Monday, July 24, 2006

John H. Brown

As noted Friday, I'll spend this week publishing answers to two questions I'd asked of several people: First, what was the best single episode of public diplomacy ever, and secondly, what has been the most influential element of soft power of all time?

Let's start with John H. Brown, a former Foreign Service Officer and the compiler of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy’s Public Diplomacy Review, which has been an invaluable help and time-saver to me here at Beacon. (The near-daily Review is available free by requesting it at Here are his best-ever public-diplomacy episode and most influential soft-power element.--PK

Public Diplomacy Dateline 2001: Willis Conover, the American Deejay Who Penetrated the Iron Curtain for 40 Years

My best episode of public diplomacy in my 20-year foreign service career is a 2001 jazz festival in Moscow honoring Willis Conover, the legendary host of the 40-year Voice of America Jazz Hour program that had such an impact on Eastern European audiences during the Cold war. The event, organized by the cultural section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and Russian jazz organizations—and financially supported by the State Department and the Voice of America—commemorated the fifth anniversary of the death of this extraordinary disc jockey, whose unforgettable baritone voice, turning his heartland American English into a kind of musical composition of its own, introduced millions outside the United States to the uniqueness—and universality—of jazz.

American and Russian musicians took part in the two-day celebration, which drew a packed house and many young people. It was wonderful to see how Willis—without whom, arguably, the Cold War would not have ended—was remembered with such affection and admiration in what was formerly “enemy” territory. Conover had become a part of the collective memory of jazz lovers, an artistic genius (so unlike crude propagandists involved in the East-West struggle) who made the best of American cultural achievements accessible to information-starved listeners behind the Iron Curtain eager for an alternative to communist efforts at mind-control.

It is ironic that Willis is practically unknown in his own country, as his programs were not aired stateside due to the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948, which prohibits the domestic dissemination of U.S. government-supported information products intended for foreign audiences.

[Listen to a brief piece on the Voice of America Jazz Hour from PRI’s The World, February 10, 2005. According to his Wikipedia entry, Conover organized all-race shows in America that helped break down color lines at home as well. Interestingly, beginning as a teenager, Conover corresponded with horror/fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, later producing Lovecraft at Last, an edited collection of their correspondence.--PK]

Soft Power: A Crazy Little Thing That Increases a Cultural Affairs Officer's Effectiveness.

This sounds corny, but I think the most influential element of soft power throughout history is love, or at least the recognition that love can play a role in human relations, even on an international level, so often simplistically reduced to the survival of the fittest. If soft power is the power of attraction, it cannot be “successful” without the acknowledgement of the presence, at various grades of intensity, of forms of love—among them, love giving and love receiving—rather than the all-too-frequent automatic reaction that the unknown Other or the foreigner is “against us.”

I often quote from a wonderful 1964 article (“But What Do you DO?”) by my father, who was Cultural Affairs Officer (CAO) in Western Europe and Mexico in the 1950s and 60s:

“The CAO soon comes to realize that his job is really a form of love-making and that making love is never really successful unless both partners are participating.”

[Read all of John L. Brown’s 1964 Foreign Service Journal article on the CAO’s travails, “But What Do You DO?” here. Ideally, the elder Brown wrote, the CAO “should share everyone's tastes; nourish coexisting passions for Grandma Moses and Jasper Johns, Zane Gray and William Burroughs, Leonard Bernstein and John Cage.” Quite a range.--PK]

Coming Tomorrow: Patricia Kushlis of WhirledView.

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