Travel abroad has taken many forms over the centuries. From the “grand tours” taken by 18th century Protestant upper class to the “study abroad” programs provided by Fulbright and other scholarships, the stated purpose of these extended excursions has been to learn more about oneself and one’s culture through the immersion in others. Over the past 20 years, higher education institutions began to offer such opportunities for advanced study abroad as a result of the globalization of business and the internationalization of higher education in fostering “true cultural awareness” in their students.
Such were the goals described by speaker Richard T. Arndt at the third annual Josef A. Mestenhauser lecture series on internationalizing higher education held at the Carlson School of Management on Friday, November 11th. As the kickoff event in celebration of International Education Week (Nov. 14-19), Arndt’s lecture explained the source of these values through a whirlwind presentation of their history beginning with his 17th century soul brother Hugo Grotius’ definition of cultural diplomacy and ending with former dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government Joseph Nye’s concept of “soft power.” In between, Arndt depicted the uneasy and ultimately cannibalistic alliance between American academics’ cultural diplomacy on one hand and business people’s public diplomacy on the other in projecting American culture in foreign countries.
As a participant and vice-president of the United States Information Agency (USIA) for over 25 years, Arndt had a unique and nuanced insider’s perspective of the battle for the soul of America’s foreign service operations through the latter half of the 20th century. Though he claims that a cultural diplomat’s “search for truth should not be mixed up with propaganda,” at several points he castigated average Americans’ naiveté and mistrust of using propaganda to promote American power abroad. The step-by-step usurpation of cultural affairs by public affairs within the USIA that began under his watch culminated in its demise and incorporation into the State Department in 1999.
While Arndt and his duo of graduate school panelists spouted platitudes such as “be open to opportunities to share yourself” and “Anybody that knows the truth won’t learn anything,” the trio neglected to point out that the realm of modern cultural diplomacy remains the purview of the well-connected, whether academic or mercantile. For most Americans the benefits obtained from cultural diplomacy and transnationalism won’t be truly democratic and effectual until those opportunities are extended beyond the twin towers of ivory and avarice.