American music helped defeat communism. It sounds like a movie tagline, but it’s a true story. Such is the power of culture, as related by Cynthia Schneider.
Schneider began her career deep in Europe’s soil, studying fine art at Harvard, helping curate European exhibitions at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and teaching art history at Georgetown University. She speaks Dutch, French, Italian and German, and in 1998 was appointed U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands.
That’s when she began doing more diplomatic work.
In November 2000 she hosted a U.S. delegation of more than 100 to the The Hague Climate Change Conference. She was a liaison between the State Department, White House and FBI in navigating the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.
Since 2004 she’s taught at the School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. And she has merged the arts, politics and history in what she calls cultural diplomacy, which she defines as the “sharing of ideas and creative experiences in all forms the arts or expression.”
She believes that culture has an important and untapped role in resolving some of the greatest challenges we face: peacemaking and conflict resolution, alleviating poverty and disease, fighting prejudice. Her students are excited to hear this alternative to the conflict model of diplomacy because it’s predicated on “really understanding the other place.”
It’s hard to measure the effects of culture, and Schneider says leveraging culture is overlooked by the U.S. these days.
“The only people who do it systematically are extremists and authoritarians,” she says. “They recognize the power of culture. ISIS or the Khmer Rouge or Hitler – they go after artists and creative leaders, burn books, destroy monuments, ban music and TV.”
If the metrics of culture and ideas are hazy, the results are easy to see.
“During the Cold War we used culture, with other means, to try to weaken the Soviet Union, and did it in an intelligent way,” she says.
In the 1950s, the U.S. State Department sponsored artists, filmmakers, playwrights and musicians to tour the world to showcase American artistic freedom and expression. Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Duke Ellington did so under the program Jazz Ambassadors.
“Jazz kept hope of freedom alive under the Iron Curtain.”
“The African American musicians spoke out when asked [in interviews] about the horrendous conditions of Jim Crow in the U.S.” Schneider says. “The news about [anti-integration sentiment] at Little Rock Central High School, race riots, African Americans not allowed in the front doors of [American] theaters where they were performing. They spoke honestly about them.”
And that kind of open criticism of their own country was a revelation to people in countries whose own governments suppressed that kind of dissent.
“[Now] we’re celebrating the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall,” Schneider says. “That was a pretty good result for all the cultural initiative.”
Schneider has mixed feelings about the program, as it was backed by the secretive CIA, but she defers to Vaclav Havel, former writer, dissident and president of the Czech Republic: “He said that jazz kept hope of freedom alive under the Iron Curtain.”
She says that the U.S. has been fighting another ideological war – this one against religious extremists in the Middle East – with traditional military means for 18 years. And the ideology still survives.
“It’s not an enemy you can defeat. Wars just aren’t won anymore.”
But a war for the hearts and minds of a people can be won, on a cultural front. Case in point:American Idol.
The Afghanistan equivalent is called Afghan Star, which, in a TED Talk, Schneider suggests is a subtly revolutionary program there. Afghan people enjoy it across strata, from poor to rich, from cities to remote villages; viewers vote for their favorites via text message, and there are campaigns for votes, like an election; the show contestants come from different tribal groups and women are competing with men, which sets an example for young women audience members. And it’s a meritocracy. It’s not who you are, it’s what you can do.
“Afghan Star is in its 13th year,” Schneider says. “Last year a woman won for the first time, from an [ethnic Hazara] minority [town] occupied by Taliban.”
Schneider is the keynote speaker of CSU Monterey Bay International Program’s free International Education Week – a national event promoted by the U.S. State Department and U.S. Department of Education – and includes discussions of global sustainability (2pm Nov. 15), a diversity march (11am Nov. 18), international tabling (1pm Nov. 19-20), and stories of adventures abroad (2pm Nov. 19). Schneider is also co-director of the Laboratory for Georgetown’s Global Performance and Politics, an interdisciplinary project with the goal of “humanizing global politics through the power of performance.” Which might be translated as “it’s harder to hurt someone if you know and like them.”