Sunday, June 29, 2008

A Thought on the Role of Culture in the Cold War on Terror

At the end of World War II, as the United States shifted from the war on Fascism to the Cold War, the U.S. government's attention was again directed to the cultural influence of communism. Here I am talking not so much about "high culture" of classical music, the legitimate theater and literature, but more about the popular culture represented by the political culture of labor unions and the widespread interest in government action to provide human services to the public (socialized medicine, education, etc.). The Soviet government financed efforts to disseminate communist thought in this popular culture, but efforts were also carried out by members of communist parties in other countries, by communists in influential positions such as the media. Notably, however, a large number of people who were not communists also espoused and disseminated views complementary with those of the Soviet Communists.

These days one thinks of the discredited Communism of the broken up Soviet Union and the escaped former Warsaw pact client states, of McCarthy and some of the abuses of the anti-communist programs but in the aftermath of the war Communists were taking over in Central and East Europe with the help of Soviet occupiers, Chinese Communists were waging a successful war against the nationalist government, and Communist movements in France, Italy and other European nations were seen as potentially taking office in free elections. In the United States many people felt that the failures in Capitalism that had been exposed by the Great Depression might be best solved through a movement to socialism, and recognized that Communists had born the brunt of the war against Fascism. The cultural importance of Communism appeared real and immediate.

While there was a U.A. governmental program seeking to identify and deal with Soviet agents, there was also a substantial program of cultural diplomacy. Surprisingly, much of that program was funded covertly by the CIA, and much of it involved sending the stars of high culture to Europe and other "battlegrounds" of the cultural war.

Much of the counterforce to communist cultural influence was non-governmental. Of course, religious bodies were involved in their own war on Communism. Moreover the American movie industry, motivated by the potential profits to be made from the international audience, was fighting its own cultural war, as would television and popular music industries. Indeed, American firm going multinational were spreading not only consumerism, but also a wide range of American cultural traits and values. Think of fast food such as Kentucky fried Chicken the the Big Mac. Entrepreneurial American educators were fighting for students and disseminating American created or organized knowledge products worldwide. American science, which dominated world science due both to American wealth and to the refuge that America offered to European scientists, also disseminated American pragmatism worldwide. One of the advantages of many of the non-governmental efforts was that their implementors were willing to live with and learn from the people they sought to influence. (This could be contrasted with too many governmental cultural diplomats who lived in American or Americanized enclaves, and who were not expected to learn about the cultures they were to influence.)

The concern of the Government, I guess, was that if there was widespread support for communist ideas, then Communist governments would come to power, and they would in turn support both Soviet agents and violence against the United States, as well of course as affect U.S. international economic interests.

The so-called War on Terrorism also has a cultural aspect. Islamic culture provides the milieu in which a small minority of fanatics have been influenced to form terrorist networks. The Islamic culture is widespread, and indeed is supported financially by state sources (albeit the most important of them not supporting terrorism).

Here too a wide variety of non-governmental elements are disseminating American culture in competition with aspects of Islamic culture, although the development and balance of the mix is different half a century later. Unfortunately, many of these seem to be counterproductive, generating more antagonism to American values than understanding of them.

The Bush administration in recent years has talked the talk of cultural diplomacy. It has perhaps failed to effectively utilize the multinational institutions that were created for the that purpose during the Cold War, and it seems to have been ham-handed (pun intended) in promoting American values. It too has perhaps been handicapped by the administration's confusion of high culture with the aspects of culture that are really important in combating the support for terrorism.

The most effective tool of public diplomacy in the Cold War may well have been the Marshall Plan, which indeed won the hearts and minds of people as a real expression of American concern for the needs of the suffering. It also was effective because it really strengthened the economic and political institutions that were opposed by militant Communism. Unfortunately, that progressive impulse is less powerful in American government and in its foreign policy than was the case in the Marshall and Kennedy years.

In the War on Terrorism, perhaps the most effective tool would be a really effective program of education for all, that both made peoples and countries sufficiently affluent to eschew violence, and which would promote an informed rationalism that would counteract the attitudes of mind that foster terrorist activities.

Worth thinking aboutI Perhaps a new administration can reinvigorate American cultural diplomacy and do more to undermine the aspects of Islamic societies that are supporting terrorist networks,

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