Inside the ever-evolving world of communications it is clear that technology sits at the center of our conversations. Never before has it been so easy to share information with someone anywhere at anytime. But just because we are talking to someone, doesn't mean we are talking with them. It’s this challenge that sits at the heart of an ever-widening divide between America and the rest of the world.
A recent international survey spearheaded by the Pew Research Center found that favorable ratings of the United States have decreased from 64 percent of people across all countries surveyed in 2016 to 49 percent this spring. The decline in regard for how much foreign nations hold America is especially pronounced among some of our closest allies in Europe and Asia, as well as neighboring Mexico and Canada. Those looking for an answer to rectify this crisis of confidence in American leadership, would be wise to look to the words of American educator Steven Covey, who said we must “seek to understand before you can be understood.”
In 1963, President Kennedy founded the “Arts in the Embassies” program, a public-private partnership between the U.S. State Department and more than 20,000 partners from museums, galleries, collectors and others that enable thousands of artists to show their art at U.S. embassies abroad. Every president and secretary of state has embraced this program since. The universal language of art has become an important part of American foreign policy and continues to play a leading role in strengthening ties between nations.
On September 11, 2001, shortly after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate to serve as America’s Ambassador to the Republic of Hungary, I was on my way to the airport to board a flight for Budapest when the planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon. The car was turned around. That day my travel itinerary changed along with the norms that had come to define U.S. foreign policy for generations.
After my arrival in the Hungarian capital we set to work on establishing ties between our two nations. Enhanced security and safety concerns resulted in delayed approval to acquire American art. So instead of waiting to decorate the residence with American art, artists from Budapest were invited to loan their art to adorn the walls. That gesture, which sought to personify a communicative bond and respect for culture between two peoples, went a long way toward gaining the appreciation of the Hungarian government.
The artwork, which encapsulates creativity in the face of duress, allowed me to better understand the unique history of the Hungarian people. Together, our progress included newfound cooperation with security initiatives in the Global War on Terror; resolved commerce transparency issues; and the establishment of the first conference on human trafficking and the exploitation of workers, which was attended by neighboring Balkan States.
My return to the United States in 2003 and subsequent posting as the Chief of Protocol for the White House offered the opportunity to welcome foreign heads of state and educate a wide audience on Hungarian art. The collection, which is shared with my son Eric, spans more than 150 years, from just before the Austro-Hungarian Empire to the present. One of the largest collections outside of Hungary, it includes the works of the acknowledged masters of modernism, as well as artists of more modest reputations who never would have gotten the recognition they deserve if we had not been able to share their works with American universities and museums that have featured our collection.
In this time of complex communication and diminished respect for American ideals among our allies, 140 Twitter characters will only get us so far. My experience as an ambassador bears this eternal lesson: if you want to know a people, you need to take the time to learn about who they are and where they came from, their hopes and aspirations, their art and culture.