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Did Globalization Kill Cultural Diplomacy?

February 25, 2013

I’m working my way through some of the French literature on public diplomacy/cultural relations and I recently came across this rather striking statement by Dominique Trimbur:

Le movement present de mondialisation signe sans doute la fin d’un âge de le diplomatie culturelle. Les relations culturelles sont désormais plus médiatisées par la marché que par les États (Trimbur 2002: 17)

Or to put it another way in a globalized world national cultural projection no longer has the same role to play. If we can download every genre of global music or performance from Youtube what is the role of the state?

I think Trimbur is right to make the connection between globalization and the development of external communication programmes but I think that the relationship between market and state is more complicated.

Firstly,  the history of public diplomacy in all its varieties is intimately tied to the history of globalization. . The mid 19th communications revolution of the steamship, railway, telegraph and mass circulation newspaper made it feasible for states to engage with foreign publics. The same developments also drove a wave of popular nationalism. Thus nation-states were able to project themselves to foreign publics just as nationalism gave them something to talk about.

Secondly, much public diplomacy has been about the facilitation of globalization – particularly if we think of globalization as simply meaning increasing international connectedness. Language teaching facilitates further connection (‘if you speak French you buy French’), educational links build connections, getting your country’s books into a market helps to build interest and relations. Historically, there is evidence that for some countries at some points in time cultural relations interventions forged the connections necessary for commercial networks to take up the connections – for instance in the case of the State Department’s support for jazz and popular music (Von Eschen, 2004: 249). In his study of Norwegian cultural policy Per Mangset makes the point that for some artists participation in commercially sponsored foreign activities was preferable to operating through state sponsored networks which could undermine credibility and career (Mangset 1997). This growth of commercial networks supports Trimbur’s point.

But to make things more complicated the relationship between state and culture has evolved. I think that it is true to say that in many countries the development of an external cultural policy preceded a comprehensive domestic cultural policy; for instance the French Ministry of Culture only came into being in 1959. The growth in scope of domestically oriented cultural policy affects the way that culture fits into the international policy picture. In particular states have tended to promote cultural and creative industries and their internationalization as a good in their own right. International connections become a means of evaluating the quality of cultural activities so the connection becomes an aim in its own right. For instance in the university sector internationalization shows up in the way that league tables are compiled. International research links, students, staff become valuable in their own right.

The irony is that this creates a kind of double market failure. The international market for culture provides certain types of goods that can be commercially supported. On the other hand while international collaboration has been a part of the new comprehensive cultural policies it has been undertaken to support the development of the cultural sector rather than in the service of foreign policies. Even when Mangset undertook his study in the mid 1990s he could point to the development of three parallel sets of international networks in the cultural field; a commercial one, one run through the foreign ministry and its agencies and a third rooted in domestic policy priorities.

There are still plenty of places where markets or domestic cultural policy is not going to build connections and that remains the sphere where cultural diplomacy and its intermediate agencies retain their roles.

Von Eschen, P.M. (2006) Satchmo blows up the world jazz ambassadors play the Cold War. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Mangset, P. (1997) ‘Cultural divisions in international cultural co‐operation’, International Journal of Cultural Policy, 4: 85–106.

Trimbur, D. (2002) ‘Introduction’, pp. 15–23 in A. Dubosclard et al. (eds) Entre Rayonnement et Réciprocité: Contributions à l’Histoire de la Diplomatie Culturelle, Paris: Publications de la Sorbonne.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking entry. Best, John



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