I routinely attend Washington, DC policy conferences and roundtables, make the rounds to think tanks, take copious notes, and get my networking on afterward. I have done this so often that, after only a few post-dancing-career years in this new space, I am familiarized with the circuit, and with the familiar faces and familiar comments — such as where Expert A says: “Country X should do this, Country Y should that, and the international community will in turn, do this, and we’ll all be the better for it.”
Similarly, I know that one expected question from every audience is always going to be:
Well, Trump is still in charge so none of that really holds true, right?
Recently I attended a DC policy event that was, in a word, surprising. It was a conference, hosted by the Meridian International Center, entitled “The Countries of the Mekong” — that is, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. I was invited to attend on a whim, and as I knew virtually nothing about the countries of the Mekong and since I’d heard about the fantastically historic architecture at the Meridian Center (which hosts DC’s last remaining formal annual ball), I decided to give it a go. As I waited for the first session to begin, I perused the program and learned that I was in for a treat — a dash of culture to be presented alongside the requisite trade and security discussions!
According to its website and materials, the annual Meridian Diplomacy Forum
…convenes government and business leaders with academic experts and cultural visionaries to examine the position of soft power alongside trade and security in international relations.
This year’s Forum was intended to examine US relations with the countries and peoples of the Mekong subregion, by bringing government, business and artistic leaders together to:
…discover and explore the ecological, cultural and economic allure flowing through the Mekong.
Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam have experienced significant economic growth in recent decades, including major developments in both infrastructure and tourism. These countries are ripe for foreign direct investment as well as for novel public-private partnerships. So the first half of the Forum explored just that –- an economic and security discussion among current and former policymakers, diplomats and private-sector leaders involved in the region. I learned a ton and was delighted to connect more dots.
Things became deeply interesting, however, when the conversation shifted to questions of preserving cultural heritage, balancing tourism for sustainable economic development with proper deference to local community wishes, and thinking about the role that the varied cultures of the Mekong play in community resilience. Rounding out the day was a fireside chat between Channapha Khamvongsa, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Legacies of War — whose mission is “to raise awareness about the history of the Vietnam War-era bombing in Laos and advocate for the clearance of unexploded bombs, to provide space for healing the wounds of war, and to create greater hope for a future of peace” — and Niphasone Souphom, president of the nonprofit Lao Heritage Foundation, which aims to preserve and promote Lao culture. Both groups work with diaspora communities here in the US — all too often left out of international policy discussions. And both use arts, culture and education to raise awareness and to heal old wounds.
What struck me was the up-front, unapologetic inclusion of arts and culture within the larger discussions of war and peace, prosperity and poverty. The panelists did not relegate arts and culture to the kids table or view the field as anything less than serious. Indeed, there can be no exploration of longstanding peace, power competition or ending poverty without a serious consideration of arts and culture. The evening ended with a feast of dishes from the region, delicious beer from Laos, and live performance by dancers and musicians. We attendees fell into lively discussion, too, creating a great ending to the Forum and a much-needed step towards a more inclusive discussion of global citizenship.