The increased importance of cultural diplomacy

The increased importance of cultural diplomacy

Joseph Nye coined the term “soft power” in the 1980s, explaining that whereas hard power relies on coercion, power can also be derived from attraction and persuasion. Writing in the pre-Internet era, his work has been transformed by the speed and volume of information exchange in the digital age.
Within this crowded environment, culture is an important tool in allowing states to project themselves. As a currency of soft power, culture has an important role in influencing public opinion through increasing the cultural appeal of states.
Cultural diplomacy is not a phenomenon of the digital age; it has existed for centuries. Explorers and traders have acted as cultural ambassadors, facilitating cultural exchanges in language, art, science, religion and business. Rome gave the known world a legal system, central authority and the clear parameters of the state. Britain’s mastery of the seas made the English language the lingua franca of international business.
Despite the colossal footprint of the US overseas, Britain and France continue to top soft-power rankings, in great part due to their cultural attractiveness. Investment in cultural diplomacy is central to successfully navigating the ever-changing international system.
Cultural diplomacy is broadly a force for good. The establishment of frequent exchanges of information, and a willingness to share culture, are clear examples of deliberate efforts to invest in cultural diplomacy.
Historically, the interaction of peoples, and the exchange of languages and ideas, have broadly improved relationships between people. Chinese green tea is central to Moroccan culture, and chillies from the Americas are what gave Indian food its spice. Whereas cultural diplomacy was once on the periphery of international relations, it is now a growing focus for practitioners, becoming a theory in its own right.

In an age where posts are shared within seconds across borders, it is imperative that governments that seek to have an impact invest in making their nations more attractive.

Zaid M. Belbagi


Relations between divergent groups can either be governed by hard or soft power. But the deployment of military might can have long-term consequences, and is a somewhat blunt tool to achieve influence. Cultural diplomacy can allow states to be more attractive.
Professor Simon Anholt, who conceived the term “nation branding,” argues that in the last century the international system has grown more competitive; in a world of customers and competitors, the profile of countries is of great importance.
From the standpoint of attracting trade and competing for influence, “countries with powerful and positive reputations spend less to achieve more, while those with weak or negative reputations spend more to achieve less. In short, countries with a good image trade at a premium; those without trade at a discount.”
Concerning smaller states, their size prohibits them from projecting force to a transformational degree. Lacking the strategic mass to hugely influence military matters, cultural diplomacy is of great importance.
Though military force has historically been the favored approach of governments to achieve their aims, the increased connectivity of the globalized international system favors the importance of exchange as opposed to conflict to guarantee prosperity.
Successive French governments have taken issue with the domestic policies of the Arab states. But now, under a new administration, it seems the government is only too keen to become involved in cultural pursuits across the region. The loaning of billions of dollars in art and antiquities to the Abu Dhabi Louvre, and the readiness to get involved in Al-Ula project, reflect a longer-term strategy to influence allies by projecting French culture.
The decision to involve France in Al-Ula illustrates how impressive its cultural influence is. A member of the Saudi delegation to Paris noted: “There is nobody better than the French to whom to entrust this task. We will be relying heavily on French expertise in preserving and promoting our culture.”
As he came to rule a large and disparate empire ravaged by civil war, Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus reformed coinage to display his face. That did more to unify the multilingual and multi-ethnic peoples of the empire than the endless campaigns that Rome’s legions embarked on.
Soft power relies heavily on culture. In an age where posts are shared within seconds across borders, and speeches are televised and kept as a record online, it is imperative that governments that seek to have an impact invest in making their nations more attractive. The traveling businesspeople of today are inundated with choices of where to invest. In this context, building a positive image is critical to the long-term prosperity of nations.

• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid

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