Do We Need A Cultural Foreign Policy?

The historical archives of Sarajevo, attacked and burned on Feb. 6, 2014 (via http://www.arhivsa.ba/)

This month in Bosnia-Herzegovina citizens protested government paralysis in every major city in the country, in some places leading to destruction of municipal government buildings. In Sarajevo, somebody took advantage of the chaos and burned the city archives – a terrible echo of the war of the 1990s, when the beautiful National and University Library was shelled by federal Yugoslav gunners and gutted, destroying the entire collection.

This event is particularly poignant given the recent release of “The Monuments Men,” the George Clooney film about an odd clutch of Allied soldiers tasked with saving art looted from across Europe by Adolph Hitler. Such an action may seem superfluous in the middle of the titanic struggle with fascism in Europe and nationalism in Asia, with literally millions of lives in the balance. Indeed, as the movie and the book by Robert Edsel make clear, the treasure hunt was seen by some as a distraction from Allied war aims. But Lt. George Stokes, Clooney’s character, understood the stakes all too well. “If you destroy a people’s history, it’s as if they never existed,” he says. “That’s what Hitler wants.”

Unfortunately, as events in Sarajevo demonstrate, the world’s cultural patrimony faces an array of threats less immediate but all the more dire and insidious for it. And we lack a coherent, coordinated ability to respond to threats to art and culture that measures up to the achievement of the monuments men.

The Sarajevo Haggadah (Wikimedia Commons)

Today the Sarajevo Haggadah – the oldest Hebrew codex in the Balkans – sits in the National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina which has been closed for a year, unprotected. The Bosnian national parliament cannot agree on its status as a federal institution and refused to fund it. The Balkan Wars, both world wars and the wars of the former Yugoslavia could not shut down the museum, which until last winter had remained open for 125 years. This is only part of the reason why Bosnians are protesting.

Without funding and support, professional curators and preservationists cannot ttend to their collections and artifacts. Climate goes uncontrolled. Collections are left unguarded and unmonitored. An entire nation’s patrimony is at risk. And Bosnia is not alone in Europe. Due to the financial crisis, the governments of Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania cut funding and closed many or parts of their national museums and galleries. Their collections, too, were threatened.

Direct threats remain as well. When the Taliban destroyed the Buddhas of Bamiyan, they ripped out a part of the Afghan nation. When Ansar Dine extremists destroyed the mausoleums of Sufi Muslim saints in Timbuktu, they assaulted an ancient center of Islamic history and Malian identity. It is difficult to justify intervention on behalf of works of art, but it is impossible to say we won’t help restore them the way the Stare Most was rebuilt after it was destroyed more than 20 years ago in Mostar, Bosnia.

But the United States today has no means, no unified institution and no philosophy – in short, no foreign cultural policy – to do what the monuments men did 70 years ago: to advocate on behalf of, preserve and, if necessary, rescue endangered art and culture around the world. What we have now in the United States is a hodge-podge of various agencies, bodies and private foundations – the Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery of Art, the State Department, USAID – each pursuing its own, limited projects without coordination, direction or support to match the need.

Some of these projects are important and noble. For example, the Smithsonian moved rapidly after the 2010 earthquake leveled Port-á-Prince to rescue Haitian art. The Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation provides flexible funding to U.S. embassies to support museums and galleries. But programs like these are small-bore or one-off. The Ambassadors Fund amounts to little more than $5 million per year for the entire world and only a fraction goes to securing the art works themselves.

In my recent book, I proposed creating a public-private entity called the U.S. Arts Restoration Trust to coordinate government and private resources for the advocacy of art and culture around the world. USART would need to work with the State Department, because execution of these projects would by necessity be enabled through American embassies which have permanent personnel on the ground. And it would need to work with private foundations and galleries with the financial resources and technical know-how to help preserve and restore art in foreign countries.

USART would represent, too, an ideological argument in our particular American approach to promoting art and culture. Culture in the United States is not entirely cut loose in the free market, but it is far more so than the rest of the world. American galleries and museums depend on philanthropy, particularly in contrast to their European or Asian counterparts. While the Smithsonian receives some federal funding, most municipal galleries and museums rely on local foundations and corporate charities. More precisely, we have a far deeper and longer history of philanthropy to draw on. When the European arts community was hit by the financial crisis, it was largely a recession of state support, and they had nowhere else to look for funding. As a result, their collections and personnel suffered.

The Ma’il Qur’an, British Library (via http://www.islamitalia.it)

While traveling abroad I saw the Ma’il Qur’an at the British Library, one of the oldest copies of this sacred text in the world. The importance of a library for preserving a codex becomes clear when you hear what senior conservator David Jacobs told the Arab News about the Ma’il Qur’an. “The problem with that particular manuscript is pigments that are quite friable and flaky, so obviously it needs care and attention and constant monitoring of its condition.” That kind of monitoring is no longer available to the Sarajevo Haggadah and possibly countless other irreplaceable texts and art pieces around the world.

When viewing treasures saved by the monuments men or preserved in the British Library, it is impossible to imagine them not existing. But that is because they survived and are protected to this hour. Rescuing threatened art was a mission we assumed 70 years ago and it is a duty we should take even more seriously today.

Gen. Dwight Eisenhower (r), Lt.Gen. George Patton (c) and Gen. Omar Bradley (l), inspect art looted by the Nazis (NARA via DeutscheWelle).

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Punk Is Not Dead

Today my review essay of Masha Gessen’s latest book, Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, appears in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The book is a testament to the courage of the members of the group who used creative means to attack the regime and status quo of Vladimir Putin’s Russia — currently enjoying the world’s attention in Sochi during the winter Olympics.

I send my sincere thanks to the editors at the L.A. Review of Books for publishing my review.

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The Interpreter of Comedies

The extended appearance of Pussy Riot members Nadya Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina on The Colbert Report Feb. 7 is worth watching for any number of reasons, top among them are hearing two victims of Vladimir Putin’s regime speaking in their own language. Undeterred from their ordeal, they are in the United States to try to make Russia a better place.

But it is also amazing to watch how well this interview works considering that it is consecutively interpreted in Russian and English between the interview subjects and Stephen Colbert’s weird ultraconservative alter ego. Colbert maintains his usual quick and sympathetic wit, but Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina more than keep up with him. Given their experience, their humor and barbs against the man responsible for their imprisonment and amnesty are all the more extraordinary and biting.

And keeping stride between the two sides — the Russians on one, Colbert and his unpredictable character on the other — is Anna Kadysheva, the interpreter. A professional interpreter and photographer living in New York, she deserves extraordinary praise for her deft linguistic abilities. This interview could have easily gone flat, but she brought the same smarts in two languages to the table as her subjects displayed to convey the bite and humor in both directions.

This is no mean achievement. Translation usually kills humor first. The situational aspect of the interview, and the obvious good will and intelligence arrayed at the table, helped the comedy vault the language barrier. But it was easy to miss how fluidly Anna kept the laughs flowing back and forth between subjects and interrogator. Listening to her, I recalled a professional’s admiring comment that it was Ginger Rogers who danced with Fred Astaire “backwards, and in heels”. The studio audience loved every second.

It’s not clear that Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina’s visit to the United States has done them much good politically back home — the anonymous collective known as Pussy Riot back in Russia has apparently broken off with them as they pursue their cause of prison reform. And going under the glare of the American media surely won’t help them with Putin’s propaganda machine, which can easily hijack Colbert’s hijinks to show how much the anti-Russian American media megalith, already tweeting furiously about their unfinished rooms in Sochi (as if that were not mere coincidence), loves these women and is conspiring to oppress the greatness of Russia.

But they have to talk to those who will listen. There is no other way to communicate what they have to say, and communication is part and parcel of real change. It is clear that they are sincere about that, and we can only hope their celebrity will protect them — and their friends — from the harm that has come to so many others back home.

This post was updated on March 5, 2014.

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America Is It

State Department and Customs and Border Protection, take note. Leave it to Coca-Cola, the preeminent American brand, to get so much right in 60 seconds during the Super Bowl. The short spot is the song “America the Beautiful” cut between a variety of scenes of family and friends from different cultural backgrounds enjoying themselves in the natural beauty of this country, in cities and at home. With slight edits (to remove the product placement) this could easily be played at every port of entry in the country.

What really sets this spot apart is the seamless weaving of our emotional national ode sung in several different languages — Spanish, Hindi, Tagalog, Hebrew, Arabic, to name a few. (If you visit the Youtube page with the videos you can learn about the “making of” with the many people who helped sing this multi-linguistic version of the classic hymn.)

It’s hard not to be moved by the music and the subtle message of the change in language (although there are the haters) which speaks more clearly than any argument I’ve ever made that America the beautiful is made up not so much of people ticking those ridiculously confining ethnic or racial boxes  but people who speak different languages. And somehow, for the most part, we make it work better than any other country on the planet. That’s something to celebrate and to emulate, not to disparage and denounce.

I’ve also written before about the effectiveness of advertisements and what we can learn from them for effective public diplomacy. Coke once taught the world to sing and I think this spot is even more effective than that famous advertisement. It’s more than enough to make the whole world smile.

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A Man in Full

U.S. Rep. George Miller (via McClatchy)

U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., announced this month he would not seek reelection this year after serving nearly 40 years in the House of Representatives. By any measure that is an extraordinary political career, but it is all the more so for what he accomplished during his tenure. And it’s all the more important to point out that in this strange gloaming moment when political success is measured by the strength of opposing polarity, George was — is — a man who insisted on getting things done. That is what politics is for. It is the art of the impossible. Or in the words of Ted Kennedy about his older brother, “I dream of things that never were and ask, ‘why not?'”

That is not necessarily a liberal precept. George was open to reforming the Endangered Species Act,  worked with the teachers union over education reform, and empowered the Chemical Safety Board to investigate industrial accidents rather than litigate them. (A recent reminder of that legacy, and George’s fight for clean drinking water, came during the recent accident in West Virginia). And he always did it, whether in the minority or the majority, with Republican partners — even President George W. Bush.

George represented my home town until redistricting went into effect last year. He was my Congressman when I worked for him in the late 1990s. In the arc of his career my service wasn’t very long, but it felt like a compressed graduate education in American politics. Every day, every minute on the job was freighted with import and insight. I like to think I had the good sense to recognize the privileged position I had then, working for a senior Member of Congress, and one so good and dedicated to his job. (If I didn’t then, I sure as hell do now.)

He cultivated good people working for him as well, and they form an awesome alumni association: Ilir Zherka, a legislative counsel, most recently led the effort to get voting rights for the District of Columbia. Charles Barone, an education policy expert, continues his work for Democrats for Education Reform. John Laurence, long George’s chief of staff, became Nancy Pelosi’s chief of staff during her Speakership. I’m amazed that I worked with them.

George demonstrated what could get done and that has informed my general optimism about politics. Working for him more than 15 years ago I saw him pass legislation to extend health care to poor children. Two administrations later, the Affordable Care Act extended those same benefits to most Americans. The impossible became possible. That’s what politics is for.

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A Centenary’s Legacy Beneath Our Feet

The battlefield at Verdun, France (Wikimedia Commons)

The new year brings the centenary commemoration of World War I in Europe, whose legacy reverberates through our history, policy and literature. From the peace experiments of the European Union, NATO and the United Nations to the tendentious borders of southeastern Europe and the Middle East, World War One continues to affect us in our every day. In its fratricidal horror it has become, in some sense, Europe’s civil war. To me its sound down the decades makes William Faulkner’s adage — “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — all the more resonant and poignant.

While living in Belgium I was immediately struck how the legacy of the combat from that war, and the wars that followed, continued to lurk just beneath the topsoil.  I visited Verdun, the site of a year-long Franco-German engagement in 1916 resulting in a million deaths. (Such casualty figures are almost impossible to imagine today, but just look at the Congo.) To achieve this death toll, the belligerents fired at least as many artillery rounds, and probably many more. The result is still plain on the battlefield, etched by communication trenches (see picture above): the landscape looks like a snapshot of the ocean during a storm, roiled by waves. The churned earth, now smooth, conceals the bodies of the dead and untold number of unexploded artillery rounds. Visitors are strongly advised to keep to the cleared and marked trails.

The village of Fleury-devant-Douamont was completely destroyed during the fighting. The cliche of wiping something “off the map” is too often bandied about in global affairs today. But in the case of Fleury and for many French communities during World War One, it is important to remember that the map is the only physical record left of them.

Back in Brussels, a bomb from World War II was excavated during the construction of the new NATO Headquarters complex across Boulevard Leopold III. (We were instructed to remain indoors while the bomb was detonated.) This was alarming but hardly surprising. The entire area had been commandeered by the Nazis as a military airfield during the war, so unexploded ordnance (UXO) — Allied and German — were bound to be left behind.

In fact, Belgium and Germany have some of the most active UXO disposal teams in the world working on their own soil. I’ve seen reported Belgium responds to more than 3,000 reported UXO cases a year. Germany has had four deaths in recent years trying to clear UXO from World War II. Japan is also very active disposing of UXO from the Pacific campaign. This is an awful legacy of both world wars just among our Allies. UXO from more recent conflicts, or conflicts among belligerents involving our proxies, or among countries that don’t involve us at all, implicate a far greater legacy.

I am deliberately avoiding the subject of landmines, which has attracted its own attention for all the appropriate reasons. I’ve also written previously about the legacy of chemical weapons dumped at sea. It seems to me, in the centenary of World War I — in a vastly changed world, with all the belligerents from that conflicts now partners, Allies and friends — that there is something important to be understood about the century-long legacy of that conflict, which is buried right at our feet. And that is: we shouldn’t have to cope with the same legacy, with our new friends, more than one hundred years hence.

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The Corrections

Graphic of hand-corrected manuscript of 1984 by George Orwell, via GeorgeOrwellNovels.com.

I found an error in Table 7.2 on page 124 relating to languages spoken in the United States. All of the numbers are from the U.S. Census Bureau and are accurate. But French (including dialects) at 1,358,816 inexplicably appears as the sixth-most spoken language in the United States after English. It should be fourth after Tagalog. (Jan. 1, 2014)

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From a friend working for an independent observer mission in Tblisi, Georgia, come the first corrections to my book The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy.

She notes on page 147 that during the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia Russia sent forces into South Ossetia, not North Ossetia, and Carl Bildt is the Foreign Minister of Sweden, not Finland (apologies to Mr. Bildt!).

I am very happy to make factual corrections such as these as well as engage in debate about the more subjective policy proposals in the book and on this site. Feel free to contact me here. (Dec. 31, 2013)

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How This Could End

Old Kabul, 2006. Photo by John Moore/Getty Pictures (via NATO Review)

Washington Post/ABC News poll of the American public released before Christmas may have been ignored for the negative tone typical of surveys of this type. Thirteen years into the war in Afghanistan and months away from a definitive withdrawal, the conflict is far from popular. But buried in the poll and the story, which also includes a recent AP/gfk poll reporting similar results, is an ominous trend of American public opinion that could slam the door on our political effort in that country, turn us away from the Afghan people, and irreparably rend the strategic relationship we have built in Central Asia. This only becomes clear when you understand the nature and history of public opinion and American entanglements overseas.

The Washington Post/ABC poll reported that a record high number of Americans believe the U.S. effort in Afghanistan “has not been worth it”. This characterization is different from saying they support the war or support the troops, the President or his foreign policy. This is a referendum on the entire effort.

The AP/gfk poll used similar language, with 57 percent of American suggesting that we “did the wrong thing” by invading the country in 2001-2002. The Washington Post poll demonstrates a majority of Americans have felt this way for some time, at least since early 2010.

The language is similar — but importantly not identical — to language that Gallup used to track American public opinion in Vietnam and Iraq, and this is why we should look very closely at the Post language and wait to see if Gallup might confirm it. Because the Gallup language is the absolute bellwether of political support for counterinsurgency efforts like those we are undertaking in Afghanistan.

Source: Gallup

Specifically, Gallup asks whether the effort (in Vietnam, in Iraq) was “a mistake”. And once U.S. public opinion tips definitively to a majority believing the effort was “a mistake,” political support for the war has been irreparably undermined. The geopolitical consequences are obvious. Americans believed the war in Vietnam was “a mistake” after the Tet Offensive in 1968 and material American support for the South Vietnamese government began to evaporate leading up to a full withdrawal in 1972. Saigon collapsed under North Vietnamese assault in 1975 and Americans effectively ignored the takeover by Khmer Rouge communist radicals of neighboring Cambodia the same year.

Americans similarly turned on the war in Iraq definitively in September 2006 — remember the “thumpin'” President Bush and Congressional Republicans received in November that year — and only a token military presence remains in the country today. Longstanding political-military efforts like these cannot last without broad-based political support at home. All major American engagements since World War II started with high public approval rates at the outbreak of hostilities.

“Mistake” seems to be the all-important language defining the collective change of mind, and the other polls’ characterizations don’t quite capture its definitive connotation. But they come close, and that’s ominous. Insurgencies like the one we are fighting, and supporting the Afghan government in fighting in their country, on average last about 15 years. As the old expression goes, the insurgent has the time while we hold the watch. That is especially true for democracies. But that does not mean we and our Afghan friends cannot prevail.

That requires leadership. I have written before about how the President does not seem to carry his rhetorical talent over to matters of war and conflict. I have also written about how we may not have the language to articulate progress and contextualize setbacks in an insurgency. And this past year has certainly assailed the President on other issues. But he has also consistently demonstrated that when he has needed to rally the public to him, he can. Now is the time to do so, before it’s too late. Fortunately, the same Washington Post poll also reported that 55 percent of Americans also supported leaving some U.S. forces in Afghanistan to continue counterinsurgency operations, which suggests that we have not quite made our minds up about this endeavor.

Because too much is at stake. We have committed too much to our friends, taken the fight too hard to our enemies, and borne too much sacrifice, to walk away from the struggle. The struggle is not so much with al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or their kith, but for the desire to establish a decent society with commerce and institutions that promote and preserve the dignity of people in a region that has long lacked these things. It is that lack that our enemies have exploited.

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Matters of Interpretation

If the unfortunate fracas over the fraudulent sign language interpreter for the public funeral service of Nelson Mandela had one upside, it might be this wonderful, illuminating (if short) discussion with Melanie Metzger, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Interpretation at Galludet University in Washington, D.C., on the Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU.

As you can see in the embedded video above, the discussion is made all the more informative for the live, simultaneous sign language interpretation incorporated into the interview between Dr. Metzger and her interpreter, Caroline Ressler. For those who have never watched the interaction between a deaf speaker and an interpreter, or who have only seen sign language interpreters on television or on stage, the relationship between the two might surprise them.  Deaf conversation can be highly animated, tactile, and for the hearing audience — missed here because of the spoken interpretation — often surprisingly loud and percussive. This also provides you a much better idea of the impressive feat of simultaneous interpretation, in any language.

I have posted this discussion not just for the importance of the topic but also because of my interest in language and interpretation generally.  American Sign Language is a language, with its own regional accents and dialects, and the cognitive issues Metzger discusses here are analogous to interpretation in other languages, regardless of ability or tongue.

I would only add for those living near Gallaudet University (or anyone with access to a school for the deaf) to see a theater production at the drama studio, which as a hearing person I can only describe as theater acted in three dimensions after a life performing in bas relief!

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The Last Three Feet

Hear my interview with The Public Diplomat’s PDCast, courtesy of Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications and its Master’s Program in Public Diplomacy. I talk about working at NATO, my new book, and effective public diplomacy. Many thanks to Michael Ardaiolo for conducting the interview!

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