Monday, March 21, 2011

Cultural Diplomacy or Cultural Imperialism?

Richard Arndt argues in his article "The Hush-Hush Debate: The Cultural Foundations of US Public Diplomacy" that cultural diplomacy is the "base" US public diplomacy stands on and the "deep substance" of soft power. He says that as the US has largely neglected cultural diplomacy since the USIA was absorbed into the State Department in 1999, the US image and soft power throughout the world has been seriously damaged.
While I do agree with his points, that cultural diplomacy is vital to public diplomacy and that the US has done a very poor job of engaging in cultural diplomacy, I worry about some of the methods he advocates to remedy the situation. Arndt suggests expanding the Peace Corps, Fulbright exchanges, extending Teach for America overseas and creating new outreach programs in public health, infrastructional development and/or global language acquisition programs for hard-learn languages to not only increase American cultural diplomacy, but also to provide "tens of thousands of low-cost jobs for unemployed university graduates." No doubt some of these programs would create collaborative projects between the US and other societies and strengthen our soft power, it seems as though they could also easily be seen as just another form of US cultural imperialism.
Although the US government may have ignored the potential power of US cultural exports for at least the past decade, the US private sector has done all it can to take advantage of the demand for US cultural exports abroad (I believe when Arndt speaks of the "US private world" he means only universities and cultural institutions, not the private economic sector"). This has lead a number of countries and regions, such as the EU, to take action to protect their own cultural products from US intrusion. The foreign community has also had serious concerns about America's military involvement in other countries, worried that although it professes altruistic intentions it may actually have more neo-colonial goals.
From the rest of the article it seems that Arndt is advocating for cultural exchange and collaboration, which could be a viable and constructive option for strengthening relationships and US public diplomacy. However, extending programs which involve having the US educate other populations (especially if it relates to culture) could be viewed suspiciously by foreign societies as American attempts at imperialism, which would only serve to further damage the United States' reputation abroad, exactly the opposite of what Arndt hopes they will do.

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