Monday, August 12, 2013


Christina Luke, Morag M. Kersel, U.S. Cultural Diplomacy and Archaeology: Soft Power, Hard Heritage. Routledge studies in archaeology, 6. London; New York: Routledge, 2012. Pp. xi, 169. ISBN 9780415645492. $125.00.

Reviewed by Lieve Van Hoof, Ghent University (

Version at BMCR home site


Prior to the 2003 Iraq invasion the U.S. government discussed with archaeologists and cultural heritage specialists how damage to the country's archaeological sites and cultural institutions could be avoided. As is well known, the fact that they did not put into practice the advice they received severely damaged the operation in Iraq as well as the image of the U.S. in the world. Reacting to this failure, the U.S. State Department has therefore renewed its interest in cultural diplomacy and archaeology. Whilst Luke and Kersel welcome this greater awareness of the importance of cultural diplomacy and archaeology for U.S. foreign policy, they also warn against its politicization, and plead for the continued support of bottom-up initiatives with long-term effects, whereby archaeologists act as unofficial ambassadors for the U.S.

The first chapter, by way of introduction, offers definitions of some of the key concepts of the book: archaeology is presented as a part of cultural (as well as public, i.e., aimed at foreign publics rather than governments) diplomacy, whereby aspects of culture are exchanged with the intention of fostering mutual understanding. More specifically, archaeology "negotiates small 'd' diplomacy – interaction between foreigners and locals – and big 'D' diplomacy – government encouraged and enabled actions" (p. 15). As Luke and Kersel argue, archaeology can thus make an important contribution in terms of soft power, which, in times of smart (i.e., a combination of hard and soft) power, is an increasingly important aspect of U.S. foreign policy. Yet whilst the links between archaeology and foreign relations have recently received some scholarly attention, cultural diplomacy has not received much attention within international relations.

Chapters Two and Three present "structures and institutions… that have an effect on U.S. archaeologists working abroad" (p. 16). Chapter Two discusses the U.S. foreign centres abroad: in response to serious spending cuts since 2011, Luke and Kersel highlight the usefulness of these centres in helping U.S. archaeologists to navigate foreign administrations as well as in offering a venue where archaeologists of different nationalities can meet. In 2009, for example, the American Schools of Oriental Research brought together the directors of the American Research Institutes in Cyprus and Turkey, and in the Albright Institute in Jerusalem, Israelis and Palestinians meet on a regular basis. Luke and Kersel suggest that the schools can play this role because they are independent, non-governmental institutions, and are thus perceived as being apolitical. Nevertheless, a quick look at the list of schools (pp. 22-24) and their dates of foundation makes clear that these schools were, at least initially, all but apolitical, as Luke and Kersel admit (p. 19). More analysis of the political background to the foundation of the different schools, along the lines pursued for the Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act in Chapter Four, would therefore have considerably enriched this chapter. Chapter Three focuses on archaeological permits. If on-site collaboration with local communities and in-country archaeologists once a permit has been secured provides a schoolbook-example of small "d" diplomacy, negotiating a permit often implies big "D" diplomacy. During the nineteenth and the early twentieth century, the U.S. Department of State was often instrumental in helping archaeologists to get a permit. Since World War II, this role has been largely taken over by the American centres abroad. As Luke and Kersel point out, though, this may be changing again: stipulations on archaeological research are part of bilateral agreements between the U.S. and foreign countries under the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act (cf. Chapter Four), and archaeological permits are sometimes used as hostages, as in Turkey's 2011 request that the Sphinx from Hattu┼ča be returned if German archaeologists wanted to continue excavating the city.

Chapters Four to Six explore "the strategic use of archaeological heritage by the U.S. State Department in programs and policies that are most often highlighted as apolitical" (p. 16). Chapter Four zooms in on the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act, with which the U.S. implemented parts of the 1970 UNESCO convention. If a state wishes the U.S. to apply import restrictions for certain kinds of material, it needs to negotiate a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the U.S. One of the strongest sections of Luke and Kersel's book discusses the political geography of these MoUs. The MoUs with Central-American countries, for example, must be seen against the background of U.S. efforts to distance themselves from the Iran-Contra scandal. Once in place, MoUs allow for the circulation and, more recently, also for the licit sale, of objects as cultural ambassadors. Chapter Five focuses on State Department initiatives such as the Iraq Cultural Heritage Project and the Cultural Antiquities Task Force, which aim above all at enhancing the security of cultural objects in foreign countries, and which are mostly reactive in the sense that they are intended to make up for past failures. As Luke and Kersel argue, the State Department's focus on security is not always the best approach: against the explicit wishes of the State Department as sponsor of a Middle Eastern heritage and law enforcement specialists training, for example, foreigners refused to discuss the problems facing their country in assuring archaeological site security at an international conference in the U.S., whilst they had fewer problems doing so during personal in-country visits of U.S. specialists. Chapter Six, finally, discusses the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. The main message of this chapter is a plea to sustain funding of smaller, more open-ended local projects against the recent tendency to favour larger projects focusing on (would- be) world heritage sites.

The seventh chapter is by far the clearest in stating the overall aim of the book: "Our primary point is that, while protection and security constitute an overt component of U.S. foreign policy, an additional, much larger and more fluid, loose cultural policy… is required: one that moves beyond current political agendas to support a mosaic of U.S. citizens, working and researching on a global scale in various cultural settings, with the common outcome of demonstrating that the United States is committed to cultural relations, the exchange of ideas, and preservation initiatives" (p. 130). What Luke and Kersel wish to demonstrate, in other words, is the long-term political usefulness of non-political archaeological research funding: the independent archaeological research funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and, to a lesser extent, the Fulbright Program, has not only a scientific value, but also, according to Luke and Kersel, long-term political advantages.

The great strength of this book is the fact that it is written by two people with inside knowledge of both the world of archaeology and the world of State Department administration. Thanks to this double background, Luke and Kersel can offer readers in the administration an idea of how archaeologists really work, what their needs are, and what they can bring to U.S. foreign policy, whilst allowing archaeologists to catch a glimpse of how the State Department's Cultural Heritage Centre goes and thinks about cultural diplomacy and archaeology. At the same time, however, this double background and perspective also have two important disadvantages.

First, I could not help feeling that the argument developed by Luke and Kersel is heavily shaped by their own professional experiences, in particular by the discontent which they, as archaeologists, felt with State Department policies both whilst working at the Department and afterwards, whilst having to comply with its guidelines as academics. As a result, they are, overall, rather negatively inclined towards any political goals or motivations when it comes to archaeological funding. As the American research centres abroad demonstrate, however, projects that start out in reaction to political events (albeit, granted, in the form of independent, non-governmental institutions) can have long-term positive effects for archaeology as well as foreign policy, as Luke and Kersel admit.

Second and most importantly, the political advantages of archaeology, central to Luke and Kersel's argument, remain, over all, rather vague. The introductory chapter points out that one of the reasons why cultural diplomacy is often not very high on the international relations priority list, is that "it is a challenge to determine its long-term impact on the behavior of countries" (p. 3). Whilst long-term impact is, of course, always difficult to measure, one would wish to see at least a few concrete, explicit examples of how, say, small "d" archaeological cooperation with local people, no doubt worthwhile for its own sake, has made a difference to foreign policy. Might comparison with other countries, which is unfortunately almost totally absent from this book, have been helpful here? To what extent) have, say, the investments in the German, British, and Japanese centres in Jordan and Turkey (p. 136) placed these countries at a political (rather than just archaeological) advantage in comparison to the U.S., where funding for such research centres was cut? Whereas one would have expected to find precisely such examples in this book, Luke and Kersel leave it to future research to demonstrate "how the strategic funding of U.S.-backed grants… have (sic) provided for long-term U.S. cultural diplomacy" (p. 129).

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