World Music as Cultural Diplomacy?

This article comes out of an invitation from WOMEX 2011, the World Music Expo meeting that October in Copenhagen, to address the question:

“What are the practicalities, challenges and ethics of world music as cultural diplomacy today? And is it becoming more or less relevant to the sector?”

The query emerged from a general unease in the sector with the way governments appeared to have been using culture in the previous decade as a mere instrument to support their diplomatic effort: World music as cultural diplomacy? What are we getting mixed up in? 
After 18 years working as a cultural attaché, my contribution to this session I think was to give the insider view: what is cultural diplomacy, how does a government see it, is it getting more useful and how does it work on the ground?
So, what is cultural diplomacy? 
Well first, I have to say, there was foreign policy. Diplomacy is an international system designed to regulate foreign policy and power, born many centuries ago but which took off with the rise of the city states of Europe. As our focus is the current practice of cultural diplomacy, I am afraid I do not have time to go into a proper history; but here is a good link on the subject.
Crudely, one could say that up until the nineteenth century, foreign policy was frequently imposed by what is known as hard power, often called “gunboat diplomacy”. This meant nothing less than the blatant “use of coercion, influence, authority, force or manipulation, to change the behaviour of others in a desired direction” [Cox 1981]. The power-base for this came largely from ownership of territory, the size of your population, your available military and economic assets and the level of action or pressure they let you apply.
The expensive wars of the 20th Century and the arrival of the Cold War shifted the focus more on to maintaining the balance of power, and it was here for the first time that the international fate of the cultural sector became implicated in the projection of national power and the pursuit of the national interest.
Hard power being somewhat discredited, to soften the territorial, political and economic projection of the nation’s image abroad, the concept of the cultural nation was born. The policy became assured when Governments realized that this both widened the set of identities the state could offer to the outside world, and offered a useful tool to refine the selection of countries with whom they wished to relate, and in what hierarchy. Late in the century, the concept of mutuality in cultural relations arose from these practices and gained considerable traction.
A specific thread of cultural diplomacy can therefore be traced through the century. This runs in the earlier part from cultural propaganda (the use of culture as a force to advance national ends); to the rise of fascism and the introduction of cultural diplomacy (the association of culture with current diplomatic aims); through to the ending of the Cold War and modern cultural relations (open and collaborative relationships) [Mitchell 1986].
All modern foreign policies now specifically integrate cultural policies into the diplomatic mix. Political scientists rank culture as the third or fourth ‘pillar of foreign policy’ after politics, trade and (for some) defence [Mitchell 1986]. Whether we like it or not, culture is now firmly “part of the business of projection of power and influence, of gaining friends and deterring enemies” [Fox 1999].
So how do governments see it?
Unfortunately, as the 20th century ended, the concept was overwhelmed by international events for a while, and certain Western powers developed three variants as part of their diplomatic armoury, all of which are still in use today. I must emphasize here that many small or wiser nations resisted these elaborations, but such is the political mass of the states concerned that certain practices have rubbed off on the general diplomatic community.
By the 21st century, rapid and globalised communications was making a PR headache out of too open a use hard power and propaganda, and the old diplomacy of influence became the new focus.
  1. The first variant was Public Diplomacy. This actually emerged out of cultural diplomacy as far back as the sixties, but it was not heavily supported until a run of Western PR disasters in the Middle East. The objective of this new diplomatic effort sought to exploit the feel-good mutuality of cultural relations in order to change the behaviour of foreign governments by influencing the attitudes of their citizens. This manipulation was achieved by staging a diverse array of activities that communicated directly with the people of other countries, in order to affect their thinking in ways beneficial to the national interest of the originating State. [Malone 1988]
  2. Soft Power, coined in 1990, introduced the use of power as indirect influence, and was defined as an ability “to entice and attract; co-opting rather than coercing people” [Nye 2002]. It is “associated with intangible power resources such as an attractive culture, ideology and institutions” [Nye 2002].
  3. Smart Power developed out of this in 2004, as a sophisticated and more liberal modification of soft power, skillfully combining both hard and soft power to underpin the winning strategy. Essentially, it does this:
    • by sanctioning the engagement of both military force and the strategic use of all means: diplomacy, persuasion, capacity building, and the projection of power and influence;
    • in ways that are cost-effective;
    • and with political and social legitimacy.
The use of culture in these three versions of soft power relations is often below the radar and is of the worst instrumentalist kind, making for progressive unease among cultural workers as they seek public financing for their international activity.
There seems to be an unspoken deal that your cultural products are being financed by the state in exchange for your support for their approach, but that this is not a two-way street should you stray off-message. The fact that this is never articulated either way, leads to a vague or even disturbing sense of manipulation about which little protest is made, for when one bumps up against it, because it is soft, it does not seem to hurt. Culture has become the velvet glove.
In another significant but quiet shift for the cultural sector, these policies led to an explosion in residency programmes, for a lot of this diplomacy’s activity is based on exchange not export as an ideally smart means of impressing the state’s legitimacy upon other nations.
Is cultural diplomacy getting more useful?
Useful is a funny word to use in this context. We are certainly witnessing the dignified reinstatement of the old term, which you will find being used to signal a return to a hopefully more stable diplomatic environment; but an issue of control lies at its heart and there is maybe another term you should prefer.
Cultural diplomacy renewed seeks to converge with the domestic and international objectives of state sovereignty; but the activities of the cultural sector have the opposite tendency, diverging towards an endless dispersion of work, and the development of multitudes of concepts, at home and abroad. This has meant that states are seeing their efforts increasingly developed by other actors, who are also moving away from the concerns of a strictly national base.
Worse, these actors, i.e. you, are strongly influenced by their own collegiate and collaborative creation processes, which occur regardless of frontier. The increasing connectedness of world populations is developing a practice of international and cultural relations that by-passes state agencies, with creators and consumers moving freely and directly, in full control of expression, production and distribution.
Cultural relations would be my preferred term to describe this activity. Being generally neutral, it just describes human relations between collective identities in the international cultural arena. These are occurring regardless of types of agent, means or objective – unlike government – and are being conducted for mutual or unilateral benefits, on a simple case by case basis.
Modern cultural diplomacy therefore is no more than a restricted form of cultural relation, one that can only occur under license from governments and their agents, for these remain focussed in the exchange of cultural ideas, goods or services on ‘mutual understanding’, which has as its direct or indirect objective the continuing pursuit of soft power. Cultural diplomacy therefore is your state’s way to control the instinctive and much more organic practice of your very own cultural relations.
How does cultural diplomacy work? 
Cultural diplomacy is where the state’s money is, which comes after all from you and your parents’ tax payments, and you would be foolish not to cooperate. To do this with honour, take some time to understand the realities of the three partners in the mix: your trade ministry, your foreign ministry, and your cultural department, assisted by their (many) agencies.
1. Trade and Investment: A business and economics ministry often views itself as the superior of the three, being the only one with direct economic impact and sufficient social scale, and dealing as it does in real wealth creation and “proper money”. This has been emphasized by the drift of their colleagues in the foreign ministry away from trade to residency to which I referred earlier. It is without doubt a senior ministry, such bodies being in the front line of protecting the nation’s economic interests on the international stage. Many of its staff feel keenly that their role is the protection of jobs and opportunities for their working population – an essential contribution in anyone’s eyes, I would have thought.


Attached trade and investment agencies however have a brief to cream off the money-making parts of the creative economy from the cultural agencies, which seriously weakens the international capacity of these last.


2. Foreign Affairs is also a senior ministry, proud of its heritage of dealing in influence, a more subtle activity to its mind than the rather baser equations of trade and investment of their colleagues over the road.


It is worth remembering here that most national cultural institutes are funded by the foreign affairs department, not the cultural ministry, and this is why you will live a kind of skewing of your own objectives if it is they who are funding your international activities. This ministry also runs the Embassies, but its increasing centralisation of policy, ably assisted by the speed of modern communications, give the embassies little independence of action these days, where dwindling resources now mainly fund predetermined public diplomacy objectives. We should mourn the passing of those brilliant independent ambassadors.


2. The Cultural Department: Many independent cultural ministries are small or recent inventions, emerging from education or religious affairs ministries. As such they are not very robust – with a passionate and dedicated staff it is true, but who lack the level of influence inside government of either their foreign office or trade colleagues. But their weakness is not just due to their youth. I have already mentioned above one perverse effect of their partnership with more powerful ministries, and their very weakness can also be traced back to that, and to their being actively prevented by rival ministries from developing an international policy of their own.
Making it work for you 
I hope this brief overview has given you some insights for dealing with any anxieties. None of this is a conspiracy but you should know where it all comes from.
In my experience the following actions hold true:

  • Bear in mind that your international activities are part of your Government’s cultural diplomacy effort. So, partner with your government wherever possible, not only because they manage the available cash (treat it as a refund), but because you can make a real contribution to the national cultural diplomacy effort through your own professional practice of international cultural relations.
  • To avoid the worst excesses of diplomacy, in my view you are better off partneringwith your export body. Many of their staff are exemplary and often hale from the industry. They also support export rather than exchange which last, as I indicated earlier, is a tool in the influence model that displays little capacity for wealth creation.
  • Play to your strengths. You are part of the creative industries, currently a target for so many countries anxious to save their national economies from ruin.
  • Offer all the advantages you bring. It is a cliché I know, but along with dance yet with masses more earning potential than that sector, music is the international language of all nations.
  • If your country has ratified the UNESCO 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, do offer to help your nation’s efforts. Musicians inhabit a rich market niche, which can deliver a really essential and true reflection of planetary diversity. Make sure your government supports you to provide it with a valuable and neat policy shortcut to the world stage.
  • Hold out however for the cultural objective. Offer collaboration between nations, between continents, between art-forms, between sectors. Don’t let market forces necessarily deflect you: remain true to your art and to the aspirations of your nation’s “imagine nation”.
Works quoted:
I am grateful to Carla Figueira of Goldsmiths College London for much of the core research behind this presentation. See: Figueira, Carla (2010) Languages at War in Lusophone Africa. London: City University. Doctoral thesis available through the British Library EThOS.
Cox 1981: Cox, Robert W. (1981) Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Politics Theory. In John A. VASQUEZ, ed. (1996) Classics of International Relations. 3rd ed. London: Prentice Hall, pp.126-134.
Mitchell 1986: Mitchell, John M. (1986) International Cultural Relations. London: Allen & Unwin Ltd.
Fox 1999: Fox, Robert (1999) Cultural Diplomacy at the Crossroads: Cultural Relations in Europe and the Wider World, a Report on a Conference Organised Jointly by the British Council and Wilton Park. London: Networking Europe.
Malone 1988: Malone, Gifford D. (1988) Political Advocacy and Cultural Communication: Organizing the Nation’s Public Diplomacy. University Press of America
Nye 2002: Nye, Joseph S. (2002) The Paradox of American Power: Why the World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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