Britishcouncil.org – Influence and Attraction: Culture and the race for soft power in the 21st century
The need to re-examine cultural relations
The need to re-examine cultural relations. In 2007 Demos published Cultural Diplomacy, a pamphlet that examined the ways in which cultural relations were changing – spurred on by technological innovation, migration and mass tourism– and the consequences for politics.
From humankind’s earliest beginnings, groups of people, whether tribes or nations, have expressed themselves through cultural forms and have sought to show their values, skills and knowledge to others through cultural display and the exchange of gifts. In the 21st century cultural contact has undergone a step-change. Global citizens, whether they are Australian gap-year students travelling in Europe, or Afghans watching Rambo on a battery-powered TV set, encounter a greater range of cultures than ever before. This creates the conditions for different societies both to understand each other better and to misunderstand each other as well.
Cultural Diplomacy argued that mass peer-to-peer cultural contact was on the increase and that the phenomenon was adding an extra layer to cultural relations. Cultural contact had originally been elite-to-elite (through royal courts and ambassadors), then additionally elite-to-many (via broadcasting and cinema), and now was entering a phase people-to-people (through travel, migration and the internet). The pamphlet also noted that different countries approached cultural relations in different ways, and that, where governments did get involved, their role was most effective when they were hands-off, restricting themselves to facilitating the activities of independent bodies rather than attempting to impose control.
The pamphlet evidently struck a chord. The Today programme covered the story and the issue of cultural diplomacy was debated in both Houses of Parliament. The reaction can in part be explained by the particular historical moment – the pamphlet appeared at a time when the war in Iraq was exacting a horrific toll on human lives, was becoming financially unsustainable, and risked undermining long-term relationships between the UK and those countries that had not supported the war. There had to be a better way of doing things and ‘soft power’, public diplomacy and cultural relations might hold some of the answers.
Six years on, the field of cultural relations remains as full of possibilities, as enigmatic and complex as it was in 2007, but a number of things have changed. The predictions of extensive mass peer-to-peer cultural contact made in the pamphlet have been exceeded beyond anyone’s imagination. To give just one example, YouTube was launched in November 2006 – the month that work on writing the pamphlet began. Now, 72 hours of video are uploaded onto that site every minute – with only 30 per cent of traffic from the US – and there are more than one billion unique visitors every month.
In addition, over the past five years interest in cultural relations and cultural diplomacy has prompted the foundation of the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin, the development of academic courses across the world, and a steady flow of conferences and events. In the US and beyond, a whole body of work has grown around the concept of ‘soft power’, a phrase invented by Harvard Professor Joseph Nye, used both in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics, and in his more recent work, The Future of Power, to describe ‘the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce’. During 2012, both the Ditchley Foundation 6 and the Salzburg Global Seminar held gatherings to examine the subject, and the Edinburgh Festival hosted the world’s first International Summit of Culture Ministers.
The sustained and growing interest in cultural relations has prompted this new publication – an attempt to gather together some of the strands of enquiry, to examine data and research, to provide both a conceptual framework to aid discussion and to set out some of the emerging lessons for countries seeking to maximise the impact of their cultural relations.