Goodwill Hunting

By Bayles, Martha | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview
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Goodwill Hunting


Bayles, Martha, The Wilson Quarterly


Also walk through the Zoologischer Garten district of Berlin is to experience a version of America. The fast-food chains, video and music totes, and movie marquees all proclaim the "Coca-colonization" of Europe. But just a block away, on the relatively quiet Hardenbergstrasse, stands a small building that between 1957 and 1998 represented the best of U.S. cultural diplomacy: Amerika Haus. Though this faded modernist edifice has never been formally closed, the casual visitor is met by a locked entrance, a chainlink fence, an armed guard, and a rusted sign directing all inquiries to the U.S. embassy, where, of course, the visitor will be met with cold concrete barriers and electronic surveillance. Gone are the days when Amerika Haus welcomed Berliners to use the library, attend exhibitions and concerts, and interact with all sorts of visitors from the United States.

Cultural diplomacy is a dimension of public diplomacy, a term that covers an array of efforts to foster goodwill toward America among foreign populations. The impact of any public diplomacy is notoriously difficult to measure. But there is scant encouragement in polls such as the one recently conducted by the BBC World Service showing that, in more than 20 countries, a plurality of respondents see America's influence in the world as "mainly negative." Doubtless such attitudes have as their immediate inspiration the invasion of Iraq and the abuse of prisoners in U.S. military detention facilities. But deeper antipathies are also at work that have been building for years and are only now bubbling to the surface.

The term public diplomacy is admittedly a bit confusing because U.S. public diplomacy, though directed at foreign publics, was originally conducted by private organizations. The pioneer in this effort was the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, founded in 1910 on the principle (as described by historian Frank Ninkovich) that "government, although representing the will of the people in a mechanical sense, could not possibly give expression to a nation's soul. Only the voluntary, spontaneous activity of the people themselves--as expressed in their art, literature, science, education, and religion--could adequately provide a complete cultural portrait."

Ninkovich notes further that, to the wealthy and prominent individuals who led Carnegie (and the other foundations that soon followed), understanding between nations meant cordial relations among cultural, scholarly, and scientific elites. Thus, Carnegie established "the standard repertory of cultural relations: exchanges of professors and students, exchanges of publications, stimulation of translations and the book trade, the teaching of English, exchanges of leaders from every walk of life."

Yet this private, elite-oriented approach to public diplomacy was soon augmented by a government-sponsored, mass-oriented one. In 1917, when the United States entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson's Committee on Public Information (CPI) enlisted the aid of America's fledgling film industry to make training films and features supporting the cause. Heavily propagandistic, most of these films were for domestic consumption only. But the CPI also controlled all the battle footage used in newsreels shown overseas, and its chairman, George Creel, believed that the movies had a role in "carrying the gospel of Americanism to every corner of the globe."

The CPI was terminated after the war, and for a while the prewar approach to public diplomacy reasserted itself. But the stage had been set for a major shift, as Washington rewarded the movie studios by pressuring war-weakened European governments to open their markets to American films. By 1918, U.S. film producers were earning 35 percent of their gross income overseas, and America was on its way to being the dominant supplier of films in Europe. To be sure, this could not have happened if American films had not been hugely appealing in their own right.

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