Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Before the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy
Washington, DC
January 9, 2013

Thank you for that introduction.

I am tempted to begin this speech with some New Orleans Jazz, or an African drum. Or maybe show you an Italian sculpture, or bring out a couple of tango dancers – straight from Buenos Aires. I am trying to get your senses going.

I’m afraid we do not have the budget to give you a three-ring spectacle, but I will tell you what I am doing on Saturday night – because it’s all about cultural diplomacy. I’ll be meeting 12 Burmese basketball players in their teens – six girls, six boys.

They’re here because we invited them to visit Washington to see a Washington Wizards game. After that, they’ll go down to Charlotte where they’ll meet with Bobcats General Manager Richard Cho, who happens to be a Burmese American. He’ll invite them to his home and take them to a Bobcats game.

We’re not recruiting future NBA professionals. We’re using cultural diplomacy to give them an American experience. They come from all corners of Burma, with different ethnicities and backgrounds. But each has demonstrated leadership in some way. With this experience, we hope to open new doors to their futures.

What I want to talk about is the significance of culture, its meaning to America in a public diplomacy sense, and how we are working to harness its best potential, so that we can bring cultures together.

Now more than ever, we must do all we can to maximize those opportunities.

The significance of culture – and by extension, cultural diplomacy – is not lost on us as Americans. After all, we represent the ultimate cultural experiment. And we believe our 237-year narrative of bringing people from all corners of the world towards a more perfect union is a story worth sharing.

In the 20th century, we saw how – when we shared our story – cultural diplomacy made a difference. During the Cold War, our jazz musicians, basketball players, and others entertained audiences behind the Iron Curtain with messages of freedom. The late Czech leader and playwright Vaclav Havel has spoken about how much jazz meant to him, how it gave him hope for a better future.

Our jazz diplomacy had an interesting subplot. Many of the musicians – as African Americans – spoke frankly about the segregation that was an unfortunate aspect of their experience. But in their condemnations, audiences saw citizens that were free to express their opinions without retribution. That was a powerful message embedded in the notes that were played and by those who were playing them.

I mention these Cold War examples because some have suggested that cultural diplomacy is no longer necessary – now that the Berlin Wall is down. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But first: the challenges.

The world’s cultures have become too interconnected and interdependent, socially, economically, and politically, to ignore. The digital age has forced us into ever closer intimacy. Our modes of communication are no longer constrained by geography or cultural divisions. More and more people converse, operate, trade, invest, interact, and take decisive and groundbreaking action – with social media as their central tool.

So, more people than ever are accessing and sharing information about their cultures – virtually and in real space.

We have seen the negative consequences of our digital connections, such as the violent uprisings that occurred in response to controversial Danish cartoons, the desecration of Korans, and one hateful film about Islam.

We have seen, too, how autocratic governments and terrorist organizations have concocted false cultural narratives of their own, to deceive followers or citizens, while also limiting their access to the news and truth.

It is also true that there are those who have no connection to digital media, for whom other cultures can seem alien, suspect, and who we also need to reach – person to person, face to face. And we have seen how anti-Americanism persists in many corners, giving rise to violence against our citizens, our nation, and our partners.

So whether we choose to accept it or not, the United States will always be part of the global conversation – not only through our actions as a government but through the popular culture with which we are identified.

The question isn’t whether we should participate in public diplomacy – of which cultural diplomacy is a major part – but how we can harness cultural diplomacy as a force for good.

Which brings me to the opportunities. They are too important to ignore: People worldwide are hungering for freedom and opportunity and searching for examples to emulate. While the U.S. doesn’t provide the only model to emulate, we know we have positive contributions to make. And we know that when we engage on a cultural level, we can open doors that might otherwise be locked.

After the attack on Melala Yousafzai – the 14-year-old girl who was attacked by the Taliban for going to school – one of our Foreign Service officers composed a song called “Jenaiy.” Written in Pashto, it means “girl,” and it encourages young women to pursue their dreams. The response was overwhelmingly positive on social media and broadcasting outlets.

As the African playwright Wole Soyinka once said, “What politics demonizes, culture humanizes.” With one song, cultural diplomacy helped us sidestep politics, and contextualize our values and policies in a very human way.

When we humanize our relationships, we can achieve even greater things. We can build mutual understanding. We can even reap benefits for our own citizens. They learn to embrace and share valuable information with other cultures. They develop relationships in person or virtually. They develop international contacts that can enhance careers. They benefit economically from the trade and investment that can follow.

The possibilities are endless: business deals, peace treaties, virtual exchanges, cross-cultural marriages, or even that important vote on the United Nations floor.

Cultural diplomacy is an essential component of our international leadership because we can share America’s story in so many different ways.

We regularly showcase American culture for the 15 million visitors who come to our 850 American Spaces around the world – some of them large cultural centers, others modest corners in local libraries. We reach out to foreign audiences face to face, through social media, and other connective technologies.

And we use cultural diplomacy to support civil society – whose practitioners are the building blocks of any free society. When we bring the lawyers, journalists, artists, educators, and students of other countries into meaningful contact with their counterparts in our country, we can build networks on which societies can build freer futures.

But we must also recognize that – as a government – we cannot do it alone. Our funding for cultural diplomacy differs from most major nations. We don’t have a Ministry of Culture or Sports or Youth. We have to rely on appropriated funds and partnership with the private sector to advance our goals. That means working with corporations, arts organizations, foundations, universities, artists, and others.

By engaging the diversity of the American cultural community and leveraging all resources, we can expand and leverage our cultural diplomacy. And that helps us reach more people through the power of our ideas and values.

That’s why we work robustly – chiefly through our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and our Bureau of International Information Programs – to support cultural programs and exchanges everywhere. Our programs are numerous, so I’ll mention just a few – and talk about how they impart our values and bring people together.

Our educational opportunities for young people and faculty, such as the Fulbright program, bring students, scholars, teachers, artists, and professionals from other countries to the United States – and sends Americans overseas to teach and study as well.

When foreign students and teachers spend time in our universities, they see places of intellectual and artistic freedom. They see opportunities to learn – with no one censoring what they say or think. They also engage meaningfully with members of the academic and local communities.

We know that social media can expand our outreach through what we call 21st Century Statecraft. So through our Global Connections and Exchange Program, we link up students, educators, and community youth leaders online. Our Youth TechCamps empower young people around the world to engage via digital networks.

And in the memory of the late ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens, our Youth Network will provide specialized trainings in digital dialogue and online media sharing, discussions on global issues, and community building to schools in the United States and Middle East and North Africa region.

Of course, there is no substitute for face-to-face encounters. As part of our TechWomen program, for example, we bring Saudi women to Silicon Valley where they meet American entrepreneurs, who show them how to start a business. They see that societies can, and should, allow women to participate in economies; and determine their own futures. They can then take those lessons and business models back to their own culture.

Our cultural ambassadors – like the jazz players and athletes in the Cold War – bring in that personal dimension too. That’s why we continue to send cultural and sports luminaries to engage with foreign audiences, both in-person and through virtual programs.

The Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Lynne Nottage traveled to Chad for the State Department to show how theater can build cultural awareness about sexual and gender based violence. And a women’s soccer star, Sari Rachel Rose, led youth soccer camps in Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt.

When young girls see famous women soccer stars in front of them, juggling a ball and talking about empowerment – it makes an impact.

They see the benefits of our Title IX culture, in which American girls have grown up to win World Cups and gold medals. And it opens doors for them to dream too.

While real people add impact to our cultural diplomacy, our support for the restoration and protection of cultural sites and artifacts everywhere sends an equally powerful message: that we are committed to national heritage.

Let me tell you about a monument in Afghanistan – a massive building called the Citadel in Herat. It goes back as far as the 4th century – the time of Alexander. When we helped restore that, the benefits were enormous. We generated nearly 70,000 full days of work – enough to employ 50 people for five straight years. We created a vibrant tourist attraction that boosted the local economy. And we helped to reconnect Afghans to their shared history.

I’ll give you another example in Timor-Leste. We worked with local communities and the Timorese Government to restore sacred houses that were destroyed during the Indonesian occupation. That support signaled our respect for local culture and traditions, and symbolized our strong support for the nation-building project in that country. And people see that in deeds, not words.

Cultural diplomacy can be a force multiplier that enhances relationships, builds understanding, advances prosperity, and strengthens our own national security. It starts with recognizing that culture is more than its paintings, relics, churches, or cuisine. It is about the human aspirations they represent.

I would like to conclude as I began – with a story. Bernadette Williams was a dynamic and engaging professional who came to the United States shortly after the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti.

We were unsure if she would be able to participate in one of our exchange programs. Our embassy had trouble reaching her.

But Bernadette came, more determined than ever to make the journey here to the U.S.—perhaps because the arts organization she represented, the Holy Trinity Music School and Orchestra, had been destroyed.

She moved all those that she came in contact with—not only by her spirit—but because of her commitment to her profession and to Haiti.

She said – and I quote, “I never gave much importance to my dreams, but now, because of my experience in the United States and at the Cleveland Institute of Music, I know dreams are possible. Before the program, I didn’t think that Haiti had much to share, but because of the program, I realized that I have an infinite amount to share, and that even in a poor country like Haiti, music is wealth. I look forward to creating an exchange program with my school and the Cleveland Institute of Music.”

Bernadette knew that culture represents the definitional and sacred hallmarks of a people. It reaches as deeply into a nation’s past as it frames and defines the present and future. When we bridge cultures, we don’t just enshrine what people treasure, we build richer, more diverse, and mutually trusting partnerships for the future. And that makes cultural diplomacy an essential tool for the 21st century.

Thank you.