World Views
9:31 am
Thu April 4, 2013

How Diplomacy Through Culture Can "Hold Up a Mirror" to Government

Helena Ayala (played by Catherine Zeta-Jones) encounters a DEA agent in Steven Soderbergh's 2000 film "Traffic"
Credit Focus Features / NBCUniversal
Amb. Cynthia Schneider's interview with Suzette Grillot and Joshua Landis

While serving as the U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands in 2001, Cynthia Schneider used Hollywood to approach sensitive drug issues between American and Dutch officials.

Schneider invited embassy staffers focusing on drugs, and their counterparts in the Dutch Ministry of Justice, to a screening of Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film Traffic.

“It's a very powerful film that shows the intricacies of drug trafficking, and really shows how complicated it is,” Schneider says. “That was a fantastic experience because it kind of leveled the playing ground, and after seeing that film together we were able to have the most honest, direct conversation that we ever had, and really make progress.”

President Clinton appointed Schneider to the post in 1998 because of her familiarity with the language and country due to her background in European fine art.

“Your primary job is to promote the acceptance and advancement of U.S. policies in the country, but you can also bring your own interests,” Schneider says. “We started the North Sea Jazz Jam Sessions around the North Sea Jazz Festival. I did a lot with film. We had a lot of concerts in the house. I had a fantastic collection of American art in the house.”

Schneider now teaches diplomacy at Georgetown University, and leads the Arts and Culture Dialogue Initiative at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

The ambassador argues that focusing so much on government, terrorism, and the military in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan means diplomats miss what actually happens among the general populace.

“In Pakistan, the areas where you find the strong civil society often involve culture or sports,” Schneider says. “It’s always artists who hold up a mirror to the government, and hold it accountable, and also give voice to the aspirations of the people.”

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

On what she learned by integrating culture into her work at the U.S. Embassy in the Netherlands

I discovered two things: One, that culture worked very, very effectively in diplomacy, and even in relationships such as that between the United States and the Netherlands, which is a very favorable, positive relationship, you can still dig deeper, and also tackle difficult subjects using culture…[and] number two, I found the State Department doesn't take it very seriously. Luckily, I was ambassador, so people had to do what I said. So when my political officer would look at me skeptically when I would introduce yet another cultural idea, they just had to do it. I always considered I had two audiences - I had the Dutch, and I also had my own embassy. I think I persuaded both that culture was really effective.

On the perceptions and misconceptions of the U.S. image abroad

I was in Egypt in December. I try to go to Egypt as often as I can, and I was actually there for some of the protests outside the presidential palace. I was really so sad to see signs saying "U.S. and Qatar Get Out!" So the United States was lumped together in the same category as Qatar as a country that supports the Muslim Brotherhood. I talked to so many people who said to me, "Why? Why is the United States supporting this government? Why are they supporting the Morsi government?" And they talked about how disappointing it was that President Obama was doing this.

On what happens to culture when governments clash

The enemies of freedom, whether they are the Salafists in Egypt, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the extremists in Mali, or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, they know how strong culture is. They always target culture right away. Look at the bombing of the Buddhas. The Taliban banned music. The Khmer Rouge banned all forms of culture. They know how strong it is. What seems to me too bad is I'm not sure if the defenders of freedom and human rights recognize its importance.

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Ambassador Cynthia Schneider, welcome to World Views.

AMB. CYNTHIA SCHNEIDER: Thank you so much, it's great to be here. My first trip to Oklahoma.

GRILLOT: I hope you enjoy it. I'd like to start by just asking you a little bit about your background, and how somebody with a background in fine arts, that's your training - a Ph.D. from Harvard in fine arts - and how at some point you made a turn in your career to engage in diplomacy. Can you tell us a little bit about the connection between fine arts and international affairs and diplomacy?

SCHNEIDER: Every ambassador, particularly political appointees such as myself, brings to the position their own personal interests. Of course, your primary job is to promote the acceptance and advancement of U.S. policies in the country. But you can also bring your own interests, and mine were in the area of culture. So I did a great deal with culture. We started the North Sea Jazz Jam Sessions around the North Sea Jazz Festival. I did a lot with film. We had a lot of concerts in the house. I had a fantastic collection of American art in the house. So I did a lot of things with culture. And I discovered two things: One, that culture worked very, very effectively in diplomacy, and even in relationships such as that between the United States and the Netherlands, which is a very favorable, positive relationship, you can still dig deeper, and also tackle difficult subjects using culture. For example, drugs are a big issue between the U.S. and the Netherlands. They think marijuana should be legal, and at least some states in the United States don't think that it should, so we were always disagreeing about that. So I took all of the people who worked on drugs in my embassy, and invited their counterparts in the Ministry of Justice to go see the film Traffic. It's a very powerful film that shows the intricacies of drug trafficking, and really shows how complicated it is. There are really very few good guys, and everyone is involved in one way or another. That was a fantastic experience because it kind of leveled the playing ground, and after seeing that film together we were able to have the most honest, direct conversation that we ever had, and really make progress. So number one, I found culture worked effectively, and number two, I found the State Department doesn't take it very seriously. Luckily, I was ambassador, so people had to do what I said. So when my political officer would look at me skeptically when I would introduce yet another cultural idea, they just had to do it. I always considered I had two audiences - I had the Dutch, and I also had my own embassy. I think I persuaded both that culture was really effective.

JOSHUA LANDIS: What are America's biggest exports, culturally and otherwise, that are really at the cutting edge of what America does?

SCHNEIDER: This is a very interesting question, and I'm going to go back in time a little bit to when I was ambassador, because at that point our highest export was aerospace, but now among our highest exports - this is always true - are cultural products. It changes all the time. It's film, it's television rights, it's music, it's online products. These are one of our largest exports, but interestingly, in diplomacy I think we don't know what to do with it. We pay a lot of attention in terms of trade, and make sure that protectionist measures in other countries don't prevent our products from reaching people. But we don't integrate the incredibly profound, and I think very positive impact, that comes from the experience of our commercial culture, which is so accessible to so many people.

LANDIS: It sells itself.

SCHNEIDER: It totally sells itself. You know, there are people who believe, I've read a survey from MIT that the biggest change that comes about in rural villages in India comes about with the introduction of television. What happens, and it's particularly important for women, people see other experiences and they want to change their lives. They want to be like that. It's not Baywatch, it's families where women are equally...

LANDIS: That's the men with Baywatch.

GRILLOT: (Laughs) A global phenomenon.

SCHNEIDER: (Laughs) It was, I'm sorry to say, the most popular show ever. I don't know what the message is. But you think of American programs that are all over the world, like for example Grey's Anatomy. What kind of message does a program like that send where the head of the hospital is African-American? Women are equal; men are equal, all different races. It's a microcosm of some of the very best aspects of American life, and shows us as a meritocracy which is such an important part of this country.

GRILLOT: There's a lot we can learn from each other through art, and culture, and things like radio, television, and film.

SCHNEIDER: Absolutely, and they reach our emotions. Contrary to places like the Brookings Institution, where I'm very happy to work, policy is not what motivates people to act. This is neurologically true. We act on the basis of our emotions, and it is in fact these narratives that we find in television and film, and often music too, that are what moves us. That's what affects us.

LANDIS: Now let me ask you about the image of the United States. So much of cultural diplomacy has been, particularly during the Bush administration, there was a big effort to try to change the image of the United States in the world. Tell us a little bit about what the background to that was, and what America was trying to do.

SCHNEIDER: You know, I don't really believe in this concept of changing the image, or promoting the image, because I think, particularly in today's world of 24/7 communications, citizen journalism, you can't hide anything from anyone anymore. So, the "image" is simply going to be tied directly to your policy. So you have to walk the walk, and just talking the talk is not sufficient.

LANDIS: So it's the policy that's the problem.

SCHNEIDER: It always was. This whole concept of public diplomacy - we'll have this department over here that will somehow make the world like us - and then meanwhile we'll do what we're doing over here on the other side - people will judge you on the basis of what you do. So ironically, President Obama, I think, suffers quite significantly from a case of high expectations that have been let down.

LANDIS: Now let's talk for a second about the Middle East and the Arab Spring. Here has been a big challenge for President Obama on his watch, and he has mixed reviews, and America has mixed reviews on this. What have been the strong points, and what are the missteps?

SCHNEIDER: "Mixed reviews." You're being very kind. I was in Egypt in December. I try to go to Egypt as often as I can, and I was actually there for some of the protests outside the presidential palace. I was really so sad to see signs saying "U.S. and Qatar Get Out!" So the United States was lumped together in the same category as Qatar as a country that supports the Muslim Brotherhood. I talked to so many people who said to me, "Why? Why is the United States supporting this government? Why are they supporting the Morsi government?" And they talked about how disappointing it was that President Obama was doing this, and that's just a fact.

GRILLOT: Well clearly, there are some image issues that we need to deal with here, in countries like Egypt and Syria, but you've been doing some very interesting work in other parts of the Middle East and elsewhere. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Cambodia, some of the recent work you've been doing in terms of cultural diplomacy and exchange. What are some of the lessons that we've learned in other places that we're applying in those parts of the world?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I think one of the really interesting things that's taken place in the last month or so has been the tour on the East Coast of the Afghan National Institute of Music. This is an extraordinary institution in Kabul that was supported initially by the World Bank. I'm happy to say the U.S. Embassy in Kabul has supported it significantly as well. This is a school that takes kids from age ten to about 22. It teaches them everything as well as music. Fully half of the kids in this school, which was founded by an Afghan who came back from Australia, Dr. Ahmad Sarmast. Fully half of them are street children who have come to the schools through a charity who really were selling gum, washing cars on the street. The school pays their family a dollar a day, so they're allowed to stay in school and still they can be the breadwinners in the family. There is a fantastic American there named William Harvey, a Julliard graduate who's been teaching there for three years. A very dedicated teacher and he organized this tour himself. He's about 27 years old. He organized it with the idea of showing the United States that Afghanistan is much more than just bombs and terrorists and corrupt government officials. Here I think we have the same problem as I was talking about in Egypt. We seem to be unable to do much more than deal government-to-government. All the focus is on the government, terrorism, and military. And of course we have to deal with that. But then you miss what is actually happening in society. There have been incredible strides in Afghanistan also in the area of media, which I'm proud to say the United States has supported. There is a flourishing independent media in Afghanistan. Very critical of the government, and lots of call-in shows. Lots of participation. In Pakistan, the areas where you find the strong civil society often involve culture or sports. That is where there is the real Pakistani identity. That's where people protests. It's always artists who hold up a mirror to the government, and hold it accountable. And also give voice to the aspirations of the people. In Pakistan right now, a friend of mine, Salman Ahmed, who was the founder of the most popular rock band ever in Pakistan, they have a huge rock scene in Pakistan. His band was called Junoon. They have just had a reunion. Very interesting, because one of the members went off and became an Islamist in the meantime. Now he's back playing music again, kind of halfway in between the two. And they have had a reunion because they are all supporting the candidacy of Imram Khan. They have just come out with a new song "Naya Pakistan" - their famous earlier song was called "Dil Dil Pakistan" - these are like national anthems. These are songs that are uniting the whole country. So this is hugely important, the culture, and I think we tend in the United States to relegate it and not recognize the power it has to unify the countries, and also act as voices of dissent and change. In Cambodia, a country that has made a phenomenal recovery from the genocide of 1975-79, where 90 percent of the intellectuals and artists - basically anyone who had an education or wore glasses, you would be in trouble, Joshua - was killed immediately. It's such a short time since then, and the country has made a phenomenal recovery, and critical to that has been the rebuilding of the culture, and the revival of the traditions such as the shadow puppetry, or Cambodian ballet, this incredible ballet they have. But at the same time, there's new strains coming. I saw the most extraordinary performance called "Khmer Metal" at a famous art school, the Phare Ponleu Selpak school in Battambong, Cambodia. It was a combination of Cirque du Soleil, and Tommy, the rock opera, with incredible acrobatics, but also an amazing plot with very liberal views of sexuality, I have to say more liberal than what I've seen here. So through the culture you have the voices of youth coming, but also the reconstruction of the identity. I think this is something very important. The enemies of freedom, whether they are the Salafists in Egypt, the Taliban in Afghanistan, the extremists in Mali, or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, they know how strong culture is. They always target culture right away. Look at the bombing of the Buddhas. The Taliban banned music. The Khmer Rouge banned all forms of culture. They know how strong it is. What seems to me too bad is I'm not sure if the defenders of freedom and human rights recognize its importance.

GRILLOT: Well that's very fascinating. Thank you so much Ambassador Schneider. So much ground to cover, and not enough time, but thank you very much for being with us on World Views.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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