The Power of Cultural Diplomacy – Why does the United States Neglect It?

Saturday, May 13th 2017


In 1966 the Brookings Institution published a book by Charles Frankel entitled: The Neglected Aspect of Foreign Affairs – American Educational and Cultural Policy Abroad.  Frankel argued that “in comparison with the sophisticated analysis devoted to U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic policy, little intellectual attention has been given to international cultural exchange”. Although more than half a century has passed, a similar argument can be made today.

Despite some seminars and courses on public diplomacy and international communications – soft power is often neglected in both academic theory and the practice of foreign relations. Military budgets dwarf expenditures on international exchanges and cultural programs. Security studies and military solutions all too often dominate our curricula as well as our political discourse. 

An impressive exception occurred on May 8 when Dr. Vali Nasr, Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Dr. Fred Bronstein, Dean of the Peabody Institute, hosted a Forum featuring a distinguished panel tasked with a 360 degree reflection on how cultural diplomacy can help better address the most pressing global challenges. Panelists provided stunning examples of the efficacy of cultural diplomacy.

Midori, a renowned violinist, noted that “musicians can be very effective diplomats”. Beyond her performing and recording career, Midori has been recognized as a dedicated and gifted educator and an innovative community engagement activist throughout the United States, Europe, Asia and the developing world. Midori travels the globe as a “UN Messenger of Peace” using music to forge international connections.  She observed that the young people she works with around the world – most recently in Nepal - “realize that there is a big world beyond their immediate environment”.  The musical encounters she orchestrates prompt curiosity about and admiration for other musical traditions, customs, and values.

Another panelist, Jeffrey Brez, Chief, NGO Relations, Advocacy, and Special Events, at the UN Department of Public Information described the volunteer work of other celebrity advocates, also UN Messengers of Peace, such as Stevie Wonder, Jane Goodall, and Leonardo DiCaprio. Ashlee George, Executive Director of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project (CTAOP), a US-based foundation committed to investing in African youth to protect them from HIV/AIDS, described how Charlize empowers others by working with already existing NGOs. Through an integrated strategy of responsive grant making and global advocacy, more than 250,000 adolescents in South Africa have received direct services through CTAOP-supported programs. 

Evan Ryan, until recently Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs and currently Executive Vice President of Axios, offered dramatic examples of how sports diplomacy and the exchange of musical groups opened doors that were otherwise closed to U.S. diplomats in China and Pakistan.  She stressed the importance of reciprocity and building long term relationships over time. As she phrased it: We need to show that we want to learn – that we want to connect.”


Certainly, the United States should use all tools of smart power but we need to ask ourselves why we so consistently underutilize cultural diplomacy.


One person has commented on this article so far

Sherry Mueller, Ph.D. authors name for more info

Author: Sherry Mueller

We welcome comments from our readers that advocate and shed light on the subject of public diplomacy. We avoid discussion that is politically partisan, commercial in nature or offensive. To prevent inappropriate comments and spam we screen each comment before publishing it, so please excuse us if you do not see your remark right away.

Art and Cultural Fusion

Thank you, Sherry Mueller, for this important article. Along with Midori's fantastic achievements, Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble has accomplished similar goals by using the "arts to advance global understanding." Composed of musicians from different cultural backgrounds and schools of music, the Silk Road Ensemble is another paradigm for cultural exchange through music's raw, enduring platform. Also relevant, in 2008, my grandfather was among musicians who travelled with the New York Philharmonic to North Korea, adding to evidence that even the most menacing nations recognize the importance of Art and cultural exchange.

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