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Distinguishing cultural diplomacy and international cultural relations

Raj Isar explains the distinction between cultural diplomacy and international cultural relations
All acts of cultural diplomacy could be considered international cultural relations, but all acts of international cultural relations couldn’t necessarily be considered as acts of cultural diplomacy. And I’ll unpack that. International cultural relations is a broad term that refers basically to disinterested exchange led principally but not exclusively by cultural actors themselves who want to have a relationship with their peers in other parts of the world. International cultural relations could be supported, endorsed, funded by a government, a government of a country like, let’s say, India that wants to send a big art collection, a museum show to France or Italy.
And the government will be doing this in the spirit of exchange, because some kind of exchange will be built into that relationship, but without any necessarily instrumental idea that they will be influencing governmental thinking in the other country, they will be influencing powerful people, opinion leaders, gatekeepers or the like. In the case of cultural diplomacy, most strict, rigorous definitions– and those are the sorts of definitions that I like to use– limit the term to what governmental agents actually do in order to influence the viewpoints and behaviours of governmental agents in other countries. So it is a term that emerged in English, at least, maybe 30, 40 years ago.
It was used much longer in French because France has a long tradition of practicing la diplomatie culturelle. But when the term emerged in English usage, it was pretty much what I just referred to. It was limited to governmental action. But gradually, what has happened over the years is that it’s become one of these attractive, fashionable terms. It’s a buzzword.
So all of us, even if we’re not governmental agents– let’s say we are a cultural NGO, we are a theatre troupe– it makes us feel good somewhere that we’re actually also doing cultural diplomacy, whereas in reality, what we’re really doing– let’s say, to pursue the image of the cultural troupe, let’s say we are a French company, let’s say Ariane Mnouchkine’s company. And we want to work with Japanese Kabuki and Noh actors. In order to inject an element of Kabuki and Noh dramatic language, positions and gestures that are staged into the presentation, let’s say, of a Moliere play or a Shakespeare play, that Ariane Mnouchkine and her company will be doing not in the name of spreading French culture abroad.
They will be doing it because they want an artistic experience. They want a collaborative experience with their peers. So what I think is a useful distinction to make is that between cultural relations that don’t necessarily pursue an instrumental goal other than a goal that is intrinsic to the art language or whatever is being exchanged, on one hand, and then cultural diplomacy, which is pretty much instrumental, on the other.

In this interview, Yudhishthir Raj Isar, from the American University of Paris, explains the distinction between cultural diplomacy and international cultural relations.

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