Thursday, February 22, 2024
CommentaryThe right alternative for better diplomatic relations

The right alternative for better diplomatic relations

Cultural diplomacy can explain aspects of a culture that might otherwise be difficult to grasp for foreign populations. Student exchanges provide one-on-one opportunities for transmission of this type of deeper knowledge about why a particular society favors certain practices or espouses certain beliefs, Getachew Mekonnen.

Cultural diplomacy sits on a spectrum of ideational approaches to diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy is on the soft-power side of the hard power–soft power equation, since it functions by attraction and not coercion.

 There are certain actors and activities that immediately come to mind when we think of diplomacy. The ambassador, the diplomatic mission, and the consulate are good examples. It is difficult even to imagine the conduct of diplomacy in the absence of these things. The same cannot be said for cultural diplomacy. Scholars have given cultural diplomacy little sustained attention. Cultural diplomacy is not typically the first avenue that officials pursue. Yet, in this era characterized by globalization and the information society, cultural diplomacy is an important tool. Of course, to assert that cultural diplomacy can be an effective tool is somewhat abstract. In more concrete terms, what are the specific practices that comprise cultural diplomacy? Under what conditions might they be effective? Answers to these questions are more complicated because they are multiple. There is no single formula for what works. Different cultural diplomacy approaches work in different places at different times. What works with a close ally may not work where ties are more tenuous. What worked twenty years ago may not work now. Cultural diplomacy is, by its very nature, contingent and ad hoc.

Cultural diplomacy cannot change outcomes where policies are entrenched, but it can soften, clarify, and   provide expanded opportunities for connection in the hands of an adept diplomat.

Cultural diplomacy springs from two premises. First, good   relations can take root in the fertile ground of understanding and respect. Second, cultural diplomacy rests on the assumption that art, language, and education are among the most significant entry points into a culture.

- Advertisement -

There is a cultural component to many policies that governments undertake, but not all policies with a cultural component count as cultural diplomacy. While it is relatively easy to generate examples of cultural diplomacy, it seems much more difficult to arrive at an uncontested definition of the concept. There is no general agreement among scholars about cultural diplomacy’s relationship to the practice of diplomacy, its objectives, practitioners, activities, timeframe, or whether the practice is reciprocal or not. Some regard cultural diplomacy as a synonym for public diplomacy, others for international cultural relations, or a state’s foreign cultural mission, and others regard these as distinct practices. Cultural diplomacy sits on a spectrum of ideational approaches to diplomacy. Cultural diplomacy is on the soft power side of the hard power–soft power equation since it functions by attraction and not coercion in Joseph Nye’s famous distinction. Although cultural diplomacy predates public diplomacy, it has in some significant ways been eclipsed by it. Public diplomacy shows up as a hot button term in many government policy statements. Academics have also been drawn to public diplomacy. Yet, cultural diplomacy is distinctive.

Perhaps the most often cited definition comes from Milton Cummings, who argues that cultural diplomacy is ‘the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples to foster mutual understanding. In a similar vein, Walter Laqueur characterizes cultural diplomacy as ‘the use of creative expression and exchanges of ideas, information, and people to increase mutual understanding’. Simon Mark offers a more overtly political view: Despite the semantic confusion, it is nevertheless possible to conceive of cultural diplomacy as a diplomatic practice of governments, carried out in support of a government’s foreign policy goals or its diplomacy (or both), usually involving directly or indirectly the government’s foreign ministry, involving a wide range of manifestations of the culture of the state which the government represents, targeted at a wider population as well as elites.

Mark’s definition is emblematic of the challenges associated with gaining consensus on cultural diplomacy. This excerpt from his discussion suggests that cultural diplomacy is simultaneously ‘this and that’. The foreign ministry may be involved directly or indirectly. Efforts may be directed at elites or the general population. This resistance to easy categorization may be a strength of cultural diplomacy. To be sure, language instruction, academic exchange, and tours by artists are the hallmarks of cultural diplomacy. However, an effective cultural diplomacy need not be constrained by these traditional parameters.

Cultural diplomacy is first and foremost about bridging differences and facilitating mutual understanding. Cultural diplomacy can tell another story about a country (or province or state or regional grouping). This may be a story that differs from what official policy would imply. It may be a story that counters what opponents are recounting. In so doing, cultural diplomacy can offset negative, stereotypical, or overly simplistic impressions arising from policy choices or from hostile portrayals. It may also fill a void where no stories of any kind exist.

Cultural diplomacy can explain aspects of a culture that might otherwise be difficult to grasp for foreign populations. Student exchanges provide one-on-one opportunities for transmission of this type of deeper knowledge about why a particular society favors certain practices or espouses certain beliefs. Cultural diplomacy can also reach constituencies that might not otherwise be engaged by traditional diplomatic activity. There may be no official relations between two governments, but artists can communicate with each other and forge meaningful ties.

What is the relationship between cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy? To be sure, there are many similarities and overlaps. Each shares a fundamental ideational essence. Each targets audiences beyond official diplomatic circles. A report commissioned by the US Department of State calls cultural diplomacy ‘the linchpin of public diplomacy; for it is in cultural activities that a nation’s idea of itself is best represented’. The report goes on, ‘the values embedded in our artistic and intellectual traditions form a bulwark against the forces of darkness…Cultural diplomacy reveals the soul of a nation.’ Cultural diplomacy helps create a ‘foundation of trust’ with other peoples, which policymakers can build on to reach political, economic, and military agreements. It demonstrates our value and creates relationships with peoples, which endure beyond changes in government. It can reach influential members of foreign societies who cannot be reached through traditional embassy functions; provides a positive agenda for cooperation in spite of policy differences; creates a neutral platform for people-to-people contact; serves as a flexible, universally acceptable vehicle for rapprochement with countries where diplomatic relations have been strained or are absent; and counterbalances misunderstanding, hatred, and terrorism.

Cultural diplomacy is also distinguished by the fact that it is not unidirectional. Public diplomacy and branding tend to involve the outward projection of one’s message. As Berger puts it, the difference in approach between public and cultural diplomacy: while public diplomacy is unilateral with an emphasis on explaining one’s policies to the others, cultural diplomacy takes a bi- or multilateral approach with an emphasis on mutual recognition. Cultural diplomacy is therefore explicitly not meant to be the promotion of a national culture. Cultural diplomacy focuses on common ground, and the condition thereto is that one needs to know what makes the other tick. From this perspective, listening to others’ messages with an eye to understanding their views is integral to cultural diplomacy. ‘This cultural policy demands that one enters a relationship on the basis of equality and reciprocity. It also demands a genuine interest in the other: where does it stand, what does it think, and why does it think that way?’

The context of cultural diplomacy

It is a cliché to note that we have entered the era of the information. Global media outlets, among other components of globalization, ensure that we have more information about each other than ever before. What we think about each other and the meanings that we attach to actors, practices, etc., is a crucial determinant of support for or opposition to policies and policymakers. The Internet democratizes the sharing of information in new ways. Intellectual property occupies an important role in the economies and societies of countries at all levels of development. All of these arguably emerge from the fact that information flows so much more freely across borders.

These phenomena have an impact on the world of diplomacy. Partly this manifests itself in what is described as: ‘globalism, a prominent feature of our time, involves networks of interdependence at intercontinental distances. It implies multiple flows of products, services, or capital, and signifies the shrinkage of distance on a large scale. It also triggers the emergence of global issues and a global agenda to a degree that we had not seen before.’ It also affects the exercise of power. As Jean Tardif puts it, power, rivalries and conflicts are no longer played out within the framework of a physical territory as they were when the main concern was the control of natural resources. Power is now tied to the ability to manipulate symbols in the mediatized global space. Culture (values, symbols, world representation, language, art, etc.) and its modes of expression structure relationships between humans and societies at every level of human activity, including the global level.

Ironically, we have more information about each other, but we may not know more about each other. Traditional notions of cultural diplomacy presume an ability to project a distinct and distinctive national culture. But this is increasingly difficult to do, if indeed it ever was possible. There is no singular cultural message emanating from countries. Today, the nearly constant flow of ideas and images through media and popular culture complicates matters. These flows, which are largely outside the hands of diplomats, provide a resource and a foil that cannot be ignored. Multiple depictions—some accurate and some not, some well intentioned and some not—have an authoritative veneer. Cultural diplomacy can provide a welcome corrective, ‘sharpening the picture where you think the picture may be blurred, fuzzy, or wrong’. In this era of globalization, the cultural flashpoints of global politics have also shifted.

Today, the global landscape is characterized by rising powers like India and China, as well as perceived civilizational encounters between and across multiple Wests and the so-called Muslim world, among others. The challenges and the possibilities of cultural diplomacy in this context are great. In some ways, the advent of globalization and the redistribution of power signify great change. But there is also continuity. If September 11 is a defining referent of the current diplomatic era, the cold war provided the backdrop for the previous one. Both conflicts played—or are playing—out on military and ideational battlegrounds, making cultural diplomacy relevant to both. If winning ‘hearts and minds’ was the goal of cold war cultural diplomacy, reaching Thomas Friedman’s ‘Arab Street’ is one aspect of contemporary cultural diplomacy. As Laqueur notes, traditional diplomacy is of little use in the face of the new, post-cold war, ‘anti-Western onslaughts’ while ‘cultural diplomacy, in the widest sense, has increased importance’.

The contemporary era of globalization also gives unrivalled prominence to popular culture. Traditional cultural diplomacy rested on high culture as a foundational pillar. Thus, simultaneously exploiting the possibilities of popular culture while ensuring that one’s preferred message is heard above the din, is a new challenge for cultural diplomats. Popular culture can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can transmit an image of a place where one might otherwise not be forthcoming or where a prevailing image can be opaque or negative

The implication of recent studies is that the use of popular culture for the purposes of cultural diplomacy is nascent at best. However, it is worth pointing out that broadcasting, which might justifiably be included in the popular culture category, has been a mainstay of soft power (though perhaps not cultural diplomacy) for some time. Governments have used broadcasting to their advantage, deploying state-run entities like the VOA and BBC. More recently, the broadcasting landscape has been complicated by the appearance of powerful commercially-minded actors with global reach like CNN and Al Jazeera.

Much of this analysis implies that cultural diplomacy in an era of globalization still implicates national cultures primarily. But this is incomplete. Cultural diplomacy has since the Second World War included a multilateral dimension whereby states work through intergovernmental organizations likes UNESCO. More recently, cultural diplomacy is refracted through regional and civilizational lenses. Cultural diplomacy has been deployed with great effect as a tool to cultivate mutual understanding and a sense of belongingness, the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations seeks to facilitate dialogue across religions and cultures, all the while transcending national borders.

The role of governments in cultural diplomacy

Diplomacy has traditionally been the preserve of the state. By definition, diplomats are representatives of governments and their work is intended to advance the interests of a particular state. The debate over the role of the state and of official state representatives in diplomacy is nowhere more trenchant than in cultural diplomacy.

Some analysts are unwilling to conceive cultural diplomacy in the absence of state involvement. For example, Anthony Haigh defines cultural diplomacy as ‘the activities of governments in the sphere—traditionally left to private enterprise—of international cultural relations’. Similarly, Richard T. Arndt says that cultural diplomacy ‘can only be said to take place when formal diplomats, serving national governments, try to shape and channel this natural flow to advance national interests’. Mark seems to corroborate this view, arguing that cultural diplomacy is a diplomatic practice of governments—mostly single governments, but also groups of governments .Cultural diplomacy is carried out in support of a government’s foreign policy goals or its diplomacy, or both. Because of its connection to foreign policy or diplomacy, cultural diplomacy usually involves directly or indirectly the government’s foreign ministry, or, in the case of governments representing parts of a federation, that ministry responsible for international engagement. Naturally, cultural diplomacy’s connection to a government’s foreign policy goals, to its diplomacy, and to its foreign ministry varies between states, but the absence of any such link precludes an activity from being deemed cultural diplomacy.

If the government must play a role, then what is the nature of that role? Must a government representative carry out cultural diplomacy programs? Or is it sufficient for a government to provide funding or to serve as a catalyst that gets a particular program in motion? Examples of all levels of government involvement exist. Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and China all operate what might be considered traditional mainstays of cultural diplomacy: the British Council, the Alliance Française, the Goethe Institut, the Cervantes Institute, and the Confucius Institute, respectively. These long-standing and effective initiatives function with varying degrees of input from their governments. The British Council and Goethe are para-public entities operating at arm’s length from the governments of Britain and Germany. The Alliance Française is independent of the French government. The Confucius Institute involves relatively greater state involvement. Each of these instances of varying degrees of state involvement would qualify as cultural diplomacy. Debate ensues, however, in cases where some feel government is—or should be—absent.

 One aspect of this debate maps onto a distinction between official and unofficial activity. When academics travel abroad as part of the Fulbright Program, they are considered to be cultural diplomats. When these same academics go abroad independent of this government program, have they relinquished their potential as cultural diplomats? Is it useful to distinguish between official and unofficial cultural diplomacy or formal and informal cultural diplomacy? Berger maintains that cultural diplomacy encompasses not only those activities that governments execute or support—though it may include these—but activities that focus on understanding the other by looking at the variety of ways that the other expresses itself. Evading the trap of cultural relativism and remaining in dialogue with the other party while at the same time not abandoning one’s principles, which is why cultural diplomacy is called ‘diplomacy.’ Not because it is the work that diplomats should do, but because it is an interaction that requires diplomatic skills on a human level.

In line with the above analysis, as long as Ethiopia is concerned, the foreign policy does not explore and examine cultural diplomacy tactics and programs in its pursuit of a new and improved global image. Although Ethiopia’s impressive economic growth over the last two decades has surely increased hard power, it should indicate guidance for cultural diplomacy to support and sustain its development strategy. Furthermore, most ethno-linguistic groups in Ethiopia are found in neighboring countries. Ethiopia shares cultural and historical commonalities almost with all countries of the region including Egypt. Culturally, Ethiopia shares identical ethnic identities with Eritrea through Tigrai and Afar communities, Afar and Issa communities with Djibouti, Oromo speaking communities with Kenya, Somalia, and Nuer with Sudan. Socially, Ethiopia shares both pastoralist and agrarian peoples with all its immediate neighbors at the four corners. The foreign policy should consider this opportunity to build cultural diplomacy by promoting collective psychology and common identity.

Ed.’s Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter. The writer can be reached at [email protected].


Contributed by Getachew Mekonnen


- Advertisement -

Video from Enat Bank Youtube Channel.


- Advertisement -


More like this

Stepping up the commitment to the AU

As the two-day 37th Ordinary Session of the Assembly...

Self-taught and determined: Rophnan carves unique path with dual album release

Rophnan Nuri is among the brightest of a handful...

Another year, another summit. Can the AU live up to expectations?

It is the time of year when Addis Ababa...

Africa will face USD3.3 trillion finance deficit in next decade: AU development arm

Africa must step up its resource mobilization efforts if...