings and more objective perceptions. We should consider engaging in teaching Americans this same principle. We need more cultural understanding in our country as well. The world is getting smaller, and as such, we should start really getting to know one another.

    I also really appreciated this quote by Orville Schell, Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society:

    “The reality of our present world compels us to acknowledge that, unless our two countries find new ways to interact in more constructive and productive ways, there will be a whole host of critical global problems such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, world trade and global epidemics which will remain unaddressed and unsolved. Thus, despite the differences in our political systems, culture and historical experiences, it has become my conviction that the two countries must redouble their efforts to find new ways to stay constructively engaged.”

  2. Cultural diplomacy was a huge part of the United States’ fight against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. As mentioned above, people such as Louis Armstrong were sent to areas like the Middle East, to show that America really wasn’t all that bad. The thinking was that if American capitalism could create such good things, it couldn’t be as evil as the Soviets said. It wasn’t just musicians and artists that were sent over. Models of American kitchens, the latest technological gadgets, and the first chain restaurants were introduced overseas as well. At one point there were even plans to build an entire “typical Main Street” on an ocean liner for people to walk around in. Although this never panned out, the other efforts were very successful. This cultural diplomacy on the part of the US helped to completely turn around perceptions of the country in a time when perception was essential.

    It seems that this latest trip by Meryl Streep and Yo Yo Ma, among others, is part of a new plan instituted by the Obama administration, in which $1 million is being put towards a new cultural ambassador program. It doesn’t seem as necessary now as it was back during the Cold War, but perceptions of America have become significantly more negative in the past several years. If it worked before, it will likely work again, but we cannot continue to simply send celebrities to countries that don’t think highly of us in an effort to avoid fixing the real problems between our two countries.


  3. I think the move towards more cultural diplomacy in China is a very significant one. In engaging with the youth and the masses in China, the US and most of the West are taking the right step because they see a different side of the West from that which they’ve imagined. In so doing, they add a human element and enable the Chinese masses to become more interested in West ideas and way of living. This increased exposed to a western way of life might not necessarily endear them to these ideas, however, it gets the conversion started.

    I agree with the above statements that increased cultural diplomacy enable more constructive interaction between the two countries. However, I would even suggest that cultural diplomacy with China now might even be more important than that conducted during the cold war. The world is becoming increasingly global. The advent of the internet and other advanced technologies has made traditionally strong and defense minded countries more vulnerable. An example of this is the increase in the number of cyber attacks on nations, the spread of revolutions from one country to the next and way in which global economies are interconnected.
    Cultural diplomacy can serve as a useful tool in getting the conversion started in regions where one’s ideals might be otherwise unwelcome.


  4. Mr. Dinkelman, in his diplomacy lecture last week, made comments similar to what has been said here. To summarize: having Americans on the ground in other countries is so important to our diplomatic ties because it allows people to have a personal tie to the US and it allows them to see something other than what is portrayed on the media.

    As an example of the latter point, when I was abroad last summer, a large number of people I talked with couldn’t tell I was American because of my accent. I remember one man, in particular, telling me that he was shocked I was American because he generally hates American English, and he thought I had very good spoken English. Although our accent is a very minor part of our culture, I was able to present a different side of America than the New England accent or Southern drawl.

  5. Like rduersch, I am also in favor of diplomacy between the US and China, and I think a great way to go about improving US-China relations is to build casual relationships through the arts. That way, the US and China can reach a deeper understanding than perhaps discussion between political figures would bring about.
    Similarly, on the web page rduersch cited, it says that “This is an extremely interesting time for all of us to be in China, not just because of the tectonic changes that have been sweeping through its culture, society, and economy, but because it is also a critical moment politically speaking” (Schell). It is imperative that we invest in bettering relations with China now so we can play an active role as China’s allies in the future. In addition, on the same web page, Damian Woetzel notes, “We all as humans share a mixture of awe and familiarity in the presence of great art”. The word “Familiarity” is the key here. Where words can say little, arts, as a universal language, speak to people in such a way that they are able to relate to one another.
    Instead of fostering more competition with China, we should form connections. Building a cultural relationship with China will help us to gain those connections.

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