Geopolitical changes have transformed and accentuated the role of cultural in international relations, but how? Many cultural diplomacy institutions have their roots in the 19th century, during what the historian, Eric Hobsbawm, called the age of empires. At this time, the world was dominated by a few European countries– like Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Portugal– which had colonial empires that spanned across Asia and Africa, where they could impose their culture. It was a time of heated nationalism, and culture was viewed as an essential tool to establish a homogeneous and strong nation. States imposed a common language, cultural practises, and a coherent national discourse to their population. But they also, promoted their culture abroad. Newly created cultural and educational institutions developed international cooperation.
And from the 19th century to the first half of the 20th century, numerous European powers– like France, Italy, Germany, Hungary, and Great Britain– established cultural centres abroad, to promote their language and culture and foster collaborations in the cultural field. Diplomatic actors intervene directly in culture. In 1910, the French foreign affairs ministry created a bureau for schools and French foundations abroad. In 1921, Germany established a division for cultural affairs in its foreign office. It supported German schools and libraries abroad and provided training for the public school system of China, Turkey, and Japan. After World War II, European powers lost their prominence in world affairs.
Their colonial empires were progressively dismantled and replaced by loose transnational communities, like the Commonwealth or the International Organisation of La Francophonie, aiming at promoting relations among countries sharing a common language and heritage. During the Cold War, two global superpowers rose to the front– the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Their opposition, during the period, took the form of a global geopolitical struggle, as well as an ideological fight opposing communism and capitalism. Culture played a strong role in this battle of ideas. Beginning in 1945, the US Information Agency published a magazine in Russian– America– to provide information on the West, to show the advantage of capitalism.
On the other hand, the USSR published the magazine, Soviet Life, which displayed culture and science in the Soviet Union. In the 1950s and 1960s, famous American jazz stars– like Louis Armstrong– toured in the Eastern Bloc, to display a different image of the US. Culture represented an opportunity to build bridges among conflicting powers, like with the Organisation of the American National Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, in the heated times of the Cold War. Or with the so-called, ping-pong diplomacy that allowed to establish ties between the People’s Republic of China and the US in 1971, when they didn’t have diplomatic relations.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the US remained the only global superpower, but the end of this bipolar balance of power led to a decline of the US cultural diplomacy. Between 1993 and 2003, US spending in cultural and educational programmes abroad were cut by one third. Since then, the world has become more multi-polar. New world powers have been rising, not only in geopolitical and economic terms, but also, in terms of cultural influence. Because of their rapid economic growth, the cultural productions of the so-called BRICS, have been able to reach a wider international audience.
These countries saw the rise of dynamic cultural scenes and invested actively in building new cultural institutions. In addition, a number of small countries– like Qatar and South Korea– have proven very proactive in developing the worldwide cultural influence as they aspire to play a large role on the international stage. For example, in 2000, China, Turkey, and South Korea launched new cultural institutes to disseminate their culture around the world. Increasingly, emerging countries make use of mega events, like Olympic games or the FIFA World Cup, as instruments of national branding, as we have seen in South Korea, Brazil, South Africa, Qatar, and China.
Geopolitical shifts have led to a change of the use of culture in international relations, enhanced also, by technological revolutions that have enabled reaching out to an ever-growing audience beyond physical borders.