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American Cultural Diplomacy - A Transatlantic Perspective

The Distinguished W.E.B. Du Bois Lectures on Public Culture and Intercultural Relations in a Transatlantic Perspective
Berlin, Humboldt University, June 17, 2002


I particularly want to recognize the university’s dynamic American studies program which brought us all here today and salute its multicultural, inter-disciplinary focus. It truly reflects the diversity (and I daresay the struggles) of America itself. Such comparative perspectives of Europe and America do increase the likelihood that we will truly learn from history and from each other.

I am also pleased that my wife and my diplomatic partner, Marsha, could be with me tonight.

I am delighted to be the first speaker in this particular series and I applaud the ambitions of this program … as long as you don’t think I am single-handedly going to address all of them this evening.

When I read the lecture invitation that said "outstanding American scholars and public intellectuals" would be invited to speak, I thought about my former constituents in Indiana. Any number of them would inform you, if asked, that they did not classify me as a scholar or an intellectual, but fortunately that didn’t stop them from voting for me at the ballot box.

I offer you very practical perspectives -- but very real ones -- as ambassador, as a member of the United States Congress for 18 years, and as a citizen from the heartland of my country. Most importantly, I hope we can get better acquainted and start a real dialogue tonight that will carry on well into the future. That’s why I have allocated considerable time at the conclusion of my remarks for comments and questions.

I genuinely welcome your responses and insights. Your studies, research, and knowledge can be of tremendous help to those of us in the day-in, day-out diplomatic world. You can help us better understand, discuss, and bridge our cultural differences in order to form and strengthen strategic partnerships that will serve us well in the years ahead.

The only examination tonight will be about how far Germany and the United States have progressed in the World Cup soccer. I bring up this international cultural phenomenon because it’s everywhere, it’s exciting to experience it (even on television) in Europe, and it also speaks to our cultural differences on the particular sports we prefer and our cultural commonality -- a passion for athletics of all kinds.

A little story. Before I moved here 10 months ago, I was the recipient of many books and articles on German life, German history, German culture, on and on. The Atlantik Brücke, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving relations between Germans and Americans, sent me a book entitled, "Those Strange German Ways."

When I received it, I remember reading that Germans are football fanatics (as in the soccer-type football, not the Washington Redskins/Dallas Cowboy/Berlin Thunder type). The book said, "No one single U.S. game can compete in popularity -- you’d have to roll baseball, football, basketball, and ice hockey together to come close." As a native of Indiana -- a state where basketball is revered as soccer is in Germany -- I remember reading that passage with some skepticism.

The past two weeks have made me a believer. I also realize that many of you are well equipped to submit material for another book -- which I’m sure would be popular -- called "Those Strange American Ways."

My topic today is "American Cultural Diplomacy—A Transatlantic Perspective." A rather broad topic but a critically important one. So in my first attempt to engage the collective brainpower in this room, I would like you to think for just a minute on how you would define cultural diplomacy.

The reason that I asked you to think about this -- besides my interest in your assessment -- is because we all probably have different definitions. That’s rather daunting when you consider that the culture of democracy is really the thread that binds our transatlantic relationship.

I view cultural diplomacy as the foundation of all diplomacy because it is our humanity -- our core values, our world view, our view, in fact, of the human condition and the nature of man -- that is the heart of our culture, whether we’re speaking in a national, historical, popular, or corporate context.

Cultural clashes can fuel conflicts. Cultural differences can contribute to corporate failures. In reading about how companies address cultural issues in mergers and partnerships, I read an illustrative expression I wanted to highlight for you today. The expression is "improving our collective cultural literacy." What does that mean? It means gaining insight into the intention of a partner and learning to react and respond appropriately. Improving cultural literacy—a worthwhile goal for companies, countries, and individuals.

To start, we must understand national values because they guide national interests and thus national actions. I would also be interested in hearing from you about German values and their related effect on European unity and integration.

National values came up in a discussion I recently had with your foreign minister Joschka Fischer and some visiting Congressmen. He said, "One of the things you Americans really need to understand is that freedom to you means individual freedom. Your view allows you to take risks and be self-starters. In Germany, we value freedom but our most cherished ideal is security. That’s why we’re going to be more cautious, more deliberate, less willing to experiment and take risks."

America has many critical values but certainly freedom is at the top of the list. Tonight I wanted to highlight freedom and two other key American values -- community and individual initiative.

On freedom, I would like to invoke the words of the man we honor tonight, W.E.B. Du Bois. I chose his words because they’re eloquent and because he was writing about a dark period in American history when freedom was suppressed for some. Paradoxically, in a country with a heritage of hope, optimism, and idealism, slavery sadly flourished. And even when abolished, the injustices lingered for decades; the scars still remain today. Du Bois wrote:

"Freedom, too, the long-sought, we still seek -- the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire. Work, culture, liberty—all these we need, not singly but together, not successively but together, each growing and aiding each, and all striving toward that vaster ideal that swings before the Negro people, the ideal of human brotherhood, gained through the unifying ideal of Race; the idea of fostering and developing the brains and talents of the Negro, not in oppression to or contempt for other races, but rather in large conformity to the greater ideas of the American Republic."

What are those greater ideas of the American republic? Freedom. Protection of individual liberties. Preservation of private initiative against the potential tyranny of state power. Just like today, the founding pioneers with all their cultural differences discovered that more…united them, than divided them. I want to suggest tonight that the overwhelming force -- then and now -- that unites America and the international democratic community is freedom.

President Bush talked about this cultural heritage for America and Europe when he was in Berlin last month. I want to repeat a few of his comments to The Bundestag because both the significance of the words and the context of the words -- in a speech by an American President during his first visit to Berlin -- are instructive in a discussion on cultural diplomacy:

The President said to the Bundestag:

"America and the nations in Europe are more than military allies, we’re more than trading partners; we are heirs to the same civilization. The pledges of the Magna Carta, the learning of Athens, the creativity of Paris, the unbending conscience of Luther, the gentle faith of St. Francis—all of these are part of the American soul. The New World has succeeded by holding to the values of the Old."

He also said, "Our histories have diverged, yet we seek to live by the same ideals. We believe in free markets, tempered by compassion. We believe in open societies that reflect unchanging truths. We believe in the value and dignity of every life."

The President went on to say:

"These convictions bind our civilizations together and set our enemies against us. These convictions are universally true and right. And they define our nations and our partnerships in a unique way. And these beliefs lead us to fight tyranny and evil, as others have done before us.

Together, Europe and the United States have the creative genius, the economic power, the moral heritage, and the democratic vision to protect our liberty and to advance our cause of peace."

I move from freedom to the second American value—community. It can be a community of caring and compassion as we saw on September 11, a community of cultural diversity, a community of conflict (often magnified on the evening news but sometimes a positive force)… always a community of hope. An expert in cultural values said that cultural pluralism is possible "only in a democratic society whose institutions encourage individuality in groups, persons, in temperaments and whose program liberates these individualities and guides them into a fellowship of freedom and cooperation."

I had not thought of America like that but it rings true: individuals liberated to form fellowships of freedom, through cooperation. Maybe that’s why it all works. I believe it also helps explain why we’re so at ease (comparatively speaking) with our diversity.

From the earliest days in America, individuals and communities decided for themselves whether and to what extent heritage cultures would be maintained. Sometimes they remained distinct as you see in various ethnic customs, and even entire neighborhoods in American cities. Sometimes cultures fused and developed their own dynamism as with jazz … which today is fusing yet again as European artists layer traditional European melodies on to traditional American jazz.

Someone called American diversity our "gumbo national character" and I think that’s accurate -- not a savory Spargel or Kartoffel suppe but gumbo -- a stew of different tastes and textures that’s unusually delicious. While we’re on the topic of food, I was delighted to read an interview in the Frankfurter Allgemeine just recently with noted art critic, novelist, and journalist David Galloway.

The outgoing American Studies professor at Bochum University called food a "fantastic key to a country’s culture" and chose to give his last seminar on the topic, "Eating in America." I know you’re thinking of the gourmet delights of McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken -- favorite food sources for my grandchildren I might add. The article points out however that fast food was not invented in the USA. Apparently, we standardized it and introduced it to the market en masse; but we did not invent it. The article says, "…military field kitchens, the bratwurst and bistros show that the Europeans got there first."

Whether it’s types of food, styles of music and dance, choice of religions, America is truly a land where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness can take many forms. Professor Lenz pointed out to me that he’s never seen a city like New York -- where so many people from so many backgrounds co-exist every day. (Note that I did not say happily co-exist, nor did I say unhappily co-exist, just co-exist -- that can be enough.) I suppose I take this phenomenon for granted but it is rather amazing especially given current worldwide debates on citizenship, multiculturalism, unity and integration.

Regarding diversity, Du Bois is well known for his statement that "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." I wanted to see the context of that famous observation. It’s in the first and last sentences of the second chapter of his book, The Souls of Black Folks, a chapter where he discusses the mostly failed legacy of the Freedmen’s Bureau, a government organization designed to help former slaves. One Du Bois scholar pointed out, "The lasting significance of this prediction is that in making it, Du Bois did not absolutize the issue of race by suggesting that it is the only problem of the century, nor did he separate race from the manifold problems that emerged in the twentieth century. What his scholarship and research did was to verify the interactive relationship between race, class, and the multi-level configurations of the social structure of modern society."

The multi-level configurations of the social structure of modern society…so instructive still for today’s scholarship and research. What would Du Bois say about the world today?

The problem of the 21st century is -- fill in the blank. Hatred? Poverty? Ignorance? Intolerance? Terrorism? Du Bois is not here but we’re still inspired by his words and his legacy. His heir may be sitting in this very room. I welcome your comments.

Freedom, community, and individual initiative. America’s core values which drive our national interests. Someone told me that all Americans expect to be millionaires and that expectation, possibility, and hope motivates some pretty ambitious, determined, innovative business dealings. We seem to be on a constant quest -- for excellence, for achievement, for scholarship, for happiness.

Okay, perhaps we’re in love with the idea of the American dream but many of our grandparents did come to the United States with nothing. My own mother came to America as a child from Sweden. She came with her four siblings and a mother determined to join her husband and their father who had emigrated earlier to create a better life. While in the United States, he became a successful craftsman and home builder.

Our ancestors -- who came from many European countries -- worked hard, and they became successful. They were the original risk takers. They provided for their families, educated their children, and became contributing citizens of their new country. And some, who never believed it possible, went on to see their son become a United States Congressman, a United States Senator, and an ambassador. And this is not unusual in America.

Of course, some discount the American dream and talk instead about the American nightmare: existence of racial discrimination, accusations of cultural imperialism, rants against American capitalism, how globalization equals Americanization, how the worldwide web will swallow up national cultural identities, on and on. In truth, many "pop culture" developments would have happened elsewhere in the world with or without America and really have more to do with technology and market forces.

We’re not perfect and have much to learn from Europe and others about taking care of each other and the world we share. But we would all benefit—and that’s another reason I was so pleased to come here today—from information and discussion about intercultural relations, transculturation, and racial conflicts plus other difficult, troubling, but illuminating subjects. Yes, September 11 has changed the world in ways we can’t yet understand; what we do know is that our relationships will be tested as never before and they must be stronger than ever before. In important ways, we’re defending civilization itself. The more we know about each other and the world, the better off we will be.

How do we do this? Enter cultural diplomacy. It’s not magic or automatic or always pretty. It’s people to people, face to face, talking, working, understanding, growing.

I believe one of my primary missions as ambassador is what some call "catalyzing resonance". What do I mean by catalyzing resonance? I mean to help be a catalyst for the kind of resonance that makes it possible for emotion and intellect to complement each other and to create an environment for cooperation and communication.

From all reports, we had a good example of this just last week -- the German-American Transatlantic Dialogue: The Role of Community and Faith-Based Initiatives in Society. We invited experts from private and public organizations from both countries to speak to each other and learn from each other in a program that helped Americans and Germans in our common quest to strengthen our people and our society.

This is something Marsha and I really care about. Following a mission trip to Huanta, Peru in 1989, she became a founding member of Project Nehemiah, which established an orphanage and feeding kitchens for Peruvian children whose families were killed by the Shining Path, a violent terrorist group. After leaving the Senate and prior to becoming Ambassador, I served as president of Big Brothers and Big Sisters which has matched 200,000 children from fatherless families with someone who could be there to help as they grew up.

We believe that most Americans believe (1) government has an important obligation and role to play in helping others and (2) private citizens and organizations have an important obligation and role to play in helping others as well. This is especially true when it comes to helping heal broken spirits and troubled souls.

I will never forget the words of an African American minister from rural Georgia who told my Congressional committee many years ago that to solve the problems he sees every day -- juvenile violence, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, broken homes -- we must do more than provide the basic necessities. He said that while the government has done a pretty good job in providing food and shelter, it is the community (there’s that word again) and volunteer associations that are most effective in helping to heal the mind and the spirit.

Our goal, of course, is to have public and private sectors work hand in hand to focus on the whole person -- the body, mind, soul, and spirit. That’s why I was so pleased that during the conference, we looked at different models -- at both national and community levels -- to truly help people.

We also had an interesting discussion on definitions that might be relevant for this audience. Americans refer to civic involvement or community and faith-based initiatives. Our German colleagues noted that civil society and civic engagement resonate better here to emphasize the importance of citizens’ activity for a living, functioning community. Both countries seem to use the term volunteerism.

They also enlightened us on how civil society has entered the current debate on the future of the welfare state -- a passionate discussion not that different from current debates in Washington, D.C. on new models of public policy to eliminate poverty.

There were stirring examples of how civic engagement truly brings democracy to life. We were fortunate to have Wolfgang Thierse, president of the Bundestag, speak, and he noted how the grassroots ecological movement in Germany in the 70s and 80s and the eastern European freedom movement both were based on the idea of civic engagement. Another speaker pointed out that German reunification would not have happened without civic initiative.

We also shared a great deal of more specific information. There were differences in approach. There was a real unanimity in mission and desire to learn from each other. I believe we did "create some resonance," as I mentioned earlier, so we could learn and grow together. I am looking forward to our next exchange.

I have tried to tell you a little about myself today because I believe that’s an important part of starting a dialogue. I would like very much to know more about you. As the American Ambassador to Germany, I am honored and humbled to have the opportunity to communicate to you about America and to communicate about Germany back to my country.

Let me close by saying that we in the United States do not want to impose our values on others. We do want all people to be free of oppression and have the right to choose how they want to live, and we will vigorously defend our values from those who seek to deny them.

I am committed to working for a world that allows people to make choices. I want to promote the values and ideals that have been afforded to me and to my family. I believe the biggest risk is not taking one.

As President Bush said before the Bundestag, to create a safer world, we have to create a better world. Transatlantic cultural diplomacy is key to creating a better future and a better humanity. I welcome all your help, suggestions, and input. We now have time for questions and comments.