The Cultural Diplomacy of Holiday Traditions

It’s two weeks until Christmas–the lights are on all over town, Christmas music is playing in all of the (very crowded) shopping centres and Leeds’ Christkindlmarkt is packed. My international students are loving it! Whenever I run into them in the city centre, they’ve got their phones out–they take loads of pictures of Christmas lights and decorations, market stalls and food. I love the way Christmas is celebrated in Britain, and it’s made me think about how holiday traditions can communicate culture. 

Being overseas makes you reflect on your own practices, including the way you celebrate holidays. When I came to the UK, I realised that my family’s traditions were not necessarily “American”–there is no single “American” way of celebrating anything, because we’re a melting pot (or salad bowl) of different cultures and we don’t even all celebrate the same things. 

My idea of Christmas is heavily influenced by Swedish traditions, through my Swedish grandma–opening presents on Christmas Eve after a smörgåsbord (julbord) buffet dinner that includes pickled herring, cold cuts, cheese & crackers. The “American” elements of my Christmas are probably the eggnog, the Starbucks Christmas menu, and seeing Santa Claus in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (marking the official start to the holiday season!).

For me, the most surprising thing about the holiday season in Britain is that it is 100% Christmas. There’s no Fox News-dubbed “War on Christmas” here. It’s all advent calendars, Christmas trees and baubles, Christmas jumpers and Christmas pudding. Christmas markets are brought over on trucks from Frankfurt–which is another interesting point about British Christmas: it’s very German. King George III’s wife Queen Charlotte (and later Prince Albert) brought the concept of a Christmas tree to the UK from Germany, among other traditions.

When I was a kid, we did an annual “Holiday Concert” in December. We sang a mix of Hannukah, Christmas (mostly Santa, not Jesus) and secular songs (Frosty the Snowman, Winter Wonderland, etc.). Not so for British kids–even state schools (public schools) put on a nativity and hold Christmas fairs. My son’s school is not affiliated with any church, but they’re doing a nativity next week. Since September he’s been coming home from preschool singing “Away in a Manger” and “Little Donkey”, so it’s definitely about Jesus rather than Santa or snowmen. It’s because Christianity is the official state religion here–Church of England, which the monarch is technically the head of–but it’s so crazy to me. A higher proportion of the US population identifies as Christian than the UK population (71% vs 59%, according to a quick, unscientific Wikipedia check), yet we called it “Winter Break” and I still know the words to “Chanukah, Oh Chanukah” twenty-plus years later…

Holiday celebrations are an excellent opportunity for learning about a foreign culture–they reveal values and beliefs, and ultimately, they show how much we all have in common. They’re about family and friends and food–pretty much every celebration around the world shares those elements. Anything that demonstrates this should be considered a valuable tool in exchange diplomacy practice.

To exchange participants, I would suggest they embrace local traditions, join in and ask questions–take an interest in the celebrations, try the food, compare your own traditions with those of the host country.

To exchange diplomacy program administrators, I would suggest they incorporate holiday events into their schedules. The Fulbright Program in the UK, for instance, has a Thanksgiving celebration for American grantees in the UK each year, which is lovely. The holidays can be a lonely, difficult time to be a foreigner, especially if nobody else is celebrating the same things you do. Maybe encourage participants to host their own celebrations and invite host country nationals, or other international students. I’ve hosted Thanksgiving and 4th of July parties for friends from all over the world in the UK, and I’ve been a guest at Lunar New Year celebrations–it’s a great excuse for a party, and you learn something about other cultures, too!

Advertisements

Cultural Diplomacy and Brexit

In the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster, the urgent considerations are the basics: food, water, shelter, healthcare. After those needs are taken care of, after some time has passed, victims start to realise the full scope of what’s been lost: their favourite pair of shoes, their photo albums and scrapbooks, the irreplaceable heirlooms, etc. Some things will be more important than others, and the absence of some missing items won’t ever be noticed.

Brexit is shaping up to be such an event–a disaster with far-reaching impacts in areas that we hadn’t fully considered or predicted–and some people won’t even notice them. I suspect that cultural diplomacy and cultural relations between the UK and EU might be one of them.

I’m starting to work on a chapter about the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO), a cultural diplomacy initiative by the EU that has recently moved its headquarters from London to Ferrara, Italy due to Brexit. As the name suggests, it’s an orchestra made up of young musicians from each of the 28 member states. They were formed in 1976 and have been touring the world as a European delegation to foreign audiences since 1978. They’re collaborating with Chinese musicians from the Shanghai Orchestra Academy as part of the EU’s Experience Europe campaign in China.

In a 2016 speech, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the orchestra was “the best possible ambassador for the European Union. Wherever it plays, the European tune becomes a political programme, and vice versa. And I am therefore pleased that we have a European Youth Orchestra. I would much rather see young people playing music together than politicians plotting against each other.”

The future of British performers’ eligibility will be determined by the current negotiations taking place, but it is likely that they will no longer be able to participate. Their website states that they only accept applications from EU member state musicians–so no Norwegians, Swiss, or Icelandic musicians. Under an FAQ about British eligibility, they write: “UK players ARE STILL eligible to apply in the autumn of 2018 for the EUYO 2019 Orchestra. The arrangement for future years will depend on the details of the agreement negotiated between the EU and the UK.”  (emphasis as original)

Most of the people who voted to leave the EU won’t notice or care about the orchestra’s move to Italy or the fact that British youth won’t be able to apply for it anymore. They’ll point to The Proms and insist that we don’t need foreign musicians to have a great orchestra.

But one of the reasons why I love this story and decided to research it further is that I know it does matter. An orchestra is a great metaphor for international cooperation, for the European Union’s motto “United in Diversity”. Each instrument makes a different sound, gets played in a different way, but they all work together to create an orchestra. You can’t play orchestral music alone. There might be soloists who shine a bit brighter in the spotlight than the rest of the group, but at the end of the day the success of an orchestra depends upon the contributions of all of its members.

We don’t know what’s going to happen in 6 months’ time when Britain leaves the EU. Negotiations are still going on, plagued by in-fighting in the UK Government (though seemingly unchallenged and untempered by the opposition party–apart from Sadiq Khan). There’s a great deal of uncertainty in this, but I do know that leaving the EU means leaving EU cultural diplomacy and exchange diplomacy activities, and thereby represents a loss to the ultimate goal of international mutual understanding and goodwill.

It’s the young people who will be hurt by this change–the talented young British musicians who want to join a competitive, prestigious orchestra that has been touring around the world for 40 years. They weren’t old enough to vote in 2016, so they were shut out of this opportunity with no say in the matter.

When the British people went to the polls and ticked a box next to a simplistic “Yes” or “No” question, they had no idea of the full scope of the implications that would arise from their vote–and I’m certain that there will be more cases like the EUYO that we’ll learn about in the years to come.

 

Sister Cities International: Exchange Diplomacy, Xi Jinping and Soybeans

U.S. News & World Report ran a story last week on Sister Cities International, introducing it with the fact that in 1985, President Xi Jinping visited Iowa on a Sister Cities International exchange.

“He stayed close with the family that hosted him as a young delegate from Hebei province, and this year, a soybean farm opened in Hebei, modeled after the one run by another family who hosted him on a return trip as vice president in 2012.”

The 2012 trip was profiled in this Daily Mail piece. This was one example of an exchange-diplomacy-alum-turned-world-leader that I didn’t expect. I love that Xi Jinping learned about agriculture in America’s heartland, and how his 2012 itinerary included Muscatine, Iowa alongside a visit to the White House (this New York Times article about the Washington part of the visit didn’t mention it). It’s particularly fascinating because the traditionally Republican farmers don’t support Trump’s trade war with China–those same soybean farmers that now-President Xi Jinping stayed with, who voted for Trump, are now taking a big hit (and getting a bailout), due to Trump’s trade war.

Sister Cities International was one of several exchange diplomacy efforts initiated by President Eisenhower in the 1950s. He believed in the ability of citizen diplomacy to enhance and even surpass traditional diplomacy:

“If we are going to take advantage of the assumption that all people want peace, then the problem is for people to get together and to leap governments — if necessary to evade governments — to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other.”President Eisenhower’s remarks at the People-to-People Conference, September 11, 1956

Sister Cities has received less coverage in the academic literature than other exchange-of-persons programs of the time. Matt Loyaza’s 2013 article, “A Curative and Creative Force”: The Exchange of Persons Program and Eisenhower’s Inter-American Policies, 1953–1961, looks at the State Department’s Leader & Specialist exchanges with Argentina, Brazil and Chile, the so-called ‘A-B-C countries’ considered by US officials to be a crucial ideological battleground of the early Cold War. Victor Rosenberg looked at Eisenhower’s diplomacy & cultural exchanges with the Soviet Union. Jazz diplomacy and dance diplomacy were also key features of Eisenhower’s citizen-forward strategy.

Confucius Institutes

Inside Higher Ed recently mentioned a provision in the current U.S. defense spending bill that restricts funding for Chinese language instruction provided by a Confucius Institute. The headline made it sound like U.S. universities with Confucius Institutes were being punished, but it’s really just a measure to limit the CI, because universities can waive the limitation and still receive funding if they certify that CI instructors won’t be involved in the university’s Chinese language program.

I quite liked the author’s succinct summary of why CIs are controversial:

“Critics say the institutes spread Chinese Communist Party propaganda and allow an entity of the Chinese government undue control over instruction and curriculum in U.S. universities, while supporters say the institutes are vehicles for cultural and educational exchange and provide much-needed funds for Chinese language instruction.” 

There has been quite a lot of public diplomacy scholarship on Confucius Institutes and China’s soft power strategy in general in recent years–Falk Hartig’s Chinese Public Diplomacy: the Rise of the Confucius Institute (2015), articles in Journal of Contemporary China (2016), Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education (2016), and Journalism Practice (2016), to name a few.

There’s no real consensus on whether CIs are “propaganda” or cultural exchange–but therein lies the difficulty in defining exchange diplomacy. It depends on perspective, us vs. them. When “they” do it, it’s propaganda but when “we” do it, it’s just information.

So what do CIs do? There are 500 around the world, so of course there’s going to be some variance. As an example, here’s an infographic on Scotland’s CIs and an advert for a CI event at the University of Aberdeen:

confucius institute scotlandconfucius institute

These sound like the kinds of things “we” do–the U.S. and Britain promote English language courses, the Alliance Française offers French classes and film screenings, the Instituto Cervantes has Spanish classes and guitar lessons–but when a CI hosts Chinese New Year celebrations, it’s propaganda…

Again, I’m not an expert on CIs, but when the Inside Higher Ed article mentioned that Marco Rubio was one of the critics, it made me think CIs must not be all that bad!

 

 

For those who are interested in further detail: Section 1091 contains the prohibition, limitation, and the terms under which the limitation can be waived.Confucius InstitutesFull text of the bill available here.

 

Montenegro and the role of values & culture in diplomacy

One of the stranger international affairs headlines (apart from Steven Seagal’s envoy appointment) in recent weeks was Trump’s criticism of Montenegro in an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. It was part of his criticism of NATO and Article 5 (which has only ever been invoked by the US), but it seemed particularly out-of-left-field, even for Trump.

“Montenegro is a tiny country with very strong people. They are very aggressive people, they may get aggressive, and congratulations, you’re in World War III.” (Politico’s coverage)

There are a lot of issues with this, obviously, but rather than spending time picking apart Trump’s bizarre statement, I’d like to highlight the way the UK ambassador talks about and with Montenegro as a point of contrast.

HMA Alison Kemp recently spoke at a panel marking the 140th anniversary of UK-Montenegro relations. In her remarks, she emphasised the role of culture in international relations:  “In many ways Culture, even more so than a diplomat, is the Ambassador for a country, it shapes a people’s response to a foreign country, and influences, enchants or repels decision-makers. ” The anniversary celebration events include cultural diplomacy activities, including a Montenegrin art exhibition and concerts in London and a Play UK festival in Podgorica.

Kemp’s speech gave some interesting insights into the Government’s current mindset and approach to world affairs, which have often been obscured by the uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, the gaffes that often seem to happen when Brits are around Chinese delegations, and the sideshow of last month’s Trump visit. I also particularly liked her thoughts on the role of culture & values in diplomacy more generally–very much in line with the “humanising IR” approach:

“As diplomats, we spend our days thinking about values: explaining and projecting the values that form the basis of our society and national interests. And in seeking to understand and influence the values of the countries to which we are posted.

And our values, our culture, drive our international diplomacy. Whether we are standing with Montenegro and 80 other countries in support of a safer world by seeking to improve the ability of relevant international organisations to investigate chemical weapons attacks, or working with Montenegro and 37 countries who have signed the Global Call to Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking.

These examples prove another important point, that culture and values in diplomacy are powerful ways of building consensus around issues.

A government can’t construct culture, it can only provide an environment in which culture develops. In the UK this means focusing on creativity in education, in valuing the arts, and in ensuring we champion our values through our policies.”–Ambassador Alison Kemp, 27 June 2018

Beyond Trump & Putin: Increasing Exchanges Between the American and Russian People

Dr Thomas Garza, Associate Professor of Slavic & Eurasian Studies at University of Texas, wrote an excellent op-ed in The Hill about the Helsinki summit, in which he advocated an increase in exchange diplomacy between the two countries.

He pointed to key events in the history of US-Soviet/Russian relations, emphasising that even in the tensest moments of the Cold War, there was an emphasis on bilateral talks and keeping a conversation going, including between the American and Russian people.

He explained that the summit between Trump and Putin was “a staged opportunity to provide the optics of stronger relations between the two countries without providing any of the necessary substance. The absence of immediate records of the substance of the talks and, consequently, of any evidence of progress in forwarding a new era of bilateral exchange and collaboration, leaves one wanting some tangible results that relations between the two countries – not just between the two presidents – were stronger.”

Dr Garza recommended a renewal of the type of exchange diplomacy that was used towards the end of the Cold War, and in its aftermath, to create a transparent, open relationship between the people of each country. “Moving forward, we would all benefit from a return to a more citizen-to-citizen oriented diplomacy much like that of the Gorbachev era that increased contact between our countries, not only in a summit setting, but also in bilateral exchanges and initiatives.”

Would it help? Can we treat Trump and Putin as a sideshow and get on with the important work of improving relations at the micro-level of citizen-to-citizen exchanges? Is it really possible to conduct transparent, bilateral talks while there’s so much confusion, chaos, distrust, etc. going on? I suppose that’s what they managed to do during the Cold War, though. Soviet-American cultural exchanges increased during the detente period, with thousands of students, scholars, leaders, musicians and other artists travelling in both directions. Ordinary citizens could interact with other ordinary citizens, see everyday life first hand–or experience foreign cultures without leaving home. Russians could see Duke Ellington perform in Moscow, and Americans could see the Bolshoi Ballet in New York.

While I accept the argument that exchange diplomacy worked well during the Cold War, I’m slightly more skeptical of its possibilities in today’s context. I don’t think the current problems between the US and Russia can be repaired through more contact between the American and Russian people. I have the impression that we don’t really have a problem with each other–I think it’s more about concrete actions than mutual understanding. The Americans are critical of human rights violations, journalists ‘disappearing’, the invasion of neighboring countries, etc. Trump supporters have adopted his vague language of it being “a good thing” to get along with Russia, because they don’t know/don’t care about these issues. And we don’t know for sure why Trump insists on criticising America’s European allies while praising Putin, Kim Jong-Un, etc. but hopefully we’ll know more about his motivations before the midterms in November. (Press on, Robert Mueller!)

For more on US-Soviet exchanges during the Cold War, see Yale Richmond’s 2003 book Cultural Exchange and the Cold War: Raising the Iron Curtain. Like many authors who’ve written about US State Department exchanges, Richmond offers an insider’s perspective, as he was Director of Soviet & East European exchanges in the department’s Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs during the 1970s. The book is fascinating, filled with great anecdotes of lives changed and perspectives altered through exchange diplomacy. It’s somewhat overly positive–a good example of what Ludovic Tournes and Giles Scott-Smith recently described as a “hagiographic” tendency in the literature on exchanges–but certainly offers a compelling account of activities between the two key players in this vitally important period of exchange diplomacy history.