Cultural Diplomacy: A Pillar of our International relations

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Today we live in a globalised world, where distance and space have almost disappeared and communities and regions are becoming more integrated. The globe is becoming more densely populated.  Different cultures live side by side and come into daily contact with ea

In 1945 at the creation of the United Nations there were approximately 50 states in existence. Today there are over 200. The explosion in technology and development of all fields of human knowledge, distributed instantly around the globe by the internet and other forms of telecommunication, is at breakneck speed. One of the most powerful tools in influencing the opinions of global citizens is cultural diplomacy.

Cultural relations between different peoples and nations have always existed, from the earliest of times, and cultures have always had influences on each other, sometimes by intent, and sometimes by default, from the travels of Marco Polo, the sea expeditions of the Vikings, the long journeys of peoples along the silk route and the spice route across the width of Asia into Europe and Africa, the expansionism of the ancient Egyptian, Nubian and various Asian civilisations, and the Roman Empire, the Italian Renaissance and the movement of African peoples and nations through the Continent, and beyond, not forgetting that Africa is the cradle of human-kind and people moved from here to all continents to establish new nations, carrying with them their identities and culture.

What is different today is the speed and ease of communications and travel. And the role of government, either acting alone or in close interaction with civil society, in promoting its culture beyond its borders, and in using its cultural strengths in promoting other international policy goals.

Some governments have formal cultural diplomacy policies and even cultural diplomacy institutions, while many still remain to be convinced of the benefits of such commitment of human and capital resources. Or they are burdened by other pressing priorities of state, bread and butter issues, and therefore they neglect culture as a major tool of international relations.  So while cultural relations refer to the often spontaneous flow of cultural goods and services between peoples, cultural diplomacy is the use of culture to further international policy objectives.

Cultural diplomacy is therefore a long term investment for any state. It creates a positive view and impressions of the sending state among the people of the receiving state, over time. It projects the (positive) values and interests of the sending state abroad.

But it also creates a sense of shared culture, shared art and shared heritage. For example, the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China, the barrier reef in Australia, the ancient cities of the Mayan and Inca civilisations, the manuscripts of Timbuktu and the rock temples of Lalibelo in Ethiopia are considered to be the heritage of humankind as a whole.

One can also consider favourite paintings, whether by Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Frida Kahlo, or Gerald Sekoto. One does not admire them because they belong to a particular nation. Favourite composers and artists like Miriam Makeba, Angelique Kidjo, Cesaria Evora, or more contemporary global icons and musical stars, move and inspire people. They are not firstly considered to be Spanish, or French, Nigerian or South African. They inspire because they represent the best of human genius, human creativity and human achievement.  These shared experiences and shared manifestations of culture know no political boundaries and borders. They unite rather than divide people. They give a sense of being part of one human race, of belonging, of having experiences in common with peoples of the furthest corners of the globe. They generate almost without exception positive reactions and feelings. They are devoid of political or economic pressures, military threats, man-made conflict or natural disaster. They inspire, make people think and share and feel connected to others; where-ever they may be from. They make all feel part of a greater world.

Cultural diplomacy therefore has its own objectives, which are to promote and share one country’s culture in another country, to showcase the best of visual art, performances, poetry, music, film, theatre, books, dance and craft.  To share values and beliefs, and promote ideals and aspirations. But culture and cultural awareness also creates an environment conducive to other priorities of state, whether political or economic.

And sometimes it can be the only way states can interact with one another where normal political relations or economic relations are not possible.  At the height of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union had limited and often very tense political and economic relations. Yet American jazz bands regularly toured the Soviet Union and were very popular. This was the crux of American cultural diplomacy during the Cold War. Cultural diplomacy almost replaced normal diplomatic relations and provided space and opportunity for people-to-people contact and interaction, creating a favourable impression of American culture, among Soviet citizens.

On the African continent, political leaders like Dr Kwame Nkrumah understood the power of culture and believed that (African) education and culture can make a definitive contribution to world civilisation. Leopold Senghor believed that the distinctive African approach to life manifests itself particularly through the arts. And former President Julius Nyerere’s philosophy of Ujamaa, as an African model of development, had as key characteristic that a person becomes a person through the people or community, and through the transformation of economic and cultural attitudes.

“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed”.

These are the opening words of the Charter of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

All countries and in particular developing countries should consider and pursue a more active and purposefully driven cultural diplomacy, including allocating the necessary financial and human resources to it. Cultural diplomacy is a guaranteed tool of significant influence in the international arena, it has a positive impact in terms of projecting a country abroad, and it has a significant indirect impact on other areas of foreign policy, including political and economic objectives.

Countries have actively advocated and practiced cultural diplomacy for many decades, and some for more than a century, including Britain with the British Council established in 1934, Germany with the forerunner of the Goethe Institute, the Deutshe Akademie, established in 1925, France with the Institut Français established in 1910, and the Americas with the United States Information Agency established in 1953 and reabsorbed into the Department of State in 1999.  China has over 100 Confucius Institutes and Cultural Centres world-wide promoting Chinese language and culture. More and more countries are following suit, formalising and institutionalising their international cultural relations. And while not all countries have formal cultural diplomacy policies or established institutes to deal with their foreign cultural relations, there is hardly a country in the world that does not actively practice cultural diplomacy.

Idealistically, if all countries spend just a fraction of their regular armaments and weapons budgets on cultural diplomacy, we would live in a very different world