Courtesy Reuters

The Case for Cultural Diplomacy: Engaging Foreign Audiences

Early in the Cold War, American efforts at cultural diplomacy were funded by the CIA as well as the State Department's Division of Cultural Relations. Although CIA sponsorship would be inappropriate and counterproductive today, that history is a useful reminder of how seriously Washington once took the promotion of mutual understanding through cultural exchange. Policymakers understood the link between engagement with foreign audiences and victory over ideological enemies and considered cultural diplomacy vital to U.S. national security.

Such a perspective is sorely lacking today, when many policymakers appear to believe that military force has become a sufficient response to radical Islamist terrorism. They would do well to keep in mind what their predecessors knew: that dialogue is essential to winning the hearts and minds of moderate elements in societies vulnerable to radicalism.

Throughout the postwar era, desperate and disenfranchised young people in developing countries sought solace in communism. Rather than allowing this trend to continue unchecked, American officials mounted a determined, and ultimately successful, ideological campaign in response. As the scholar Rajan Menon notes, "Few Americans appreciate the degree to which knowledge about American culture, whether acquired by participating in our exchange programs, attending our cultural presentations, or simply listening to the Voice of America, contributed to the death of communism." Today, the youth of the Muslim world, deeply confused about their identity and critical of their own corrupt and autocratic rulers, seek refuge in another extreme ideology that promises a better and more dignified life. The United States, heeding its past successes, must offer a more compelling alternative.

If wealthy Wahhabi Muslims, sponsors of an archaic and doctrinaire world view, can offer rote education to young people in religious schools throughout the Muslim world, why can't the U.S. government find ways to work with moderates there to create other educational options? Families in poor Muslim countries with high birthrates often send their children to madrasahs not just for instruction but because these places provide room and board along

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