J.G. Herder, Nationalism and Cultural Relations

J.G. Herder
J.G. Herder


To the extent that the German philosopher J.G Herder (1744-1803) is known in the Anglophone world he someone that crops up in books on the history of nationalism but he’s a much more important figure in Germany – the East German equivalent of the Goethe Institute was named after him. Herder is interesting because you can extract a theory of cultural relations from his thought that runs against the implicit liberal universalism underpinning much of the thought and practice of PD or cultural relations.

Herder’s argument would go something like this

Human beings are a single species but because they have developed in different environments they have developed different languages and different ways of life each of which captures different human possibilities, Herder talks about volk but he’s quite clear that these is socially constructed albeit rather deeply historically embedded. It then follows that relations between different peoples allows both an understanding of other ways of being human but also allows us to understand what is distinctive about our people. I think that what’s more interesting is Herder’s politics. He was not a big fan of 18th century absolutist monarchs like Frederick the Great, he also rejected Kant’s cosmopolitanism. Following his line of argument then the state grows out of the people and their civil society.

What are the implications??

Firstly, it gives a different take on the liberal/realist argument. A liberal universalist position would be that we all share common values but are divided by states. The Herderian position would say that this gets things the wrong way round, states are an expression of cultural differences not the producer of them.   Yet the Herderian can’t start from a realist position on the ontological priority of states.

Secondly, it implies that civil society has a nationality. This is a key insight which often goes missing in thinking about PD. [In fact the whole history of public diplomacy/cultural relations makes little sense without this identification between civil society and country even if not always explicitly conceptualized as ‘nation’] The Alliance Francaise and all those German mittlerorganizations started as groups of private citizens who wanted to do something for their country. Today there may be less willingness to be as explicit but a museum director who is looking for a bigger subsidy in the name of soft power is still making the connection between a culture and national identity.

Thirdly, it’s possible to resolve the tension between nationalism and internationalism since being an internationalist is essentially recognizing (and celebrating) that the world is full of diversity.   A cosmopolitan universalist would challenge such an argument but the Herderian response would be to claim that such cosmopolitan projects are essentially a form of imperialism.

In a nutshell a Herderian view both explains the entrenched nature of difference within the international system and provides a rationale for cultural relations. In doing this it provides a nice counter to liberal cosmopolitan views.

Man Claims Britain Can Do Strategy Shock

The May issue of International Affairs has a selection of articles on Britain’s national interest and the strategy question. Jonathan Gilmore correctly questions the continuing tendency for British political discourse to equate interests and values and Jamie Gaskarth attempts to use role theory to sort out what Britain should be doing in the world.* I was intrigued to see the article by Timothy Edmunds that argues against the position that Britain can’t do strategy (see here and here)

In fact he argues that

it is possible to see the outline of an emergent and distinctive theory of action in contemporary British strategic practice, characterised by principles of adaptivity, anticipation, self-organization and nascent cross-governmentalism.

In an environment characterised by complexity and uncertainty it becomes difficult to link ends, means and interests.

Therefore we see the emergence in the UK of a way of thinking about strategy that relies on risk assessment and horizon scanning to allow government to focus on risks and how they can be managed.  In a complex world we try and identify the risks and how they can be managed.

To be fair Edmunds discusses many of the criticisms of this approach – for instance that risk assessment is subjective, that the approach is reactive.

From my point of view processes of risk assessment and horizon scanning are inputs into strategy not an approach to strategy.   Strategy has to be selective rather than additive – having worked with risk management approaches they tend to operate a bureaucratic tools whereby everybody covers their backside.

In the end Edmunds helps to explain where this approach has come from but it just reinforces the critics’ point. It’s the failure of the politics that creates a space that the bureaucracy attempts to fill with administration and scientific looking technique.

*Role theory should be left interred in the structural-functionalist graveyard if you ask me.

When China Was Cool: Mao’s Little Red Book

The Cultural Revolution with its hordes of Red Guards waving their copies of Selected Quotations from Chairman Mao Tsetung was a disaster for China but paradoxically it represents something of a high point for China’s cultural influence in the world. There’s a fascinating new collection of essays that explores the global impact of Mao’s Little Red Book, edited by Alexander C. Cook of University of California, Berkeley it covers the origins, diffusion and global reception. Some of the chapters focus specifically on the book others look more broadly at Maoism

Cook’s collection starts off by looking at the genesis of the LRB. Ironically, party officials in Beijing initially favoured the Selected Works over the LRB but as the Cultural Revolution took off they quickly changed their line. Between 1966 and 1970 650,000 tons of paper was used to print Mao’s work which was ‘slightly more’ than all the books printed in China between 1949 and 1965. In 1966 at least 234.6m copies of the LRB were printed in China.

There’s a chapter discussing the translation and international dissemination of the LRB that includes some useful material on the role of the Foreign Languages Press as a channel for dissemination for dissemination of information about China after 1949 – interestingly enough it was originally set up as a purely commercial enterprise. The target for the book were the ‘in between countries’ with the developing world and the European allies of the superpowers as particular targets.

Most of the chapters deal with the reception and impact of the book and/or Maoism more generally. Tanzania provides a case where there were good government to government relationships, India and Peru are cases with Maoist insurgencies.   There’s discussion of the reaction in four communist countries, non-aligned Yugoslavia, pro-China Albania plus the USSR and the DDR. The former wasn’t a target of the campaign and wasn’t that interested. Although pro Chinese Enver Hoxha was suspicious of the subversive effects of the Cultural Revolution. The Soviet Union was terrified at having a billion apparently deranged Chinese just across the border and the reaction both political and satirical seems to have helped to squeeze the last drops of revolutionary enthusiasm out of the Soviet system. In East Berlin the Chinese embassy was a popular source of LRBs for visitors from the west but citizens of the DDR were banned from entering for fear of catching the Maoist bug.

I’m particularly struck by the impact of the LRB in the West and the impact on the whole trajectory of Marxism movements but on the left more generally.   in the West it became such a cult item that leftist groups in the West (including the Black Panthers in the US) were able to raise funds by reselling LRBs that they got free or cheap from Chinese sources.   In Italy and France Maoism exacerbated the generational crisis within the Communist Parties that was already emerging; many of the ‘best and the brightest’ were pulled away from the PCI and the PCF towards a variety of Maoist groups (in Italy there was even the emergence of Maoist-Fascism – I guess they wore black Mao jackets). But also there’s a broader push away from orthodox political economy and class struggle towards concerns with the Third World, race and gender.

Of course the impact of the LRB was more a matter of context than content, the ‘spiritual atomic bomb’ dropped in the context of the waves of protest that were sweeping across the world in the late ’60s – if the context is right you can just throw out the message and wait for it to take root.

Recent Report on the French Cultural Network

I’ve just come across a September 2013 report by the French Cour des Comptes* on Le réseau culturel de la France à l’étranger  (France’s Foreign Cultural Network).  I haven’t been through it at in detail yet but If you read French this looks like a really useful picture of the state of things in France.

The main recommendations of the report are

1. The network needs more professionalization.

2 . There should be an agreed strategy between the ministries involved.

3 . Evaluation of projects

4. More power to the French Institute and Campus France within their respective networks.

5. Follow up on alumni of the network

6. Better coordination between the public network (ie French Institutes and Cultural Centres) and the Alliance Française.

7. Better financial management

8. Better measures of the impact of the network.

9. Evaluation of economic impact of network.

I think that that these are the same recommendations that all reports on the network have been making since at least the Rapport Rigaud in 1979; come to think of it most of them apply to most reports on cultural relations or public diplomacy in most countries.

*Court of Auditors.  I guess that this would be equivalent to a National Audit Office report in the UK or a Government Accountability Office publication in the US.


Reading China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa

In case you missed it among the never ending flood of publications on Chinese soft power I’d just like to draw your attention to Kenneth King’s, China’s Aid and Soft Power in Africa: The Case of Education and Training which offers an interesting take on the question.

King is retired University of Edinburgh Africanist who approaches the question of Chinese soft power through the perspective of aid for ‘human capital development’ (HCD) rather than from the more common perspectives of International Relations or Communications. This is valuable in itself but King also throws in lots of (sometimes implicit) comparisons with the approaches of other countries to HCD which really help to give perspective.

King sees a great deal of continuity in the Chinese approach to Africa dating back to the 1960s, this is rooted in a paradigm of poor helping the poor or as it would be seen today South-South cooperation. One of the points here is that while a Western aid agency such as DFID will be operating in paradigm of a one way altruistic transfer the Chinese model places emphasis on mutual benefit. One of the themes in the book is the extent to which there is a convergence between the Chinese model of aid and that of the countries operating within the framework of the OECD Development Assistance Committee. While there is some convergence it remains quite limited. For instance while many countries have signed up for universal primary education as part of the Millennium Development Goals China prefers to focus educational assistance on the HE sector.

A bit chunk of the book focuses on activities conducted through the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) this dates back to the 1990s and provides the umbrella within which bilateral cooperation takes place. Much educational cooperation takes place through this framework. In African terms Confucius Institutes (which are also discussed) are a latecomer as numerous HE partnerships have already been in existence for a considerable period. FOCAC is run out of the Chinese Ministry of Commerce which also houses the main aid department.

There are some nice stories that to my mind show how influence is built over time. By providing scholarships to study in China, students are incentivised to learn Chinese. If they learn Chinese and spend time there they are in a position to develop other relations in China or work with Chinese firms. There’s the case of a student who decides to go and study in China because there are so many people who have studied in Europe or North America and by going somewhere different he will have a differential value in the market place. You see how education and training, language and commercial links work together to reinforce each other.

In reading this it occurred to me that it’s possible to see the whole Chinese approach as a very classical cultural relations paradigm – one that has probably existed in rhetoric and theory rather than practice in the West. It’s about constructing enduring relations between countries on a basis of mutual interest and equality. The connection between education and economic relations may offer the basis for longer lasting relations than the more rigorously altruistic perspective than you find at DFID.