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Melissa Hinz, a dancer from California, and Native American dancer Albert Plant III of Arlee, share space in the dressing room Friday morning preparing for their performances in the Dance Challenge competition during the Vienna International Ballet Experience at the University of Montana’s Dennison Theatre. Also Friday and in conjunction with VIBE, UM’s Mansfield Center sponsored a number of panel discussions with the theme of using art as a means to promote diplomacy and an understanding of different cultures.

From ping-pong matches that thawed relations between the U.S. and China to playwrights who helped bring down the Soviet Union, arts and cultural exchanges have a greater impact on diplomacy, politics and society than they are given credit for, according to a panel of experts who discussed the issue at the University of Montana on Friday.  

The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center hosted a daylong conference in the University Center called "The Art of Diplomacy" to explore how the arts and cultural engagement shape foreign affairs.

"The arts can serve as a universal language that engages us intellectually and emotionally, regardless of where you are from," explained Abraham Kim, director of the Mansfield Center. "At other times, they can be disruptive, hostile and even subversive. Because creative works can also inject new ideas and alternative understandings. In the conference today, we'll be exploring all these themes and sharing stories about how the arts are an integral part of the human experience and our complex relationships."

The conference is being held in conjunction with the Vienna International Ballet Experience this week at UM, which is being hosted by the Rocky Mountain Ballet Theater and Destination Missoula. The gala finale of VIBE is scheduled at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Wilma Theatre.

The first panel, on the importance and impact of cultural diplomacy, featured a panel moderated by Sally Mauk, the former news director of Montana Public Radio. She spoke with Montana World Affairs Council founder Mark Johnson, former Meridian International Center vice president of arts and cultural affairs Nancy Matthews, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Trade Policy Joanna Shelton and former U.S. Diplomat Kathy Stephens of Stanford University.

"Most of us are old enough to remember the Cold War," Shelton said. "The competition or division between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The Western, liberal way of thinking of equal rights was pitted against a regime in the Soviet Union that was totalitarian in nature that tried to restrict people's freedoms and their free expression."

When the Iron Curtain began to come down, she said, it did so in countries bordering western Europe that most closely shared our values.

"I think it's no accident that the mostly peaceful revolutions that began in 1989 began in those countries that had the greatest numbers of artists and cultural icons and playwrights," Shelton said. "Artists value freedoms – the freedom of expression the freedom to express their ideas; they don't want to be bound. They don't want to be told they can't do this, they can't write this."

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Johnson, himself a former U.S. diplomat, said that understanding social media is a way for peaceful countries to protect themselves. Terrorist groups have grown more adept at spreading their message – a form of cultural exchange – because they use social media.

"If you think ISIS is a bunch of guys in caves with beards, you are wrong," he said. "They have one of the most sophisticated social media campaigns in the world. Every day, they send out 1,000 or 2,000 Twitter messages. So if you're a young guy in Damascus or heaven forbid even in the U.S., looking at this kind of stuff, there is a message out there that you can find easily."

The audience was given the rare treat of several performances by members of the Rossetti Quartet.

Violinist Thomas Diener said that even the production of "Schindler's List" – a film from which they performed the theme music – involved cross-cultural collaboration because Hollywood producers had to be on board with foreign novelists and screenwriters.

"I don't think you could find someone who was more adept at the art of diplomacy than Oskar Schindler," Diener said. "You could say he saved millions of lives when you count successive generations."

The conference featured speakers talking about how graffiti and hip-hop influenced the Arab Spring, and Darko Butorac, the conductor of the Missoula Symphony Orchestra, talked about how classical music can inspire, motivate and heal a nation.

Stephens said that people like Charlene Campbell, the director of RMBT, play a pivotal role in world affairs.

"I think we know intrinsically why it's important to build dialogue and communication," Stephens said. "We owe a big debt, those of us who have worked in traditional diplomacy, to the people who organize these cultural exchanges because it has underpinned and strengthened traditional diplomacy." 

The Mansfield Center at UM is dedicated to promoting a better cross-cultural understanding of Asia and ethics in public affairs. For more information, visit umt.edu/mansfield.

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