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Engagement Reframed

March 24, 2022

Engagement Reframed #5: Deploy America’s secret diplomatic superstars

By Evan Cooper

Key points

  • In the past, the United States strategically utilized its globally popular musicians for diplomatic gains through the Jazz Ambassador program. But this practice began to wind down in the 1960s and has not since been replicated.
  • Given the desire of Americans to engage more with the rest of the world through diplomacy, the United States should create a new program to deploy its musical talent.
  • An “America’s Best Concert series” could advance US values abroad and improve the image of the United States globally, while simultaneously advancing US commercial interests.

What is the opportunity?

In 1956, jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie and his band were traveling across Europe and South Asia, playing concerts on a tour organized by the US Department of State (DoS). The band got a call from an official at DoS, who told them they were needed in Greece. Young Greeks had been protesting at the American Embassy against the decision by the United States to support continued British rule of Cyprus. DoS wanted to try to divert the protestors’ anger by showcasing America’s talented jazz musicians, whose mission was to promote US values.

The band played a sold-out show in Athens to a raucous crowd, which had a similar demographic composition as the crowd protesting outside the embassy. Quincy Jones, then the drummer for Gillespie’s band, recounts thinking that the crowd was going to attack the musicians. Instead, the thousands of young people packed into the venue were engrossed by the music and celebrated Gillespie after the show. The protests against the US Embassy quickly abated—and DoS viewed the use of the Jazz Ambassadors as a triumphant employment of US cultural diplomacy to end a crisis.

The show in Greece would not be the last time a Jazz Ambassador defused a situation. In 1960, during his extensive tour of Africa as a Jazz Ambassador, Louis Armstrong was sent to Leopoldville, Congo, to play a concert amidst the civil war taking place there. The tour had been organized by DoS, and sponsored by Pepsi, in order to leverage Armstrong’s popularity on the continent to promote the beverage. There was debate among DoS officials of whether to continue to brand the concert in Leopoldville with Pepsi, given the precarious political situation there. Ultimately, officials decided to continue to partner with the Pepsi brand in hopes it might not look as explicitly propagandic amidst a war where one side was backed by the United States and the other, the Soviet Union. The organizers hoped for 1,500 fans. More than 10,000 showed up, according to DoS cables. The result of the show, as Armstrong tells it, was a temporary truce between the warring sides as they came together to listen to this American musician from New Orleans.

Today, the United States has an opportunity to harness its globally popular musical superstars for diplomatic gains, building off the legacy of the successful Jazz Ambassadors program. A well-publicized concert series that brings US superstars to locales they would otherwise be unlikely to tour and are of diplomatic importance would be a useful tool for improving views of the United States abroad and spreading US values. As Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it,

America’s arts and culture are a major source of our national strength, our musicians captivate the world. Their work gets people to see each other’s humanity, build a sense of common purpose, change the minds of those who misunderstand us, and tell the American story in a way no policy or speech ever could.

Music—the universal language—can build bridges across cultures, and American music has been doing so for decades. The top of the Billboard Global 200 chart regularly features American artists—and this music has lasting power. As Ukrainians fled from the Russian invasion of their country, a video circulated of one refugee playing “What a Wonderful World” by Armstrong, more than six decades after the Jazz Ambassadors brought their music to European crowds.

The power of music should not be viewed by policymakers as some flimsy hobbyhorse of pacifists. The Eurovision Song Contest, which pits musicians representing countries from Europe (and some other select countries) against one another, has produced superstars like ABBA and Celine Dion, while providing visibility to issues like LGBTQ rights and the unique cultures and traditions of the competing countries. In 2021, 183 million viewers watched the competition, making it one of the most-viewed events globally. The ability to message to such a broad audience makes the competition a potent source of European cultural power.

“America’s arts and culture are a major source of our national strength, our musicians captivate the world.” —Secretary of State Antony Blinken

The United States does not presently have any program that features its superstar musical talent and promotes freedom of expression on a global scale. Although the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) continues to facilitate concerts abroad, they are far smaller than those of the Jazz Ambassador program. The Jazz Ambassador program was renamed the American Music Abroad program in 2005 and no longer features widely known and commercially successful musicians. Instead, they promote smaller groups that represent the rich musical landscape and history of the United States. Although these programs are valuable, they do not provide the visibility and commercial clout that major US artists like the original Jazz Ambassadors did. An independent evaluation of the Jazz Ambassadors program in 2006 assessed that the program was impressively effective. The report concluded:

The JA (Jazz Ambassadors) Program [was] a highly successful vehicle for conveying this uniquely American music—instilled with American cultural heritage and American values—to millions of people, worldwide. Virtually all those who participated in this evaluation, whether they were United States Ambassadors, Post Staff, accomplished American musicians, amateur and professional musicians in third world countries, managers of media outlets and cultural organizations, or young music students, agreed that this remarkable program accomplished far-ranging and important goals for US foreign policy.

Even though the Jazz Ambassadors program was deemed a success, no cultural diplomacy endeavor on the scale of the tours of the 1950s and 1960s has been replicated. Many foreign policy professionals recognize that the power of American culture has waned as a tool of diplomacy. The aphorism goes that politics is downstream of culture, and in the view of former diplomat John Brown, the citizens and leaders of many countries see culture as more important than politics. They perceive the United States to be lacking a rich culture because the US government does not aggressively promote its artists abroad. Brown writes of the paradox in the US approach to cultural diplomacy: “The neglect of arts diplomacy by the US government reflects certain long-term traits of the American national character: it is puritanical, democratic, void of a national culture, yet it influences the world through its mass entertainment.” Although the United States may not have a well-established and unified culture to promote abroad like China, Japan, or France, it does have an advantage in its cutting-edge art that is oriented toward a mass audience, best represented by its commercially popular musicians.

Why now?

While the United States faces increased competition for global influence, it has lost diplomatic clout during the past two decades. Failed wars and hubristic foreign policy have damaged the US image around the world and led many to doubt whether the United States should serve as a model. Although the image of the United States as a global leader is faltering, American artists and other cultural icons have enjoyed significant worldwide popularity. US musicians tour globally with great success, its designers are featured in top fashion shows, and its athletes are global brands.

In contrast with the Trump administration, which called for cuts to DoS, the Biden administration has signaled an interest in expanding nonmilitary forms of global engagement. These efforts mirror the desires of the American public to engage in the world without becoming involved in more conflicts. In recent polling by the Eurasia Group Foundation, almost three times as many Americans wanted to increase, rather than decrease diplomatic engagement with the world, with nonmilitary means of engagement ranked highest as their preferred means for global engagement.

With the American public desiring increased diplomacy, there is an opportunity to redefine how the United States engages with the world and change the perceptions foreign populations have of American values. One of the models of governance that the United States is competing against globally features restrictions on speech and expression; Washington has the ability to demonstrate the creativity and innovation that its more open and tolerant model allows. The Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy included a number of discussions on the importance of freedom of expression and speech; a popularized effort to spread these values would further the administration’s goals of promoting democracy globally.

How to make it happen

1. Create an America’s Best Concert series (ABCs). With relatively little funding appropriated by Congress, the State Department’s ECA could develop a concert series to bring some of the biggest stars from the United States to places where they would otherwise be unlikely to tour. This effort should be modeled on the original Jazz Ambassadors program, with coordination with local authorities managed through in-country embassy staff to ensure cultural sensitivity and an understanding of which artists would have the greatest appeal to local audiences. Rather than soliciting applications like the current American Musicians Abroad program, the ABCs should recruit top talent with competitive contracts, the opportunity to appeal to new audiences, and the chance to represent their country abroad. Costs of booking the artists and paying for the shows would be defrayed through partnerships with US companies, which would have the opportunity to advertise in growing markets where they may lack significant existing market saturation. 

2. Provide musicians full artistic discretion in what they perform and communicate to foreign audiences. Ultimately, artists would be representing the American value of freedom of expression; they should have the ability to criticize their own government and its policies even while representing their country. As Louis Armstrong said of his decision to be a Jazz Ambassador, “I sort of liked the idea of representing America, but I wasn’t going over there to apologize for the racist policies of America.” There is an inherent tension in a concert series meant to promote freedom of expression that also requires artists to avoid diplomatically sensitive subjects. This was an issue cited by Quincy Jones in his autobiography, where Jones said that an official from the American National Theater and Academy, an organization DoS had partnered with to administer the concerts, condescendingly told the musicians to “indulge in your various idiosyncrasies discreetly.” DoS should carefully consider which artists it promotes abroad and where, but ultimately it should emphasize the artists’ freedom to hold and express their own opinions as they engage with foreign audiences.

3. Develop better connections with the artistic community. DoS is limited in its ability to operate domestically, both because of its structure and US laws. This needs to change; the State Department must be deeply immersed in the country it serves. For US cultural power to be leveraged abroad, established relationships and an understanding of American culture need to be strong. Artists need to be able to trust that they are representing their own values and those of the country rather than being used for propaganda. Managers and promoters must trust that the concerts will be well managed and avoid hurting the reputations of artists.

One way to develop this capacity is to further build out the American Arts Incubator (AAI) program. Launched in 2014, AAI is an initiative of ECA that sends American artists abroad to collaborate with local communities. This is a small program that provides relatively modest grants to artists, but it is a proven model for DoS interfacing with the arts world. By scaling up AAI to allow it to develop broad relationships with artistic communities, and expanding into the commercial music industry, AAI could serve as a liaison with the State Department to help identify which artists would have the greatest appeal for ABCs.

4. Identify where diplomatic and commercial interests intersect. The State Department’s Office of Global Partnerships (OGP) aims to develop cross-sector collaboration to advance US foreign policy goals, but it has been limited in its ability to do so. As part of the ABCs, the OGP should be empowered to establish connections with major US companies that have an interest in sponsoring the ABCs. The promotion of American brands by US musicians performing in regions with low saturation of US companies could be an attractive opportunity for US businesses. Sponsorship for the ABCs provided by large US companies would both allow for superstar artists to be contracted, without having to charge money for the concerts to attendees, and would serve to promote US commercial interests abroad. OGP has partnered in the past with major companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon Web Services, mobilizing $3.7 billion in public and private commitments since 2008. This figure could be far higher if OGP was expanded and its mandate widened to focus more on leveraging US commercial power for diplomatic purposes, without neglecting its current focus on directing private funding to international development.

Washington has an opportunity to advance US diplomatic goals and commercial interests by bringing music to the world. What it takes to do that is an empowered DoS that can step into the limelight alongside American superstar musicians.

Photo by Mario Anzuoni. 62nd Grammy Awards – Show – Los Angeles, California, US, January 26, 2020 – Ariana Grande performs. REUTERS

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Image: 62nd Grammy Awards - Show - Los Angeles, California, U.S., January 26, 2020 - Ariana Grande performs. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni