Over the past two decades cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, has become an increasingly evident – and fraught – subject of foreign affairs. One reason is a recent proliferation of multilateral conventions by UNESCO, among others, more specifically articulating international frameworks for the protection and conservation of cultural heritage globally. These include the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the 2005 Diversity Convention, and the 2008 ratification by the U.S. of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, among other precedents. New collaborations between cultural professionals and the U.S. military, in the context of this increasing attention to heritage, constitute non-traditional opportunities for cultural diplomacy.

One effect of the recent push for international normative frameworks governing the conduct of persons, communities, and states with respect to heritage has been to identifiably constitute “cultural heritage” as a kind of scarce local or national resource, as a well-defined potential subject of state action, and as a basis of international relations and of conflict. Tracking this trend, some historians have referred to the contemporary onset of “heritage crusades,” which can lead to “heritage wars.” In other words, attitudes about cultural heritage have changed over time, and international actors increasingly seek legal redress, or take violent steps, in relation to an increasingly prevailing conception of heritage as: rivalrous, non-renewable, specific in time and place, and exclusively owned by people, communities, or nations.

Not coincidentally, the potential destruction of cultural heritage has become a major preoccupation, not only for particular communities and nation-states, but also for the U.S. military. Recent history is replete with multiple examples of the destruction of heritage sites or objects in active conflict zones, or leading to conflict. A short list would include the 2001 demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, the 2003 looting of the Baghdad Museum, the devastation of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the destruction of Timbuktu’s sacred tombs during the conflict in Mali, and ongoing heritage loss as part of the conflict in Syria, among others. Heritage destruction, looting, and the illegal antiquities trade are one front in these heritage wars. Conflicting claims, the definition of heritage as property, and calls for repatriation, are another front.

Unsurprisingly, then, international organizations, U.S. and other government agencies, have begun to consider more closely the vulnerabilities of heritage in circumstances of conflict alongside the growing importance of “cultural security,” as an emerging feature of international affairs and as a dimension of responsible engagement in conflict zones. For the U.S. military, this has led to a largely unprecedented set of often remarkable collaborations with an array of civilian archaeologists, museum curators, art conservators, and arts and culture organizations, and others, as part of the military’s growing awareness of the ways the mismanagement, neglect, or lack of protection provided heritage resources can actively generate conflict.

The U.S. military’s efforts to protect and conserve cultural heritage in conflict zones is part of a broader cultural turn over the past decade. And it has taken various forms. These include the development of a “No Strike List” for Libya in 2011 to insure heritage sites were not targeted, in collaboration with the U.S. Committee of the Blue Shield. They also include military logistical support as part of humanitarian interventions to save endangered heritage in the aftermath of disasters, natural and man-made. They include the innovative use of new tools, such as the coordination of GIS, digital databases, and archives. And they include cultural diplomatic interventions, such as the use of cultural mapping technologies to identify an ancient Afghan irrigation system inadvertently compromised by a U.S. military base. The base was redesigned.

This work also includes the consolidation of new lines of communication and networks of collaboration between military and civilian personnel and applied practitioners in diverse fields of the arts and culture, such as the new CHAMP initiative hosted by the Archaeological Institute of America. These networks cross what have been seldom crossed boundaries between the humanities and the military. On the one hand, they highlight an emerging military footprint in humanitarian “operations other than war,” as a feature of peacekeeping, stability operations, and cultural diplomacy. On the other, collaborations with the military to safeguard heritage illustrate new directions in the applied arts, where working artists and cultural professionals are extending their skills, techniques, and creative visions as a part of the U.S. response to global crises and conflict.

The cultural diplomatic potential of U.S. military cultural heritage management is not without risks. At times the military has been so intent upon developing its cultural capacity that it has not appreciated conceptions of culture other than its own tendency to view culture as an asset and mission resource. It can also be deeply problematic for the safeguarding of heritage to be directly implicated in strategic or tactical military “soft power” objectives. Cultural professionals can be perceived as agents of coercion and control. It is, therefore, critical for them to develop robust parallel humanitarian networks in ways enabling a legitimating autonomy rather than have their work defined primarily through military mission priorities.

This post originally appeared on ARTSblog as part of an Americans for the Arts salon on the “Arts and the Military”: http://blog.artsusa.org/2013/05/15/cultural-diplomacy-and-heritage-wars/.