Comment on Cultural Diplomacy

By Senator Larry Pressler (Former US Senator – ICD Advisory Board Member)


First of all, I want to thank the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy for what it is doing in advocating cultural diplomacy. I have observed firsthand some of the conferences and was delighted to see such a diversity of participants. For example, at the recent Washington conference I met with people from Iran and Afghanistan. We need to welcome with open arms all points of view and show a respect for the divergent cultural viewpoints around the world. The ICD is one of the few organizations in the world that can comfortably reach out to all countries and all cultures. I salute Mark Donfried and his team for their great work.

Cultural diplomacy is the greatest challenge we face. We have seen in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan that “boots on the ground” type military involvement does not achieve our intended results. We must enter a new era of cultural diplomacy. In April 2012 I shall lecture at four Turkish universities, so I shall use Turkey as an example of where I think we Americans and Europeans have failed at cultural diplomacy. For example, very few people in America know who the Turkish leaders are or anything about Turkish politics. Very few Americans or Europeans study the Turkish language. Our Universities rarely have Turkish departments. We do not know about Turkish music or literature or the great myths of Turkey. There are several biblical references to geographical points in Turkey, but we do not think of them as being part of Turkey. All this in spite of the fact that one could build a case that Turkey would be one of our most important allies in terms of trade, strategic interests, and homeland security issues. We have a lot of work to do on cultural diplomacy from our side, and we have been failing to do that regarding Turkey. In my upcoming lectures at the leading Turkish universities, I shall emphasize that we Americans (and probably Europeans) need to do a much better job of cultural diplomacy with Turkey.

It is my privilege to have been appointed by President Obama to the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. Part of my job is to constantly reach out to show a mutual respect of other cultures and to project our American culture in the most sensitive way possible.

Diplomacy at all levels is essentially cultural. As a farmboy from South Dakota in the middle of America, I was chosen as part of a government-sponsored program to travel to Egypt for the Cairo International Agricultural Fair in 1961. I was 19 years old, and it was my first venture into the great world. It is probably the reason I decided to join the State Department after I finished my education and my service in the US military in Viet Nam. There is no question about the importance of encouraging understanding and exchange among young people from different countries. There is French saying that to understand all is to forgive all, so anything that improves the understanding of people from other cultures can help to guide history along a better path.