We were listening to Edith Piaf's unique voice - are any contemporary singers capable of even a tenth of her emotion-in-song? - when my wife remembered that we once attended a concert in Alexandria, Egypt, where the wife of the French Cultural Center director belted out "Je ne regrette rien" and some of Piaf's other hits.
That couple - though he didn't sing, he certainly knew talent - was a good example of what American cultural diplomat (retired) Patricia Kushlis (Whirled View) meant when she recently wrote about the practice of public diplomacy:
Academia doesn’t and can’t teach hands-on public diplomacy. It can teach about public diplomacy, its history and why it’s important for nurturing and sustaining America’s image abroad, and it can teach some of the skills needed, but not how to do it in practice. That comes from on-the-job experience and training.
There may be another aspect that Kushlis doesn't treat in her excellent post, but which is a standby in debate in public diplomacy circles: the lack of a cabinet level (or at least interagency) home for culture or cultural diplomacy.
What? Howls of protest from the State Department's ECA, the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. Don't get me wrong: thank God for ECA, which during the dark years of Iraq, WMD, GWOT, and "with us or against us" had to soldier on, battling in an internal culture war within an administration that weaponized everything, including ideas.
My point is not to criticize US efforts in cultural diplomacy, but to say that other countries see it as more central to their international presence. Take France, again. After our dynamic singing cultural duo in "Alex" in the eighties, along comes to Alexandria Olivier Poivre d'Arvror, a man of letters from a family of cultural icons (for more than twenty years his brother Patrick - "PPDA" - was a household name, the Dan Rather of French TV).
Olivier Poivre d'Arvor, who recently published an erudite and beautiful book "Alexandrie Bazar: le roman d'une ville" (image above) on the city that came to captivate him (it does, I can attest), also heads CulturesFrance, an organization of the French MFA and its Ministry of Culture and Communication. I know, the US does not have either of the latter, considering perhaps that communication is best handled by spokespeople ("we got 'em in every agency"), and that culture isn't something that you can identify, let alone bureaucratize.
CulturesFrance, whose Euros 35 million budget could fit into a subchapter of the State Department's, may get more bang for its buck, if, as I suspect, France could beat the US in a word association competition with the word "culture." Think Alliance Française, think Institut Français, etc. It also doesn't hurt that their Minister of Culture, despite a bothersome fracas a few months ago about his extracurricular proclivities, is another cultural household name.
The US long ago gave up many - but not all (Alex lives!) - of its cultural centers, preferring in some administrations to pursue "placement" (get those press releases on US policy toward Cuba in all the local papers) or in others to wage "the battle of ideas." A little too much war, maybe not enough love.
I only dabbled in public diplomacy in my years in the Foreign Service, perhaps an illustration of what Pat Kushlis sees as "public diplomacy in the State Department has been too often treated as a “throw away." If they let me be an acting Public Affairs Officer... Actually, I took the job pretty seriously, and had lots of fun while I was at it. Which goes back to her point: public diplomacy and cultural diplomats are made in the doing, not the preaching.
Short of hiring writers, composers, or artists for the US PD function, maybe the most that can be done in the US way of diplomacy is appointing a few cultural people as political ambassadors. Instead of only rewarding the bundlers who bring in the big bucks, maybe send Oprah as Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and shake things up a bit. Or how about Angelina Jolie to Burma - she's already a UN Goodwill Ambassador.
I vote for the Dixie Chicks as special Middle East Peace envoys. They have a certain amount of cred.