Cultural Diplomacy as a Military and Political Tool


A piece in the Los Angeles Times caught my eye. A retired brigadier general, Nolen Bivens, testified to Congress for the Tue., Apr. 13 “arts advocacy day,” and suggested that cultural diplomacy is yet another good reason — perhaps the best reason — to maintain government arts appropriations, especially the National Endowment for the Arts.

Nothing wrong with this, of course: Bivens’ testimony was a welcome and refreshing change of angle from the usual emphasis on economic impact, something that really must continue to be hammered home so long as the radical right refuses to realize how the nation’s creative industries generate jobs.

Story continues below.

Bivens’ point is that federal appropriations for the arts and for cultural diplomacy can and ought to be directly applied to foreign military and diplomatic operations to enhance U.S. national security and to reach desirable geopolitical goals. His testimony found the following ways to use culture to fight:

  • ….identify the possible areas where arts and cultural initiatives can best support…security cooperation plans.
  • ….as military engineer units build schools…artists or other local and national art organizations can resource the arts center in the school.
  • Build relations with military auxiliary organizations such as the National Military Family Association and other grass roots military community support organization efforts
  • Engage with military training and education institutions to co-develop cultural educational films that educate service military members prior to deployments.
  • Leverage and partner with the Morale, Welfare and Recreation divisions of the armed services to identify how local art organizations and businesses can participate in base and installation arts and crafts programs.
  • Brokering opportunities where by local artists and bands could combine with many of the all volunteer command bands at our bases and posts is a super way to support troop-family deployment and redeployment ceremonies and celebrations.

Courtesy of Americans for the Arts, Bivens’ full testimony can be read here.

Now, let’s look at this for a moment. In the recent past, we have we read some provocative statements opposing Bivens’ view, where it was questioned whether such funding deprives American artists back at home?

It came from Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, who wrote a 2009 think piece on this very topic for the Huffington Post, which the Clyde Fitch Report covered here.

In his HuffPo piece, Kaiser outlined some of his concerns in the form of interrogative rhetoric:

Do we need state-supported tours by American performing arts groups when without federal funding so many of our performers and performing arts groups are appearing all over the world, when American architects are designing high profile buildings internationally and when American artists are featured in the great museums?

Does sending a symphony orchestra to play for a thousand of the most powerful people in the capital of another nation truly affect the way our nation is viewed?

It was in that piece that Kaiser floated the idea that perhaps private industry should shoulder some of the costs of, say, “sending a symphony orchestra to play for a thousand of the most powerful people in the capital of another nation.”

So the question remains: Who is right? Is it Bivens — a career military fellow who suggests we should use NEA funding and cultural-exchange funding for the State Department to reach military as well as foreign policy goals? Or is it Kaiser — who suggests that such funding is wrong when American artists are increasingly forced to do without?

What do you think?