The British Embassy recently announced the three month American tour of the Tricycle Theatre Company’s production of “The Great Game: Afghanistan” that began September 15 in Washington, DC. “The Great Game” has been playing in London since 2009. As a part of the UK’s public diplomacy efforts in the US, the British Council plans “to host a slate of energetic public events exploring ideas from the Great Game” with high profile speakers from the media, public diplomacy, cultural communities and others who engage interactively with audiences. (Photo of Buckingham Palace Guard: August 2010 by PHKushlis)
“The Great Game” will also play in New York, Minneapolis and Berkeley, California. This ambitious three part study consists of 12 plays by British and American writers about Western involvement in Afghanistan since 1842 and it has been well received in London.
Meanwhile, a second element of the UK’s three - or four part (if exchanges and scholarships are counted) public diplomacy efforts, BBC America’s half hour news of the world program is broadcast daily in prime time over our own PBS station right here in New Mexico.
The Foreign Ministry-funded Wilton Park Conferences form the third prong of the UK's public diplomacy triad. These professional gatherings bring scholars, practitioners and others together in Sussex to discuss current foreign affairs issues. One of this year’s conferences was on public diplomacy and I note that several Americans participated.
London from this American tourist's perspective
I just spent most of the past month in London visiting family, friends, the theatre and just playing tourist in a city I had last seen over twenty years ago. I attended several plays, became reacquainted with the London mass transport system, visited the Parthenon Marbles (photo left by PHKushlis August 2010) and the Assyrian Friezes at the British Museum, stopped by Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, attended the Carnegie Cup rugby match at Wembley Park between Warrington and Leeds, toured the late Winston Churchill’s Chartwell House and paid homage to Canterbury Cathedral as well as the below ground Roman Canterbury Museum nearby, walked through a part of Hyde Park where the speaker’s corner was empty, along Portobello Road (photo left by PHKushlis August 2010) and Notting Hill where I did not see William Thacker’s Travel Bookshop with the blue door, photographed a red-coated guard through the gates at Buckingham Palace on a Sunday and took pictures of several rare and not so rare oboes, English horns and an over-sized tuba in the Horniman Museum’s Musical Instruments Collection, (photo right by PHKushlis September 2010) crossed the Millennium Bridge to the New Tate and back, (Photo left below by PHKushlis August 2010) but chose not to pay 20 pounds to see the interior of St. Paul’s Cathedral amidst the hordes who had decided otherwise.
A 1978 Fodor’s Guide to the UK stated that Cathedral entry was free but donations would be appreciated. How times have changed.
Europe's largest metropolis
London, of course, is huge – it’s Europe’s largest metropolitan area. This collection of distinct villages – each with its high, or main, street and special character - has run together over the centuries. Because the city is so enormous, I could not have begun to explore every nook and cranny – that would have taken a lifetime - but I did see a vibrant multi-ethnic metropolitan area home to the country’s media, theatre, and artistic communities, some of its colleges, universities, think-tanks and the seat of its government and commerce as well as the world’s financial heart. In a sense, London’s multi-ethnic population and its consequent flavors – from kebab shops, Italian coffee houses, Indian and Chinese restaurants to its bus drivers, performers, sales persons and financial consultants – looks a lot like a sprawling New York.
Indeed, a twenties-something waiter we chatted with at an Indian restaurant in Bromley, now a London suburb to the south told us how excited he was to be attending a family wedding in New York this fall. He also told us that his grandfather served in the British Navy before immigrating to the UK from India. It will be this young man’s first trip to the Big Apple and I hope – and pray - American officialdom treats him well.
What was missing? An American presence.
That is except for the National Geographic store on Regent Street, the stage version of the fluff-ball film "Legally Blonde" and the revival of the 1970s anti-Vietnam War musical “Hair” then playing at the Criterion Theatre. Even so “Hair” was closing a month early. Yes, there were a few paintings by Americans at the New Tate – I came across one by Jackson Pollock on a cursory visit – but they were overwhelmed by artists from elsewhere. Otherwise I saw little overt evidence of American culture, arts or design. Anywhere. (Photo left: Pollock painting in the New Tate by PHKushlis August 2010.)
Moreover, London has no American buildings to match the massive Canadian presence on Trafalgar Square. It has no streets named after famous Americans like those that grace Paris’s right bank near the Champs-Elysee. OK, Winston Churchill’s mother, Jenny Jerome was an American heiress and American memorabilia - mostly from the Second World War – was included in a few display cases at Chartwell, but the memorabilia was contained in a single room of a multi-story country estate almost two hours by car from London and then only visible to those who toured the house run by the National Trust. (Photo left: Chartwell House by PH Kushlis September 2010)
Maybe that’s the price one pays for having rebellious ancestors.
Nevertheless, the British government clearly thinks it worthwhile to attempt to influence American public opinion and not just that of our government officials. Witness the British public diplomacy efforts I wrote about at the beginning of this post. And come to think of it, isn’t the US-UK relationship supposed to be “special?”
The incredibly shrinking American presence
In the years before the Great Recession, all kinds of American arts groups regularly and privately toured throughout Western Europe. The UK was the most popular destination. It was just a hop, skip and a jump across “the Pond” and we, more or less, spoke the same language. Linguistically, at least, we still do. But financially strapped cultural groups are not traveling the way they did and, for all intents and purposes, the US presence in London appears to be confined to a less than inviting Embassy webpage seemingly emanating from behind the walls of a well fortified fortress on Grosvenor Square. Last spring, the Embassy has announced plans to move away from the center of power to an even more fortified fortress, ur-um office building, in a redevelopment area on the Thames' south bank.
"America as non-entity in London - is not all bad. At least the anti-war demonstrations have stopped.
A friend and former colleague who had been in London over the Christmas holidays told me he had also come away with the same “America as non-entity in London impression.”
From one perspective, that’s good. At least, the anti-war, anti-Bush demonstrations are a thing of the past and British public opinion about the US has improved greatly since January 2010. But from another, there’s a public information void about America’s culture, society and politics beyond, that is, the world’s ubiquitous McDonalds, KFCs and Starbucks, some of the latest flicks and the US-led grinding war in Afghanistan. Yet isn’t the US more than that?
A creative American public-private sector effort could step in to fill the gap in a variety of ways – and the huge American financial houses based in the City of London could help if they so chose. Unless, that is, the US wants to continue to remain below the public's radar screen. At the very least, if one wants to reach Pakistanis, Yemenis and other émigrés from former British colonies, London is full of them and these people maintain contacts at home.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that in an April 23 post comparing British and American approaches to public diplomacy on his blog PD, Networks and Influence, Robin Brown at Leeds University described America’s view as follows:
“In the US the imagined (public diplomacy) problem is …the USSR or something similar. Essentially you have a downtrodden population with limited access to the outside world who need to be told about how great the outside is and how bad their own rulers are in the hope that the downtrodden will get rid of the rulers.”
I hope that Brown’s description does not, in fact, correspond to what US public diplomacy has become – or, in fact, ever was – but given that the US has gone missing from the UK, why should Brown think differently? Voids tend to get filled – and unless the US changes its approach to the public in places like London, Paris and elsewhere in Europe, the something that fills the void won’t be pretty.