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August 22, 2017

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Shaping US diplomacy in a time of disruption

GWANGJU, South Korea — Taipei, take note. This will not be your grandfather's U.S. State Department.

That could well have been the underlying message as U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson testified recently before a Senate Appropriations Committee on the Trump Administration's fiscal year (FY) 2018 State Department Budget Request. The proposed budget of US$37.6 billion, significantly less than that for prior years, could well have major implications for America's diplomacy efforts in Asia, whether here on a divided Korean peninsula or perhaps even in Taiwan.

While there would be "substantial funding for many foreign assistance programs," America's top diplomat said, other initiatives would see reductions. The State Department and USAID budget, he noted, had increased more than 60 percent — a "rate of increase in funding [that] is not sustainable" — from fiscal year 2007, reaching an all-time high of US$55.6 billion in FY 2017.

"While our mission will also be focused on advancing the economic interests of the American people, the State Department's primary focus will be to protect our citizens at home and abroad," said Tillerson in his prepared remarks introducing the budget request.

There is certainly no substitute for the "hard power" of a strong military and willingness to deploy and use military assets. U.S. engagement in Asia will benefit from an America that is stronger both economically at home and militarily abroad.

But the "soft power" of diplomacy also has its advantages in cost-effectively underscoring a nation's values, commitments and presence. This must be kept in mind both by the U.S. president and the leadership of the U.S. Congress as they negotiate an overall FY 2018 budget that gets spending under control while advancing American interests.

This is particularly important in places in Asia — a region that continues to be a key driver of global economic growth. Much of the region remains worried about an increasingly aggressive China and would welcome strengthened U.S. engagement.

A final FY 2018 budget request for the State Department should include continued funding — if not a gradual increase — of what has been a relatively small amount of money allocated every year to the soft power of "cultural diplomacy."

Roughly defined as the use of an exchange of ideas, traditions and values to strengthen relations and encourage engagement, cultural diplomacy is perhaps most easily seen in the use of music, arts and sports to build cross-cultural understanding.

In the early 1970s, an exchange of table tennis players — "ping pong diplomacy — between the United States and China helped pave the way for a visit to Beijing by then President Richard Nixon.

Today, it could well be the power of American football or music that helps America and Americans to better connect abroad. This February at the Asia Culture Center in the South Korean city of Gwangju, I joined representatives from our U.S. embassy in Seoul to support American cultural diplomacy in action.

A team of dancers from the Battery Dance Company of New York — on whose international advisory board I serve — came together with some 100 participants and their families and communities in Korea to help build understanding and bridge divides. Gwangju is the sixth largest city in South Korea and the birthplace of that nation's modern democratic movement.

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