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A scene from a Battery Dance event in February in Gwangju, South Korea.
A scene from a Battery Dance event in February in Gwangju, South Korea. US embassy to South Korea

Keeping diplomacy strong in a time of budget cuts

By Curtis S Chin, former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank and managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin

Cambodia, take note. This will not be your grandfather’s US State Department.

That could well have been the underlying message as US Secretary of State Rex W Tillerson testified recently before a Senate Appropriations Committee on the Trump Administration’s fiscal year 2018 State Department budget request. The proposed budget of $37.6 billion, significantly less than that for prior years, could well have major implications for America’s diplomacy efforts in Asia, whether here on a divided Korean Peninsula, in Afghanistan or even in Cambodia.

While there would be “substantial funding for many foreign assistance programmes”, America’s top diplomat said, other initiatives would see reductions. The State Department and USAID budget, he noted, had increased more than 60 percent – a “rate of increase in funding [that] is not sustainable” – from fiscal year 2007, reaching an all-time high of $55.6 billion in fiscal year 2017.

“While our mission will also be focused on advancing the economic interests of the American people, the State Department’s primary focus will be to protect our citizens at home and abroad,” said Tillerson in his prepared remarks introducing the budget request.

There is certainly no substitute for the “hard power” of a strong military and willingness to deploy and use military assets. US engagement in Asia will benefit from an America that is stronger both economically at home and militarily abroad.

But the “soft power” of diplomacy also has its advantages in cost-effectively underscoring a nation’s values, commitments and presence. This must be kept in mind both by the US president and the leadership of the US Congress as they negotiate an overall fiscal year 2018 budget that gets spending under control while advancing American interests.

This is particularly important in places in Asia – a region that continues to be a key driver of global economic growth. Much of the region remains worried about an increasingly aggressive China and would welcome strengthened US engagement.

A final fiscal year 2018 budget request for the State Department should include continued funding – if not a gradual increase – of what has been a relatively small amount of money allocated every year to the soft power of “cultural diplomacy”.

Roughly defined as the use of an exchange of ideas, traditions and values to strengthen relations and encourage engagement, cultural diplomacy is perhaps most easily seen in the use of music, arts and sports to build cross-cultural understanding.

In the early 1970s, an exchange of table tennis players – “ping pong diplomacy" – between the United States and China helped pave the way for a visit to Beijing by then-President Richard Nixon.

Today, it could well be the power of American football or music that helps America and Americans to better connect abroad. This February at the Asia Culture Center in the South Korean city of Gwangju, I joined representatives from our US Embassy in Seoul to support American cultural diplomacy in action.

A team of dancers from the Battery Dance Company of New York – on whose international advisory board I serve – came together with some 100 participants and their families and communities in South Korea to help build understanding and bridge divides. Gwangju is the sixth largest city in South Korea and the birthplace of that nation’s modern democratic movement.

“Inclusion is the name of the game,” said Battery Dance Company’s founder and director, Jonathan Hollander, to me then, “with disabled students working with high school dance majors; Filipino young women and a high school hip-hop dance club; North Korean defectors; middle-aged ladies from a community dance group; and the Gwangju Ballet.”

“Cultural diplomacy becomes a real live thing when you get diverse people into a space together and differences are erased, borders crossed, preconceptions challenged [and] cooperation engendered,” said Hollander.

Some 15 years back I had served on the bipartisan Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy under US Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. That committee was authorised by the US Congress and established in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, as security concerns led to increased restrictions on travel and greater scrutiny of visitors from some Muslim-majority countries.

In our report, Cultural Diplomacy: The Linchpin of Public Diplomacy, the committee urged the then-secretary of state to consider a number of recommendations that would strengthen the US’s soft power in the ongoing battle of ideas, and create a cultural diplomacy infrastructure and policy for the 21st century.

More than ever, in this time of disruption and division, the need for smarter, enhanced US engagement extends around the world. In Asia, where China continues to militarise “islands” it builds in the South China Sea – through which much of US trade with the region transits – the opportunity exists for the United States to positively raise its profile as a more responsible power and partner in the region.

The challenges of budgets and bureaucracy remain, but it is time for the US to recommit to diplomacy – cultural, commercial and educational. As Trump and Tillerson disrupt the staid halls of the US State Department, there should be no ignoring that robust, strengthened diplomacy is good for American security and also makes long-term economic sense.

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