Image ©Erik Vlaeminck, 2017

A call to re-conceptualise international cultural relations

Culture … is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”.[1]
Edward Burnett Tylor (1832-1917)

Erik Vlaeminck
In his seminal definition of culture, Edward Burnett Tylor placed culture at the heart of society, and men at the heart of culture, making every citizen a representative of his or her culture. Within the practice of international relations, culture has however gradually developed into an instrument of power used merely to further political agendas. In this short essay, we ask whether alternative approaches toward the role of culture in interstate relations are possible and how they can positively affect intercultural dialogue and cooperation.

Since the 19th century, cultural strategy has played an important role in big nations’ foreign policies, and has since been developed as a favoured instrument within many countries’ so-called soft power strategies. In this context, the notion of cultural diplomacy, here understood as the deployment of a state’s culture in support of its foreign policy and economic goals or diplomacy[2] comes to mind.
The importance of culture in international relations was echoed by former German statesman Willy Brandt (1913-1992) who famously stated in 1969 that, “cultural policy is the third pillar of foreign policy”. Research has pointed to the benefits culture can offer in interstate relations: for example, it can minimise political tensions or represent the means through which intercultural communication can take place. In reality, however, culture tends to play a different role and should be understood within nations’ larger endeavours to gain support for political and economic goals by transferring one’s culture to another actor[3], in other words culture functions merely as a means to further a political and/or economic agenda.
Echoing Joseph Nye’s concept of soft power, cultural diplomacy, anno 2017, refers to the process wherein foreign publics are exposed to certain of another nation’s cultural products, ranging from art, literature, and music, to film and museum exhibitions in order to promote at first sight, the latter’s nation’s culture, but in reality to further a specific agenda. Regardless of the successes of such policies in the past, the very concept of cultural diplomacy raises multiple questions such as, how can its effectiveness be measured, and how do audiences negotiate the meaning of cultural products? Research shows that policy makers have little control over the effects of their policy and has even pinpointed the destabilising effects of cultural diplomacy in inter-state relations.[4]
In addition, where does this leave the community of cultural practitioners, when cultural diplomacy strategy only seems to aim at furthering political agendas?
This problematic, has spurred the author, in co-authorship with Stuart MacDonald, to reconsider the role of culture in international relations. Following K. Bound, et al., culture can be considered as a medium between people on a mass scale, with profound effects laterally and upwardly on interstate relations.[5] Therefore, we have opted to seek alternatives to a traditional policy of cultural diplomacy. One possibility would be to take a constructivist approach to cultural relations, which could enable the strengthening of cultural ties through an emphasis on the creation of a shared identity in the process of cultural transmission and dialogue.
In this context, we suggest a reconsideration of the concept of cultural relations, defined as, “reciprocal, non-coercive transnational interactions between two or more cultures, encompassing a range of activities that are conducted both by state and non-state actors within the space of cultural and civil society.” With equality of exchange as the starting point, the overall outcomes of cultural relations are greater connectivity, better mutual understanding, more and deeper relationships, mutually beneficial transactions, and enhanced sustainable dialogue between states, peoples, non-state actors and culture. In contrast to Nye’s rather neo-liberal view of culture as a shaper of preferences in the market place for attention, cultural relations aim not to seek to influence how your cultural offering is received.
Going beyond traditional methods of foreign cultural diplomacy, this definition of cultural relations is characterised by an increased focus on cultural communities and initiatives coming from within civic society, rather than from governmental circles. Only in close interactions between both civic societies and even individuals can genuine cultural exchange can take place, as this enables all actors to avoid the obstacles identified above, and to lay the foundation for transnational cultural cooperation characterised by mutual understanding and dialogue, rather than by one-way transfer of cultural (and political) values.
This approach does not only respond to the challenges posed and opportunities offered by the increasing importance of civic societies within and beyond the context of international relations, a process which is taking place globally, but equally to a fast transforming and digitalizing world, exemplified by the impact of two-way communications via social media on all aspects of life.
As a research-led arts charity Arts Cabinet is a prime example of how cultural relations can materialise in today’s globalised reality. Dedicated to expanding knowledge of contemporary art practices, and a champion of artistic and academic freedom in relation to states´ political agendas, its activities explore and address thematic topics that are artistically and socially relevant and provide frameworks for enquiry through artistic-research practices.

Erik Vlaeminck, May 2017
[1] E. B. Tylor, Primitive Culture (London: John Murray, 1871), first paragraph.
[2] Mark, S.L. (2010) “Rethinking Cultural Diplomacy: The Cultural Diplomacy of New Zealand, the Canadian Federation and Quebec”, in Political Science, 62 (1), p. 43.
[3] Maack, M.N. (2001) “Books and Libraries as Instruments of Cultural Diplomacy in Francophone Africa during the Cold War”, in Libraries and Culture, 36 (1), p. 59.
[4] Lebedeva M.M. (ed.) (2012) Metamorfozy mirovoy politiki. Moscow: MGIMO.
[5] Bound, K., Briggs, R., Holden, J., Jones, S. (2007) Cultural Diplomacy. London: Demos, pp. 16-17.