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.
"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.
THEN there was the young man in Bulgaria who asked Powell to explain the recurring themes in James Bond movies. Powell took a stab at it - reducing everything from "Goldfinger" to "Die Another Day" to: Bond saves world with gadgets and gets the girl. The secretary woke up the next day to the headline, "Powell Pans James Bond."
Months later, such stories are a source of mirth. But they also raise questions about how much the exchanges clear up misunderstandings, and whether people-to-people diplomacy really makes a difference when the foreign policies that much of the world rejects remain unchanged.
Ron Silver says it does. The actor, director, and producer whose credits include television's "The West Wing" says, "An artist can talk to people and relate to them in ways that politicians and diplomats can't."
A member of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, Mr. Silver says America will always start from a difficult position as it tries to build connections to other people and countries.
"As long as ours is a unipolar world, some of that resentment and disliking will be there," he says, "and we can't hide from the fact that certain of our polices dismay some people and cause others a certain amount of despair."
Managing to express some levity even while discussing such a heavy topic, he referred to the shoe box under his arm containing the crystal honor he had received for his cultural work and quipped: "I look like I've stolen something from Nine West."
Mr. Silver said the "personal contact" and sharing of common trials and aspirations can cut through animosities.
Asked by one foreign journalist if her ambassadorial duties are helping "to address the clash of civilizations," Ms. Wilson said: "Hold on, that's getting a little too heavy for me." But she did note that in Africa, she speaks candidly of the hardships African-Americans have faced. Also while on tour she publicly took an HIV test, to press the point that there should be no shame in getting tested.
Frank McCourt, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "Angela's Ashes," has told groups of Israeli and Palestinian youth about his troubled childhood - and how early hardships can transform into later accomplishments. And Ms. Roberts, the globally recognized acerbic mom (and mother-in-law) on "Everybody Loves Raymond," says it's the personal tales of perseverance and hope - mixed with a little humor - that reach the mostly poor children she speaks to.
"I tell them I've gotten nothing easily," says the Emmy winner, who shares with kids how at 18 she was told by a drama teacher "to give it up, that I was a little mousy thing that would never get anywhere. Well now," she adds, "this little mousy thing is in 171 countries in the world." The message is universal, but in many ways, she adds, it's a particularly American one. "I tell them if you love something follow it, and don't ever take no for an answer."