The Future of Cultural Diplomacy

May 11, 2021

By Carla Dirlikov Canales

Cultural diplomacy is one of the oldest and most important tools of statecraft. Often referred to as “soft power,” a phrase coined by University Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Joseph Nye, the power of culture offers the ability to create connections and persuade in a way that may advance national interests more effectively than traditional diplomatic and geopolitical means. The soft power of cultural diplomacy offers a country potential applications for culture “to obtain preferred outcomes by attraction rather than coercion (e.g., military might) or payment (e.g., economic sanctions).” In other words, a nation’s ability to influence by attraction rather than promotion.

Throughout history, cultural diplomacy has taken many forms. Different cultural dimensions have been used to connect in hopes of building bridges and gaining trust. Among a nation’s most powerful tools is its cultural influence: Bollywood in India, Hollywood in the U.S., the American university system, the deep-rooted art history of Europe, Japan’s culinary traditions, and the natural wonders of Africa. Too often these resources are underappreciated and therefore underutilized.

Architectural marvels from the Great Library at Alexandria to the Sydney Opera House were constructed in part with the goal of sending a message to the world. Often people organized banquets and concerts with the same goals in mind. When the Treaty of Westphalia was signed in 1648, ending the Thirty Years War, its virtues were communicated through paintings like the Allegory of the Peace of Westphalia by Jacob Jordaens and Joachim Sandrart’s painting of the same name.

There are many notable examples of artists using their work to create deep bonds in the face of adversity. Beethoven was invited to compose for the diplomats at the Congress of Vienna in 1814 and he not only produced Symphonies 7 and 8 there, but his next work, the Ninth Symphony, was meant to celebrate the peace achieved there. That is in part why its “Ode to Joy” from the fourth movement became the European Union’s anthem. People around the world still celebrate it for its theme of brotherly love.

Notably, the ability of artists to connect deeply at a human level has resulted in many serving as diplomats, from the painter Peter Paul Rubens in the 17th Century to the long list of poet-diplomats including Geoffrey Chaucer, Ivo Andric, Gabriela Mistral, Pablo Neruda, Czeslaw Milosz and Octavio Paz. The U.S. has worked with artists as diverse as Carmen Miranda and Aaron Copland to promote Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy.” Our country also turned to jazz musicians from Louis Armstrong to Herbie Hancock to connect with the closed societies of Cold War-era Eastern Europe. One cannot forget the impact that pianist Van Cliburn had in connecting the U.S. and the Soviet Union when, in 1958, he won the inaugural Tchaikovsky International Piano Competition in Moscow.

Traditional diplomats are tasked with managing relationships with their counterparts in other governments. Though their role is primarily government-to-government engagement, there is opportunity for much more. Public diplomacy enables governments to reach out and influence entire societies. While some public diplomats communicate with speeches and articles, artists follow another path, connecting to the audiences by touching their hearts. Cultural diplomacy can succeed where even the best crafted political arguments fail.

For most of the past two decades, I have learned about the power of cultural diplomacy in the best way possible: by doing it. I became a State Department Cultural Envoy early in my career as an opera singer, in 2005. Since then, I’ve worked on projects in Chile, China, Honduras, Japan, Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Peru, and Indonesia, with participants from different countries. The role I’ve played most often, Carmen, is itself a study in cultural border crossings. Carmen was, after all, a story written by a Frenchman about a gypsy who lived in Spain. Its famous aria, the Habanera, was based on a Cuban song. The opera first achieved success at a performance in Vienna, Austria and has since been a universally celebrated opera in performances around the world.

My training and professional experience may have required that I learn to overcome cultural obstacles and find common ground, but it could not have prepared me for the impact of actually conducting cultural diplomacy on behalf of the State Department. For example, my first program took place in Campeche, Mexico. The U.S. Embassy wanted to make connections using music, but none of us expected that our inspiration would come from a chance encounter with a group of children playing soccer in the street. I sang with them and worked with a local organization that was trying to use the arts to help their education’s Centro Cultural “La Chacara.” Those workshops led them to form a choir. Within a year they were performing with Andrea Bocelli. The next year they won the Coming Up Taller Award, which they received at the White House. Offering a Presidential award to an underserved community in Mexico sent a strong political message, one which in part helped to ease existing and escalating tensions related to immigration issues.

Another example of how culture can be used to help advance positive global change is exemplified in CultureSummit. This event started in 2017 as “the world’s first high-level summit that convenes leaders from the worlds of the arts, media, public policy, and technology to identify ways that culture can raise awareness, build bridges and promote positive change.” As its co-creator and artistic director, I helped conceive and produce an event that brought senior culture officials and artists from 90 countries together in the United Arab Emirates to address issues like climate change, extremism, and women’s empowerment. We featured leaders such as Madeleine Albright, top designated officials from UNESCO, Academy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning composers, architects, photographers, and more. These discussions led to concrete global solutions that resulted in new educational programs, arts funding, outreach efforts in damaged communities, and arts heritage preservation in conflict-affected regions.

This past year, I organized virtual State Department programs. For example, in Honduras children wrote and performed songs to share their experiences and emotions during COVID-19. We created a virtual “Campo de Valores” (Values Camp) to help teach kids about integrity, citizenship and entrepreneurship. The goal of this work is for the participants to take pride in their own culture, and to share our mutual appreciation for being good citizens of any country.

My personal experiences over my career have taught me that the ability to go beyond the troubling headlines of the day and national, social or economic tensions in order to forge real relationships with people across the world and to identify common ground. I believe cultural diplomacy should be used to further foreign policy objectives. Some of my most effective exchanges have occurred in the People’s Republic of China. It was here that I learned the real power of listening. I realized their deep appreciation for foreigners who would make an effort to learn their language, and so I learned to sing in Chinese. I performed in schools and on nationwide television. I watched as hearts opened up and old suspicions melted away. After performing dozens of times in a dozen different cities in China, it became clear to me that whatever political differences exist between our countries, the potential for cultural bonds is expanding rapidly. This has resulted in growing young audiences for American cultural exports such as Disney films and hip-hop music. At the same time, we in the U.S. became more aware of traditions such as Chinese New Year.

This is a watershed moment for all of us. While we are connected globally more than ever before in history, we face more tension because of differences in beliefs. Culture holds the key, not just for advancing diplomatic or national initiatives but for knitting together society into the kind of global community that my experience as a cultural diplomat has shown me is possible. I am convinced that by embedding culture into diplomacy, we can do more. By harnessing the power of culture, we can achieve great things, starting with a better understanding of each other as people first. Culture reminds us of our common humanity. That seems like an essential place to start.


About the Author:


Carla Dirlikov Canales is an internationally known opera singer who is emerging as a leader in using the arts to advance important social issues.

She has been a member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities Turnaround Arts Program, was selected by Foreign Policy Magazine as one of its 100 Leading Global Thinkers and won the Medal of Excellence from the Sphinx Organization, which was presented to her at the Supreme Court by Justice Sotomayor. In each case, she was the first opera singer ever to receive the honor. As a singer Carla has received worldwide acclaim and is best known for her portrayals of Bizet’s “Carmen” which she has performed close to 100 times in over a dozen countries. She has performed as a soloist at Lincoln Center, the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall, and top international venues in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Carla has served as a U.S. State Department Arts Envoy since 2005. Missions in 2020 include creating new arts programs for the U.S. Embassies in Honduras, Peru, Montenegro, and Kazakhstan.

Carla is the founder of The Canales Project, a non-profit arts and advocacy organization through which she created Hear Her Song, a musical celebration of distinguished female leaders worldwide that commissions new songs written by female composers to honor them. To date she has performed project selections over a dozen times at venues including the National Gallery of Art, United Nations, The Public Theater, and Kennedy Center.

Carla has launched "The Future of U.S. Cultural Diplomacy" seminar series to explore the power of cultural diplomacy in collaboration with the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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