Lectures & Interviews

Just some of the talks and dialogues in the last few years that are of a more public nature–not always connected directly with academic conferencing:

“Protection from Persecution: The Flow of Asylum Seekers of African Descent” panel speaker at the 44th Annual Conference, Congressional Black Caucus. Washington Convention Center. Friday, September 26, 2014

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Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD):

Kudos to the staff of the ICD for transcribing my talk.  Undoubtedly the task was a little tricky due to the incorporation of idiomatic expressions that non-U.S. folks are not familiar with.

Text of Speech:  

“Cultural Diplomacy Begins at Home”
Yvonne Captain Director, George Washington University
(Washington D.C., June 23th, 2014)

It is a great pleasure to be here this afternoon, and I want to thank the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy for hosting such a prestigious conference. The Institute has the right idea of bringing together diplomats, scholars, students and practitioners. When it’s all said and done, the best diplomacy is one that gets people to talk to each other, despite what their governments might want to do. I particularly want to thank Mark (Mark Donfried) for his keen organizational skills and outstanding commitment to cultural diplomacy. When I was approached to prepare a talk for the conference, I agreed to do so without hesitation. Not only am I in awe of what the Institute does when I constantly browse the website and when I speak with those in the know, but I am also always looking for the opportunity to add my contribution to the dialogue on cultural diplomacy. I teach, as you know, and I have this captive audience of students- many of whom take the course simply because of their requirements, but as rich as those dialogues might be in the classroom, it’s never quite the same when you get people who willingly sit with you to have a conversation.. So I am very appreciative that we can have this dialogue and ponder some specific questions.

For me the key question is “What are the best tools for maximizing cultural diplomacy in a rapidly changing world?” My title, “Cultural Diplomacy Begins at Home,” might seem like a really odd topic, given that we normally think of cultural diplomacy as an act that one carries out with communities abroad. Of course, this is true, but in a very generic definition of cultural diplomacy that we can all agree on, it’s an activity that opens the pathway to continued dialogue, because it demonstrates the best that our society has to offer, and it inspires others to achieve their best as well. Yet, in order for the diplomacy to work well, it is a good idea to think of the preparation that goes behind the making of that endeavor and not just the end product or what you aspire for it to be. Rather it becomes how you get to the nitty-gritty level of making the diplomacy work. In addition, or as a part of that, anticipating how the diplomatic efforts might be received abroad is a key to the success, and it is this last strategy that I wish to address, which is anticipation of how your diplomacy will be received. While I’m speaking largely of the USA and its efforts in cultural diplomacy, my comments might apply in general to most other nations. This is not without careful thought, because it is a little controversial. Normally, when people talk about cultural diplomacy, they just talk about the good stuff; they don’t talk about some of the failures, some of the nasty stuff, some of the stuff that doesn’t work well. But there are times, frankly, that we need to do that, because sometimes there is a disconnect between what we say and how others perceive what we do. I think of some of these instances when our country’s deeds are held up to suspicion and scrutiny, particularly in the developing world. Our own State Department put it this way:

“America is viewed in much of the world less as a beacon of hope than as a dangerous force to be countered. This view diminishes our ability to champion freedom, democracy and individual dignity– ideas that continue to fuel hope to oppressed people everywhere. The erosion of our trust in the credibility of the international community must be reversed if we hope to use more than our military and economic might in the shaping of the world. Culture matters.”

This is from our State Department, so it is not just me. Let me confess, though, some very selfish reasons for wanting to tackle this issue of perception. Like any professional who travels abroad, I interact with colleagues who are similar to me in many ways. For a long time, they have been professors in various disciplines. Increasingly, they are also academic administrators as well. In my particular case, my counterparts are typically colleagues of the Global South, but for you, the same can be true in whatever region that colleagues happen to claim as home. My counterparts see me as a representative of my country, often of the government. No matter how I protest and declare otherwise, they ask me ‘why do you people do this or how can you change that’ and I say ‘ I am not speaking for the government’. But that’s not what they believe.

Therefore, when we come together for conferences or other activities related to what we do in academia, the subject inevitably turns to the implementation and long-term effectiveness of our efforts. Often, it is possible for me to point out specific successes of what happens in the USA as a model. However, there are times when U.S. performance, shall we say, is less than stellar and my colleagues abroad demand answers from me. In this sense, the level of engagement with my colleagues abroad can be alternately fruitful and frustrating. As you are noticing, my focus here is not on the big idea of international policy making; it’s not the system’s level of analysis, but rather some of the smaller, more obscure details of particular problems that might fit into one theory or another. Not every dialogue should be about grand theories, particularly when it comes to practical matters like implementation – small pieces of the big idea need addressing. So I am looking at ways to grapple with some lingering issues that can enhance the hard work of cultural diplomacy.

These are the issues that stump me personally, they stump me the most- the political partisanship in our country, the continuing racial division despite the fact that, it is true, the Cultural Institute and many people state that there is a great diversity in this country and the US does embrace many different cultures and people. Well, despite that, there is a continuing division and it doesn’t hurt to talk about that, I think it does a great deal of good. Also, I am stumped by gun violence here in the country. Sure, you have your own list of what bugs you about your country and its projections abroad, whether you are from the U.S. or whether your are citizen of another country in the world, but these are my concerns and I struggle with them intellectually, but also at a gut level. With regard to partisanship, members of the U.S. Congress may not come to physical blows, as we see in various countries around the world, yet how much should we feel comfortable with telling other nations about how to put aside differences, both petty or large, and work towards a greater good?

As I was researching dialogue about good governance in developing countries, I am often saddened by issues that impede a country or a regions’ progress. This particular issue is more strident in Sub-Saharan Africa than it is in the countries of Latin America, the two regions, as Mark alluded to, that are the center of my teaching and research. In the second decade of the 21st century, the ethnic divisions brought about by the end of the 19th century “Scramble for Africa” and that continued after independence, mostly in 1960, this ethnic division persists in being a major obstacle to progress in too many countries. Dominant political parties are too often dominated by ethnic groups, unwilling to yield even a tiny fraction of control to smaller ethnic groups whom they disdain. Now, whether this ethnic strive is a true factor or whether there is merely an excuse that an individual or a party gives in order to strip a country of its rich natural resources, keeping advantages for themselves, it is painful to us all to see this in the 21st century.

A major problem for me, though, remains the difficulty of offering models of excellence. Once I point out this specific problem I am dealing within that country, lately the actions of our Congress make it difficult for me to suggest ways that another country’s legislature can get its act together. On the one hand, it is great to highlight what the US does well. After all, such actions bare repeating. At the same time, we should prepare ourselves for criticism in the areas where we are lacking. Would anyone here suggest to a country’s legislator that has troubles getting beyond its divides, would anyone suggest that we hold up the US Congress as a beacon of success on the road to democracy? I hope not. While the debates rarely end as they do in the legislative chambers of some countries, the inaction sometimes is deliberately sabotaging the opposite parties efforts, causing ridicule around the world.

Then, there is the question of race. Not race itself, but racial divide I should say. Long ago, communist countries learned how to ridicule the U.S. because of its racial segregation. In fact, Cuba incorporated into its fictional movies footage of violent reactions to the civil rights movement. We now know of the deep divides, including the racial strife within many of the same countries that held up our problems to ridicule, including former and present communist regimes, yet that does not alter the fact that the world continues to watch, including where it concerns African-Americans, descendants of slaves in this country. Hurricane Katrina, the violent death of Trayvon Martin and other more recent racial encounters make the news in all corners of the globe. Racial disharmony has never been the sole provenance of black and white in this country, but this is the pattern that I have to deal with when I travel to both Latin America and Africa. For example, I am currently researching ruling 168/13 from the Dominican Republic and, in a broad way, you are probably all familiar with that. This ruling is stripping three generations of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their Dominican citizenship. Even if they are Dominicans, it’s a ruling that goes back several decades and it is stripping them of their citizenship. With all the vile machinations that I am uncovering, what can I say to my Dominican colleagues about the nexus of immigration policies and race? Especially considering where the U.S. is right now on the issue of immigration. I read with disdain about the recent attacks against the Jewish population in France, attacks that are no longer the province of ultra-right groups in that country. Yet my counterparts point to the many instances in this country, that are equally depraved. It is true that the USA does a much better job of embracing diversity than many other countries, yet it can and should do better.

With respect to gun violence, and again this is my own nit-picking- they are small issues for some, but they are large for me, President Obama recently remarked that gun violence is becoming a weekly occurrence in this country and it is such a truth that one comes to expect it and perhaps becomes immune to it—as long as it does not touch one’s immediate family or friends. When I look at the majority of democratic countries, few have the legacy of citizen violence in which victims, often unknown to the assailant, are gunned down in innocent acts of simply going about their businesses. School children, cinemagoers and others with no hidden agenda or argument with the assailant lose their lives. The most vociferous response has become the least likely to quell the increase in killings. Stronger gun lobbying efforts result in the sale of more weapons, including assault weapons, to individuals. What lesson in cultural diplomacy is this teaching? U.S. gun violence is not a part of the dialogue that we share when advocating a better way to go about a safe and prosperous society. However, governments of other countries and their citizens are keenly aware of this failing of ours.

Just not to be completely negative- I am actually not so negative on this country, I do believe that there are a number of things that we perform better than other countries, but that is not enough. Most of what the U.S. proffers to the world continues to be solid, often examples of how a nation progresses in such a complex world. Still, when it comes to specific problems, we must also admit to our shortcomings, including when we are dealing with other nations and international entities. It is no longer enough to state ‘we may not be perfect, but what we do is better than what you do’. That is simply a way of saying ‘do what I say, not as I do’. In his timely book, Richard Haas alludes to that when he states that restoration would put the country back in a position to lead by example. And he later follows up by declaring that our failures at home are placing at risk the continued ability of the USA to exert the global influence that it could and should have. This is from his most recent book. (Somehow the title is similar to mine, Foreign Policy Begins at Home. Actually, he did it first.) It is no longer enough to say ‘do as I say, not as I do’ or to say that, despite our shortcomings, we are a mighty country. As Moises Naim shows us in his book The End of Power, the international climate has changed to the point where it ceases to be true that groups, including less powerful countries, less powerful ethnic or other groups within those countries, are willing to accept without questioning the law as it is handed down by powers that be. We need only to look at the push from the Global South to see one manifestation of this. Instead of ‘do what I say, not as I do’, the U.S. can strive more to make sure that key components of its agenda match its cultural diplomacy.

As the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy knows so well, education is the key to combating these ills of society. In all aspects of cultural diplomacy, there is room for improvement. There is much to be done. There are several options to ensure successful and long-term relations with our counterparts around the globe. Some areas require bold new actions, while others demand a refining of existing practices.

As a professor who doubles in administration, I recommend courses that are both able to adapt to the moments’ needs, while at the same time ensure that every curriculum is deep in the core principles of learning, that will carry the student through a lifetime. In addition, more skill level courses, even at the undergraduate level, can prepare them for the world they are facing. For example, conflict resolution need not be solely a course that trains students how to better help groups over there. Instead, it might be prudent to include in that same course materials that grapple with the gang violence in this country, the racial discord and even the legislative failings in our own partisan divide. I would see more joint degree programs, more studying abroad for undergrads. It should be a much higher percentage of students studying abroad. All of you can think about your very first experience abroad and the cultural shock that ensued- mine happened to be to in Colombia. It was long before the drug wars, but that experience as an undergraduate, the first time out of the country, opened my mind to ideas that I had never thought before. My world expanded greatly and, in my opinion, studying abroad should be as mandatory as any other requirements that a university has. Now what happens is that it is expensive and that’s another story. I would also argue that more bold partnerships along the lines of what some institutions are doing- Michigan State, for example, is doing some wonderful things around the world, they are actually going into countries and creating true partnerships. It is not a question of Michigan State going in and saying ‘OK, we are here to do this for you’; it’s actually helping countries to do that for themselves. And I think more of that should take place.

In the developing world, I would investigate more fully the concept of a virtual university like the effort that was carried out, for example, in Uganda. It had mixed success, to say it diplomatically, but the fact that it is not hugely successful does not mean that the efforts were a complete disaster. Instead I would argue that we should build on that so that eventually a meaningful, well-respected education is in the hands of a younger generation of people who, despite their abject poverty, often know how to maximize usage of the technology. You know, younger people than me, they know how to use their cell phones so much more than I do, I just make the call and, in fact, I tell people often that my cell phone is just for emergencies, so don’t call me, don’t text me. But these young people, they are doing so much more with it and these are not necessarily well educated folks. In a similar vein here is a lot of hope there for businesses as part of this dialogue on cultural diplomacy. Businesses should bite the bullet and make the ultimate investment by continually educating their employees, particularly those who will be around in the foreseeable future. Making it cool to learn something new should be as commonplace as taking a lunch break or striving to get a promotion in the workplace.

From where I sit, the above recommendations can go a long way in maximizing cultural diplomacy. In addition to the above concrete proposals, it is good to remember that one could never underestimate the need to establish context when conducting research on any global, indeed regional endeavor. In this matter, what looks like democracy in some regions of the world, for example, inevitably differs from what we, in the U.S., declare as the same.

Now, a major component of this conference this week is building cultural bridges. One of the best ways to do so is to curry respect for your actions by syncing how you see yourself with how others see you. So, as we gather here at the conference, over this three-day period, and return to our respective institutions and workplaces, let us be mindful of the work we must continue to do, even if we think that we “do diplomacy” better than any other country.

Those are my short remarks and hopefully we can carry on more of a dialogue, because this is what this is all about.

Thank you.

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Interview with Turkish Television at ICD Conference, June, 2014: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN1NlVXoeVo

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“Coverage of Current Events in Sub-Saharan Africa,” Afro Media. April 13, 2011 http://www.afro.com/sections/news/national/story.htm?storyid=70845

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