Cultural Diplomacy for the 21st Century |

Cultural Diplomacy for the 21st Century

20120730_Schneider_w170On 30 July 2012, Prof. Cynthia P. Schneider was at the LKY School to give a talk on Cultural Diplomacy for the 21st Century. Her positions held include Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University, Co-Director of the Muslims on Screen and Television Initiative (MOST) Resource, as well as being the Former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands.

Schneider spoke on a new way of ‘doing’ public diplomacy necessary today, highlighting a shift towards leveraging the local, instead of sending things from point A to point B. In an age of 24/7 communication, she points out the need to” walk the talk”, as national hypocrisy becomes harder to get away with. She pulls a parallel with Apple’s ‘sensitivity to the user’ which has ensured its products’ success by first making meaning for the user.

Schneider points out Alaa-Al-Aswany’s acclaimed book The Yacoubian Building that became Egypt’s submission for the 2008 Academy Awards, as an illuminating example of how the nation’s society was a pressure cooker at every level. It revealed the pervasive corruption that prevented the poverty-stricken to the rich from advancing. While it does not predict the social riots that broke out on 25 January 2011 exactly, Schneider points out how it has illuminated a very different picture from that which the public would have gotten from its leaders.

Schneider highlights music as another way that reveals itself a truer barometer of society, referring to 21-year-old rapper El Général considered the ‘voice of the Tunisian Revolution’. Within hours of its release, his song “Rais Lebled” went viral almost immediately, and became an underground sensation. This was a month before the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi. His lyrics were political but deeply patriotic lyrics and presented a sense of what a country should be and actually owes to its people. Schneider recalls the African-American hip hop music of the 1980s and 90s that was similar in its political side.

The Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said” is another example, after the young Egyptian man who was allegedly beaten to death by police on 6 June 2010. Set up by Wael Ghonim, the Head of Google Marketing, it generated 350,000 signatures—in retrospect, this could appear as a beginning to the Egyptian evolution. Schneider notes that these reveal while the people may not have banished the regime, but they have banished fear.

Schneider notes these movements prove social media to be very important. YouTube, and had made internet the most important medium for distributing Arabic hip hop. However, she says, “it is equally important to remember while it is good to have Facebook accounts, but even better to read Facebook accounts.”

Schneider believes these society’s thoughts should be integrated into foreign policy, and these voices of literature, music, and the movies reveal the deeper meanings voices behind what is. She uses the example of protests at Tarir Square, “their signs and banners do not explicitly say “Free and Fair Elections, though no one doubts it. Instead, theirs call for “Dignity” which is telling of the deeper climate.”

Reflecting on the misunderstanding of where security lies and the limits of hard power, she says, “Security lies in the soft power of influence around the world.” This is seen most powerfully in countries under stress. In Afghanistan, where tribal societies mean it is hard to advance to on your own merit, national contests on TV have attracted extraordinary viewership up to ten million. It becomes a communal activity, where people gather to watch one television screen.

Schneider commented, “Singapore has understood soft power from the beginning, especially the power of culture within and without”. She talks about collaborative projects led by Colin Goh of The Arts House that create a buzz about Singapore in the host city and country. Singapore has focused on building human capacity through education. The LKY School is an example of this understanding with its quotes that adorn some ceilings of hallways chosen by students and faculty.

She says it may take a while to attitudes to shift for this to be employed to concrete and serious ends, even in countering terrorism. She cites the example of the Ajoka theatre in Lahore, Pakistan performing stories Sufi heroes around the region, and evolving into a balance against terrorism and extremism.


By Melanie Chua, an Editor for Global-is-Asian, the quarterly magazine of the LKY School.


Multimedia: Webcast |


As change overtakes the Arab world, and the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and citizen journalism upend traditional power structures, cultural diplomacy and "soft power" play and increasingly important role in diplomacy and foreign policy.

To succeed in the 21st century, countries and people must understand how to use "soft power", or the power to attract and influence through non-coercive means (culture, aid, education), and cultural diplomacy (people-to-people diplomacy, including through arts, culture, and media).

This talk will examine how culture and international politics interact in today's world. Topics will include how creative expression foresaw the Arab Revolutions, how Idol programs are changing the world, and the role of cultural history in shaping identity and countering extremism.

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Prof. Cynthia P. Schneider, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy, School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University; Co-Director, Muslims on Screen and Television Initiative (MOST) Resource; Former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands

Monday, 30 July 2012
12.15 p.m. - 1.30 p.m.

Seminar Room 3-1
Level 3, Manasseh Meyer
Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy
469C Bukit Timah Road
Singapore 259772

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