The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 1 (Spring 2014)

The Struggle for Hearts and Minds: America's Culture War and the Decline of US Public Diplomacy

Martha Bayles

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.1 (Spring 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Spring 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 1)


hen Benjamin Franklin traveled to Paris in December 1776, his main task was to gain the support of King Louis XVI for the American side in the War of Independence. This he did by playing the balance-of-power game with as much guile as any European diplomat. Among other maneuvers, Franklin leaked intelligence about France’s intentions to the British, sowing just enough suspicion between the two to advance his cause. Franklin also impressed the French nobility with his high degree of cultivation. Renowned for his scientific experiments, he was also celebrated for his wit, intellect, and refined taste in art, music, wine, and food. Not for a moment did he allow his hosts to dismiss him as a crude bumpkin, as the French were inclined to do.

Yet neither did Franklin ape the nobility. On the contrary, he appealed to the philosophes’ fascination with the state of nature by playing the noble savage—moving among the powdered wigs, elaborate silks, and gilded ornaments of the French court adorned in a fur cap, dowdy suit, and plain wooden walking stick. In essence, he turned his dumpy figure into a symbol of enlightened democracy. As Franklin’s fame spread, his physical likeness appeared in a wide range of consumer items, from expensive oil paintings, marble busts, and Sèvres china to terra cotta medallions, cheap engravings, and wooden dolls. It was an extraordinary performance, and it helped to persuade, even seduce, France into expending blood and treasure for the American cause.

With the emergence of the mass media in the twentieth century, the need to communicate with foreign publics, not just governments, became more salient than ever, and that salience has only increased in the twenty-first-century era of WikiLeaks, the Internet, and social media. It could be argued that public diplomacy comes more naturally to America than to nations with a history of monarchy and empire, because, unlike the narrowly focused, highly ritualized diplomacy of unelected rulers, American diplomacy has always been self-consciously democratic. Ever since Thomas Jefferson justified the Declaration of Independence as proof of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind,” Americans have sought, whenever possible, to persuade and seduce commoners as well as courtiers. Following Franklin’s shrewd example, we have succeeded best when convincing others that it is possible to be democratic while also being reasonable and cultivated.

In recent decades—and certainly since the tumultuous late 1960s—America seems to have squandered its natural advantage in the art of winning hearts and minds around the world. There are many reasons for this, of course, including the lack, since 1999, of a suitable coordinating agency to direct our efforts and the absence of a strong domestic constituency to support them. But I believe that America’s domestic culture war played an even more decisive role in the decline of US public diplomacy, even before the end of the Cold War, and that it continues to hamper our intermittent efforts to revive public diplomacy for the twenty-first century.

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Martha Bayles teaches humanities at Boston College and is the author of Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music (1994). Her reviews and essays on the arts, media, and cultural policy appear in numerous publications, including The New York Times and The Weekly Standard. This essay is drawn from her new book, Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America's Image Abroad (2014), with permission of Yale University Press.

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Published three times a year by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, The Hedgehog Review offers critical reflections on contemporary culture—how we shape it, and how it shapes us.

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