Diplomacy begins at home

“If we don’t expand our horizons, we will be looking at the world through a keyhole.” -Marcia L. Dyson

I believe that the Obama presidency heralds a new age of foreign relations which speaks to other nations rather than scolding them, or worse still, striking them first. We must heal a malady in international matters. It is time that we stop talking at our neighbors around the world and instead talk with them.

We have to hear what others say about themselves and about us. We must practice cultural diplomacy which, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright says, is necessary in foreign affairs and on the home front, and should be practiced by the President and ordinary American citizens.

Cultural diplomacy thrives in the realm of ideas and art, whether in music, literature, dance or painting, and offers a way to engage various cultures and countries in a more humane and reasonable fashion than sometimes exists in political diplomacy. America’s intellectual and social capital can be greatly enhanced by sharing our values in a non-threatening and uplifting manner.

We have championed the ideas of freedom, justice and democracy the world over, though we have been perceived as bullies who impose our views without self-criticism or negotiation. Since 9/11, America’s image has taken a beating in the community of nations because we have often failed to communicate the merit of our ideas in a book rather than a bomb.

If we ever needed cultural diplomacy, we need it now – and not just with the tensions between the East and West, between Muslim and Christian, between religions, tribes, traditions and tongues.  It is imperative to begin with cultural understandings here in the US.

For example, Korean shop owners and their African-American customers often exchange an immense amount of tension and are at each other’s throats and view each other through skepticism, ignorance and fear. We need to dissect what is causing the upheaval in inner cities like Chicago where Black on Black crime is the highest in the nation.  There is cultural diversity also within the African American community and some us refer to our so-called ghetto brothers and sisters as “those people.”

In adopting cultural diplomacy, as President Obama is doing in the Middle East, and has done at the Summit of the Americas where he dared to shake Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s hand and accepted his tome, we signal our willingness to listen to, and learn from, other cultures and nations.

We can absorb the moral and spiritual meanings of various cultures by paying attention to the self-images they present in their art and culture. Furthermore, as frightening tensions multiply and tear at the fabric of global citizenship – and as Americans face bitter resentment in the world, fueled by the perception that we are arrogant and indifferent to those outside our language and land – we need to know at least the bare outlines of the countries, underserved communities and cultures with which we share the earth.

In our own way, we can all become cultural and compassionate ambassadors for the best elements of the distinct and vibrant cultures and class differences that have shaped our understanding of what it means to be world citizens and human beings. Perhaps then will we extend to world relations an appreciation for the multicultural and multiracial heritage we embraced in electing the first African American President of the United States of America.