What US emissaries are hearing
For cultural envoys, it's about calypso and James Bond - not the clash of civilizations.
As an immigrant, architect Daniel Libeskind says he already knew about the attraction that people around the world feel toward America. But it was in the dingy hallway of a school in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Tunis that he experienced the depth and power of the connection people feel towards what America - and Americans - represent.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
"Someone had taped this Xerox of all the American presidents since George Washington on the wall, and as drab and faded as it was, it was still there because someone thought it said something valuable to the kids who walked those halls," says the man who drew up the winning design for the World Trade Center site. "To me it said, 'We share this incredible thirst for liberties, we share this great desire for them.' "
Mr. Libeskind, who emigrated from Poland at age 13, is one of a dozen official cultural ambassadors taking that message of shared values and shared thirst for freedom around the world on behalf of the US government.
At a time when America's image abroad has sunk by all measurements to new lows while global opposition to US policies has climbed to new highs, the assignment of American cultural ambassador might seem like a risky one. But the emissaries of a program created two years ago by the State Department - part of a broader effort to reinvigorate the people-to-people portfolios that were largely abandoned after the cold war - say they encounter only welcome and enthusiasm.
"People have to get down and understand each other, and when people come to realize you're reaching out to them, then they come back to you with open arms. I don't care where you go," says Mary Wilson, a recording artist and former member of the Supremes who has visited eight countries. "Our politicians and leaders have their job to do, but everything's not just policy to policy. It's got to be people to people."
America's efforts to improve its standing in the world have been mercilessly picked apart in recent months, with a string of reports and commissions finding not enough money is spent - even after millions have been poured into creating Arabic-language radio and TV stations. Critics have also faulted the US for not having a coordinated message, and for too much emphasis being placed on PR at the expense of honest discussion and listening.
But most experts agree that cultural exchanges and personal contacts should be increased - and that's where the "CultureConnect" ambassadors come in.
The group, which includes luminaries like cellist Yo-Yo Ma, jazz artist Wynton Marsalis, dancer Debbie Allen, mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves, and actress Doris Roberts, was honored this week by Secretary of State Colin Powell. The program also includes sports stars, with Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams having recently joined the roster.
Mr. Powell, who has made his own effort almost everywhere he has traveled to meet with young people - to help clear up what he considers the misconceptions about America - said the job of ambassador is rewarding, if not always easy. Recalling a few perplexing moments of his own in the role, the secretary of State spoke of the young woman in South Korea who asked him what calypso is all about - and had him expounding on his Jamaican roots and even singing a few bars.