Cultural Diplomacy for the 21st Century: Empowering Local Voices

Political scientist Milton Cummings’s classic definition of cultural diplomacy — “the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding” — needs an update that reflects new “best practices” in today’s world of 24/7 communication and social media. While exchanges always will have an important role in diplomacy — think of the incalculable value added of the Fulbright program — empowering local voices, stories, and viewpoints also is proving increasingly effective.

Independent Media in Afghanistan

Let me give an example: ask anyone in the State Department what is working in Afghanistan, and chances are they will say “the independent media.” Moby Media with its television division Tolo TV has captured the majority of the viewing public, but Afghanistan boasts more than twenty independent television and radio channels. U.S. aid helped launch Moby and other independent outlets, and continues to support them.

In a country rife with corruption, the independent media holds government accountable by inviting listeners to report malfeasance by their officials. Investigative reporting and even a Daily Show equivalent further expose corruption and incompetence.

Moby Media’s runaway success has been the American Idol spinoff Afghan Star, now in its seventh season. Not only has this program re-introduced Afghan music to the country, but it also has provided a leadership platform for women and minorities through its inherently meritocratic system. In a country where connections or a bribe often are required to advance, Afghan Star stands out. Anyone can try out; public voting on cell phones selects the winners.

Egyptian Women Take the Stage in the “Sing Egyptian Women, Sing” Contest

Now an American Idol-inspired musical contest is providing a platform for Egyptian women to display their talent, and share ideas about the future of their country. This innovative public-private partnership was developed by Mike Hankey, cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy Cairo, and Kevin Patrick, CEO of Share the Mic, a company that matches nonprofit causes with emerging artists to the mutual benefit of both, and organizes “voluntourism” tours of musical groups to the Middle East. For the “Sing Egyptian Women, Let the World Hear You” contest, the U.S. Embassy held tryouts in several locations in Egypt, and also invited online submissions. Judges (of which I am one) narrowed the selections to 40 before opening up the online voting. Through February 23rd. anyone can listen and cast a vote through the website.

Why would the U.S. Embassy devote time and energy to a musical talent contest in Egypt? The absence of female voices since the Egyptian Revolution presents a serious problem; this contest provides an incentive and a means for women to reach the public and express their ideas. In addition to singing, each contestant prepares answers to questions about Egypt’s future. Finalists participate in leadership and communications training, as well as music workshops. Best of all, the winner—chosen by public voting—earns an all-expenses paid trip to New York, where she (and her relative or friend) will stay at the Plaza. In New York, the winner will write and record a song about Egypt’s future with an American celebrity. The new song—in Arabic and English—will be released in Egypt and America, where it will help to introduce the new Egypt to the United States.

This first iteration is a pilot. With private sponsorship, the program could expand to other countries in the Middle East, as well as take place annually in Egypt.

Parazit: The Daily Show in Iran

Voice of America hosts many programs that “empower local voices.” Among them, Parazit is the funniest—and most subversive. Inspired by The Daily Show, this satirical critique of Iranian politics captivates audiences in Iran and the diaspora. The Iranian government tries to block it on television and the internet, but still the show attracts a large and loyal following

For an unforgettable, moving experience of cultural diplomacy in action, see the guest appearance of the Parazit creators Kambiz Hosseini and Saman Arbabi on The Daily Show. In the mutual admiration session, Hosseini and Arbabi attribute Parazit to Jon Stewart’s inspiration, and declare him to be “the prophet.” (Stewart wonders if that will “get him in trouble.”) To his credit Jon Stewart recognized the courage of Hosseini and Arbabi in taking on the regime. As Saman Arbabi commented on a panel at the Writers’ Guild East in New York, “Jon Stewart’s writers face deadlines; we face death threats.”

In his Huffington Post article (January 5, 2012) proposing “A Strategy for Cultural Diplomacy,” Philip Seib advocates “an intellectual containment strategy” for “troublesome states like Iran and Venezuela,” but Saman Arbabi has another approach. Arbabi is organizing a global art and advocacy project against government Internet censorship worldwide. Through both net-roots and grassroots advocacy, he seeks to enlist support that can open up Iranian cyberspace to ensure that the Iranian authorities cannot impose their own “containment strategy” on the population. Arbabi will launch his project at this year’s South by Southwest festival.

The most successful cultural diplomacy strategy integrates people to people or arts/culture/media to people interactions into the basic business of diplomacy. The programs in Afghanistan, Egypt, and Iran all contribute to core goals of U.S. policy in those countries. Each succeeds by empowering local voices, rather than by conveying ideas through American emissaries.