The Art of Soft Diplomacy:

Culture as a Bridge

Marcel Leitner

Cultural diplomacy — like making art — is messy. Its impact can be hard to measure in tangible outcomes. Yet the effort can yield enormous transformations.

The U.S. Department of State and Brooklyn Academy of Music recently announced the three newest dance companies selected to participate in cultural diplomacy as part of the seventh season of DanceMotion USA.

This program supports U.S. foreign policy goals by connecting American arts organizations with overseas entrepreneurs and social leaders through educational and professional development opportunities as well as outreach efforts and performances.

Since its founding, DanceMotion USA has engaged with more than 114,000 participants in 55 countries and reached more than 40 million people online.

This year’s area of focus involves working with diverse communities and promoting the empowerment of women, people with disabilities, and at-risk youth. Artists will travel to many countries including Colombia, Kazakhstan, and South Korea.

Particularly exciting is Dayton Contemporary Dance Company’s (DCDC) tour to Russia. The U.S. and Russia have a long and fascinating dance relationship via their mutual love of ballet. Many illustrious artists such as George Balanchine, Mikael Baryshnikov, and Natalia Makarova defected from the Soviet Union and have had an incredible impact on the dance landscape in the States.

DCDC performs work rooted in the African American experience. As part of the DanceMotion USA program, the company will participate in a four-week-long professional development and performance residency involving outreach events, workshops, master classes, and media interviews.

The company artists will also discuss arts management and technical production with local Russian artists and audiences, providing insight into creative processes and sharing the values that are foundational to its work.

Brigadier General Nolen Bivens, U.S. Army, Ret. wrote in a 2010 piece for the National Endowment for the Arts Art Works Blog: “Understanding local culture and protection of valuable and sensitive cultural treasures…can go a long way in helping our forces win the hearts and minds and maintain support among the citizenry.” He added that

“investments in cultural diplomacy can enable the arts community to partner with other U.S. government departments and agencies to prevent or prepare for post-conflict situations, and support stabilization.”

Yet White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney recently called the spending outline that defunds the NEA and slashes State Department resources while increasing military funding by $54 billion, a “hard-power budget.” He insists that our government can ask people to pay for defense but not the programs the Trump administration views as expendable.

As a professional dance artist, I’ve travelled to countries such as China and Turkey that are not always positioned squarely on the United States’ “friends” list. More recently, I led educational programs for American college dance artists from Loyola University Chicago to Vietnam and Cuba.

On the Vietnam trip, my students took classes alongside professional Vietnamese dancers from Arabesque Dance Group and watched them perform. The students also performed two dance works with the International Choir and Orchestra of Ho Chi Minh City.

One student followed up with a paper investigating the connection between the choreographic process and Natalia Duong’s model of embodying empathy. The student wrote, “I was able to develop empathy towards people I had never met by learning about the history they experienced. Being able to share those feelings through action (dance) shows the relevance of choreography in inspiring empathy in performers.”

Witnessing these rich and transformative experiences at a personal level leads me to support the notion that “soft power” cultural diplomacy is as valuable as military or economic “hard power.”

General Bivens asserts that our country’s arts community is a “national asset and treasure with tremendous potential to contribute to the United States government’s ability to deal with the national security challenges it faces.” I agree.

To be sure, it is difficult to convince skeptical governments of the value of cultural exchanges. This is especially true for governments initiating austerity policies.

However, a 2012 report on cultural diplomacy published by the Ditchley Foundation, showed that 40 representatives of 15 nations agreed “cultural activity was a fundamental part of the human condition and an indispensable medium of dialogue and understanding with others and within or between countries”

The Ditchley report also argued heartily that cultural diplomacy must focus on what people require in key practical areas of health, education and jobs, as well as in more intangible areas like rights, justice and an end to corruption.

Examples of this include projects like the BODYTRAFFIC DanceMotion USA tour to Israel in 2015. The company led a movement workshop for participants in wheelchairs at Beit Ha Galgalim (House of Wheels).

A 2014 project involved the creation of a choreographed dance between three countries, with U.S. based David Dorfman, Turkey’s Korhan Basaran Company from Istanbul, and two Armenian dancers contributing movement to the piece.

Nir Arieli

Liz de Lise, an American musician who worked on accompaniment for the work described her experience as “proof that communication, understanding and reconciliation need not always be achieved through spoken language.”

In 1992, Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH) — a company founded in part for the purposes of breaking down racism in American concert dance — performed the ballet Dougla by Geoffrey Holder at the Civic Theatre in Johannesburg, South Africa.

This marked the first performing arts company to break the 30-year cultural boycott imposed on South Africa by the international community for its apartheid practices.

Laveen Naidu, DTH’s former executive director, wrote about the experience that provided a foundation for the company’s continued international collaborations, saying, “With a more subtle common understanding of the world, its cultures, and its identities enabled by performance art, people can come together more quickly to solve problems, find solutions, and build common cause.”

The Ditchley Foundation convening was co-sponsored by the John Brademas Center for the Study of Congress. Before he passed in 2016, Brademas recommended to Congress that “international arts and cultural exchanges be integrated into the planning strategies of U.S. policymakers as a key element of public policy.”

To that end, in 2015 the Center hosted a conference designed to “examine the pressing need of Western societies and global Muslim communities to comprehend each other and communicate to each other.”

In 2013 Trump’s Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis said,

“If you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”

This statement supports the idea that the work of the State Department prevents war. Given the precarious nature of the U.S. relationships with many countries including Russia, Syria and North Korea, it would be wise to invest resources in multiple diplomatic strategies, including creative ones that have the potential to move us more gently into the future.