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US cultural diplomacy put back on the map

  • Curtis S. Chin, Christopher Merrill, F. William Smullen III and Charles H. Webb, Jr.

Singapore | Wed, November 21 2012 | 10:07 am

Indonesia was not on US President Barack Obama’s Southeast Asian itinerary as he made his first trip abroad since winning reelection. But like many visitors to Southeast Asia, he might have enjoyed a brief respite from worries back home when he was in our region.

High US unemployment, tough negotiations with the US Congress over budget deficits, and ongoing hearings into the killing of the US ambassador to Libya all await him back home.

Somewhat lost in the ongoing media coverage of the deaths of US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American colleagues killed in Benghazi, Libya, on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is the reason why the top diplomat was in that city that night.

According to an account by President Obama, Stevens was there in part reviewing plans to establish a new cultural center.

Such centers can provide people with greater access to American culture, literature and information, particularly important at a time when the US remains a country that many around the world can only dream of visiting.

By many an account, Stevens was passionate about his work and a diplomat whose service all Americans can be proud of. He and his colleagues Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty gave their lives in service to the US.

As investigations continue into what really happened in Libya — and what did officials know and when did they know it — it will also be important that steps be taken to ensure that US diplomacy efforts and US diplomats, including here in Indonesia, do not once again retreat behind ever higher embassy walls in the name of added security.

Just over seven years ago, in September 2005, an eight-person bipartisan Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy, on which we served, issued a report to the then-US Secretary of State underscoring the importance of strengthening US engagement internationally as positive perceptions of the US fell, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world.

With the original 9/11 terrorist attacks and their immediate aftermath still fresh in people’s minds — not to mention the Bali bombings of 10 years ago — the US Congress authorized the establishment of our committee in 2004, drawing from both Republicans and Democrats in the world of academia, culture, business and government.

In our report, “Cultural Diplomacy: The Linchpin of Public Diplomacy”, we urged the Secretary of State to consider a number of recommendations that would serve to add to America’s “soft power” in the ongoing battle of ideas, and create a cultural diplomacy infrastructure and policy for the 21st century.

While the mandate and work of our committee has long finished, we believe many of our recommendations are worth revisiting today. Here are three that remain particularly relevant given rapid changes in media and education, not to mention the Arab Spring. In our report, we recommended among other initiatives.

• Providing advanced training and professional development opportunities for Foreign Service Officers, who are public affairs officers and have responsibility for public diplomacy and cultural diplomacy through their careers, with particular attention to research, polling and the uses of news media;

• Expanding international cultural exchange programs, inviting more Arab and Muslim artists, performers, and writers to the US, and sending their American counterparts to the Islamic world; and

• Streamlining visa issues, particularly for international students.

Some progress has been made in each, but much remains undone given the challenges of US budgets and bureaucracy. The continued need to better balance access and security concerns with regards to visa issues — critical for student and other exchange programs — is a case in point.

According to the Institute of International Education, the pool of international students grew from US$2 million to $3.7 million between 2001 and 2010 — an 85 percent increase. Yet, while the US remains the No. 1 destination for international students, our share of these students fell to 20 percent from 28 percent during the same period.

Back in 2005, we wrote that “cultural diplomacy can enhance our national security in subtle, wide-ranging, and sustainable ways,” but such diplomacy efforts require a generational commitment of funds, expertise, courage and time.

That’s as true today as it was then. Let’s not let the tragic deaths of four Americans in Benghazi prevent the US and US diplomats from continuing to engage and reach out, when working to win the hearts and minds of reasonable people everywhere. Perhaps more than ever, it is time for the US to double down on diplomacy — cultural, commercial and educational.

This will be as important in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia, as it is all around the world.

The writers served as members of the bipartisan Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy under US Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Chin, a former US ambassador, is now a senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology, Singapore.


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