What does the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem have to do with the Eurovision Song Contest? More than you might at first think.
We are living in an era of competing visions of cultural influence and power. This is true globally, but it is particularly evident right now if we look at the case of Israel. With the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem, much has been said about the motivations for the move. What is clear is that the change represents the current US administration’s vision of where the cultural epicenter of Israel lies. Along with that, religious motivations among several religions have factored into the decision-making.
For many evangelical American supporters, moving their embassy to Jerusalem is seen as a key component of dispensational premillennialism. That is the process by which they believe that their religion will progress. This motivation was clearly elucidated recently by the decision to have evangelical leader Robert Jeffress open the embassy. What does this have to do with the Eurovision Song Contest? More than you might at first think.
Despite the legal separation of church and state that has traditionally been upheld as an American value, religion – particularly Christianity – is an ongoing cultural influence in the United States. The message that the US administration is projecting in this situation is one of cultural promotion. This is not the first time by any means that religious justifications have played a role in US foreign policy. One thinks of the role that religion has sometimes played in approaches toward foreign aid and scientific funding. Nonetheless, it does represent a bold step towards promoting a particular interpretation of religion in policy that represents the US internationally as a whole.
Contrast that to what happened on Saturday, May 12th in Lisbon, when Israel won the Eurovision Song Contest. Eurovision is often frivolous and humorous. Netta Barzilai who won the contest on behalf of Israel was certainly of that variety with her lively pop song that interspersed feminist lyrics with clucking chicken noises. In all seriousness, the victory at the contest means that by tradition, Israel is the host country for the contest next year. Due to space constraints, the contest will likely be held in Jerusalem although the details have not been finalized and are subject to change. Several countries have threatened to boycott the contest next year, but whether those threats will materialize or influence the trajectory of plans, remains to be seen.
What is apparent is that competing visions of cultural dialogue are at play. Eurovision is just a music contest but it is representative of values promoting diversity, social tolerance, and freedom. Those are values that in the past century have been associated with American liberal democracy, which the US eagerly used as justification to promote its foreign policy goals internationally. It was often the argument for military intervention and it was the basis of international diplomatic norms that underpinned negotiations.
As a result of recent political changes, we are seeing a paradigm shift in which the US is defining its policies to reflect the interests of certain sections of the US electorate. Special interests are hardly new and their role in foreign policy is not novel, but it is important that the US should think longer term about the impact of the cultural messages that are being conveyed through foreign policy action. Such factionalism risks being fodder for lingering and residual destabilization, both within that region and beyond.