Pakistan is a deeply troubled country. Its economy is in shambles. Its power elite just can’t get along. They’re notoriously corrupt. And there’s the legacy of terrorism. Ask the average American what comes to mind when “Pakistan” is mentioned, and the most common answer is still likely to be “Osama bin Laden.”
But Pakistan is more than its problems. And it is more than its rulers. It is a large country, a society of more than 220 million people, with cultures and traditions that go back hundreds, if not thousands of years. Pakistan sits at the confluence of many regions, the Middle East, South Asia, and Central Asia, adding to the richness of its cuisines, languages, and histories. Like all peoples, Pakistanis have languages in which they express love, loss, and longing, cuisines that set one’s palate on fire, and stories that tell the tale of the human experience.
None of this makes its way into headlines. Ultimately, the reduction of a people to the worst things that happen to them or the terrible acts of a few is dehumanizing. Its impact is also real: investors and tourists are fearful of visiting, foreign policymakers exhibit a negative bias that inhibits aid for flood affectees, and Pakistan’s claims about the extremist party ruling to its east are ignored.
Cultural diplomacy offers a means toward neutralizing those negative biases or even transforming them into positive sentiments and greater understanding. Pakistani diplomats are skilled in the arts of diplomacy. But diplomacy these days is a more specialized occupation. Pakistan falls short in the more non-traditional forms of diplomacy, including the economic and the cultural.
The Pakistani government is constrained by a lack of resources. Cultural diplomacy can result in wasteful spending and even corruption. But it can also be done in an efficient and effective manner with the right strategy.
A successful strategy would begin by focusing on the icons of Pakistani culture, institutionalizing their study and remembrance. Artists who communicate the country’s identity and ethos in verse, rhythm, and brush strokes. Icons like qawwali musician Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who enthralled native-born audiences in France, Japan, and the United States. Visual artists like Sadequain, whose embrace of cubism reflects the modern, experimental outlook of the early Islamic Republic.
A cultural diplomacy strategy should also privilege Pakistan’s periphery, expanding and enriching the national story. The port city of Gwadar, for example, can host a world-class museum to position itself as a Pakistani Baloch city in the Indian Ocean region. It would allow Pakistanis and the world to see the city as part of the Baloch story, the story of Pakistan, and the story of the vast maritime space that is the Indian Ocean region. The cuisine of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region, which shares much in common with Central Asia, has the potential to be the next trend in “ethnic” cuisine in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West.
An effective Pakistani cultural diplomacy strategy would go beyond engaging YouTubers and so-called influencers to working with real institutions of culture — culinary institutes, foundations, magazines, and museums — promoting Urdu and other Pakistani languages, celebrating Pakistani icons, and telling the story of 220 million people and their passions and creativity to the rest of the world.
A cultural diplomacy strategy cannot be designed or led by a bureaucrat. It must be done by an artist, as artists are humanists by nature and the aim of cultural diplomacy is to disarm prejudice by connecting humans to humans.