The Limited Political Value of Cultural Exchanges

In my latest article for RT, I tackle the issue of cultural exchanges. Various commentators have urged the US and European governments to make it easier for Russians to come and study there. The idea is that they will then go back and be all pro-USA and want to turn Russia into a pro-American liberal democracy. In response, I argue that cultural exchanges are a good in and of themselves, but it’s a mistake to think that they are of much value, if any, as a geopolitical tool. That’s just not how things work.

You can read the argument in full here.

32 thoughts on “The Limited Political Value of Cultural Exchanges”

  1. Why would any American citizen with even the slightest amount of self awareness and awareness of the political, economic and social situation of their nation think that either their lifestyle, their “culture” (whatever that is) infrastructure, socio economic situation, foreign relations etc. is something to strive for or even an example of peace and good governance.

    I have spent 30 years living in Germany, 35 in Canada and now reside for six in Portugal and I have never ever had the hankering to visit the USA, even when it was quite easy to do so from Canada.
    I had followed especially since their disastrous Vietnam adventure US politics and I am far from being impressed.
    As an example: even in a relative poor country like Portugal, the road infrastructure on the mainland is quite good (I live on an Atlantic island) and the universal healthcare does supply services similar to that in Canada, with the advantage that as a pensioner I have not to pay contributions to the segurança social.

    All three countries I lived in have social relationships (aside from the problems with a rather botched immigration from 2015 on into the EU) that are far less violent and political, social, economic live are overall better organized than what I have observed through 55 years observing the USA.

    As an example: As a member of the Bundeswehr in the late 1960 we entered after a training exercise a bar maintained by the US army. There was a clear demarcation line between the black and the white soldiers with at least a 30′ space between, the bar in the middle of that “no man ” space.
    The atmosphere entering was arctic, we got our beer and left in a hurry, and sure enough – later that evening a brawl broke out with several severely wounded soldiers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. We are closely the same age, it seems. I had quite a few GI friends as a student in Berlin around the time. Some returned from Vietnam. A rather complex bunch. Lots had apparently opted to enlist to have a chance to escape the draft.

      I may have encountered military intelligence services in the process, some matters feel odd in hindsight. They already felt then, but less so.

      Where did the encounter you describe happen?


      1. AFAIR it was Grafenwöhr.

        As to the Vietnam war: living in Frankfurt at the time, as a teenager visiting the gravel pit lakes hangouts I came in contact with a lot of Is drafted on their way from the Frankfurt airbase to Vietnam.

        I am likely little younger than you.
        I was apprenticed as a lab tech at the time, although I spent a lot of time around ’68/69 at the Frankfurt Uni listening to discussions of among others Cohn-Bendit and a young Angela Davis and was drawn into the the circle around Bader/Meinhof before their arson attack in 1968.
        Luckily made it out before that as I was warned off by some about the infiltration by the BND.


      2. Luckily made it out before that as I was warned off by some about the infiltration by the BND.

        Ah well, you could be kidding. But yes, from the Gehlen Organization to the BND? From RAF, the Berlin Tupamaros via Peter Urbach, to the Celle Hole?

        Dany I stumbled across the really curious argument around 2004/5? The author of the article spread via a temporary internet link in a H-* discussion group, a prominent Harvard academic,argued that the left, the German left especially, had always been heavily antisemitic. Dany Cohn-Bendit served as case in point, curiously enough.

        Jim Lobe’s (?) family was from Frankfurt, he studied in France, at one point during our exchanges, I found out he was a fan of Dany too. …

        I was familiar with the Frankfurt circles and yes, a fan of Angela and the Black Panthers too … In Berlin people close to a friend formed a similiar group too: Ciitzen watching police, Rote Hilfe, schwarze Hilfe.


    2. Peter, I would only say that visiting U.S. as a tourist could be a rewarding experience if you know where to go. There are some completely amazing places to visit, particularly out in the West, and certain national parks, like Grand Canyon or Yellowstone.
      States like Arizona and Utah have awesome scenery and very interesting history.
      If you have scientific interests, there are educational sites to visit, geological monuments that will knock your socks off, and the people are quite nice, on the whole.
      If you like museums, there are quite a lot of those as well.
      Also quite interesting wildlife, the animals are usually nice and engaging, except for the bison, they are rather stupid and will kill you by accident if you get in their way. American humans mostly good-hearted, despite all the existential stress they are under currently.


      1. I am aware of the land, its literature its natural history museums and of course its music, that found its best expression in the Blues, a Music by the oppressed but open to all. That is the culture that I can relate to if there is one in the USA.

        I have met in Germany and Canada any citizens, quite a few of those I found condescending and arrogant, but there also was the guy who from Montana who just wanted to ride like I had done through the Rocky Mountains of BC.

        I made myself a promise to never visited the USA for “personal” political reasons. They are reasons of their history, their foreign and internal policies, there warmongering that seems to really have taken off after WW2.

        Almost all countries I can think of have a history that is filled with bloodshed and violence, but many of them – either through loss of power or simply exhaustion stopped and some of those – i.e. Germany – actually apologized and paid reparations, as far as those can right a historical wrong.
        It is the hypocrisy and lack of reflection on their own policies, the “we can do no wrong” attitude and the “right to interfere” for reasons that have nothing to do with the “morality” they claim justify their actions and to maintain the illusion of a beacon of democracy and fair dealing despite the hard evidence they are lying almost since the creation.

        Sometimes all the natural beauty and the goodness of some individuals cannot be enough to justify a visit to a place that one finds tainted by its policies and rulers.


      2. I made myself a promise to never visited the USA for “personal” political reasons.

        That’s what I call, the hard edge. I find that trait slightly puzzling. A close friend of mine after traveling a year in South America returned to Berlin via NYC. A hardcore feminist at the time and further left than me, heavily anti-US, thus I was amused when she returned to tell me she found NYC actually quite fascinating.

        But concerning your special experience, you may be interested in this. Earlier HD (?) thesis. Interesting paradox.
        book link on Klimke’s site does not work:

        There is a German documentary with the same title. Interesting interviews.

        Otherwise, I am not so fond of us Germans lecturing other nations. 😉 If your numbers are correct and not rounded up, you are slightly older.

        Yalensis: I agree, if one visits and travels more extensively one discovers completely unexpected matters* too; lots of fascinating people, lots of crazies too. And some nuts. The latter help to understand the dark side (irony alert: of the moon) much better. But that is to be expected, no?

        … yes arts, literature, music. I fondly remember one special jazz jam session till the early morning hours. After the official concert ended the Woody Shaw group was joined by a black female saxophonist. Two Germans behind me had made jokes about her, made me aware of her. Her facial muscles seemed completely uncontrolled. Only when she entered the stage joining the group, I realized she was blind. At that time two guys had left, they didn’t stay long. Much later I realized that the two idiots had been touring the States for an extensive article in the leading German jazz magazine. It was as bad as their jokes.

        * e.g. randomly: national parks, extensive hiking space … Unnecessarily big now?

        * I wouldn’t have expected to stumble across co-ops either, but one needs insiders to discover that stuff…

        I loved the US university library system. I would have loved to export whole library shelves. Loads of books on subjects that were completely unavailable for me over here at the time … 😉


      3. I liked Bryce much more than Grand.

        But unfortunately interesting places in the US are far from each other and from where most people live. Each time it’s an expedition. And here you can drive to Salzburg on Monday, Venice Wednesday and Prague Friday. Well, not now, obviously. When this typhus thing ends.


      4. Mao: I agree with you regarding Bryce Canyon.
        It’s so astounding it’s actually quite insane.
        When I visited, the tour guide told a story that the first tourist company would blindfold travelers before bringing them to the edge, and then remove their blindfolds, and the travelers would go: “Holy shit! This must be some illusion!” It’s like you suddenly landed on Mars, or something!


      1. The CPC takes care to filter out potential pro-American infiltrators from the corridors of power. The only member of the Politburo to have a foreign degree got it from the University of Pyongyang – that says it all.


      2. Numerous non-politburo mainland Chinese with a higher US education, who’re loyal to the PRC – something that concerns some Americans.

        It’s not only about the highest political echelon.


  2. As usual, very much to the point!

    I remember being kinda wowed when, as a postdoctoral researcher at one of those venerated Ivy League schools, I discovered I was entitled to the grand total of 4 vacation days per year. The wow factor was hugely amplified when, upon carefully reading the rest of the standard employee contract, I came across one meticulously written paragraph. The whole point of it was to make sure that if an employee had to take a leave of absence due to the terminal illness of a parent or a child, they could do so only after having used up all of their vacation days.

    It really blew my mind. I tried and tried to imagine the thought process of the lawyers who put it together, and I felt like I was staring into a bottomless abyss.

    Because really, after spending all this time caring for your terminally ill child, you want to rip off this glorious institution and TAKE 4 DAYS OFF ON TOP OF THAT? No, the brilliant legal minds had to put a stop to this depravity! I am sure it saved all of 0.00000001% of U****’s annual budget… and one brilliant legal mind got a nice bonus.

    Reading that contract lead to a major turning point in my thinking . At that precise moment I realized that the Soviet propaganda I used to casually dismiss actually had a point. Звериный оскал капитализма, you know? And, yes, it also spurred my interest in psychology;)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. seriously? Four days?

      Hmmm, according to Wikipedia it is still left to the “discretion of the employers”:

      There is no federal or state statutory minimum paid vacation or paid public holidays. Paid leave is at the discretion of the employers to its employees.[184][185] According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 77% of private employers offer paid vacation to their employees; full-time employees earn on average 10 vacation days after one year of service.[186] Similarly, 77% of private employers give their employees paid time off during public holidays, on average 8 holidays per year.[186][187] Some employers offer no vacation at all.[188] The average number of paid vacation days offered by private employers is 10 days after 1 year of service, 14 days after 5 years, 17 days after 10 years, and 20 days after 20 years.[186][189]

      I am interested in psychology too …


  3. @ lorelydia
    “Ah well, you could be kidding”

    Not really. It was a chaotic, wild time in Frankfurt, and at that time – I was wrong here – Ensslin and Baader with I think it was Söhnlein (but am not sure) – agitated in and around Frankfurt against the “Jugenderziehungsheime”, organized demos around them and helped inmates to escape.
    I was only playing a minor role in planning some attacks against offices of the NDP, but my Marxist tutor at the time warned me about infiltration by the German Security services into the group that had formed around Baader/Ensslin and I left, only to find myself in late 1969 a draftee into the Bundeswehr.
    Unfortunately, that was the end of my active engagement into politics and from there on it was life I had to learn to navigate….


  4. Could be summed up in the penultimate paragraph:

    “Meanwhile, today, the differences between Russia and the West are much less than they were 30 years ago. The kind of Russian who’s likely to go to university in America probably already lives a lifestyle not so very different to the Americans he or she will meet. The ‘wow’ factor just isn’t as great any more.”

    Tl;dr. Those Cold Warriors recommending just to cut’n’paste their “winning” strategy from the years of yore fail to realize one simple fact – Russia is a capitalist country right now with everything this fact entails. Or that the Jews are 740% free to go whenever or wherever they want out from “This Country” (c).

    “History provides many examples.”

    Why time-travel as far as XIX c.? What about poor soul Maria Butina? That was her before ‘Murika became her “road to Damascus”:

    “Altai is a conservative, agricultural region in Southern Siberian and Butina is what the democratic development world would call “a high end result.” She attended a school with an intensive English language program and entered the local university winning one of an ever-diminishing number of scholarship places. Majoring in political science, Butina participated in a wide range of activities that included being a founding member of the debate club, a Soros Open Society educational project in Russia. She also became involved in the “School of Public Policy” and other programs developed and supported by formerly jailed oligarch Mikhail Khodokorsky and his Open Russia Foundation.

    After graduating with highest honors, Butina worked as a youth organizer, program consultant to a local businessman/philanthropist, and became executive director for the local Rotary Club.”

    Once again – our erstwhile “foreign partners” have lost the ability to think, to reason. Complete, all-conquering magic(k)al thinking reigns over them. They “think”: “Heck yeah, we won Cold War 1.0., sure we will win this “Cold War.2: Electric Boogaloo” as well. How? Just by repeating what we did in the previous one!”. Understanding why something did work (or whether it *did* work in the first place) is not important. Thunder precedes the rain? Then let us “call” it by beating the drums in imitation of it! “Cargo” drops from the sky? Say no more – we have a solution to get it:

    Of course, a bunch of well-established parasites shamans are bound to benefit from this whole setup. Getting a lifelong sinecure that requires only the utterance of the common, unoriginal phrases and utterances, with the ultimate job security in the form of mystical factor (see “Mysterious Russian Soul” and other claptrap) is a must-have during the tumultuous period of economic uncertainty and viscous, cutthroat Western middle-class (un)civil war.


  5. Paul,
    Your observations are very true as usual however the cases you mentioned seem to fall into two very distinct categories. In the 19th century it was normal to admire your enemy and still regard it as an enemy or at least as a bitter rival. Nowadays if you show any sympathy for the enemy you start losing your own crowd.
    So people who admire a foreign power mostly end up siding with its interests and policies. Some of them indeed get disappointed and return to the old loyalties but then they tend to forget their former feelings and quickly develop most negative ones towards the place they once admired.


    1. “In the 19th century it was normal to admire your enemy and still regard it as an enemy or at least as a bitter rival.”

      Mere days before the Battle of Rocroi (1643) of the Parisian theatres had Corneille’s for its time avant-garde’s play Le Cid. A roaring success – especially from the French officers (you know, members of nobility aka the “elite”), who’d just in few days fight against real Spaniards. Here you go – while the “Spanish boot” had been trampling the pristine land of France, local members of the creative class are staging a play about Spain, where the Spanish are the Good Guys ™.

      Sure anyone can come up with lots and lots of other examples. Someone, inevitably, will mention the “Christmas Truce” of 1914. Cute-cute.

      “Nowadays if you show any sympathy for the enemy you start losing your own crowd.”

      You know why? Because the nationalism hit in. Simple as that. No matter how much the Western military elite tries to hearken back to the “Gallant Age” when you fought against fellow members of the professional corporation of officers and gentlemen, that silly notion is dead and gone.

      There was no Christmas Truce of 1914 at the Eastern Front. Or elsewhere.

      Nationalism makes it so much easier not to grant the bare modicum of respect to your enemy, even if you do share the same “craft”.


  6. It didn’t work for me. I got my education in Canada and the US and after my PhD I just wanted to leave the US of Obama Hope times because I had a sense of foreboding of something… even though I kind of grew to like the country despite a half year in an actual ghetto (with broken glass on the street, drug dealers on every block, shootings at night, rats, etc…) where I ended up by being a foreigner and not knowing that some places should be avoided. After being away for 10 years and looking back at the country rationally, comparing how its citizens are treated, and their foreign policy (not being caught up in daily life and reading the local news where the outside world doesn’t exist), I’m becoming more and more anti-US, and probably this blog had a partial role in that. That feeling of vague foreboding became rationalized and now I’m able to pat myself on the back for my good hindsight, not the least because after not eating the US diet I became less round.

    By the way, Peter Moritz, are you by any chance on Madeira? Atlantic Portuguese island. Every year I take a look at it on Google Earth and make plans in my head for my ideal vacation and what I would do each day for a few weeks. I’ve explored quite a bit of the island on Google Earth. But too busy with work and too far away now so probably will only be able to go there 20-30 years from now; how is the place if you are there?


    1. Hi,
      for family reasons – my sister has a house here since the mid 80’s and after her retirement last year will make the move from Frankfurt now – we wound up in Faial. 3500 sqm of garden and a house build from stones, real stones the volcano donated.
      The island is part of the Azores and are part of the Macaronesia Archipelago – to which Madeira belongs as well.

      We are about 1000km NW of Madeira. But wines can be excellent especially from Pico, the sister Island.
      Mostly agricultural – meat, cheese for export, pigs, fruits and fisheries for the local supply.

      Tourism here is more about hiking the network of trails. Some of the trails are quite steep, and I prefer to use my e-bike on the more accessible ones.

      The typical stay for tourists is about 2 – 4 days on each Island of the central group – soe extending their visits to include São Miguel and Flores, with each one a different character.
      We have a bunch of natural but improved upon pools along the coast, and even sport some nice beaches. Climate is moderate with +6 the lowest and about +24 the hottest in Summer.
      It can be quite stormy and Lorenzo did some damage last year with gusts of up to 200km/hour. Rain is quite common, but that makes the vegetation grow like nuts.

      One reason why we have chosen: Tourism because of the geology and geography is a minor industry, the Island is a “working” island and cows and those who come here are visiting for the hikes and the landscape.
      From our house it is by car 5 minutes to the Varadouro pool, where in summer – beginning in June – we spent an hour swimming before breakfast at least 3 times a week.

      After the Volcanic eruption of 1958 almost 1/2 of the population went to work to Canada or the US, but many come back to retire here, or return when they have earned enough to invest in local businesses.


      1. Ah, I forgot about the Azores. I hate ferries so maybe that put me off from them. A big enough island to explore for a long time is probably what I need. With enough population to meet interesting people at a bar (hopefully enough speakers of the languages I know, which includes German, before I pick up Portuguese). After living in hot places temperature in the winter really makes it hard for me anywhere below +10, but I tolerate summer of +30 pretty well. 24 is probably too cold as a summer maximum. Still, it’s not like it’s impossible to get used to after Canada.

        I’ll look into them in the future. Madeira is more south and has really varied geography with ~800 square km area. High mountains, beaches, and waterfalls. Plus its wine is famous and the population is ~300,000. I suppose that would make it a more expensive place to retire though.


  7. One can add that most of the people who led the anti-colonial struggles in the South in the 20s to 50s – people like Gandhi and Nkrumah – were educated in Europe and the US.


    1. Well, academia of the first half of the 20th c. was very different, left-leaning.

      These days it’s liberal. Their main themes are western cultural superiority and racial grievances. These seem like far-right themes to me.


  8. The ground I’m about to cover has been well-tread by other commenters here, and the argument relies on the ever-unreliable anecdotal evidence, so feel free to skip.

    In the summer of 2018, a group of students (myself included) went on a six-week Petersburg-based intensive. We studied at a Russian university under local instructors; visited traditional cultural sites in Petersburg; Velikii Novgorod and Moscow; partook of copious borsch, pelmeni and shaverma; had ample opportunities to explore the city on foot interacting with people and places in an unstructured, organic way; attended local festivals; and were exposed to peak Russian hospitality during the World Cup – and yet some students still came away believing Russia to be bad and backwards. A great place to spend one’s honeymoon, or to buy five identical Stalin busts, but otherwise undesirable. And you couldn’t even say these were students “indoctrinated” by exposure to propaganda in academia or whatever. Just average undergrads, to the extent that “average” is a useful term.

    It’s true that thrust into an unfamiliar cultural environment, a person becomes more alert and receptive to many things. But depending on the individual, it can also send them scrambling for whatever lies nearest – including previously existing beliefs and prejudices. They might look to the outside world for conformation of old views because it’s more convenient psychologically than forming new ones. And if you happen to be someone who believes that Russia or the USA or any country is fundamentally [negative descriptor], it’s going to take much more than a pleasant six-week to four-year stay to change your mind.

    I want to believe that cultural-educational exchanges can become a force for good in U.S.-Russian relations, but…a donkey that travels abroad doesn’t come back a horse.


    1. Augh, my beautiful paragraph breaks!

      Professor, could you please separate the paragraphs at “useful term // It’s true…” and “mind // I want to believe…”? Thanks!


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