Archive for the ‘Cultural Relations’ Category


The Centrality of the National

March 26, 2019

I think that biggest error in contemporary Anglosphere understandings of world politics is our inability to recognize the implications of the principle of nationality.  I’d emphasize that I’m not talking about nationalism but about the importance of the idea that practically everything on the planet can be assigned a nationality and that the “nation-state” (or more accurately “nationalized state society complex) is the fundamental unit of government.  You may be an internationalist but you still carry a passport and are almost certainly marked by what Gieselinde Kuiper would call, following Norbert Elias, “national habitus”.

The typical Western liberal perspective falls into an opposition between two clusters of ideas

state/ politics / official / government


society / private / unofficial /people / non-governmental.  Specific social sectors: culture, education, science, sport can also be found here.

What’s missing is that all of the second cluster can also be understood in national terms.  The national provides a set of associations that can bridge the implied gap between the two clusters. It’s a national government and a national sports team. It’s much easier to make sense of discussions about influence, public diplomacy, diasporas, cultural relations, soft power if we recognize the importance of activating or minimizing the national association.

Here’s a couple of nice examples.  The Australian government has a new scheme to make ‘foreign influence’ more transparent and universities who host Confucius Institutes are reluctant to register.  “If Confucius Institutes have not been registered, despite being substantially funded from Beijing, it may be because they are thought to confine their activities to “culture and language”. No politics.” The writer of the article makes the point that Communist China sees culture as political.  This is true but the more fundamental point is that in China (or in any other country with cultural relations programmes) “cultural and language” is certainly part of the national.

There’s also an interesting piece on the Turkish diaspora in the Balkans that has some wonderful quotes.  A lot of it is about the popularity or lack of it Erdogan among the diaspora but I was struck by:

“Take the citizenships of the countries you are living in,” Erdogan said. “Don’t say no. Take it. If they give it, take it.”

He explained: “You are representatives in your countries. You should learn your countries’ language, integrate with your country, enter politics and improve our relations. But never forget Turkish language, culture and your Turkey.”

A the end of the 19th century this was the kind of idea that you found in Italy or Germany or China, each had diasporas that were coming to be seen as part of national influence and an economic resource, even if people had to give up their citizenship if they maintained their culture they were still part of the nation.  This is the reason why all three adopted citizenship laws based on biological descent so that people had the option of returning to the homeland.

The strength of national associations can be rhetorically emphasized or minimized, later in the piece we get this

“Turkish identity is not a national identity,” he said. “It spreads across nations. It weaves itself into other identities. It’s not tied to Turkey. It’s much older, and much vaster.”

Somewhat ironically the speaker has been reported thus

“Ibrahim from the alliance of NGOs that champions the interests of ethnic Turks in North Macedonia credited Erdogan for pioneering an expansive new vision of what it means to be Turkish in the region — underwritten by increased funding in hospitals, schools, agriculture, mosques and banks.”

The core point is that opposition between politics and culture misses the importance of the national as a set of associations.  The national is not necessarily political but it is vector through which the political can travel.  Cultural relations strategies have always turned on this gap between the national as cultural and the national as political.


Three Modes of Foreign Public Engagement:Westphalian, Imperial, Ideological

March 11, 2019

On twitter (@rcmb)  I often share links about public diplomacy or cultural relations activities between pairs of countries that don’t get much attention in the Anglosphere (or the Eurosphäre to coin a term).  But what you get in reading about  relations between Indonesia and Cambodia, Belarus and Korea or Iran and Hungary is a sense of very conscious performance of sovereign equality.  Countries want to build better relations to boost trade, tourism and show off their cultures.

What’s the big deal?  Isn’t everybody about dialogue these days?  But from looking at the countries that have been big practitioners of public diplomacies over extended periods this is quite unusual relations imply something much more hierarchical.  Although from a diplomatic point of view the language of equality and mutuality is important from an analytical point of view it is only part of the social relations at work. Public diplomacies have been heavily involved in projects of empire building and of ideological export.  If PDs were only about the ‘relations between our two countries’ the whole history wouldn’t make a lot of sense.

In thinking about the history of public diplomacies I tend to take the foundation of the Alliance Française in 1883 as reference point.  The Alliance was intended to allow the consolidation of French rule in Tunisia.  It was modelled on missionary organizations that were already being instrumentalized by the French state as a mode of ‘peaceful penetration’ within the Ottoman Empire.  But because the French public preferred to support the export of Catholicism to the French language the Alliance developed along different lines and became more an accoutrement of the Francophile bourgeoisie in other parts of the world.  Nevertheless the history of public diplomacies is closely tied to imperial projects, projects that are based on an assumption of hierarchy that one side of a relationship is not just different from the other but better in the sense of more worthy, more advanced, stronger.   It’s also worth noting that some of core ideas of egalitarian cultural diplomacy have been traced back to German activities during the First World War.  For instance where it was thought that, for instance the Dutch would be more accepting of German arguments if the Germans showed that they were interested in Dutch culture (eg Van Den Berg 2007; Trommler 2014).  It was actually the retreat of formal empire that made public diplomacies more important.   The public diplomacies of the Cold War and the Post Cold War have had a very large component of ‘exporting our system’.  Indeed this imperial/hierarchical paradigm is probably the default position for most of the public diplomacies across the past 150 years.

However, I think that there is a third dimension: it’s about public diplomacies as the export of ideology.  It is the ideology that usually justifies imperial behaviour – it is our possession of the truth that places us in a superior position.  And it is our possession of a universal truth that justifies our lack of respect for your national sovereignty.

This gives the possibility of arranging cases in a triangular space defined by three axes between hierarchy and equality, Westphalian stateness and universal ideology and between empire and ideology.

The cases that I referred to at the beginning of the post would be near the top of the triangle.  Germany before 1914 (imperial and national) would be near the bottom left corner but this really isn’t a very good position for dealing with other people.   France has probably been pretty much in the middle of the triangle. Post 1989 the UK has probably moved towards the ideological pole.  Since the end of the Cultural Revolution China has moved from the bottom right up and towards the left boundary and while talking Westphalia is probably nearer the bottom.

Thinking in these terms allows us to position public diplomacies in relation to two ideas that have attracted growing interest in academic International Relations in recent years, status and empire.


Imperial Westphalia Triangle Diagram



Trommler, Frank (2014). Kulturmacht ohne Kompass: Deutsche auswärtige Kulturbeziehungen im 20. Jahrhundert. Köln: Böhlau-Verlag Gmbh.

Van den Berg, Hubert (2007). “‘The Autonomous Arts as Black Propaganda. On a Secretive Chapter in German “Foreign Cultural Politics” in The Netherlands and Other Neighbouring Countries during the First World War.’” In The Autonomy of Literature at the Fins de Siècles (1900 and 2000): A Critical Assessment, edited by G.J. Dorleijn and R. Grüttemeier, 71–119. Leuven: Peeters, 2007.




A Short History of ‘Cultural Relations’ Organizations

March 1, 2019

When I started researching the history of public diplomacies I assumed that the idea of cultural relations came from the French, after all they invented much of the practice but the term doesn’t appear in their organizations until 1944  with the Service des Relations Culturelles, which the following year was elevated to Direction-Génèrale des Relations Culturelles.

American readers will point out that the State Department’s Division of Cultural Relations was created in 1938. Some of the French officials involved in the DGRC were in the US during the war and probably the more immediate source for the French was the rather broader ‘democratic’ version of cultural relations advocated by Nelson Rockefeller and Archibald McLeish.  This American connection also accounts for the spread of the term into British usage in the same era.   It probably also accounts for the Norwegian Kontoret for kulturelt samkvem med utlandet, established in 1950.  This is  translated into English as the Office for Cultural Relations although samkvem on its own wouldn’t be translated as ‘relation’.

However I suspect that it was probably the French example that inspired in 1945 the Spanish foreign ministry to create the Dirreción General de Relaciones Culturales y Cientificas and in the following year the Italian Direzione generale delle Relazioni culturali con l’estero.

Can we work backwards from 1938?  In the same year we Italy creates the Istituto per relazioni cultura all’estero. Before this the best known interwar organizations was  the Soviet VOKS Vsesoyuznoye obschestvo kul’turnykh svyazey s zagranitsey which is usually translated as All-Union Society of Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries which dates to 1925.  I guess this is the source for the 1954 Chinese People’s Association for Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries,  Zhongguo renmin duiwai wenhua xiehui (CPACRFC).

But the earliest use of the term in the name of an official organization is in the 1921 Oficina de Relaciones Culturales Éspañolas created in the Spanish foreign ministry 1921.  The idea was to carry out the kind of activities that the French were doing via their institutes, the Alliance Française and higher education exchanges.

‘Cultural relations’ is best read as a name applied to an institutionalized official or semi-official body rather than a very specific description of what they do.  One of the more interesting features of exploring this area is how the scope of ‘culture’ changes across time and across countries.  Also what ‘culture’ means is also a function of how the organization that owns the name fits into a broader organizational environment.

UPDATE: I forgot Japan’s  Kokusai bunka shinkôkai,  the Society for International Cultural Relations created in April 1934.


Why It’s Worth Reading the Austrian International Cultural Policy Concept

May 27, 2015

Austria has recently issued a new version of its Auslandskulturkonzept.   I haven’t worked through previous versions of this document and from a quick look at the 2011 version I can’t see that much change (previous versions are here) but I thought I’d flag it for two reasons, firstly, it strikes me as a succinct and typical representation of how a small-medium continental European country approaches the outreach to foreign publics in a cultural mode, secondly, there’s an English version and it struck me that it would be a useful example for teaching.

European cultural relations concepts take for granted nations as cultures as a result the concept of culture is pretty fluid – it includes the arts, sciences, religion and view of the world. Implicitly cultural representation is also national representation. There’s an emphasis on dialogue but at the same time a concern to project the image of Austria. Politics creeps in via a commitment to ‘building trust and securing peace’ through intercultural and interreligious dialogue.

The concept with the minister’s foreword totals five pages but the annexes are useful in that they lay out the different elements of the Austrian cultural network; 80 embassies, 29 Cultural Fora, 64 Austria Libraries (collections of resources in foreign universities) and eight Austrian Institutes (which provide language teaching). Much of this representation, as is typical of European states, is in the neighbouring countries plus major capitals. The concept also draws attention to the possibilities of cooperation with Austrian Trade Centres, the Tourist Office, Austrian Centres in foreign universities, foreign representation of the federal provinces, the development organization and foreign Austrian associations – there’s a lot more to the foreign representation of modern states than embassies.   There’s also a list of methods that can be employed by the different types of representation.


The FCO Review of the British Council

September 22, 2014

UK government departments are now required to conduct triennial reviews of ‘non-departmental public bodies’ and in July the FCO published its review of the British Council. In general terms it concludes that the BC is doing a good job but that consideration should be given to spinning off some of its income generating activities into a commercial entity.

What is interesting though is the what the report tells us about the FCO concept of Britain’s influence in the world or more accurately the lack of one.

If you are going to review something you need some criteria to evaluate against. The report draws on three substantive sets of criteria. Firstly, the contribution to British cultural diplomacy and UK influence, secondly, the purposes of the BC and thirdly the views of stakeholders. If you’ve got three different sets of criteria you need to be clear about how they relate to each other.

The report immediately raises red flags by describing the BC as ‘the main official body for cultural diplomacy’.  At the BC being described a ‘cultural diplomacy’ would set nerves jangling  but this isn’t the real problem.  As I’ve noted before there is no tradition of official thinking about ‘cultural diplomacy’ in the UK. The BC has tended to talk about cultural relations and even in the past the Foreign Office had a Cultural Relations Department. As readers of this blog will know over the past 10 years government discussion has drawn on concepts of public diplomacy and soft power. The report pulls ‘cultural diplomacy’ out of the air and doesn’t provide any supporting intellectual framework.

The second set of criteria are the purposes of the BC set out in its Royal Charter:

  • Promote cultural relationships and the understanding of different cultures between people and peoples of the United Kingdom and other countries;
  • Promote a wider knowledge of the United Kingdom;
  • Develop a wider knowledge of the English language;
  • Encourage cultural, scientific, technological and other educational cooperation between the United Kingdom and other countries;
  • Otherwise promote the advancement of education.

Hmm, nothing about British influence here.

Thirdly, the review draws on the views of ‘stakeholders’, which variously include government departments, cultural institutions, UK ambassadors and some of the BC’s competitors – especially commercial providers of education services and English language teaching.

The result is that report tends to shift between three stances. Firstly, is the BC doing a good job for British influence, secondly, is it working in accordance with its purposes and thirdly, are the stakeholders happy?

Evaluating an organization against its purposes is relatively straightforward. The report points out that the BC’s ‘society’ strand of work doesn’t fit with its purposes. The irony is that over the last 10 years ‘society’ has been where you find the more kind of projects that the FCO was keen on. It’s when you turn to ‘influence’ that things get difficult. I’m really not sure how you can evaluate an organization against a criterion like ‘influence’ that it doesn’t have a plan for and where the evaluators don’t know what it is and what it looks like. This also feeds into the question of ‘stakeholder’ opinion. Any organization needs to understand what stakeholders think but to make use of such data you need to recognize a few things. Every stakeholder has a perspective (where you stand depends on where you sit), some of these perspectives are inconsistent – particularly for an organization like the British Council – and this may mean you have to trade off some stakeholder views against each other. If you don’t have a clear idea of what the organization is doing it’s difficult to make these trade-offs. This leads to a rather random reporting of ‘stakeholder’ views. For instance there seems to support for the BC doing more arts work but because there’s no in depth analysis of stakeholder views and no theory of influence there’s no intellectual underpinning for this view.

In the appendix of the document that discusses language teaching there’s an example of precisely this kind of trade off. A foreign government is offering a contract for teaching its personnel English, in such a situation it might be OK for the BC to use its status as a government agency to win the business even though this disadvantages commercial operators because of the benefits to the UK. This is one of the few places in the document that tries to balance different perspectives instead of switching between them. The result is a sense that the FCO wants more control over the BC but it’s not sure why other than to ensure that it fills out its financial paperwork properly.

A few years ago I heard representatives of the FCO and the Quai d’Orsay talk about public diplomacy. The Brit talked about budgets, targets and key performance indicators, the French rep talked about the mission of France in the world. France has eventually realized that it may have the overarching concepts but it needs to manage its foreign outreach better, Whitehall needs to realize that managerialism isn’t enough: we need an overarching and enduring theory of British influence.


“Multiple Benefits for All”: The EU Does Cultural Relations

June 16, 2014

Last week a group of European ‘cultural operators’ put out, on behalf of the EU a report entitled Culture in EU External Relations: Engaging the World – Towards Global Cultural Citizenship, this is intended as a step towards the developing a role for culture in the EU’s external relations.   Not surprisingly these organizations, (which can expect to benefit from more funding for culture) are thoroughly in favour:

Multiple benefits for all will be the principal outcomes of such a new strategy.

These outcomes will include stronger links of mutual empowerment and trust between Europeans and their interlocutors in third countries. They will open up significantly greater markets for Europe’s creative economy or enhance and improve political relations with other regions. They will contribute to the nurturing of artistic excellence everywhere. They will therefore offer ‘win win’ benefits across the board.


Aren’t there any downsides? Given that there’s no attempt to map out the necessary scope of such a strategy beyond mentioning some possible pilot projects there are no costs so it’s all win win.

There are some very interesting parts of this document not least the summaries of the research that was done on the 18 countries that are part of the European Neighbourhood and the 10 that have Strategic Partnerships with the EU.  Particularly in Asia some of the Partners really don’t seem that interested in Europe at all.  Closer to home some the reactions seem to be ‘if you put up the money of course we’ll collaborate with you’

I’ve blogged before about the rise of cultural policy and the way that this has affected the discussion of culture in external relations. The classical view of the relationship is expressed in this tweet from the French Foreign Ministry:



We do cultural things and it makes our country look good and spreads our influence around.   Yet there’s a second way of thinking about culture which has been important in Europe which is ‘cultural cooperation’ there’s a genealogy here that leads from early 20th century advocates of European federation, through the International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation of the League of Nations and the Western European Union and the Council of Europe. Here cultural cooperation an objective in its own right, in part at least, because it was seen as way towards a common European identity. The Council of Europe was one of the vectors for spreading the idea of cultural policy via the mechanisms of cultural cooperation (Parry 2000).   Thus the report here veers between an instrumental language and one that simply takes it for granted that culture is its own justification. Indeed at points I get the impression that there’s an instrumentalization of the instrumental language – that is they talk about political or economic effects because they think it will make the report more persuasive.

There’s some appreciation of the difficulties that the EU will have in running a cultural policy as part of its external action but given the difficulties that the organization is already having funding and coordinating public diplomacy and getting buy in from different Directorates General (see Duke 2013) it’s really difficult to see coordination happening.

It’s also noticeable that compared to a British Council concept of cultural relations or German Auswärtige Kulturpolitik culture in the report is understood quite narrowly education, science, development are mostly excluded and the focus is on arts and arts management with some reference to cultural and creative industries but the EU definition includes advertising which seems quite far from the core concerns of this document.

Duke S (2013) The European External Action Service and Public Diplomacy, in Davis Cross MK and Melissen J (eds) European Public Diplomacy: Soft Power at Work, New York: Palgrave, pp. 113–136.

Parry J (2000) Companies of Clouds: The Development of Multilateral Cultural Cooperation in Western European International Organizations, PhD, University of Warwick.


Recent Report on the French Cultural Network

May 21, 2014

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.