GWANGJU, SOUTH KOREA – Japan, take note. This will not be your grandfather’s U.S. State Department.
That could well have been the underlying message as U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson testified recently before the Senate Appropriations Committee on the Trump administration’s 2018 State Department budget request. The proposed budget of $37.6 billion, significantly less than in prior years, could well have major implications for America’s diplomacy efforts in Asia, whether here on a divided Korean Peninsula or even in Japan.
While there would be “substantial funding for many foreign assistance programs,” 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 2007, reaching an all-time high of $55.6 billion in 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,” Tillerson said 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. U.S. 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 U.S. president and the leadership of the Congress as they negotiate an overall 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 U.S. engagement.
A final 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 — “pingpong” diplomacy — between the United States and China helped pave the way for a visit to Beijing by U.S. 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 the U.S. 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 its modern democratic movement.
“Inclusion is the name of the game,” Battery Dance Company founder and director Jonathan Hollander said 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 U.S. Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. That committee was authorized by 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 America’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 U.S. engagement extends around the world. In Asia, where China continues to militarize “islands” it builds in the South China Sea — through which much of American trade with the region transits — the opportunity exists for the U.S. 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 U.S. to recommit to diplomacy — cultural, commercial and educational. As Trump and Tillerson disrupt the staid halls of the U.S. State Department, there should be no ignoring that robust, strengthened diplomacy is good for American security and also makes long-term economic sense.
Curtis S. Chin, a former U.S. ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group, LLC. Follow him on Twitter at @CurtisSChin .