Earlier this year an independent review by veteran diplomat Thomas Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen slammed the U.S. State Department for inadequate security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi before the September 11, 2012 attacks that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador.
“The styles of public diplomacy are now constrained by our fear,” says Richard Arndt, a veteran U.S. diplomat and the author of The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century. ”Which after all is what terrorists try to produce, and which they've amply succeeded in.”
Arndt says as the United States reestablished diplomatic relations with European countries after World War II, the goal was to build the most beautiful embassies possible.
“There was a time when we said ‘We've got to get our best architects to do them to exhibit the open, free nature of American life.’,” Arndt says. “It was called the ‘American Style’ of architecture.”
Over time, though, the “architectural experiment” declined, due to bombings in Beirut in 1983, Oklahoma City in 1995, and the twin embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.
After the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon sealed the American Style’s fate, the U.S. government imposed significant regulations on embassy design.
As Arndt writes in The First Resort of Kings:
A powerful report by CIA Deputy Director Bobby Inman opened a new era of fortress embassies: buildings had to be separated from any street by acres of costly empty space, lower stories could have no windows, moats were advised, and so forth. In the fall of 2002, a new master plan shaped all future American building overseas. What had been open was now closed, what was light was heavy, what was welcoming and inviting was forbidding, what was handsome was now repellent, what was vibrant, confident, and creative was gone.
He says now it’s hard to conduct his style of cultural diplomacy unless the environment is peaceful and secure.
“I don't know what we do about it except try to rebuild some kind of trust between nations whereby we can feel free to walk in each other's streets without feeling threatened,” Arndt says.
On his definition of “cultural diplomacy”
It should be educational and cultural diplomacy. It's I would say probably 60 or 70 percent education. Most of that is the Fulbright Program. That is the exchange between nations, and by and large from university to university, of students and professors and researchers and so forth. Culture sometimes falls into the division of what I call "arts diplomacy" in order to break us out of that definition. So when we say "cultural diplomacy" we mean all of that area of human intellect and human activity which do not fall into political and economics.
On 19th Century authors as some of the first American diplomats
When the Americans came on the scene very, very late, we were very good at it. Why? Because we'd never done it. That is to say we'd never done it through government. But from the beginning, Americans reached out starting with the missionaries. Starting with the citizen diplomats. You recall that we had no professional diplomats until 1924. They were all friends of friends of the president - political appointments if you like, but when we're talking about people like James Russell Lowell and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bret Harte and W.D. Howells and people like that serving as ambassadors or consuls overseas you understand that we were sending our best out to do something.
On recruiting diplomats from the academy after the start of World War II
By January '42 we were looking for cultural attaches mainly for Latin America, but also for China, for Spain, for Turkey, and a Delhi and a few other countries. Every single person hired was off a campus. Guess why? Because they spoke the language. It's as simple as that. They spoke the necessary language to get them going. So they were all academics in the first days. After that, then of course the struggle of the propagandists to take over the cultural field for themselves and make it part of their program, which is now called Public Diplomacy. It was a long one, but it still is a tug-of-war between people who want to project long-range truths and those who want to project short-term useful truths.
SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Dr. Richard Arndt, welcome to World Views.
RICHARD ARNDT: It's a pleasure to be here.
GRILLOT: Well, you are the author of The First Resort of Kings about cultural diplomacy in the United States. Can you tell us, first of all, what is that? What is cultural diplomacy? I'm not really sure there's a lot of agreement or even understanding about what that term even means.
ARNDT: You're one of the few people who recognizes that, Dean Grillot. It's a fact that nobody understands what...when I say I do cultural diplomacy people say, "What is that?" So I say the Fulbright Program and so forth. It stands to reason that between any two nations there are a whole set of relations. Some of them are more easily measured, and run through foreign ministries and so forth. But there are a lot of other things that happen such as, for example, tourism, intermarriage, we look at each other's films, we go to each other's universities. We do all kinds of things that are a context of an intellectual, and therefore cultural, nature. Cultural diplomacy, by the way, is misnamed. It should be educational and cultural diplomacy. It's I would say probably 60 or 70 percent education. Most of that is the Fulbright Program. That is the exchange between nations, and by and large from university to university, of students and professors and researchers and so forth. Culture sometimes falls into the division of what I call "arts diplomacy" in order to break us out of that definition. I want to just say one thing about the word "culture." The anthropologists have taught us that culture is the word we use to define why one group of people differs from another. The characteristics of people who eat spaghetti are different from those who eat largely fish and shrimp. So when we say "cultural diplomacy" we mean all of that area of human intellect and human activity which do not fall into political and economics.
GRILLOT: So you spent a number of years working at the U.S. Information Agency when it existed, so what is the difference between somebody who's providing information and somebody who's sharing culture? I guess you refer to them as "informationists" versus "culturalists"? Is there a difference there or are they pretty much doing the same thing?
ARNDT: That's what USIA used to say. We do the same thing, and wanted to pretend that U.S. information officers were the same as cultural officers and one could do the other. But in fact, information, we all know about, we read it in the newspapers every morning and we see it on TV. Information is information, and culture is something else. What I mean by culture is what distinguishes my mind or your mind from that of someone in the Soviet Union doing the same thing at the same time.
GRILLOT: So it's propaganda. Information has to do propaganda.
ARNDT: Information, if it is used by a power, can become, and normally does become, propaganda. Because it is used to support power, and therefore to some extent the information is distorted. We like to believe that education and cultural diplomacy does not require that kind of distortion. That you can exchange people and that they can be themselves and discover themselves as new people indeed, and discover each other without necessarily distorting the truth in the process. Therefore, the investment of a cultural diplomat ranges in the range of 20 years or so for a person to mature and become who they're going to be and make their contribution to the world. Whereas an information officer is aiming to change someone's attitude by and large today for something that may happen tomorrow.
JOSHUA LANDIS: As you've watched America try to influence the world, and influence the world even without trying, what are some of the very high points in the last 50 years?
ARNDT: I spent five years in Iran. In 1962 or 1963 the United States had decided it no longer needed to be the tutelary power, and it was time to turn things over to the Iranian government. They cut off AID (Agency for International Development), and they did it in a very gentle way. We call it "phasing out" and they "phased out" AID and that was very fine. There were a lot of things left over however. AID had a couple of programs that they wanted to keep on. For example, a program to send Iranian students to the AUB, the American University of Beirut. So that they put into my office. That gave me a rather larger reach than most cultural officers. So for the next five years, I participated with the tools that I had in my hands, which is to say exchanges - sending people to the United States at various levels of education development with books, with theatre, with movies, films, with all kinds of things. Books, I said, and translations. English teaching, for example. All of those tools to try to help Iran to keep moving in the direction that she'd been moving since the Mosaddegh era. And moving toward a broader middle class, a middle class that was in control of the government. A government which was more responsive to the needs of people and to the middle class themselves. Participatory democracy, if you like. So for five years I had the impression that we, my little office, through a whole variety of tools that happened to have in our hands, were applying them to the growth of Iran as a decent and relevant and cooperative partner with the United States in a project to better the life for its citizens and its relevance to the world affairs around it and its role in the affairs of the Middle East.
GRILLOT: Are some countries better at cultural diplomacy than we are? We have a long history, I mean your book lays this out very well, we have a long history of these types of relations, but are we as good at it as we used to be, and are there other countries that are much better at it now than we are? The European Union, for example...
ARNDT: Yeah. There are a lot of definitions involved here, but I'll make it about as simple as I can. The French kind of invented this. They started doing it long before we did. The French started because they sent Jesuits out in the 17th Century, including to Lebanon, and there it was. They started through their Jesuit brethren, where by and large a Jesuit stood to the left hand of almost every ambassador to a foreign country in those days advising the ambassadors to what to do. So they got very good at it in a certain way, and the other thing that the French had was that they were a single state which controlled the whole education system, the whole production of cultural goods, you might say. The British were a little bit more nervous about it. British saw cultural diplomacy largely as a tool of empire. They wanted to train cadres for their civil service, so they trained them to be good little British civil servants. That was very useful and very, very productive, and produced some very fine things because they threw in the law as one of the things. Justice was something that the British left behind. When the Americans came on the scene very, very late, we were very good at it. Why? Because we'd never done it. That is to say we'd never done it through government. But from the beginning, Americans reached out starting with the missionaries. Starting with the citizen diplomats. You recall that we had no professional diplomats until 1924. They were all friends of friends of the president - political appointments if you like, but when we're talking about people like James Russell Lowell and Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bret Harte and W.D. Howells and people like that serving as ambassadors or consuls overseas you understand that we were sending our best out to do something. Another class that helped us was the merchants. The merchants were very enlightened in their early days. It's not that they were making less money, they were just better at it than the Europeans were, because the Europeans had come into it with a certain amount of entitlement and arrogance. Whereas we were sort-of supplicants trying to strike better deals. Another class then, finally, that emerged, believe it or not is the military. The military in the 19th Century played an astonishing role in cultural diplomacy in spreading its science. For example, in Egypt, private Americans left over after the Civil War was over went in and modernized the Egyptian Army way back in 1870. One man was the head, or the chief of staff, of the whole Egyptian Army. Another man mapped the Southern border with Libya. It goes on throughout the century. There were all kinds of things. So in the 19th Century Americans were doing this all the time, but the government had nothing to do with it. Once we decided to do it in 1916/1917 when George Creel set up the Committee on Public Information as a propaganda device for the First World War, he hired a bunch of academics and the academics went out to the field. The professors went out to the field, and they didn't do what anybody told them. They did what they thought was best. That was very good stuff, because they were projecting the United States as the way we were.
GRILLOT: So academics were some of the first cultural diplomats?
ARNDT: Absolutely. When the whole thing then opened up and the French formalized it in 1923, the British formalized it in '34. We didn't formalize it until '38. The war came along with Pearl Harbor in December 1941. By January '42 we were looking for cultural attaches mainly for Latin America, but also for China, for Spain, for Turkey, and a Delhi and a few other countries. Every single person hired was off a campus. Guess why? Because they spoke the language. It's as simple as that. They spoke the necessary language to get them going. So they were all academics in the first days. After that, then of course the struggle of the propagandists to take over the cultural field for themselves and make it part of their program, which is now called Public Diplomacy. It was a long one, but it still is a tug-of-war between people who want to project long-range truths and those who want to project short-term useful truths.
LANDIS: Let me ask you about the difficulty today. Americans are closing themselves in big fortress embassies. We have just gone through the assassination of an ambassador to Libya and the terrible problems that this proposes. In many ways, self-defense and security has become of the highest order in trying to build embassies, design them. Members of our Foreign Service cannot go out into the open in many states and mingle with the people. Maybe that's not so important. Maybe public diplomacy is taking place in other ways rather than through the State Department. I don't know. How do you see that? And how do you see the mission of public diplomacy changing due to this extraordinary security environment where Americans are frightened to go out. We as a university, the University of Oklahoma, trying to get students to the Middle East, we can almost not send them to any country because the security environment and the State Department says you shouldn't send the students. Our lawyers here say you can't send them. We're almost locked out of education. We can't get foreign students to come to our universities. All these great things you've been talking about - education - they're coming to a screeching halt.
ARNDT: It's hard to answer your question because you've already answered it. You've pointed out what the problems are and what causes them and it's difficult to see how those causes can be alleviated. Even alleviated, they're certainly not eliminated in the near future. Let's take the case of embassies. I have a whole half-chapter on the building of embassies. There was a time when we said "We have to build the most beautiful embassies we can build. And we've got to get our best architects to do them to exhibit the open, free nature of American life." It was called the "American Style" of architecture, and we produced some very beautiful embassies. But today they're fortresses, as you say. So we have that kind of a problem. The problem of access to walking out in the streets. Can you imagine walking out from the Green Zone in Baghdad and taking a little stroll down the street talking to the locals in Baghdad? I can't imagine it. I don't think anybody would be mad enough to do that. So the styles of public diplomacy are now constrained by our fear, which after all is what terrorists try to produce, and which they've amply succeeded in. It's constrained by our fear of all kinds of violent things that are not very happy. Now, I don't know what we do about it except try to rebuild some kind of trust between nations whereby we can feel free to walk in each other's streets without feeling threatened. I suppose in some way we have that problem at home here, but it's not quite as advanced. It's not quite as dangerous. So you've raised a set of conditions which, of course, are there. It's very hard to conduct cultural diplomacy in my style in an area where you don't have a fairly peaceful and a fairly secure setting in which to do so.
GRILLOT: Well, very interesting. Dr. Arndt, thank you very much for exposing us to these very challenging issues we face today. Thank you.
ARNDT: You're very welcome. Invite me back some other time.
LANDIS: We look forward to it.
GRILLOT: We will, thanks.
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