Ambassador Grigor Hovhannisian, left, and Amb. Richard M. Mills, Jr.

Armenian and American Ambassadors Discuss Cultural Diplomacy

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WASHINGTON – The results of cultural diplomacy and American efforts in Armenia are often encountered, but it is rare to hear diplomats publicly define and discuss this oft ambiguous tool of governments. The Smithsonian Folklife Festival, this year dedicated to the cultures of Armenia and Catalonia, gave the public a glimpse of the thinking of two ambassadors on this topic. Armenia’s ambassador to the United States Grigor Hovhannisian, and America’s ambassador to Armenia, Richard M. Mills, Jr., participated on June 28 at a special program of the festival, “Cultural Diplomacy with Two Ambassadors,” held at the Hyurasenyak pavilion at the Washington Mall. Jay Ramen, director of the Cultural Programs Division of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the US Department of State, served as moderator.

From left, Jay Ramen, Ambassador Grigor Hovhannisian, left, and Amb. Richard M. Mills, Jr. (photo: Aram Arkun)

Hovhannisian, born in 1971 in Yerevan, Armenia, studied Arab and Oriental Studies at Yerevan State University, and did graduate work at Haigazian University in Beirut before earning a master’s degree in 2001 from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University in Massachusetts. He worked for the United Nations (UN) in Armenia, several African countries and Lebanon, and after joining Armenia’s Foreign Service, became Armenia’s consul general in Los Angeles in 2009, ambassador to Mexico in 2014, and since 2016, ambassador to the US.

Amb. Richard M. Mills, Jr. (photo: Aram Arkun)

Mills, born 1959 in Louisiana, received a B.A. from Georgetown University, a J.D. from the University of Texas School of Law, and an M.S. in National Security Strategy from the National Defense University. He worked as an attorney in Washington prior to entering the US Foreign Service. He has served as a diplomat in France, Russia, Ireland, Pakistan, Malta and at the UN. Before becoming ambassador to Armenia in 2015, he most recently was deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Beirut, Lebanon from 2012 to 2014.

Ramen started off the conversation between the two ambassadors by asking what cultural diplomacy is and how it fits into their work as ambassadors.

Mills first declared that it is not handing out copies of books like Moby Dick or Little Women to people around the world, since people can in today’s globalized environment easily have access to American culture directly. He said, “I think it kind of sells itself.”

There are, however, two ways in which the US embassy uses American culture in its work, according to Mills. First, it can be used to promote goals or values. He gave the example of promoting understanding of the rights of the disabled. A grant from Ramen’s Bureau allowed the translation of a book into Armenian called Wonder, which is about a young boy facing life with a facial deformity. The embassy distributed it to schools in Armenia, brought in school children to talk about the book, and developed a curriculum that school teachers could use to talk about this book in their schools. This was a use of culture to promote a reform or value in Armenia, which the Armenian government also supported.

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Mills added later that “Armenia is more stable as our friend when you have an open society, where every member of that society can participate fully, whether they are fully handicapped or disabled or have other skills. That is why we want see this value take root in Armenia and we want to amplify the voices that want to see that.”

He gave a second example of American cultural diplomacy the concrete results of which have just been experienced during the Velvet Revolution. Mills said that one of the close advisors of the new prime minister of Armenia confided to him that as the recent demonstrations and marches were unfolding he kept at his desk and in his knapsack a copy of Martin Luther King’s Letters from Birmingham Jail. Mills said that the adviser told him he had been exposed to this work at what is called an American Corner in Gyumri. This is a corner in libraries around the world sponsored by the US State Department where American writings and computers are accessible. The adviser had read this work about ten years ago and said that the message of change through nonviolence, and the cost of change, continued to motivate him and he had bought his own copy. Mills concluded, “So when I hear a story like that, I do know that cultural diplomacy does make a huge difference.”

The second way Mills said the embassy used culture was to create “a safe space for discussions about issues that a country, a society, may not want to have.” He gave the example of Armenia’s history and relationship with Turkey or Azerbaijan, including the future of Nagorno-Karabakh, as topics on which Armenians might not feel comfortable talking about frankly and openly in public.

One effort the embassy made in this field, Mills revealed, was to use a grant to bring Turkish and Armenian dancers together to create a piece of artwork designed to talk about reconciliation. This created what he called “a safe space” for discussion both in Armenia and in Turkey.

Hovhannisian commented that the US ambassador is a key person in the cultural landscape of Yerevan, as the embassy adds a different layer to cultural life in Armenia through its cultural diplomacy. He said that there is a tremendous asymmetry in perspective and perceptions when it comes to cultural diplomacy of a small country like Armenia.

He said, “I represent a country, a nation, that learned throughout the millennia of history to believe in the power of culture and to defy the culture of power.” Armenia’s art, media and languages were used to communicate with an otherwise hostile environment and to develop a culture that absorbs others and thus becomes a victor, he said.

In the United States, there have been pockets of Armenian presence for 400 years, Hovhannisian said, but on the aggregate level, Armenian culture is largely unknown despite its tremendous and ancient legacy. Consequently, he said, “our office and others are trying to use the wealth of culture to introduce Armenia.” They rely heavily on the culture produced in the Armenian diaspora, since Armenia is a “glocal” nation, meaning local in day-to-day issues in the Middle East but global with a culture cultivated in over 100 countries throughout the world. “There is tremendous wealth,” Hovhannisian said, “that we have to learn how to market and present.”

Ambassador Grigor Hovhannisian (photo: Aram Arkun)

Ramen then asked the ambassadors to turn to the role of the Armenian diaspora in culture and diplomacy. Hovhannisian said that during the years that the Soviet Union instilled its own culture on Soviet Armenia, the Armenians abroad developed more freely, and their culture in turn influenced the culture of the third Armenian republic. It also supports today the cultural initiatives of the Republic of Armenia. He gave the example of partnerships with major American institutions like the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Getty Museum, which would not have been possible without diasporan generosity and enthusiasm.

Mills pointed out two ways in which the Armenian diaspora was a partner for the US embassy. The US does not have a ministry of culture or other arm of the government charged with cultural outreach. Consequently, the embassy can highlight ideas for cultural events showing shared values between the US and Armenia and the diaspora through its foundations and donors often funds these events in a way the embassy cannot do.

Secondly, the diaspora, Mills said, gives feedback to the embassy, suggesting that there should be a focus on certain things or pointing out misunderstandings. Mills gave the example of the shortage of information technology specialists in Armenia because of the rapid growth in this sector. Diasporan Armenians asked whether the US could recraft the Fulbright program to give more Armenians IT training in the US, and indeed, through the support of a large Armenian family foundation, half a dozen new Fulbright scholarships in the IT area were created.

Mills said that cultural diplomacy changed over time. During the Cold War period, he said, “we needed to show the world that American culture could thrive, [that] it was inclusive, it was valuable.” That was no longer necessary in a globalized world. Instead, he said, “We use culture, I think, in a more targeted way now to promote specific ideas and specific values that the United States believes makes the world safer, makes the world a stronger place.”

Hovhannisian recalled that during the Soviet period, his father clandestinely listened to Voice of America on his radio early in the morning. The Armenian diaspora also served as a little opening to the broader non-Soviet world in those days.

Both Mills and Hovhannisian praised the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation (AFCP), which was created in the early 2000s by the US government to support endangered cultures. Mills said that the reason why Americans were supporting rebuilding cultural heritage in other countries is that “this is our shared heritage. This is mankind’s heritage that we are preserving…we all benefit when we preserve these great pieces of our common culture.”

The US embassy, working with the Armenian ministry of culture and local Armenian communities, has funded several projects, the biggest of which at present is the renovation of frescoes in a medieval Armenian church in Meghri, a town on the border with Iran. The Christian iconography has been influenced by Persian art. Mills said, “It is an incredible kind of metaphor for how Armenia has been on the crossroads between all these cultures.”

The embassy, working with the AFCP, was able to get a grant to restore the frescoes, which were falling into ruin. This also encourages cultural tourism and spurs other efforts to restore the old town of Meghri, which hopefully will be a part of the development of the rural regional economy of Armenia. Hovhannisian exclaimed in response, “Bless your heart! That is the talk of America that we love. And I also thank the American taxpayers for making this facility available to ambassadors.”

At the end of the dialogue, the two ambassadors fielded questions from the audience on a wide variety of topics. One interesting point that came up, according to Mills, was that Armenia even before the recent revolution had a fairly open media environment. He said that to his chagrin, Freedom House even rated the Armenian social media environment freer than that of the US in 2016. It was this social media that played a big part in the movement of Nikol Pashinyan and the Velvet Revolution.

Mills did have one concern about the realm of cultural media. He said, “There is a Russian dominance in the Armenian media space in terms of news, in terms of news channels, and even in terms of some of the creative programming, some of the fictional programming. The Russian media companies have every right to enter the Armenian market. My  concern frankly as the American ambassador, is just, I would like to see a little more alternative Western news programming, creative programming, not because we want to challenge what Russian programmers are giving Armenians, but to give Armenians a different view, just a different perspective, of what is happening in the world, so that they can make their own assessments, about what they are hearing from Russian media, versus what they may be hearing, if they have access to it, from the Western media, whether that is BBC, or CNN or Fox, or whatever.”

To remedy this situation, Mills said the embassy is working with several cable providers to get more access for Western news programming in Armenia. He confessed that, “That is hobbled quite frankly by still the low level of English language skills, especially outside of Yerevan. That is one reason why we put a lot of money into English-language programming. Not because we think every Armenian needs to learn English, but English is the international world language now….It gives you access to different views of the world that you can then use to make your own decisions.”

From left, Jay Ramen, Ambassador Grigor Hovhannisian, left, and Amb. Richard M. Mills, Jr. (photo: Aram Arkun)

The panel discussion was supported by the Hirair and Anna Hovnanian Foundation, Birthright Armenia, and the Armenia Volunteer Corps.

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