|Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright
Remarks at Dinner for White House Conf on Diplomacy and Culture
November 27, 2000, U.S. Dept of State
As released by the Office of the Spokesman
U.S. Department of State
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Thank you all very much. Thank you. Please sit down. Thank you.
It's such a pleasure to have you all here tonight. Secretary Mineta, Representative Jim Leach, excellencies from the diplomatic corps, colleagues, representatives of the arts and humanities, leaders of the business community and NGOs, friends and guests, it is indeed a great evening and wonderful to welcome you to the Department of State.
Some of you, as you came through the line, said that you had heard that I wasn't here, that I was in Vienna. Well, this is me -- (laughter) -- and despite what The Washington Post says, I love makeup, and I need it tonight because I just got off the plane. (Laughter.)
Tonight is for having fun, and trading stories and casting our eyes about this truly beautiful room, which has a tale to tell about the history of our country. Benjamin Franklin was renowned for many reasons, including his advice that we all go to bed early. But I suspect that he rendered that counsel before arriving in Paris as America's first diplomat, and we do not need to feel bound by his wisdom tonight.
Tomorrow, most of us will reassemble for the first -- but I'm sure not the last -- White House Conference on Culture and Diplomacy. We will hear from President Clinton, the First Lady, and from many of you -- accomplished experts on the connections between culture and public policy around the world.
Culture, of course, is a really versatile term. To anthropologists and sociologists, it means one thing; to foreign policy wonks, it means another; to artists and scholars and businesspeople, it will have a different connotation still. Each perspective indeed does have validity and none should be dismissed.
When I think of culture, I think of the distinctions of history, language, customs and costume that distinguish the citizens of one land from another. I still remember that as a little girl, having been born in Czechoslovakia and the daughter of a diplomat, I used to be the child that would go out in the national costume to give flowers to visiting dignitaries, and that's what I did for a living. (Laughter.)
Well, globalization has blurred many such national and cultural traditions, but it has by no means erased them. In fact, culture continues to influence many of our most complex international challenges, from peacekeeping and trade, to biotechnology and the treatment of women. As a result, a successful US foreign policy requires an understanding of foreign cultures. Without that, we would fail to interpret correctly what others say, and fail to convey clearly to others what we intend. Our actions would prompt reactions we have not foreseen, and we would find ourselves constantly beset with problems to which we have no answers because we wouldn't even know the right question to ask.
Of course, there are some who doubt whether the United States really tries very hard to understand other cultures. They describe our country as hegemonic, equate globalization with Americanization, and say unkind things about our hamburgers. (Laughter.)
There are two problems with their thinking. First, globalization is neither new nor made in America. The world has been shrinking, and commerce expanding, since the first camel found a rider, the first boat took to sea, and the first wagon began rolling down the Appian Way. There is no question, of course, that the pace of technology-driven change has increased, but this is a challenge for every nation, including the United States.
Second, it's nonsense to talk of America imposing our culture, as if our culture were a single entity that could readily be defined. The Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups is 1,076 pages long. It lists everyone from the Acadians to the Zoroastrians, and each has contributed to the American story.
Our nation's rise from wilderness to greatness was propelled by the intermingling of cultures, through which strengths are added to strengths, with innovation and excellence the result. Americans believe that openness to new ideas is vital to individual and community growth. But we also believe in balance; not everything that is new is better. Honored traditions must be respected, and certainly none of us want to live in a global Pleasantville where everyone thinks, talks and looks the same.
One way we strive to achieve balance in our own policies is by integrating cultural diplomacy into our programs here at the Department of State. These programs enable us to make connections. For example, when we sponsor an African American film festival in Johannesburg, we help audiences understand the American experience in a new and more fully honest light.
When we tour Latin America with an exhibit from the National Museum of American Indians, we recall the common origins of civilization in our hemisphere and highlight the need to respect indigenous cultures on both sides of the Rio Grande.
When we were represented abroad by the Jazz Ambassadors, such as Matt Ray Trio, from whom we will hear later tonight, we provide an example of how our free nation has made something new and incomparable out of really diverse roots. Jazz is Americanization at its best.
Many of our other more officials ambassadors have told me of the value that cultural programs have in improving perceptions about America and helping Americans understand the world. And that is why, with a vigorous nudge from Under Secretary Evelyn Lieberman, we are working to reverse the sharp decline in funding for these initiatives. And we strongly support legislation introduced by Senator Biden and Representative Leach to create an endowment that will make it easier to finance them.
We are also deeply committed to our international scholarship, exchange and visitor programs. And I am a firm believer in these programs because, when I was a professor, I participated in them and I really have seen them work.
These programs win friends for America, and they help us spread the good news of freedom, human rights and the rule of law. They bring future leaders from around the world to our shores, and they help foreigners understand America's unique and complex electoral system -- so that one day, we hope, they can explain it to us. (Laughter.)
In all our efforts at cultural diplomacy, we are dependent on help from our partners in the private sector and among academic and nongovernmental organizations. Their assistance is vital, both to stretch our resources and to create a network of people-to-people contacts that will long outlive any formal government initiative.
Finally, we are striving to establish a wide-ranging dialogue about culture and diplomacy with experts from around the world. And that is where you all come in, and that's why I look forward so much to our Conference at the White House tomorrow.
Because we will look to our panelists and other participants to provide provocative answers to complicated questions about the role of culture in diplomacy, and the problem of reconciling the free flow of information with the preservation of cherished traditions.
We will discuss how important it is that Americans look beyond our boundaries to comprehend and appreciate the rich tapestry of knowledge, invention, artistry and spiritual strength to be found in cultures around the equator and from pole to pole.
And we will examine the challenge of telling America's story abroad, so that stereotypes are rebutted and the full meaning of our heritage of freedom shines through.
The White House Conference on Culture and Diplomacy offers us all a chance to further our education, by reflecting upon the differences that distinguish one people from another, and comprehending more deeply the common humanity that binds us all.
I want to thank you once again for joining us this evening, and I hope very much that you enjoy tonight's dinner and entertainment. And I look forward to seeing most of you again bright and early tomorrow morning at the White House.
Thank you all very, very much for being here.
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