Cultural Diplomacy – a Rapid Primer

This information originally appeared as part of my earlier article on World Music and Cultural Diplomacy where you will find all the references. It is reproduced here in a bite-sized chunk to improve access. For a deeper read, have a look at the reading list.

Diplomacy is an international system designed to regulate foreign policy and power, born many centuries ago, but which took off with the rise of the late medieval city states of Europe.

Up until the nineteenth century, foreign policy was frequently imposed by what is known as hard power, often called “gunboat diplomacy”. This meant nothing less than the blatant use of coercion, influence, authority, force or manipulation, to change the behaviour of others in a desired direction.
The expensive wars of the 20th Century and the arrival of the Cold War shifted the focus more on to maintaining the balance of power, and it was here for the first time that the international fate of the cultural sector became implicated in the projection of national power and the pursuit of the national interest. Hard power being somewhat discredited, to soften the territorial, political and economic projection of the nation’s image abroad the concept of the “cultural nation” was born. The policy became assured when Governments realized that this both widened the set of identities the state could offer to the outside world, and offered a useful tool to refine the selection of countries with whom they wished to relate, and in what order. Culture was called into service as the velvet glove.
Recent Variants
Unfortunately, as the 20th century ended, the concept was overwhelmed by international events for a while, and certain Western powers developed three variants as part of their diplomatic armoury, all of which are still in use today.
By the 21st century, rapid and globalised communications was making a PR headache out of too open a use of hard power and propaganda, and the old diplomacy of influence again became the focus.
The first variant was Public Diplomacy. This actually emerged out of cultural diplomacy as far back as the sixties, but it was not heavily supported until the run of Western PR disasters in the Middle East. The objective of this new diplomatic effort sought to exploit the feel-good mutuality of cultural relations in order to change the behaviour of foreign governments by influencing the attitudes of their citizens. This manipulation was achieved by staging a diverse array of activities that communicated directly with the people of other countries, in order to affect their thinking in ways beneficial to the national interest of the originating State.
Soft Power, coined in 1990, introduced the use of power as indirect influence, and was defined as an ability to entice and attract; co-opting rather than coercing people. It is associated with intangible power resources such as an attractive culture, ideology and institutions.
Smart Power developed out of this in 2004, as a sophisticated and more liberal modification of soft power, skillfully combining both hard and soft power to underpin the winning strategy. Essentially, it does this:
  1. by sanctioning the engagement of both military force and the strategic use of all means: diplomacy, persuasion, capacity building, and the projection of power and influence;
  2. in ways that are cost-effective;
  3. and with political and social legitimacy.

Modern Cultural Diplomacy

Modern cultural diplomacy seeks to converge with the domestic and international objectives of state sovereignty.

But actually the activities of the cultural sector have the opposite tendency, diverging towards an endless dispersion of work, and the development of multitudes of concepts, at home and abroad. Creatives are extraordinarily difficult people to control.
This has meant that states are seeing their cultural diplomacy efforts being increasingly developed by other actors, who are rather less motivated by the concerns of a strictly national view. Worse, these actors are strongly influenced by their own collegiate and collaborative creation processes which occur regardless of frontier. The increasing connectedness of world populations is developing a practice of international and cultural relations that by-passes state agencies, with creators and consumers moving freely and directly, in full control of expression, production and distribution.
In my view, modern cultural diplomacy is no more than a restricted form of cultural relation, one that can only occur under license from governments and their agents, who remain focussed on the exchange of cultural ideas, goods or services as fostering ‘mutual understanding’, which really has as its direct or indirect objective the continuing pursuit of soft power. Cultural diplomacy therefore is the state’s rather hopeless way to control the instinctive and much more organic practice of the citizens’ very own cultural relations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.