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Introducing different approaches to cultural diplomacy

Cultural cooperation, public diplomacy, soft power, international cultural relations… what lies behind these concepts? Which objectives? Which actors?
© European University Institute

The term cultural diplomacy designates a wide range of practices that can be implemented in a foreign country, such as that of offering language courses, granting educational scholarships, setting up festivals artists’ performances and exhibitions, as well as organising scientific conferences, opening libraries, and making diplomatic gifts as part of a mission. Cultural Diplomacy is generally defined as the exchange of ideas, arts and culture, that aims at improving mutual understanding between different countries.

A number of neighbouring concepts refer to similar practices, but with different connotations and implications. In the following activities, we will focus on four different terms: cultural cooperation, public diplomacy, soft power, and transnational cultural relations. Although these terms may sometimes refer to the same activities, they reflect different conceptions of what cultural diplomacy is and should be.

From diplomacy to cultural diplomacy

Some tensions between states reside in conflicts that belong to the past. The memory of wars, of genocides, of colonization, in fact, can leave deep scars in relationships among countries, and diplomats need to confront them. That said, diplomacy is the practice through which state representatives negotiate to defend their country’s interests in fields such as security, trade, or the environment. Indeed, also culture can be a field of diplomacy.

At the same time, by contributing to improve a country’s image and developing cultural links between civil societies, culture can be viewed as a way to ease relationships between states. The numerous neologisms that were formed with the word “diplomacy” testify the variety of “cultural instruments” that can be mobilized: “diaspora diplomacy”, “culinary diplomacy” and “sport diplomacy”,

Culture and power

The use of culture in diplomacy implies the assumption that culture can be a source of power. But what is the relation between culture and power? Even those who do not agree with “realists”, who think that diplomacy is mainly about maximizing one’s country’s interests, recognize that the international field is governed by power dynamics. Here, we define power as the capacity to influence another country’s decisions and actions. But power can be exercised in different ways. Coercion, for example, implies using threat or physical constraint to force a country to act in a certain way or to comply to certain norms imposed by others. Economic incentives as well can be a way to push a country to make certain decisions. Power can also stem from adhesion to another country’s values.

Different kinds of Scholars have argued that culture represents a power asset. It can make other countries more prone to comply with your interests.

This argument has first been brought up through a critical perspective. In an international context in which some countries hold far more resources than others, they can combine different forms of power to perpetuate their domination. Some scholars use the term “cultural imperialism” to show that since the time of colonization, culture has been used not as a complement to coercive power, rather than as an alternative.

The two following features are typical of cultural imperialism:

  • A dominant culture that views itself as superior imposes itself on another culture. This is the case, for instance, when teaching local languages is not allowed or local cultural practices are banned.
  • Cultural appropriation and displacement of cultural artefacts can take the form of looting or stealing, as well as that of purchase at a price that does not reflect the real value of the artworks.

The other perspective on the relation between culture and power, pioneered by the U.S. International Relations scholar Joseph Nye, is prescriptive. It relies on a distinction between “hard power”, which refers to coercion, and “soft power”, which refers to the attraction a country can exercise towards its values and culture. Joseph Nye argued that a state could defend its interests by promoting its “soft power”. As we will see, this became a key narrative to advocate for cultural diplomacy in the U.S. and worldwide.

Cultural cooperation, public diplomacy, soft power and transnational cultural relations

The next activities will explore four key notions:

• Cultural cooperation designates a wide variety of interactions between cultural actors of different countries.

• Public diplomacy, the field related to the communication with other countries and their people, which encompasses cultural diplomacy.

• Soft power, a mainstream concept widely used in cultural diplomacy, despite many limitations.

• Transnational cultural relations, which refer to a more bottom up way of thinking cultural diplomacy, which takes into consideration the consequences of the increased mobility of people and of the emergence of new communication technologies.

Share your experience:

Which term do you think best describes the cultural actions of your country in the international arena?

© European University Institute
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