Cultural Diplomacy News (CDN)
Amb Dr. Cynthia Schneider (Former Ambassador of the US to The Netherlands)

14.05.2011 - Interview conducted by Michelle Karunaratne & Alex Biggs

Q1. Unlike France or Italy, several countries, including the Netherlands, did not officially recognize the National Transitional Council on Libya. Do you think that the different perspectives regarding Libya within the European Union could be a source of diplomatic crisis between these countries?

Probably not. I don’t really think it is that significant. Countries within the European Union disagree about things all the time so I really don’t think it could be such a big deal. I must say I am mystified as to why the Dutch did not recognize [the National Transitional Council]. They have a fairly conservative government so that could be a possible explanation, but I’m not informed as to why their position is what it is. On my forthcoming trip with the Foreign Minister, I’m going to ask him!

Q2. During your time as US Ambassador to The Netherlands, would you say there were any particular initiatives that you led regarding cultural diplomacy that were particularly successful?

Well I hope they all were successful and valuable in one degree or another. When I was Ambassador from 1998 to 2001, the second Clinton term, I did a great deal with cultural diplomacy. I had a fantastic collection of art in the residency; every American ambassador can do that. You are allowed put together an exhibition in your residency but it has to be American art and reflect your interests or the interests of your country in some way. I displayed American art that was inspired by Dutch history and 17th Century Dutch art. It turns out there were many contemporary artists who painted in this style. I also displayed art by Dutch-American artists, for example Klauss Oldenburg, and other pieces of American art with Dutch connections. All were of very high quality. I compiled a catalogue of all the works with a former student of mine, and we would give a copy of the catalogue to everybody who came to the house. I would also give a tour of the paintings and sculptures. Dutch people would come into the residence and see echoes of 17th Century Dutch art and realize how important the influence of Dutch art is on American art. There was also a certain amount of cultural diplomacy within the embassy. When I was Ambassador I discovered two things. One, that cultural diplomacy works very effectively as part of diplomacy and two, that the State Department does not take it very seriously. So this was a way to show the people working in the embassy how effective cultural exchange can be. They used to always tease me and say they could give this tour in their sleep. But a real sign of how much cultural diplomacy meant to people took place at the July 4th party of the year after I left office. I happened to be talking to an American who had attended that party and received a tour from someone who worked in the embassy. None of the paintings were there anymore, they had been returned to their original owners, but the wires were still hanging. This person from the embassy gave the visitor a virtual tour by saying ‘here used to be this painting,’ etc. I love this story; it shows I think cultural exchange has a real impact. It shows how it is a way of addressing some challenging issues.

One of the most pressing issues within the Dutch-American relationship is illegal drug trafficking. The Dutch have this peculiar position on marijuana where it is actually illegal but officially tolerated, so it seems like the substance is legal, which leads to disagreements. Both countries believe the other should change their policies, and is a source of friction. And also when I was in the Netherlands, ecstasy use was on the rise; Holland was the largest exporter of ecstasy in Europe. The film ‘Traffic’ was a really brilliant, hard-hitting movie about the interconnectedness of the drug trade from the lackey in Mexico to the Wall Street banker, and how it is all connected. It is a very powerful movie and I invited all the people who worked in the Department of Justice to come view this film with the people from the Drug Enforcement Agency in the Embassy. We all saw the film together and had dinner and discussion afterwards. When you experience a cultural event like that, it makes such a powerful impression. You are temporarily emotionally transported, living in the world of the film, and it makes you much more open and able to discuss things much more honestly. There is always such a problem discussing issues such as this with the Dutch. After the film we had really great frank and honest discussions. We were able to come to agreements we may not have otherwise. That’s just two examples. We also had jazz, and the embassy connected with jazz festivals in the area which it had never done before. You had all these American artists coming and in the age where you do not have the funding to send around the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, you can still take advantage of things like this. So we would invite all the American jazz musicians to come to the residence and brought in some Dutch musicians too and there would be a jam session between Dutch and Americans. The first year was very informal, the second year we invited more people. They were honoring Chicago and the North Sea jazz festival so we invited the mayor of Chicago and his wife came. We made it a very American event so we invited hundreds of people, very informal, everyone wearing blue jeans, eating chicken fingers and brownies. It was not urn typical embassy event. So I like to take something that is there and leverage it into something that resonates in that place and you never know where it can take you. Warner bros did the film ‘paid forward’ which was a very nice film about doing good deeds and the world. You do three good things and you pass it on and the next person does three good things. It’s really about philanthropy and civil engagement. So I said we will premiere this movie and do something with it and make it an event about philanthropy and take about philanthropy and how in comparison to philanthropy in America it is not so big in Holland. It is only getting started here. The government does so much but there is an increasing need for philanthropy. So this was good for them, they wanted to talk about it with America. It turned out that the date that we scheduled like six months in advance, when we were going to do the screening, was right after president bush had been elected and Colin Powell appointed secretary of state, something I never could have predicted. I wanted a statement from Powell about the role of philanthropy in society; I would draft a statement and get it approved. I got back the predictable reply of ‘thank you so much, what a nice idea but we need three weeks to ok this, please get back in touch with us again the next time you do this’, this was his first week in office and I knew if you don’t get the answer you like you go higher to someone else. I wasn’t going to do another event on philanthropy with 400 hundred people so I just wanted him to look at these two sentences and just ok them. So eventually somebody did and I was able to do this event based around the movie and read a special greeting from Secretary Powell to the audience in The Netherlands. It was the first contact they had had from Secretary Powell. It was front page news the next day that he reached the Netherlands. You never really know where these things are going to lead and sometimes they have a real impact.

Q3. As a teacher specialized in cultural diplomacy, with a focus on the Muslim world, where does your deep interest for the Middle East come from and what should we be doing to more culturally engage in the Middle East?

Firstly, for me it just came from an opportunity that came to me by a fluke but I was introduced to somebody at the Brookings Institute think tank in Washington, who invited me to become involved with a big conference they have every year, the US-Islamic World Forum. They invited me to start convening groups of arts and cultural leaders as part of the forum, which I did beginning in 2006/2007 and that enabled me to build a network of about 200 arts and cultural leaders, part from the US, part from the Muslim world and discover all sorts of commonalities and get an understanding of how creative expression works in different societies. So I think in terms of conceivably how we could do this better, I really think the most important thing is to observe and listen and understand cultural figures in different countries in the Middle East, what they are saying and about their societies. Then find ways to partner and to leverage what they are doing. There are many types of knowledge in what they are doing in the arts area. Not so much in bringing someone from here to their country, it’s still much appreciated but it’s just not going to be able to happen that much. Certainly if you do want that to happen, you need to work with local artists and build joint production and then perform that and reach out to people.

Q4. You wrote an article called “Cultural Diplomacy and the ‘Oh I Didn’t Know That’ Factor.” Could you explain to us what this factor corresponds to?

That was about an exhibition that the UAE had for their national day celebrating the nation in Washington. What that was about was, they used as a centerpiece of this national day, an exhibition of contemporary artists from the UAE and it was very interesting with contemporary young artists who challenged conventions and societies and some difficult, challenging international issues. I went with a Jordanian friend and what I heard from her at the time was ‘I didn’t know they had art like this’ in the UAE. I thought that was something you really want to do when you have a cultural event is to show people a side of your country they did not know and break the conventional ideas. People left that impressed thinking there was more to this country than they thought.

Thank you for your time.