Fletcher Features

From Tanks to Trombones: Joseph Polisi (F70) On Improving International Relations Through the Arts

Joseph Polisi, F70, President of the Julliard School, delivers a talk titled, "Innovation and Strategic Thinking: Lessons from the Arts," to an audience at the Chase Center on Jan. 30, 2013

The way Joseph W. Polisi (F70) sees it, it’s not just about swords into plowshares. It’s about bassoons and basses over bombs and boomers, and the United States needs to start thinking a lot more seriously about using its huge cultural and artistic diversity to show the world what the country is really all about.

This is strategic thinking, Fletcher School-style, coming from the president of one of the preeminent institutions of artistic education in the world: The Juilliard School. The same depth and breadth of thinking that applies to the analysis of terrorist groups, or sub-Saharan famine, or the U.S. pivot to the Asia-Pacific, applies to the arts world, Polisi told faculty, staff and students at The Fletcher School during the latest Charles Francis Adams lecture on January 30.

“Clarity of thought, the strategic analyses, the focus on achieving a precise goal: they apply just as much in the art world as they do in international relations,” said Polisi. 

The concept of “soft power”— defined loosely as a nation’s cultural, economic, artistic assets, among other things— has been downgraded or relegated to the back burner in U.S. diplomacy, he said. Budgets for things like cultural centers in U.S. embassies, or programs that send American musicians or artists to other countries are being cut, and it’s making it a lot harder to build bridges to nations that might be wary or even outright hostile to the United States.

Or the flipside: policymakers and politicians don’t realize that there are far more powerful ways of winning friends and influencing nations than threatening them or selling them missile and submarines, Polisi said, quoting New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who said of the U.S. that “the ‘hard power’ of missiles is often exceeded by our ‘soft power’ of ideas.”

“Our influence [with military might] is outweighed by the failure of the U.S. around the globe to persuade other nations of the rightness of our policy,” he said. “What’s most troubling to me as an arts educator is the seeming lack of nuance with which the United State acts in the international arena…. America’s approach to international relations draws more from war than it does diplomacy.”

During the nearly 30 years Polisi has been president of Juilliard, he has overseen the introduction of a host of new programs, a curriculum revision, the building of a new dormitory and more community outreach programs. Arguably the most ambitious program, however, has been the 2010 introduction of Juilliard Global, an international effort to partner with other nations to promote arts education and cultural exchange and build Juilliard’s formidable brand globally.

The program started out in Brazil, Mexico and China, he said. In Sao Paolo State, Juilliard is working with a Brazilian organization that oversees two major arts education programs. The aim is to introduce string instrument instruction and to start up a dozen short-term projects to bring music and arts to thousands of disadvantaged children. The program is also seeking to raise money from corporations to establish a network of arts high schools in the state, he said.

In Mexico, Juilliard faculty worked with three conservatories in Mexico City and Monterrey to help the schools develop their musical education programs. The biggest complaint that faculty heard from Mexicans, Polisi said, was that the largest proportion of string sections of orchestras are populated with musicians from Eastern Europe. Building a long-term musical education program will help train a new generation of musicians, be it violinists or otherwise.

In China, meanwhile, Juilliard has partnered with the government of the city of Tianjin, about 75 miles southeast of Beijing, to build a new educational institution there, the first such school Juilliard has established outside of New York. The institute in Tianjin is expected to host music education programs for children aged eight to18, and specialized, pre-professional training for graduates. The aim, in Polisi’s words, is to turn it into a hub for arts and music education for the entire East Asian region.

“This is not just about a financial transaction. It’s about making Juilliard a serious presence with deep roots in countries around the world, and we will earn from them and they will earn from us,” he said.

Polisi said the arts, music in particular, have a unique way of breaking down barriers and allowing people to communicate instantly.

“The natural connection between young artists, who don’t speak the same language, is instantaneous and powerful,” he said. “We have to use that power to shape how the United States is perceived around the world.”

-- Mike Eckel (MALD Candidate ’13)

Group photo from left to right: Patrick Kabanda (MALD Candidate '13); Anthony Monaco (President, Tufts University), Dr. Joseph Polisi (President, The Juilliard School), and Stephen Bosworth (Dean, The Fletcher School)

Photos: Kelvin Ma, Tufts University

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