The USC Center on Public Diplomacy published an interesting blog post by Sharon Hudson-Dean entitled “Improving the ‘art’ of diplomacy with foreign languages.” http://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/index.php/newswire/cpdblog_detail/improving_the_art_of_diplomacy_with_foreign_languages/
In her post, Hudson-Dean argues that foreign diplomacy is all the more effective when the diplomats engaging with foreign nations are able to speak and understand their language. She explains that the State Department is set apart from other foreign ministries across the globe, because U.S. diplomats within State’s FSI (Foreign Service Institute) spend many hours a day studying foreign languages and cultures (Hudson-Dean 2014).
In the title of her post, Hudson-Dean calls diplomacy an “art.” In order to be successful, diplomats must be as prepared as possible, and be able to demonstrate “cultural acuity” (Hudson-Dean 2014). To become knowledgeable and well-aware of the cultural specificities of a nation, it is not enough to simply study that country from afar. First-hand experience is crucial, and that experience can only be enhanced when diplomats are proficient in that nation’s language. It can be difficult to engage with foreign nations and members of a foreign society without being able to communicate effectively. Hudson-Dean highlights the example of American diplomats in Kyiv, who meet with the country’s leaders by speaking to them directly in Ukrainian and Russian (Hudson-Dean 2014). This is an important tool in the U.S.’ foreign policy with respect to Ukraine, particularly in light of this European nation’s recent and ongoing struggles.
At the end of her post, Hudson-Dean shares a very important quote by Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart” (Hudson-Dean 2014). These words are extremely relevant in the realm of public and foreign diplomacy. Engaging with foreign nations in their own language demonstrates that the United States and its diplomats have a keen interest in that country. It shows that their nation and language are worthy enough to warrant the time and dedication U.S. diplomats and leaders take in order to successfully and respectfully interact with foreign nations. Moreover, having the ability to communicate with foreign officials and members of the public can only enhance the probability for success in any diplomatic endeavor, as both linguistic and cultural misunderstandings can be avoided.
I have taken many cross-cultural communication classes here at AU throughout both my undergraduate and graduate studies, and I have learned that culture is quintessential and inevitably comes into play when nations come into contact and engage with one another. Understanding a nation’s cultural context is crucial to achieving successful diplomacy abroad, and learning to speak the language is an important part of the equation.
In his chapter “Culture and Constructivism,” Van Ham explains the notions of constructivism and social power, and how they relate to international politics and relations. He defines social power as “[…] the capacity to produce, shape, and influence the motives, attitudes, roles, and interests of actors in international politics (by non-coercive means)” (Van Ham 47). Social power is similar to Joseph Nye’s soft power, in the sense that both are means of influence and persuasion that can be achieved without the use of coercion. A crucial component in the pursuit of effective social power is the knowledge and understanding of a nation’s culture, as mentioned above. According to Van Ham, “[…] culture is the central prism through which “reality” acquires meaning [and is] constructed, and hence is implicated with economic and political interest and motivations” (Van Ham 47). As Van Ham argues, culture transcends all boundaries, and inevitably comes into play in all realms of influence, including politics and economics.