Cultural diplomacy, friendly foreign policy, and trade

On Wednesday I had the honor of meeting Maestro Bernard Haitink after the Chicago Symphony Orchestra rehearsed Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. As quiet and humble as Haitink appears in public and in person, the might and grandness of his conducting is unparalleled. We didn’t exchange more than a brief “hello” and “how are you,” albeit in Dutch, as many people were eager to meet him.

Perhaps one of the greatest cultural ambassadors the Netherlands has, Haitink brings the country into the spotlight in New York, where he performed the Beethoven symphonies, and in Chicago, where he is the new principal conductor. It is no surprise that the Dutch ambassador for the United States came to see Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 on Friday.

A backstage meeting with Haitink, the Ambassador, the Consul General of Chicago, and Dutch CSO cellist Katinka Kleijn made me realize how strong the Dutch cultural representation in the world is. For a country so small, the Netherlands has much to offer.

As I explained before, the Netherlands is a country that thrives on import and export, and so does its art. Art contributes to the economy, infrastructure and image of the country.

A while ago, I read a discussion from a conference on cultural diplomacy hosted by the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. The discussion, entitled Cultural Diplomacy in Historical Perspective, puts forth some interesting ideas. Frank Ninkovich, professor of history at St. John’s University, explains the history of cultural diplomacy:

“Modern efforts to promote cultural relations were pioneered by the European powers in the era of high nationalism […] However, if one tries to trace the origins of systematic programs in cultural relations, one must look to the private sector, especially the philanthropic foundations.”

That cultural diplomacy stems from the era of high nationalism comes as no surprise. Again, it is all about legacy and impressing your neighbors. Moreover, seeing the arts’ contributions to the economy, infrastructure and business of a country, it can only be expected that a more organized, systematic form of cultural relations developed from the private sector; the private sector traditionally focuses on efficiency.

From a recent Washington Post article, I learned that the State Department has enlisted cultural organizations, some federal and some private, to improve efforts in cultural diplomacy. But Ninkovich has a sound warning for this as well:

“The success of cultural policy depends to a significant extent on the wisdom of foreign policy with which it is associated […] The expectation that cultural programs can create a favorable international climate of opinion is unrealistic.”

The Netherlands and the United States are important trade partners and are politically comparatively aligned. With a friendly foreign policy toward the Netherlands, the United States is naturally also welcoming of cultural exchange. According to the State Department:

“The Netherlands is the eighth-largest U.S. export market, as well as the third-largest direct investor in the United States. Dutch accumulated direct investment in the United States in 2004 was $167 billion. The United States is the largest investor in the Netherlands with direct investment of $202 billion. There are more than 1,600 U.S. companies with subsidiaries or offices in the Netherlands. The Dutch are strong proponents of free trade and the staunchest allies of the U.S. in international fora such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the OECD.”

Knowing this, it might come as less of a surprise to see the extensive amount of cultural representation of the Netherlands in the United States. Indeed, for a country so small, the Netherlands has much to offer in culture to the world, but that’s because it is paired with a much greater offering of investments and trade.

Art contributes to the economy, infrastructure and image of a country; and in that same manner, investments, trade and friendly foreign policy contribute to the exchange of that art throughout the world. When all is well, it is an upward spiral.