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Cultural Diplomacy

Cultural_diplomacyInternational relations has often been characterised by conflict and hard-nosed diplomacy. But in an increasingly globalised world, ‘soft power’ is becoming an important concept that can extend beyond politics into culture, as Jonathan Fryer reports.


Diplomacy has undergone radical changes in recent times and not just because of the ease of electronic communication. The posturing of well-armed nations staring at each other across ideological divides has largely given way to a more complex, nuanced way of doing business. ‘Hard’ power – whether symbolised by gunboats or nuclear weapons – has been giving way to so-called ‘soft power’, of which Europe, in particular, claims to be a trend-setter.

Within the reshaping of public diplomacy, the role of cultural diplomacy has taken on a new dimension. Organisations such as the British Council, the Goethe Institute and the Alliance Francaise are no longer seen merely as show-cases for the best of their home countries’ artistic, musical or literary talent. They have an important added value in helping build knowledge and understanding between people, to mutual benefit.

This valuable function of cultural diplomacy was recognised five years ago with the founding of EUNIC, a network of European national cultural institutes, which has a particularly active chapter in London. This summer saw the handover of the six-month presidency of the European Union from Hungary to Poland, and symbolically that ‘bridge’ was marked by a two-day seminar (organised by EUNIC London and the EU Commission office) at Europe House in Smith Square, which houses the London offices of both the European Commission and the European Parliament.

The Hungarian Cultural Institute coordinated the event, with the Polish Cultural Institute and Lithuanian Embassy curating a discussion on the European Eastern Partnership. The Romanian Cultural Institute, the Embassy of the Netherlands and the British Council were also actively involved.

It is clear from both the seminar proceedings and the ongoing work of various national cultural institutes that there are serious challenges facing the Arts in the current climate, but those challenges can be turned into opportunities, with implications for the future evolution of cultural diplomacy.

Arts funding is precarious at a time of economic austerity, but this means that the relationship between culture and commerce needs to be reconsidered, according to practitioners such as Haidee Bell, Programme Manager for the Creative Economy at NESTA, and Jane Marriott, Director of Development at Britain’s Royal Academy of Arts. Arts professionals need to adopt innovative strategies while managing the right balance between public and private finance. One charming example of a successful commercial model is the Natural History Museum in London putting on profitable ‘sleepovers’ for children in the dinosaur hall, which has proved a great draw.

Artistic innovation may often involve taking risks, which can sometimes involve trans-national cooperation. Alistair Spalding, CEO of Sadler’s Wells theatre in London, spoke at the seminar of a recent production which involved naked French men in blond wigs leaping around the auditorium and engaging with the audience. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it certainly achieved huge media coverage and buoyant ticket sales.

Taking such risks requires strong cultural leadership, according to Pal Hatos of the Balassi Institute in Hungary and Graham Sheffield, Director of Arts at the British Council. Ultimately, it is the dancers, singers or artists who capture the audience’s imagination, but the need for sound and creative management is paramount. Dedicated training programmes can strengthen the development of cultural excellence, Sue Hoyle of the Clore Leadership Programme, argued.

But, as indicated earlier, sharing cultural experiences across European boundaries is more than mere artistic exchange. Cultural diplomacy can be a tool for challenging static realities and encouraging change. That is particularly evident in activities associated with the Eastern Partnership, which were promoted initially by Poland and Sweden to reach out culturally to the EU’s eastern neighbours: Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan, (with particular emphasis on the first three).

Vitalie Ciobanu, President of Moldova’s PEN (Writers’) Centre spoke movingly at the EUNIC seminar of the crisis of national identity in his home country, between those who are nostalgic for the Soviet past and lean towards Russia, and those who are essentially pro-Romanian. The Moldovan language is essentially Romanian, but the Latin alphabet was replaced by the Cyrillic one during the Soviet era, which had a disconcerting effect on the language itself. Mr Ciobanu is in no doubt about the importance of culture in the future of the European continent, declaring, ‘European integration is an essentially cultural activity requiring a change of mentality!’

The Polish presidency of the EU is putting great emphasis on the Eastern Partnership and accepts that culture is a driving force of contact between people and therefore a way of reducing tensions and misunderstanding. The Polish Institute in London has thrown itself whole-heartedly into the project by launching a six-month cultural programme running until the end of the year, under the title I, CULTURE. A celebration of the work of the Nobel prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz (the centenary of whose birth coincidentally falls this year) is a central element, but so too are concerts featuring compositions by Karol Szymanowski, and the first major exhibition of the Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal at the Whitechapel Gallery in east London. In November, Europe House will host an exhibition in collaboration with the Polish Institute of works by Slawa Harasymowicz, called ‘Dispatches’, using drawing, painting, screen-prints and photography, as well as re-photographed images, to question identity and meaning.

I, CULTURE also has its own orchestra featuring musicians from outside the Schengen (borderless) area of Europe. The orchestra has engaged the passionate support of conductors such as Sir Neville Marriner and endeavours to scale barriers between young people and audiences all over Europe and beyond.

Cultural diplomacy is thus much more than just an academic subject or something of interest to Arts professionals. A living reality which is gaining importance, it is significant that London has now, for the second time, hosted an international seminar marking that importance and charting some of the ways forward.



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