By Michael Shank

The United States Department of Defense used it recently in Yemen and Pakistan. The U.S. State Department is using it right now in Afghanistan and Nigeria. The U.S. Agency for International Development used it in the last elections in Kenya. It’s been used in every American war zone over the last decade and it’s becoming an increasingly relied upon tool in U.S. foreign policy.

For the Pentagon, it’s part of psychological operations, or “psy-ops,” but for the State Department and USAID it’s part of their “information operations,” all of which is intended to influence local populations. This is not some sinister National Security Agency operation or anything as surreptitious as what the Joint Special Operations Command might cook up. This has everything to do with what Washingtonians and others have termed “ soft power” and the role culture and arts play in winning the hearts and minds.

For many governments – America’s included – these “softer” strategies (in contrast to the “hard power” of military maneuvers, sanctions, etc.) are being employed with good intention perhaps, but insufficient preparation, partnership or planning in a way that is strategic, sustainable and constructive.

Whether it’s a reality TV show on the Niger Delta sponsored by the State Department, theatre forums in Yemen’s fourth largest city, Hudaydah, sponsored by the Defense Department, or radio programs in Nairobi sponsored by USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives, the U.S. government is getting increasingly creative about how to use the cultural sector to do diplomacy, development and defense. Our government is not alone in this expansion of soft power, as governments throughout the European Union are sponsoring and spearheading similar initiatives throughout the Middle East and North Africa, for example.

There is a danger, however, if not done right, and peacebuilders and conflict prevention practitioners on the ground rightly argue that governments shouldn’t be in the business of exporting Western arts and cultural models (e.g. former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice funding the export of a Sesame Street-type U.S.-based program in Indonesia, which brought Elmo to Islamic schools) or expropriating indigenous practices for a U.S. agenda.

People on the ground in a given U.S. war zone – irrespective of whether they are “for us or against us,” to quote former President George W. Bush – are understandably skeptical of U.S. intention, no matter how softly formed the policy. The State Department’s funding of a film about Afghan boys, for example – the Oscar-nominated “Buzkashi Boys” – was to “combat extremism … and burnish the U.S. image in Afghanistan.” Arguably, this film is doing little to combat extremism in Afghanistan or burnish the U.S. image in the country.

Instead, arts-based projects like this, often funded out of the State Department’s public-diplomacy fund, are often seen as propaganda, not helpful diplomacy. Communities in war zones want tangible improvements to their lives: Fewer drone attacks, night raids and airstrikes, and more socio-economic access, opportunity and mobility. When food, electricity, housing, transportation, water and sanitation are lacking, no amount of reality TV will bring America’s adversaries closer to America’s perspective.

In an effort to tackle some of these difficult discussions and dilemmas, this month the Salzburg Global Seminar brought together 60 practitioners who are actively engaged in peacebuilding and conflict prevention work across the globe – from Tripoli to Trinidad, Scotland to South Africa, Harare to Lahore and everywhere in between. This is the same forum in which Margaret Mead, an early attender of the Salzburg Global Seminar, apparently uttered the following words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

This month’s seminar in Austria honored well Mead’s mandate. For those of us in the seminar’s policy group, a conversation I was asked to facilitate, it quickly became clear what was needed to ameliorate the aforementioned issues. Given policymaker proclivity to continue this work, often irrespective of consequence, the onus was on us to educate policymakers of every stripe and standing – federal policymakers, elected officials, educators, funders, economists, development and aid workers, and more – of the political, financial and cultural value of strategic arts- and-culture-based peacebuilding and conflict prevention.

That means that one doesn’t simply fund a film and call it a day, but supports a process by which that film is indigenously created and embedded within a culturally appropriate context and coordinated and collaborated in ways that prevent further conflict and increase a community’s capacity for building peace. That’s the long game and the necessary hard work.

The onus is also on civil society, then, to ensure that we’re doing the work well, setting the standard for policymakers who are keen to engage cultural and artistic means. That means we’re asking the right questions before working within a community; clarifying targets and terms; analyzing and mapping the conflict, its constituencies and root causes; understanding pre-existing relationships while building partnerships; choosing the right tools and tasks to ensure sustainability; compiling sound data, quality case studies and exhaustive resources; and much, much more.

While a mural commission in Mozambique or a hip-hop project in Hargeisa might sound interesting and worthy of government funding, Washington and other Western capitals must take extreme care to ensure their involvement is helping, not harming, any community peace process.

Bringing Elmo to Indonesian Islamic schools may sound cute in the Foggy Bottom headquarters of the State Department, but may inspire unstoppable cultural discord and conflict in Jakarta, which will do much to lose hearts and minds and little to build a better world.