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Culture Posts: Exploring the Cultural Underbelly of Public Diplomacy

Nov 14, 2011


Welcome to the opening entry of Culture Posts, an interactive blog for exploring the cultural underbelly of public diplomacy. Over the next two years, I hope that you will join me, collecting and discussing your insights on the hidden, and often times not so hidden, aspects of culture in public diplomacy.

The Multiples faces of Culture
Culture, as an underlying force that shapes global public diplomacy, remains curiously unexplored. Most focus on the positive, visible side of culture. As a soft power resource, culture is often viewed as a product for export that can help improve a country’s image. In cultural diplomacy, culture is a vehicle for bringing people together. Culture helps build mutual understanding.

Yet, culture is like the well-known optical illusion that can appear to be a single vase or two, depending on one’s perspective. The image and the vase (The Queen’s Speech) reflect culture’s multiple meanings and hidden symbolism – there are 4 faces, including the profiles of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.

The implicit, unspoken side of cultural assumptions and expectations tend to generate mutual misunderstanding. These hidden aspects are the ones most likely to contribute to costly, ineffective public diplomacy initiatives that can do more harm than good.

Multiple Perspectives of Public Diplomacy

In public diplomacy, discussions of culture can be controversial, and spark debates between universalism and cultural variation. Controversy provides even more reason to explore culture.

Culture touches nearly every aspect of public diplomacy – from the ideas that actors select and try to communicate, to how that communication is perceived by global publics.

Originally, scholars of diplomacy maintained that principles of negotiations were “universal.” Raymond Cohen’s (U.S. Institute of Peace, 1991) landmark study demonstrated what seasoned diplomats instinctively knew, namely that Arab, Japanese and U.S. diplomats do not “negotiate” the same way or necessarily from the same premise. Cohen traced the distinctive styles and underlying philosophies to the differing cultural heritages.

The predominance of U.S. scholarship as a cultural force in public diplomacy cannot be underestimated. The screenshot of Wikipedia about U.S. dominance in public diplomacy was taken just this week.

While the U.S. may be a leader in the field, the U.S. perspective represents a mono-cultural perspective in what is undeniably a multicultural world. The dominance of the U.S. model may overshadow the rich contributions of other intellectual heritages to the vision of public diplomacy. In a world of global communication, what insights could be gained if we could view public diplomacy from multiple perspectives?

Future Trends: Culture’s Blessing or Curse

The need for cultural knowledge for public diplomats is likely to grow more urgent given the strengthening of two trends.

The first trend is the growing salience of cultural identity by publics. Public diplomacy inherently includes messages about how a party sees itself (identity) and the other (image). Albeit a two-sided equation, public diplomacy focuses primarily on how a nation or sponsor can protect or promote its own image.

However, publics tend to have similar identity needs. Violations of a public’s cultural identity can elicit strong reactions. The 2005 Danish ‘cartoon’ incident is a powerful example. The strategies that public diplomats use to navigate the dynamics of cultural identities and media representations rest on cultural awareness and knowledge.

A second trend is the move toward collaborative public diplomacy to tackle complex “wicked” problems. The recent mantra of relationship-building, networking, partnerships, and engagement are part of the vocabulary of collaboration. Collaboration in public diplomacy may well become the strategic equivalent of negotiation in traditional diplomacy.

At the heart of collaborative public diplomacy is the ability to get people of diverse backgrounds to work productively together. Researchers are finding that cultural diversity is the greatest source of friction – and synergy – in collaboration. A public diplomat’s cultural awareness and knowledge will determine whether she is able to invoke culture’s curse or blessing.

Cultural similarities, differences, paradoxes … your ideas for a Culture Post?

In the months ahead, I hope that you will join me on a journey to explore the cultural underbelly of public diplomacy in Culture Posts. Each month Culture Posts will highlight themes that range from listening to multicultural perspective-taking, to power and proverbs, to cognitive styles and website design.

With the addition of your insights and perspectives to Culture Posts, we can help create a forum for collecting, sharing and discussing the many cultural similarities, differences, and even cultural paradoxes found in global public diplomacy. In fact, we are looking for an image to represent “Culture Posts” or “the cultural underbelly of public diplomacy,” please share your idea!


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I find this thought of yours

I find this thought of yours interesting:

"The implicit, unspoken side of cultural assumptions and expectations tend to generate mutual misunderstanding. These hidden aspects are the ones most likely to contribute to costly, ineffective public diplomacy initiatives that can do more harm than good."

There are some inherent dangers in communicating culture - it is subject to interpretation and is difficult to map the possible reactions to it. I always wonder how do nations map the impact of cultural exchanges? Also can culture be communicated between two groups of people with a sense of pride in their own cultural identity - for eg. France & India - with some genuine positive implications. That is the external aspect of it. Internally, does chest thumping about one's culture overseas lead to jingoism in the discourses of national identity politics or divisiveness for that matter. For example most of what is 'popularly' represented as Indian culture overseas is primarily representative of only two Indian states - Punjab & Gujarat. Most Indians do not identify with it. Punjabis & Gujaratis happen to ndia's largest diaspora communities overseas.


Rhonda, Thank you for this

Rhonda, Thank you for this important posting and for initiating a project that should enlighten all of us. Best, John

This is going to be fun,

This is going to be fun, Rhonda! And better yet as John said, it should prove illuminating. I don't envy you the task of finding a suitable graphic for your Culture Posts...

thank you John and Sherine --

thank you John and Sherine -- and special thanks to Amy Yu Zheng for her work in tracking down the visuals for this post.

Thank you, Madhur. Your

Thank you, Madhur. Your observations help bring "in awareness" the other side of culture that we sometimes overlook -- including the difficult questions you suggest:

- How do nations map the impact of cultural exchange?
- What about the potential for cultural competition?
- Can cultural programs inadvertently trigger cultural identity challenges?
- What about the discrepancy between cultural representations abroad versus at home?

Thank you for starting the ball rolling with your questions!

Thank you Ms. Zaharna for

Thank you Ms. Zaharna for your post and comments! I feel like I'm attending a distant course - a lot of interesting concepts and points!

I agree that misunderstanding of the other nation's culture - identity, way of thinking - makes negotiations difficult. This aspect of diplomacy has been overlooked by negotiators. The case from my perspective would be the climate talks, where negotiators would end up sometimes with criticizing the others in the media...

Besides, the questions in your comment is very thought-provoking. I find resonance in my mind with the last one- discrepancy abroad and at home. Or, can we put it like discrepancy between what is presented to foreign publics and what is experienced at home? I guess I would cite China as an example for this.

As to cultural competition, is it like the notion of cultural imperialism?


Dr. Zaharna -- this is a

Dr. Zaharna -- this is a really important discussion, and I look forward to being a part of it in the new year. Your idea that "collaboration in public diplomacy may well become the strategic equivalent of negotiation in traditional diplomacy" is alone a banquet for thought. And as someone moving from practitioner to teacher in the public diplomacy / cultural diplomacy field, I'm wrestling with how to convey such ideas clearly, and with how to "de-internalize" my own knowledge and experience.

On the question of collaboration, I would posit that U.S. cultural diplomacy, with its strong focus on professional as well as academic exchanges, has always promoted mutual understanding as a basis for collaboration even more than it has sought to project something defined as American culture. I'd even argue that our Cold War music and fine arts programming, often cited as a high-water mark of U.S. public diplomacy practice, were tailored to a pretty specific context - and I think many practitioners have long recognized that they are not universally effective tools.

But perhaps collaboration and the creative melding of cultural traditions may, in fact, be a projection of American culture. Putting everything into the melting pot and seeing what new thing comes out is what we do every day in the U.S., and we can't help but think it's normal and universal.

In some places, though, it can seem very ... well ... American. And to many it just feels wrong to be "trying something new" with a performance style that has been honed and refined through the ages, or "putting ideas out there" for debate and dissection if those ideas have been carefully taught and learned, as truths, over generations.

In other words, to some people, "collaboration" may simply look like more of the opportunistic culture-blending that has historically fed into the creation of a globally dominant American pop culture.

Meanwhile, the Thomas Friedman school of thought says it's Americans' flexibility, creativity, and comfort-level with innovation that will keep us a world leader economically. Whether we agree or not, I believe Americans do think of innovation and creativity and independent thinking as being inherently good. I think U.S. foreign service officers, and many others engaged in citizen diplomacy exchanges, feel even a bit evangelical about promoting appreciation for these traits, encouraging the idea that success in a globalized world depends on them. We feel that it is a good thing to share this element of American culture.

So an interesting question becomes: when is collaboration really collaboration, vs. projection of the valued cultural trait of one side? How do cultural diplomats ensure real collaboration if that is what they really seek?

Again, thanks so much for creating Culture Posts!

Thanks, Delilah! You raise an

Thanks, Delilah! You raise an important flag about “cultural competition” and “cultural imperialism.” In an age of globalization where cultural boundaries are becoming less defined, these concerns may become more and more pronounced. Public diplomacy initiatives will need to factor in these concerns. No matter how unfounded or “irrational” they may seem, they may erode goodwill over the long term with strategic publics.

Thank you, Mary Jeffers, for

Thank you, Mary Jeffers, for your questions on collaboration! I was thinking about collaboration in terms of wicked, complex problems in the global realm that require working with others. I hadn’t really thought about collaboration in CD. Thinking maybe the difference could be framed as other-participation vs self-promotion. Participation entails active involvement with others. Promotion is primarily passive observation by others. Both forms are acceptable, it just depends on what the strategic goal is of the PD initiative.


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