Is there hidden propaganda in the cultural diplomacy actions of the United States?

Published: 2019/12/04 Number of words: 2887

Public diplomacy is a package in which is contained the cultural practices of a state. The cultures and practices of a state – its media, literature, art, dance, local expressions etc, shape the way it is viewed by the rest of the world. The exchange between states of these local values and practices and mutual international respect for them is an example of cultural diplomacy. (Schneider 2006:191). This expression has been defined by Milton C. Cummings, Jr. as “the exchange of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and their people in order to foster mutual understanding”1.

In the face of numerous crises involving the US and in a time of strongly and widely felt anti-American feelings, the country is urged to try other non-military means in an attempt to revive its international relations, particularly with the Middle-East. Cultural diplomacy, as one of such avenues to be explored, has proven to be successful in the past, particularly during the cold war, but hasn’t come as a highly sought-after method, given the highly inconsistent use of it.
Reviewing five sources, this academic essay sets out to examine the cultural diplomacy of the United States with other countries, and to search out (if any), hidden propaganda.

In a September 2005 report, the Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy under the United States Department of State titled Cultural Diplomacy the Linchpin of Public Diplomacy, expressed that a country’s idea of itself is best represented in cultural activities. (Advisory Committee 2005:4). It emphasised the role of cultural diplomacy in maintaining national security and fostering American international relations with focus on the relationship between the United States and the Muslim/Arab world.

Having carefully accessed the value and impact of America’s arts and culture on its international relations with reference to the historical achievements of cultural diplomacy in resolving conflicts such as the cold war, the Committee seeks to remind the American public that in a time of crises, cultural diplomacy, if well managed, provides a “…solid base from which to work” (Advisory Committee 2005:7).

It points out how the use of military forces in attempt to resolve conflicts in the Middle East creates more enemies for the country and anti-American feelings rise, but that through cultural diplomacy, a country can appeal to the hearts of the people of another nation, and with them, build “relationships…which endure beyond changes in government” (Advisory Committee 2005:16). Given also that it is relatively cheap, the Committee advices that it should be chosen over hard and forceful measures.

The Committee’s advice to the US government is valuable, but few really take it into account, partly for my personally perceived reasons that many lives have been lost in attempt to resolve nearly incomprehensible crises; and though the measures proposed by the committee appear to be more subtle and more likely to be accepted among the country’s adversaries, more lives (including those of civilians) are likely to be lost. From another personal view, achieving continuity in cultural diplomacy has been at best hard for reasons of propaganda. Given, historically, the domineering and unstoppable nature of the US, from the colonial age, to its prominent role in world wars and crises, its position as a world super power, its invasion of Middle-eastern countries and its reputation of involving itselfr in crises resolution for its gains among other reasons, this report appears to be an attempt to promote the country’s political cause, having tried with unsatisfactory results other methods more natural to the country. The report may be suggesting that the country take up a personality not very natural it2.

On another hand, Ambassador Cynthia P. Schneider, in her journal article, Cultural Diplomacy: Hard to define, but you’d know if you saw it, also examines, with a propaganda-criticising flavour, an important place occupied by cultural diplomacy in fostering peaceful relations, especially between the US and the Middle-eastern countries.

Schneider expresses that attempts have been made to improve “process and structure at the expense of content” (Schneider 2008:4)3. Expressing displeasure at the inconsistency of cultural diplomacy in the US’s international relations, and the fact that, except in times of crises, it is seldom remembered, she examines possible areas for cultural diplomacy to thrive in the US’s relations with the Arab and Muslim world – Film, Music and Literature. Film, she says, is a common ground between the US and the Arab and Muslin world, and just as it is effective in spreading a negative image about the country, can effectively spread a positive image. (Schneider 2006:198). Through music, particularly hip-hop, an artist expresses struggle, which according to hip-hop artist Ali Shaheed Muhammad, can be identified with by people from all over the world. (Schneider 2006:199). Through literature an author can illustrate emotional events that people, including Middle-easterners, can relate to. Though “soft power requires hard dollars” (Schneider 2006:201), the cost is but an insignificant amount compared to the “military affairs budget” (Schneider 2006:201).

Writing very diplomatically, Schneider subtly acknowledges and promotes the strategic political role cultural diplomacy can play in America’s international relations, yet she condemns the inconsistent use of it merely in response to crises such as 9/11. (Schneider 2006).

If Schneider’s opinion that “developing respect for others and their way of thinking – this is what cultural diplomacy does”(Schneider 2006:192)4 be acceptable, would the US elimination of martial arts in Japanese schools during the post Asia-pacific war era (Shimizu 2008:164) justify the existence of cultural diplomacy in the US – Japanese relations at the time?

In his essay, Historian of Michigan State University Sayuri Guthrie-Shimizu examines an aspect of cultural diplomacy in US – Japanese relations from the early 19th century, with a focus on baseball. Tracing from as far back as the Japanese Meiji period in the late 19th century, Shimizu examines the relationship between both countries, pointing out the important role the American-born sport baseball played.

Distinguished Service Professor of Harvard University Joseph S. Nye states that a country can draw on its culture among others, as a resource in wielding soft power (Shimizu 2008:155); in this context does Shimizu examine the role of baseball in US – Japanese relations over time. Well embraced by the Japanese in the late 19th Century, baseball could have been perceived to be a shared vehicle for both nations to exercise soft power. Shimizu writes that baseball “initially penetrated Japan” (Shimizu 2008:157) “through channels opened by State-driven enterprises in higher education” (Shimizu 2008:157) and was partially popularised with the establishment of clubs.

In the first half of the 20th century, both countries experienced several crises in their political and military relations resulting in clashes between hard and soft power. Baseball was the glue that still held both countries together when they “drifted apart under the weight of seemingly irreconcilable differences” (Shimizu 2008:162) for as Nye puts it, “popular culture as a soft power resource…is not under direct control of government” (Shimizu 2008:160-1).

Though baseball was considered an “enemy sport” (Shimizu 2008:163) during the US – Japan crises that began in December 1941 (in the time of war in the Asia-Pacific), it was tremendously received by the people soon after the war was over.

Another interesting role played by baseball in the countries’ post-Asia-Pacific war relations was in the U.S. “mission to democratize the…nation.” With this end in view, the U.S. occupation Army “enlisted baseball as a tool of pacification and democratization” (Shimizu 2008:163), for “Japan’s reintegration into the ‘brotherhood of nations’” (Shimizu 2008:164) among other roles.

Though the Japanese people willingly embraced the sport, it is doubtful and contrary to Shimizu’s view (Shimizu 2008:170) that both countries mutually practiced soft power in their relations with each other, given reasons such as the post Asia-Pacific agenda of the US through its occupation army in Japan, using baseball as a tool for its achievement, and the American elimination of “traditional Japanese Martial Arts from school curricula” (Shimizu 2008:164).

Shimizu ends on an acceptable note inspired by Nye, – soft power is at its best when it’s “durable and reciprocal” (Shimizu 2008:170).

The US historical practice of cultural diplomacy has also involved the use of dance. In her book Dance for Export: Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War, Naima Prevots provides in-depth analyses of the use and effect of dance and dance exchange programs between America and other nations during the Cold War (precisely between 1954 and 1963).

In the book’s introduction, American Historian Eric Foner points out a view that besides it being a “…clash of armies and ideologies” (Prevots 1998:1), the Cold War was also a “cultural conflict” (Prevots 1998:1), with dance playing a remarkable role. Foner opines that, given to pressures that accompanied the coming of the cold war, in 1946, “the world of Arts could not remain immune” (Prevots 1998:1); it had its role to play. During the time, America sought to promote its way of life and portray it as liberal and superior in comparison to Communism of the Soviet Union.

Prevots explores a scarcely discussed aspect of the cold war, seen to have played an important role in the diplomatic relations of countries – cultural diplomacy, with emphasis on ‘dance’.

Lucky to have had firsthand experience, and sourcing from a wide range of material, Prevots’ write-up in this intriguing piece of work is detailed with a high level of precision and is greatly insightful to cultural politics in Cold War times. Prevots intelligently brings to light the methods of American President Eisenhower D., to influence and positively change the world’s perception of America, portrayed by the Soviet Union, as a “society of ‘gum-chewing, insensitive, materialistic barbarians’” (Prevots 1998:3). In this light, he established an Emergency Fund for Art in 1954 through which the American culture could be portrayed in positive light to all the world and showcase the country as non-racist and superior to the Soviet Union (Prevots 1998). She explains how the fund, managed by ANTA (American National Theatre and Academy) reinforced from the very beginning, “the ties between cultural and foreign diplomacy” (Prevots 1998:135); this she supports with real events during the time of cultural exchanges between the United States and European, Asian, African, Middle-Eastern countries, and the Soviet Union. Prevots, in each chapter of the book, discusses various artists, dance groups and dance styles, and the cultural and political influence they had (home and abroad) during their years of popularity. Linking them to one another, she explains the American dance evolution between 1954 and early 1963. Her conclusion that “…performing arts today have the same diplomatic power that they had in 1954” (Prevots 1998:135) among several other indications, points out that Prevots acknowledges political intentions behind the dance export. However, like Schneider, she recognises the non-political value of cultural practices, leaving her readers with a mindset that cultural diplomacy is not always propaganda.

Damien Pwono in his journal article titled Fostering a Cultural Diplomacy Policy Dialogue: the Quest for Stewardship and Cooperative Engagement promotes the newly developed strategy – cultural diplomacy stewardship, for fostering cultural diplomacy, emphasising the critical position culture occupies in international relations and security issues and the effectiveness of it in consoling “affected communities” (Pwono 2009:302) and restoring hope, self-respect and identity to them. (Pwono 2009:302) He discusses the creation and duty of The Aspen Cultural Diplomacy Forum in effort to achieve the goals of this strategy.

“The notion of cultural diplomacy stewardship” (Pwono 2009:298) was developed in response to “marginalization of culture and the under-appreciation of its vital role in the strengthening of international relations” (Pwono 2009:298). It involves

“…strategies and resources needed to promote creativity… It includes efforts to broaden public access to cultural resources…and to expand the civic role of…cultural expressions… Cultural diplomacy stewardship deals also with the…development of institutions or programs for broader cultural engagement.” (Pwono 2009:298)

The Aspen Cultural Diplomacy Forum was founded in response to the quest for cultural diplomacy stewardship. (Pwono 2009:298). In order to fulfil this quest, the forum engages in a series of presentations, debates and events such as award presentations to distinguished cultural diplomacy stewards – the likes of the British Council, Quincy Jones etc.

Though Pwono intelligently lets his readers have an impression of the Aspen Cultural Diplomacy Forum as one that is independent and embracive of world cultures, strong doubts are likely to arise about its intentions, given the locations of the already held forums – France and Spain, the nationalities of those to whom awards were presented – Britain and America, and events surrounding the convening of the forum, such as the election of Barrack Obama as President of the United States. Those from Middle-eastern countries and Africa, though may have been represented, may not have had significant roles to play.

Given its historical inconsistency and the use of it mainly during crises periods, cultural diplomacy is highly likely to be perceived by nations victimised by international crises and poor nations as merely propaganda; notwithstanding, it will thrive if all parties involved take into consideration each other’s values, hence achieving mutual understanding in their dealings.

Having reviewed these sources, the notion that cultural diplomacy builds long-lasting relationships is acceptable, however, in the case of the United States, which is my focus in writing this essay, many traces of propaganda can found.

In the United States’ foreign policy formulation, cultural diplomacy is scarcely remembered except in times of crises, and when other avenues have been exhausted. Though cultural diplomacy activists push for a more consistent application of it, it is often for political reasons.

The sources reviewed present cultural diplomacy as a crises-response tool, leaving readers like me with a question in mind – would cultural diplomacy exist in crises-free international relations? Another puzzling issue is, considering that cultural practices such as dance, music etc are naturally and happily done, and given the poor attention (especially financial) given by the US Government to the promotion of the arts in their policy formulation, despite the measures carried out by the cultural diplomacy activists, is there a chance that the people of the country are not sufficiently represented in Government?


Prevots, N. (1998) Dance for Export, Cultural Diplomacy and the Cold War. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press

Pwono, D.M. (2009) ‘Fostering a Cultural Diplomacy Policy Dialogue: The Quest for Stewardship and Cooperative Engagement’. The Journal of Arts, Management, Law and Society. 39 (4), 297-304.

Schneider, C.P. (2006) ‘Cultural Diplomacy: Hard to Define, but You’d Know It If You Saw It’. Brown Journal of World Affairs. 13 (1), 191-203.

Shimizu, S. G. (2008) ‘Baseball in U.S.-Japanese Relations a Vehicle for soft power in historical perspective’. In Soft power superpowers: Cultural and National Assets of Japan and the United States. Ed. By Watanabe, Y., McConnell, D.L., and Nye, J.S. New York: Sharpe, 154-171.

U.S. Department of State (2005) Report of the Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy: Cultural Diplomacy the Linchpin of Public Diplomacy [Online] [17 December 2009]

Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University (2009) Joseph S. Nye [Online] available from [28 December 2009]

Foner, E. (2005) Eric Foner: American Historian [online] available from [28 December 2009]

ICD- Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (1999) What is Cultural Diplomacy? [Online] [3 January 2010]

Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia (2009) American President, an Online Reference Resource: Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) [Online] available from [28 December 2009]

Wallace, M., and Wray, A. (2006) Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates. London: Sage Publications

1Report of the Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy, U.S. Department of State, Cultural Diplomacy the Linchpin of Public Diplomacy(September 2005), p.4.
2Ibid, p.11-12 At the opening of “a fifth American corner”- a replacement of “American libraries closed after the cold war”, an American official expressed that libraries had been opened in times of crises and closed soon after.
3The word ‘Content’ in this context refers to ‘Cultural diplomacy’
4Quoting from an Egyptian Diplomat

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