On US Cultural Diplomacy


A three-minute piece on US cultural diplomacy

A Three-minute Intervention of a Skeptic


Sitting in Vienna, one remembers that this city is the birthplace of one of the most important concepts of the modern age: Minderwertigkeitgefühl. In English: inferiority complex. Discussing American cultural diplomacy, one also remembers how one American artist made fun of this concept. It was Woody Allen, who in one of his films presented the patient consulting his psychiatrist about his symptoms. After a couple of (well-paid) sessions and tests, the doctor concludes with an encouraging smile: "I'm absolutely positive - you've got no inferiority complex. You ARE inferior."

When it comes to American cultural diplomacy, the greatest dilemma appears to be that you ARE superior. Indeed, in every field. When the late George Solti, shortly before his death, paid a visit to the Hungarian culture minister, the latter inquired, how he valued the then best symphonic orchestra of the country. The reassuring answer came fast: "They are definitely among the top ten." "In the world?" - asked the minister. "Oh no, - Solti shook his head vehemently - America is a class of its own. One or two European orchestras only would fit into the top ten in the US."

You, Americans, are aware of your superiority in terms of economic and military power and you know that the world, too, has acknowledged that. However, you also feel that you are not necessarily respected and what is worse, not sufficiently liked by the world. From American cultural diplomacy, it is generally expected to show the other face of the US: that of the high artistic and academic achievements. By highlighting these through diplomatic means, you hope to elicit increased understanding and sympathy.

Rightly so. However, these efforts may and do have adversary effects as well. Until now, we, positioned on lower shelves in the warehouse of nations, could console ourselves like the Austrians do, while teasing Germans: "Technically, you are superior to us..."

How to display superiority without developing inferiority complex, and the concurrent sour feelings in your partner, that is the real challenge to America in general, and its cultural diplomacy in particular.


Speech by Péter Inkei at the Cultural Diplomacy Roundtable, held in Vienna on December 16, 2002, organised by the US Embassies in Budapest and Vienna, hosted by the Austrian Foreign Ministry