Mark C. Donfried, director and founder of the Berlin based „Institute for Cultural Diplomacy,“ spoke with Global View about a much needed paradigm shift in foreign policy.
Interview of Lukas N. P. Egger
„Cultural Diplomacy“ is a very fashionable buzzword these days, but what does it really mean in contrast to hard power?
The best person to answer that question would be Joseph Nye, a professor of international relations at Harvard University. Nye coined the term „soft power“ and for him, the essential difference is that hard power is trying to get what you want by force whereas soft power is trying to get what you want by attraction.
Typically, one would think of hard power in military terms, which means getting what you want with your army. Soft power, on the other hand, can be thought of as attraction through cultural policies.
Osama Bin Laden provides a fascinating example. Most people would think of Bin Laden in terms as employing hard power because of 9/11, but Nye argues that he might be a great example for soft power.
Bin Laden did not pay or threaten the hijackers to fly into the World Trade Center: instead, he attracted them. In a sense, Bin Laden was able to persuade the men to join his cause, and they believed him. One can argue that Osama Bin Laden truly understands soft power and uses it to his benefit.
Soft power can be both good or bad, it is simply a different way of getting people to cooperate with you!
What is your role in the ongoing dialogue for a better understanding of cultural diplomacy?
In essence, my main interest in cultural diplomacy came from an interest in conflict resolution or prevention. I initially noticed how odd the French-American relationship was when it came to culture. The French loved but also hated American culture; it went in both directions.
How can two countries that are so similar have this strange conflict about culture? I wanted to do an internship at an institute for cultural diplomacy, but unfortunately at that time there was nothing like the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.
Still today apart from the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy you only have governmental institutions such as „Alliance Française,“ „Goethe Institut“ or the „British Council.“ The problem is that they typically always work for their governmental agendas — which they should, since they are using tax payers’ money.
There, I saw a tremendous need for further research and for a neutral agent (or as close to neutral as possible). Cultural Diplomacy should not be about fighting for the interests of some country or corporation, but about trying to strengthen bridges without controlling the traffic that passes underneath.
The other major transition I have seen in 20th century cultural diplomacy concerned persuading and winning the hearts and minds of foreign audiences.
The cultural diplomacy of the past was about „making them like you.“ I would argue that now and in the future, it is about access, equal access leads to a better and broader understanding. We have to get to know each other!
It should be easier to establish understanding and trust. I do not need to convince you that I am right or wrong or that you should like me; instead, you should get to know me. Those kind of opportunities to gain different perspectives could serve as a catalyst for actual understanding and trust to come.
Cultural diplomacy and the facilitation of access as you said is often seen as a vehicle for democracy. Is that not a bold misconception of the people raised and socialised in the Western world? It seems most people rather want to export their culture than integrating others.
Unfortunately, that tends to be the reality in the sense that even in Germany today it is not so much a question of how do we bring cultures together but how do we make others that appear to be different be more similar.
For example, we still engage in the head scarf debate, which clearly shows the enduring belief that „we are different from them and they should be more like us.“ Of course, this is a situation that can only end in disaster.
Access is not something that is controlling or persuasive, but is merely the ability to facilitate, to allow individuals to have more opportunities.
Individuals have a tendency to be afraid of things that are different from them. Must I sacrifice something in order to gain another identity? Am I less German by being European?
I think it is a sincere matter of access and not a matter of saying you have to be more like us. If we get a pure form of access, less censorship, more communication, equal opportunities, then it will work.
For me, frustration arises when I find that the means do not match the goal. If we want to talk about diversity, if we want to talk about multiculturalism, then we need to embark on a path that can actually lead there.
The apparent goal is something great, but the way and the means to that goal do not make sense. I do not believe that by making everybody look the same, by having uniforms in high schools or by taking off head scarves, we will achieve diversity. It will effect the opposite.
Cultural diplomacy requires each party to recognise the distinct culture of the other. Would you say that cultural diplomacy itself gets enough recognition in academia and in embassies around the world?
Clearly, cultural diplomacy does not receive enough support; there is not much interest for it. It has gotten slightly better over the past years, but in essence the main problem remains —cultural diplomacy is hard to quantify.
If I am a politician and I have four years to be re-elected, is cultural diplomacy going to help me? No. With academic exchange, I am not going to be able to show the results in four years. I have to wait ten, twenty years.
In that sense, cultural diplomacy by its very nature is never an attractive option as it is hard to articulate. The Fulbright Program, for instance, required several generations before its extraordinary success became evident.
Another problem is how to quantify cultural risk. American business is a fascinating case where about half the companies that go abroad do not do cultural research and still half of the time the business endeavour works.
So how can I go to them and say „you should invest a lot of money, you should research France or Afghanistan,“ when it only works half of the time? The problem is the difficulty in proving that culture matters. It takes time and patience.
The interest in cultural diplomacy, however, has begun to increase due to events such as 9/11. The world realised that there is a risk if entire regions of the world do not talk to, understand, and trust each other.
It is not enough to have just a few business deals or a few political treaties, you need more of a fundamental dialogue and understanding.
A further problem is that cultural diplomacy used to be propaganda. In the Cold War we had to prove that our way of life was better than their way of life. It was not a matter of trust or understanding, it was a matter of persuasion. However, this propaganda does not work any more.
President Bush tried to do this again; he basically said that we have to sell America like a product. But you cannot sell America to Iraqi people, you cannot persuade Afghanis that the American way is right when you are bombing them!
Luckily people revisited that idea and reconsidered these strategies, but I think it is just beginning now.
Denmark faced a censorship dilemma after the publication of the Mohammed cartoons. How can we ensure that the open access approach of cultural diplomacy is not used to do the opposite–proliferate misunderstanding?
There is an inherent risk in cultural diplomacy, and the Mohammed cartoons are a good example. The key aspect we always need to have, to ensure, and to protect is respect. All these things need to be done with a certain amount of respect, which is a very fine line.
I would tend to promote greater diversity as opposed to less. I think a kindergarten were you allow individuals to wear head scarves or crucifixes might have more fistfights than a kindergarten where everyone looks the same, but I much prefer such fistfights to happen in kindergarten than later on.
One extreme of liberty is in the US where even the Ku-Klux-Klan is legal, they can exist, they can march. They ascribe more or less to the idea „let these crazies do their thing, people will learn about it and realise that it is crazy,“ instead of making it taboo. So far it has worked.
My personal opinion is: let us mix it up, talk about the differences and not hide them.
If you could advise Obama on the cultural diplomacy issues that drive you, what would be the pinnacle things you would want to address?
For cultural diplomacy to be successful, governments cannot work alone. I think the Obama administration can make their lives easier by not trying to do everything on their own but by working with programs and institutions that already exist.
Whether it is the New York Philharmonic that went to North Korea for a very successful trip a few years ago or other NGOs or civil society organisations. You are going to gain legitimacy, and it will be easier and cheaper.
In that sense, there is no need for Obama to reinvent the wheel but to try to adapt the role of government in such a way that it can support many initiatives that already take place. Once you do that, you will notice if there are deficiencies in certain regions in the world and where we need to help.
It is a little bit a „hands off“ approach, it is also a matter of allowing other partners to step up their roles. I think it will be easier, cheaper and more successful.
But how can we imagine a cultural diplomacy approach when it comes to a country like North Korea?
There again I would be fairly strict. We have to talk to our friends, we have to talk to our enemies. I think by not talking to North Korea nothing gets accomplished. We should take a risk and talk, have exchange programs. There is nothing to lose and potentially everything to gain.
Personally I am against protectionism in every sense, it does not work in economics and I do not think it works with culture. Maybe the North Korean government will take this and use it as propaganda. So? What are the alternatives? A lot more will be accomplished if we start talking more.
What are the biggest challenges for cultural diplomacy in the 21st century and what is your personal outlook?
The biggest challenges are in conflict zones. I was initially of the opinion that cultural diplomacy has no place if there is a war going on. If people just try to eat and stay alive, they do not care so much about culture.
I am now changing my approach and I think that there is certainly a potential for cultural diplomacy as a catalyst for understanding. We cannot give up even in the most extreme places, whether it is in Sudan or in Palestine.
I was talking to someone two weeks ago who was very angry at the idea of American soft power going into Afghanistan. He said, „What the hell? First we go in there with hard power and destroy and destroy. Then there is a change in administration and now it is soft power, pretending to be friends, making up for all the destruction happening before. How can this be?“
We have to recognise that it is difficult; we have to be very creative with techniques such as using sports, music or the arts for cultural diplomacy. We cannot give up…
Mr. Donfried thank you for your time!
Lukas N. P. Egger conducted this interview for the magazine GLOBAL VIEW in Berlin on 22 October 2009.