Stephen M. Walt

Music hath charms … but we don’t use it (updated)

A thought struck me as I was reading the obits of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92.   Several accounts highlighted Brubeck’s role as a cultural ambassador, through his participation in various goodwill tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department. A number of other prominent jazz artists — including ...

The California Museum via Getty Images
The California Museum via Getty Images

A thought struck me as I was reading the obits of jazz legend Dave Brubeck, who passed away yesterday at the age of 92.   Several accounts highlighted Brubeck’s role as a cultural ambassador, through his participation in various goodwill tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department. A number of other prominent jazz artists — including luminaries like Louis Armstrong — were featured in these tours, which were intended to show off the appealing sides of American culture in the context of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union. This was a Bambi-meets-Godzilla competition, btw, with the Soviets in the role of Bambi. I like Shostakovich and respect the Bolshoi, but Soviet mass culture was outmatched when pitted against the likes of Satchmo.

But here’s my question: why isn’t the United States doing similar things today? The State Department still sponsors tours by U.S. artists — go here for a bit more information — but you hardly ever hear about them and it’s not like we’re sending "A-list" musicians out to display the vibrancy of American cultural life. Celebrities and musicians are more likely to do good will tours to entertain U.S. troops in places like Iraq, but the sort of tours that Brubeck and others did in the 1950s and 1960s seem to have become a minor endeavor at best.

The problem, I suspect, isn’t a lack of interest in cultural diplomacy or even lack of funding. Instead, I think this is an consequence of globalization. Today, someone in Senegal or Indonesia who wants to hear American jazz (or hip-hop, or blues, or whatever) just needs an internet connection. The same is true in reverse, of course; I can download an extraordinary array of world music just sitting here in my study at home. And that goes for videos of performances too, whether we’re talking music or dance or in some cases even theatre. Plus, top artists tour the world on their own in order to make money; they don’t need to go as part of some official U.S. government sponsored tour. And given the unpopularity of U.S. foreign policy in some parts of the world, official sponsorship is probably the last thing some artists would want.

But there may some exceptions to that rule, in the sense that are a few countries where artistic exchanges might open things up in ways that diplomats cannot. Iran isn’t likely to welcome Madonna, Christina Aguilera, or Justin Timberlake, perhaps, but have we thought about an artistic exchange with some slightly less edgy U.S. performers? If table tennis could help thaw relations with Mao’s China, maybe jazz, acoustic blues, or even classical music could begin to break the ice with Tehran. Iran’s has a large under-thirty population that is by all accounts hungry for greater access to world culture, so this sort of exchange would build good will with the populations that will be rising to positions of influence in the future. Plus, Iran has plenty of gifted performers who might find a ready audience here. And you can send a delegation of American musicians without violating UN sanctions or having to answer a lot of thorny questions about nuclear enrichment.

Update:  In response to this post, Hishaam Aidi of Columbia University and the Open Society Institute sent me this piece, which takes a critical view of the State Department’s more recent efforts to use hip-hop artists as a form of cultural outreach.  Well worth reading, and my thanks to Hishaam for sending it to me.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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