At the height of the Cold War, the US State Department deployed a new weapon in its fight against communism – jazz. Over a period of 20 years, it dispatched some of the greatest musicians – Dizzie Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington –to play in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and even the Soviet Union, where Benny Goodman tooted his clarinet in Red Square, in a battle for hearts and minds. The New York Times of 6 November  1955 reported on its front page: “America's secret weapon is a blue note in a minor key.” Louis Armstrong was named as “its most effective ambassador”.

Rather than send the traditional symphony orchestras and prima ballerinas, what could better advertise American values than the fresh and free-flowing notes of these soloists who were taking music in new and exciting directions? Jazz seemed to speak volumes about the freedom of the individual to do his own thing. What’s more, most of the musicians were black, sent abroad to prove that America was enlightened – this was especially important because at the same time the country faced the problem of racial division. Segregation in the South and civil rights struggles tarnished America’s image. Soviet propaganda in turn ridiculed the ideals the US projected as hollow.

The jazz ambassadors benefited financially, of course, but also in terms of recognition. It showed they had arrived, that their tunes were valued. But many were uncomfortable with trumpeting the glories of America and spoke out against domestic policies. Dizzy Gillespie went on the first State Department trip but wouldn’t attend official briefings, saying he "wasn't going to apologise for the racist policies of America" and he veered away from the brief of performing for the important elites  the State Department was courting. Instead, he jammed with local musicians and played for the poor.

Other diplomatic uses of culture were clandestine. In the 1990s it was revealed that as part of a propaganda campaign run against the Communist bloc, the CIA covertly nurtured and promoted American modern art, Abstract Expressionism in particular, including the work of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning. This genre was chosen because it provided a vibrant and dramatic contrast to the rigid Socialist Realism of the Soviet Union and its allies. When it was confirmed that the CIA had funded this work, the authenticity and motives of the artists were thrown into question, their credibility somewhat tainted.

Softly, softly

These are examples of the uses and limitations of soft power, a term coined by the US academic Joseph Nye, who distinguished between hard power – force, delivered through money and guns – and soft power – influence, acquired by attraction over a long period.  Some proponents of soft diplomacy argue that cultural activities can be as effective as more explicit measures. The president of the Academy for Cultural Diplomacy in BerlinDr Emil Constantinescu, thinks that "cultural diplomacy is inherently creative and constructive in nature, as opposed to ‘hard power’ which is inherently destructive.” Constantinescu believes that cultural diplomacy is needed now more than ever and is confident that if it is applied, "more cooperation will be possible and the chances for conflict in the world will be reduced."  

But when art is put to work for politics, tensions arise. The interests of government – any government – are rarely aligned with artists. Artists don’t always follow the bidding of their masters and have often challenged or impeded diplomatic efforts. Nor are artists always on the right side, or even that peaceful – it’s rarely mentioned now but on the eve of World War I, many poets and painters werehearty supporters of the conflict. .

And then there is the thin line between artwork that expresses an idea, and propaganda: a didactic message can be the kiss of death. Even when art is political, it is at its most powerful when it is nuanced. What’s more, it’s impossible to know how effective art is when it is put to work in the service of diplomacy. Hard power diplomacy, can lead toformal agreements andto changes in law, whereas the outcomes of cultural diplomacy are  more difficult to identify.

But despite these limitations, cultural diplomacy is in vogue today. A report published by the British Council,'Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century documents an important shift: Asia, the Middle East, Russia, India and China are all taking soft power seriously. The report’s author, John Holden, warns against any Western retreat in their cultural offerings in the face of this rise in interest.

China has spent millions on their Confucius Institutes. In less than 10 years of operation, there are now more than 300 institutes dotted around the world, promoting Chinese language and culture. Korea is making huge investments in large-scale cultural projects, as is Brazil, which is projecting the wonders of football and samba music. Saudi Arabia is spending a fortune on building new museums and galleries, and the Louvre and the Guggenheim are soon to open outposts in Abu Dhab.i.  And new developments in technology have made it easier to get the message across. It may not have been deliberate, but the South Korean singer Psy’s Gangnam Style – a YouTube phenomenon in 2012 – went some way to making the world warm to the country.

Diplomatic service

A symposium on cultural diplomacy, held in the US last year, added to the voices of those calling for “the use of cultural diplomacy and soft power in a more effective way and more often, in order to contribute contributing to a harmonic interdependent world”.  But this would be the wrong thing to do.   

When America sent jazz and Abstract Expressionism on tour, they had a clear and confident idea of what they believed in and what the art would signify: the American way of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They also knew who the enemy was. This is no longer the case. What values does the West want to promote today? It’s not obvious.

Perhaps this lack of clarity and confusion helps to explain why some want to turn to soft power today − to provide some direction. Certainly, a great deal is expected from it. The report Cultural Diplomacy published by the British think tank Demos, suggests that culture can resolve troubles in the Middle East, terrorism, climate change, and enhance relations with diasporas. That’s quite a big ask – far too big. There is a danger of turning to culture to solve everything. 

And before calling for more soft power, let’s not forget the disasters of recent foreign policy. Controversial interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan should encourage us to ask: is soft power a good idea if it follows, or at least fails to question, this kind of hard power?  Those who demand that soft power work in the interests of hard power are the same officials who should be challenged instead.

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