Cultural diplomacy, beyond boundaries

George Jacob, president & CEO, Bay Ecotarium

George Jacob is president & CEO of the Smithsonian-affiliated Aquarium of the Bay & Sea Lion Center in San Francisco, columnist and the author of the seminal book Cultural Leadership: The FUTURE. The views expressed are his own.

A strange development unfolded on the Indo-China border in Ladakh earlier this month as clashes and stand-offs continue for the fifth month at the Finger 4 area, Kongrung Nala, Gogra and near Pangong Lake on the Himalayan heights.

The Chinese installed loudspeakers and started playing Punjabi songs — in a bizarre attempt to soften and or perhaps distract the Indian troops. While the lack of cultural understanding was obvious in the presumption that Indian army troops deployed at the border were all Sikh, the greater failure was the inability to leverage cultural diplomacy for the greater good and lasting peace.

Beginning in September 2014, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi had graciously tried to use the soft power of friendship, trust-building and cultural engagement, by hosting Chinese premier Xi Jinping and his spouse Peng Liyuan in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, strolling the banks of the Sabarmati river even as China promised investments worth $20 billion over the next five years and conversely, kept up the confrontation on the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh and elsewhere.

Subsequent softer engagement attempts were made to continue cultural diplomacy with Modi-Xi meetings in Xian (2015), Hangzhou (2016), Hamburg and Xiamen (2017). These meetings had tremendous potential for reciprocity from both sides — and still might be the only silk-road to diplomatic de-escalation of tensions in the future.

A natural extension to cross-cultural dialog and politics of peace, is cultural diplomacy.

Be it treading the sensitive and often complex relationships across cultures and geo-political boundaries, or flexing the soft power of populist appeal or seizing an opportune window, that may draw from a sporting event, music concert, cultural festival, exposition or an award ceremony that honors generational excellence, cultural leadership is only limited by political imagination. It is a proactive process that celebrates artistic and cultural expression that is at the core of the souls of nations that could bridge sustained bilateral and multilateral relationships. The UNESCO IHE Cultural Ambassadorship program builds a pact between culture, arts, sports and science, as it bestows individuals with the role of public outreach for the greater good of humanity.

While the Olympics, watched by billions around the world, offers one of the most powerful diplomatic tools for international cooperation and aspiration of human excellence, scholarships, exhibition exchange programs, films, art, dance, literature and music, all offer keys to unlock political differences and diffuse tensions.

From the cultural diplomacy following the Cold War, to Fulbright Scholarships in 1946, to the appointment of the first UN ambassador of goodwill, American Actor and singer Danny Kaye in 1954, to the 1958 ‘panda’ diplomacy by China to the Woodstock festival in 1969 for peace & love, to the US-China ‘ping-pong’ diplomacy in 1971 to the famous 1985 ‘We are the World’ benefit concert for African famine relief, to the historic establishment of International Space Station in 1998 to the 2011 Un-HATE campaign by the United Colors of Benetton, to the 2013 Dennis Rodman basketball diplomacy in North Korea, the world has witnessed the soft-power of cultural engagement and leadership.

The establishment of museums and memorials enshrines many shared values, ideals and statesmanship initiatives, that has prevented many a war, human displacement, suffering and stemmed bloodshed through dialog built on mutual trust and cultural sensitivity. We live in cross-cultural times.

Not only is the interdependency of global economies ad technologies intricately entwined, the meaning of cultural paradigm itself has widened to include common denominators and key differentiators. Without lasting peace, both prosperity and progress become elusive.

Today’s strife-torn, fractal world could use more of our collective conscience to rise above our differences as we chart a common course for a cleaner planet, equitable distribution of wealth, sustainable consumption of vital resources and extend our compassion to engage in an inclusive exploration of solutions to make the world a better place.