Posts Tagged ‘Cultural Diplomacy’


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.


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.


British Council Call for Action to Support Arts in North Africa

February 22, 2013

At the end of last year the British Council has put out a paper The Voices of the People: Culture, Conflict and Change in North Africa.   It describes itself as follows

This publication presents the key insights from a detailed research project carried out for the British Council by the Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit (PRDU) at the University of York during 2011 and 2012. The research, led by Professor Sultan Barakat, comprised 112 interviews with individuals or groups of artists, cultural activists and civil society representatives in Egypt, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia, plus responses gathered in subsequent discussion groups with interested stakeholders and partners.

Our investigation in North Africa was guided by two overriding questions:

  • What social and artistic freedoms and possibilities are opening up for artists and cultural institutions in these four countries?
  • Conversely, what new possibilities of civic, social and political expression on the street and in the public sphere are they helping to create.

The document concludes

Ultra-conservatives are growing in influence and there will be both pressure and the temptation to fall back into self-censorship, but the UK arts community can help shore up fragile changes and build a sustainable cultural ecosystem.

The UK arts and cultural sector has a clear opportunity to play a supportive role. Its work can help to span the gap between the established and the emergent, the institutional and innovative, to support the negotiation of emerging ideas and to offer ongoing opportunities for people to play their full  part as active citizens.

This is a bit of an odd document.  It comes out of the Arts side of the Council rather than reflecting an overall organizational strategy.  It presents itself as a research report but there is very little evidence of the research itself in the report.  There’s no description of who has been interviewed. We don’t get a sense of who is supposed to be talking and where they fit into the broader context.  There’s no attempt to compare across countries and what is really strange: there isn’t a single quote in a report called ‘voices of the people’ .   I’m not sure that it’s very effective in presenting either the research or the call to the UK arts sector to get involved.

Stephen Stenning the regional arts director in the Middle East and North Africa provides a bit of an update here.


Erasmus Programme and the EU’s Cultural Diplomacy

September 19, 2010

A few weeks ago the President of the European Commission Barroso gave his first “State of the Union 2010” speech in which he said that “Europe must show it is more than 27 different national solutions.” This made me think about the EU’s efforts to promote European cultural integration and the importance of it in shaping citizens’ attitudes towards the EU. One of the most successful EU-wide programmes aimed at strengthening educational and cultural cooperation in Europe is the Erasmus programme. With an annual budget of 450 million EUR it makes possible for around 200.000 students a year to study and work in another European country. There are many benefits of this programme for students, staff and universities, but one I find especially interesting in the public diplomacy context is the broad cultural impact it has on participants – it helps to promote a shared idea of Europe, understanding of which becomes crucial when citizens have to vote. Among other things Erasmus is said to give “students a better sense of what it means to be a European citizen”. It is probably true that when it comes to identity most people will feel German, Italian, Spanish etc. before identifying oneself as European. Nevertheless getting to know another culture by living in that country can contribute to a better understanding of what being “united in diversity” (motto of the EU) is really all about. If EU topics are sometimes hard to communicate because of the proverbial lack of interest for them, success of such programmes gives a nice example of a good practice in making the EU closer to its citizens and promoting mutual understanding.


New French Cultural Diplomacy Initiatives

July 26, 2010

Daily Cultural Diplomacy News links to a Xinhua story on the reorganization of French cultural diplomacy.  The Quai D’Orsay website has a translation of a piece by Bernard Kouchner in Le Figaro but if you want  more detail there is a transcript of a press conference by Kouchner,  the the minister of culture, Frederic Mitterand and the head of the new agency, Xavier Darcos (in French)  here as well as speeches by Kouchner and Mitterand at a conference on cultural diplomacy entitled ‘France Listens to the World’.  I’ve run the whole lot through Google Translate here.

A flavour of Kouchner’s comments are here

A reform was necessary because, how can we not see, culture and knowledge play an ever more decisive role in the global world? Do not hide the reality: there are now a battle of “soft power”. The major Western democracies as emerging powerhouses know: if they want to count in tomorrow’s world, they must be able to project their cultural content, to influence the agenda of ideas, promote their language, to attract future leaders in their schools and universities. They know that a great nation, as Hugo said, it is not only a strong army and vast territory, but also the ability to win hearts and spirits.

There are nearly 9,000 words here with quite a lot of detail about the structure and objectives of the new organization.

UPDATE – there’s additional material on French PD here and here


Intermap on Cultural Relations vs PD

April 18, 2010

Over at Intermap Craig Hayden reports on a visit to the Confucius Institute at the University of Maryland.  His point is that the people who work there resist seeing their work as public diplomacy.  This opens up several issues that I want to pursue in coming posts.

  • How do we define public diplomacy (or from an academic point of view how much effort should we put in to defining it?).  One of the recurrent features of the area is this tension around what ‘really’ qualifies as pd. From an academic point of view there is a strong case for looking at this ethnograhically: what do the practitioners of , loosely defined, pd type activities think that they are doing?
  • Part of these definitional issues are around questions of politics and influence.  In my experience diplomats in general tend to resist seeing their work as ‘political’ not just public diplomacy practitioners or cultural diplomacy people.  As a result an awful lot of energy is expended on trying to define what these activities are not.  Being of a cynical disposition this normally translates into everything that is not what I do or argue.

Coming back to Craig’s post what I was reminded of was Arnold Wolfers’s distinction between possessive goals and milieu goals in foreign policy in Discord and Collaboration: Essays in International Politics (Baltimore, MD.: Johns Hopkins, 1962) p. 74f.  A milieu goal is where a country ‘aims at shaping conditions beyond their national boundaries’ rather than achieving a concrete policy goal.  Wolfers points to activities to promote free trade or develop international organizations as falling within this arena.  It seems to me that promoting the learning of your language would qualify as a milieu goal.  In itself it doesn’t look like politics or influence but by deciding to devote resources to it and selecting where those resources are going there is an element of strategic choice going on.  These activities will shape later choices.  If you’ve put the effort into learning a language you have options that you didn’t  have before.

Thinking about this also reminded me of Nye’s early formulation of soft power in Bound to Lead(New York: Basic, 1990),  pp. 32-33, one of the key sources of American soft power was its success in constructing an international order that reflected its priorities ie in modifying the milieu (or environment – a term that crops up a lot in late 1950s-early 1960s IR writing) that it was operating in.  I find a lot of more recent discussion of soft power tends to focus on attraction and persuasion as modes of influence and as a result misses a key part of what the original argument was.


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