Strategy and International Cultural Relations

February 9, 2011

I’ve mentioned before that  part of my reading over Christmas was J.M. Mitchell’s International Cultural Relations.  Mitchell worked for the British Council from 1949-1985 rising to become Assistant Director-General so on one level this is an insider’s perspective but because Mitchell is also concerned with the cultural relations practice of France, Italy and Germany it doesn’t become too UK centric.

Given that this blog and a lot of PD discourse focuses on strategy and relations I wanted to make a few comments about the book from that perspective.

Mitchell distinguishes between ‘cultural diplomacy’ and ‘cultural relations’ .  Cultural diplomacy is understood as the use of culture as an instrument of foreign policy normally with the intention of projecting a positive image.  While cultural relations may use the instruments of cultural diplomacy (eg sending an orchestra)  the intention is to construct positive two way relationships.

Mitchell also makes the point that the interdependence of external and domestic cultural policy often undermines the attempt to construct two way relationships. Because cultural relations depends on exchange this also means providing facilities for other countries to come and visit but as Mitchell points out most countries have a split between the MFA which is responsible for external cultural policy and a ministry of culture which is responsible for the domestic scene and this tends to undermine the two way aspect of cultural relations because the two ministries have differing priorities.

In current discourse cultural relations tend to be conceptualized as distant from propaganda but historically this isn’t the case.  In the interwar period cultural relations organizations were seen as being engaged in ‘cultural propaganda’ .  For the UK one of the motivations to develop the British Council was to counter the influence of the other European powers in countries around the Mediterranean.  The British had tended to assume that cultural influence would follow politics and trade but found that countries like France could cultivate influence using the cultural tool independently.

Mitchell also covers the routine work of cultural relations and identifies the three minimum core activities that will occur in even the post with the most limited resources if it has a cultural officer as

  1. Presence ‘implies such activities as control of policy, management of programmes, public appearance, cultivating members of target groups, and advising the diplomatic mission
  2. Information – essentially supplying information about the home country
  3. Exchange of persons

The major thought that occurred to me while reading the book was that Mitchell never directly engages with the questions of strategy that  preoccupy us today.  Where should we be targeting our efforts?  Which groups should we engage? But at the same time there is a tension between relations and strategy that runs through the text.  The problem is this.  We select a target for constructing relations between our country and their country.  We are successful in doing this but what can happen is a dependency of the relationship on the support of the cultural relations organization.  As other issues or areas become more pressing any effort to shift priorities or resources faces the twin constraints of bureaucratic inertia and damage to the existing structure of relationships.  Over the past decade the British Council has been forced by the government to shift resources from Europe to the Middle East this has led to protests from the people who feel that they are losing a resource. This is a problem that operates on the smallest of scales as well as the macro level.  Mitchell has a nice example of how during the 1960s the British Council in India attempted to give a greater priority to development issues in its libraries but limited space and resources translated this into a reduction of British literature in the libraries to  the disquiet of the existing elite  borrowers.

What this suggests to me is the important of thinking through how to balance the relational and the strategic.  In building up relationships it may be important to think about the exit strategy, to realize that projects have an end date and how the aftermath can be managed, is it possible to use government or quasigovernment relations resources to catalyze self sustaining relationships?

A 25 year old text on cultural relations may not be the top of your reading list but for those of us who’ve come at  Public Diplomacy from  more ‘political’ angle International Cultural Relations is well worth the investment of time.

Mitchell, J. (1986) International Cultural Relations. London: Allen and Unwin.



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