What does the movie The Interview have in common with a 2,700-year-old Persian drinking cup? Each demonstrates the powerful role that art and culture can play in international affairs, and each had global implications that the creators may not have envisioned.

Whether The Interview is art is arguable, but as pop culture, the movie provoked more than a political controversy. The cyber attack on Sony suggested that The Interview was perceived as a security threat, escalating international tension between North Korea and the U.S.

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The ancient ceremonial drinking vessel, known as a “rhyton,” was looted from Iran and then seized by U. S. customs in 2003 while being smuggled from Iran to the United States. A decade later, the United States returned the rhyton to Iran as a diplomatic gesture, this time in effect de-escalating tensions between the two countries.

Antiquities and historic monuments play a surprisingly common role in international affairs. Now, it’s clear that movies and pop culture can also play a role. Terrorist groups exploit cultural heritage for profit and intentionally destroy irreplaceable antiquities in acts of political violence during conflict. ISIS’s tactics in Syria are a poignant example.

Cultural artifacts like the rhyton have diplomatic value. Contemporary works, like movies and pop music, relay U.S. pop culture trends as they circle the globe both overtly and underground. But in some cases they have caused friction in foreign relations. In August 2011, Chinese officials referred to particular songs by the Backstreet Boys and Lady Gaga, for example, as threats to the “cultural security” of China. 

The response to The Interview, however, went beyond political rhetoric. By inciting an “attack” and provoking a hostile response from an already confrontational government, the movie demonstrated anew the influence of culture on international security. Only this time, it was not through ancient beauty or revered art but through the satire and caricature of contemporary American comedy. 

The international incident made clear that interest in the meaning of artworks, antiquities, monuments and pop culture is of political and military concern, not just confined to art historians, archaeologists, museums, collectors—and movie reviewers. A series of international conventions since World War II have sought to protect historic structures in armed conflict and mitigate trafficking in cultural property. As an unintended result, terrorist groups derive greater tactical value from targeting religious monuments. Witness the Taliban’s demolition of the giant status of Buddha in the Bamiyan Valley in 2001, Ansar Dine’s destruction of Sufi shrines in Mali in 2012, and ISIS’s ongoing bombing of mosques across Syria and Iraq.

The exploitation is not limited to leveling monuments and cultural heritage sites. An expanding worldwide interest in collecting fine art and antiquities has made trafficking in cultural property increasingly lucrative. Cultural heritage sites in regions of conflict are vulnerable to looting. Syria continues to be a topical example. Reports of looting of antiquities from Aleppo to Palmyra have cited multi-million-dollar estimates for the market value of the trafficked cultural property. Subsequent reports tempered estimates of the financial value to ISIS, but there is another angle that has equal if not greater tactical value. The looting of antiquities aids in “cultural cleansing” which ISIS already pursues through the destruction of religious monuments.

The arts remain a potent instrument of diplomacy, as evidenced by the return of the rhyton to Iran. But cultural property also can be a political liability and a weapon in guerrilla tactics. The resulting power of cultural property creates an opportunity for innovation in cultural diplomacy. Effective application in diplomacy could aid in countering exploitation by looters, smugglers, traffickers and, in the case of The Interview, hackers.

In the cultural diplomacy of the Cold War, the United States promoted national culture by sending musicians and authors abroad. At the same time, a burgeoning trade in cultural artifacts from the Third World posed a threat to cultural heritage of nations across Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia. In the post-Cold War, cultural institutions in the United States are answering for the past acquisition practices of curators and private collectors. Landmark agreements for the return of antiquities by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2006) and the J. Paul Getty Museum (2007) publicized the issue. In accordance with the principles of international conventions, the Department of State responds to foreign requests for the return of cultural property acquired through questionable channels.

Many current claims for repatriation are for artifacts that were acquired during the Cold-War era. Another generation of claims creating political liability is emerging involving looting during conflicts in The Balkans (1990s), Afghanistan (2001-), Iraq (2003-), and the nations of Arab spring. The risk, however, may be converted into an asset. The rhyton, which reportedly dates from the Achaemenid era (circa 700 BC), is an example of the diplomatic value of repatriation. U.S. customs agents seized the artifact from a dealer in 2003. Following a historic telephone call between President Obama and President Hassan Rouhani, U.S. officials returned the rhyton to the head of the Cultural Heritage, Handcrafts and Tourism Organization of Iran in September 2013. Media attempts to undermine the significance of the gesture challenged the authenticity of the artifact, but the repatriation still holds value in diplomacy by commemorating a positive step in relations between the United States and Iran.

The rhyton and The Interview are on opposite ends of a spectrum as forms of cultural expression. The rhyton represents Persian culture of ancient times. What The Interview represents in present-day culture will be revealed in time. Despite the stark difference, both works have assumed more active roles in foreign relations than their creators might have intended. They provide insight into the power of art and culture in the realm of international security.

Nemeth directs CulturalSecurity.net and co-directs the Cultural Property Case Resource. Formerly with the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, Nemeth has published in journals of terrorism studies, intelligence studies, and international affairs and recently completed a book, Cultural Security: Evaluating the Power of Culture in International Affairs (Imperial College Press, London).