Dr. Richard T. Arndt (Cultural Diplomacy Expert; Author of "The First Resort of Kings: American Cultural Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century")

01.01.2010 - Interview conducted by Katie Dickmeyer

Q1. When most people think about diplomacy, they usually think about the dialogue between the government representatives of state. How did you come to be interested in cultural diplomacy, which is quite different from traditional diplomacy, especially given your background in the US Foreign Service?

Precisely for that reason. If I had gone into the Foreign Service to negotiate little details between governments I would not have lasted more than a month. But the idea of dealing with people who really want to learn something, who are interested in the US, who may have the wrong ideas about the US, or may have even better ideas than we do about the US - that appeals to me. It is like dealing with graduate students and students at the university; I always felt like I was pretty much a teacher, except I taught them through working with them. So, I am basically a teacher at heart.

Q2. In your latest book, “First Resort of Kings: US Cultural Diplomacy in the 20th Century,” you present the history of American cultural diplomacy and talk about the desperate need for a better strategy for cultural diplomacy as a way to create a better image abroad. What do you think American politicians and non-state actors should be doing as far as cultural diplomacy is concerned?

It’s an interesting question and it’s different in every country. Our particular problem in the US is that we do not, as a nation, understand cultural diplomacy very well. You started by saying, “to project a better image of the US” - that’s only part of it, that's the first step. After that, it is working together and joining in, and then cooperating on large projects that we can’t, in one country, do by ourselves. The environment, for example, is an international problem; unless we all work together, and the same is true of disease, we will never be able to find a solution. I don’t know what is going on in Germany, but I think the cultural programs are pretty good as far as I can see. But, in the US, we are under-funded, and we have been swamped by the idea of “public diplomacy,” which really means “public relations.” As you know, the relations between two university professors, and university professors and teachers, are not the same as they are between a public relations man and newspaper reporter. So, it is quite a different thing and it is terribly important that we understand each other more deeply in order to do the things we have to do together. Otherwise, we are probably going to be roasted to a crisp on our little old planet here within the next 20 years. I probably won’t be here to see that, but I would hate to see someone as nice as you to go up in smoke.

Q3. Where do you think cultural diplomacy has significantly improved relations between states’ or countries’ foreign relations and what can other countries and areas of cultural conflict learn from such examples?

I always say that there are two great victories of cultural diplomacy, which are not normally considered as such. The first is German re-education, which was basically done culturally and by cooperating with the military- a very enlightened military by the way. It responded to a real need to turn the attitudes of the German people away from what they had been trained to think for years and years and open their eyes to new possibilities of seeing in a different way. I also believe that you could make a strong case for stating that the cultural element in our relationships during the Cold War was as responsible as most other things for bringing the Soviet Union to a reasonable and tractable resolution. I think we achieved that with the Russians and that is partly because we began talking. It really didn’t open up that way until 1959, when they began letting our Fulbright scholars study there and began sending their students here. Of course they sent all their KGB officers here, but we knew that and we didn’t care because we have got too many secrets for anyone to steal. They also watched our people in Russia, and after a while they figured out that we were serious about learning about Russia and that we were also very helpful. So, I know many people who went back, and who were invited back again and again to talk about regional planning or city planning, or economics, or anything, and did not have anything to do with the “Cold War.” So, I think these were two very big victories, and if we really had a share in bringing them about, we should be proud of that.

Q4. Having spent time with the Foreign Service in Iran, what do you think of the US’s current efforts to curb the Iranian nuclear program? Do you think that cultural diplomacy has a long term role to play in such a conflict, and if so, what should Americans be doing?

Let us sit the nuclear question aside to begin with, and just say, in general, that cultural diplomacy means you stick with the program through both highs and lows; you ride above the bad weather in an airplane way up there or in a submarine way below the waters- one or the other. In general, cultural diplomacy should always continue; when you break off relations with a country, that's an admission of total defeat as far as I am concerned. Diplomacy must go on all the time. Now, the question of the nuclear thing is infinitely more complicated. As many wartime situations are in relation to cultural diplomacy, there are no real answers; you just continue to do the things you do normally. What we need to explain to the Iranian leadership is why we are so fearful of their developing nuclear weapons. There are very good reasons, and if we could share those reasons, and then if we could listen to them and find out their reasons in return, we might be able to say: “You could get the same effect if you could do this instead of that, and we’d love to help you do this.” That's the kind of dialogue you develop once you trust each other. We have in Iran an area of absolute non-trust, so we have to work on changing that. I argue with my friends here in Washington that we can’t do that until we have an embassy in Tehran again.

Thank you very much Dr. Arndt