Comment on Cultural Diplomacy

By The Hon. Rex Rexhep Meidani (ICD Advisory Board Member – Former President of Albania)


The main goal of cultural diplomacy is to enable cultural dialogue across the world; to create constructive relationships, to ameliorate communication and cooperation, to prevent misunderstanding, and to reduce socio-cultural conflicts and their consequences. Cultural diplomacy is certainly not a new concept. In fact, throughout the many centuries of human history, exploration and trade have allowed for the sharing of ideas, practices, and cultural goods, which have enabled the foundation for relationships built on mutual understanding.  Thus, over the years, an extensive, diverse group of actors effectively have served as cultural diplomats including explorers, traders, holiday travelers, missionaries of various faiths, teachers, artists, athletes, etc.  All of these have fostered mutual cooperation in the domains of arts, sports, literature, music, science, economy, politics.  These domains are themselves, cultural diplomacy vehicles through which interaction and learning can take place. This easily can be seen today when one considers the world’s  greatest actors, musicians, artists, and writers and the ways in which they function as culture ambassadors through the wide distribution of their work as well as their tours and performances.  Additionally, in academia, there is a growing variety of collaborative initiatives such as exchange programmes like the Fulbright, Humboldt, and Schuman scholarships.  In sports, games take players and fans all over the world the largest example of which must be the Olympics. The list goes on as these are only a few examples of the cross-sectoral involvement in cultural diplomacy. 

The European Union, in particular, has been highly involved in promoting cultural diplomacy.  For instance, in the education sector, the Bologna Process has enabled universities from EU member states to cooperate with those in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Mediterranean region. From this Process comes the TEMPUS Programme (2007-2013), which is an initiative for institutional cooperation where the primary aim is to involve third country decision makers more closely in various programme stages. Another EU initiative is the ERASMUS MUNDUS Programme, which promotes the transcending of cultural differences to realize the free circulation of knowledge and skills in order to develop the basis for understanding and long-term international friendships.

Thus, cultural diplomacy provides a variety of means by which the values of individual freedom and justice, diversity and tolerance, liberty and equality, and the power of free thought can be conveyed. These plot the terrain of a metaphoric “map”, by which one can find shared solutions in international relations, particularly sensitive relationships where finding common ground can be difficult. In many cases, alliances are just as likely to be forged along lines of cultural understanding as they are along economic or geographic lines.  While hard-power political and economic approaches are significant and necessary, soft-power diplomacy can balance those approaches and can, in fact, achieve more positive results for soft-power is less about enforcement and supremacy as it is about establishing relationships.

In recognition of this, the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy was established and is fast becoming an international place of contact and an analytical forum for contemporary questions and debates. Today, globalization and its seemingly infinite variables from finance, to communication, to environment, etc. are knitting regions, countries, localities, and individual citizens together through increasing interdepedence. Hence, international politics is becoming more complex and multilayered. Particularly after the Cold War, both state and non-state actors became important and traditional ideas about sovereignty began to shift.  Non-state actors became increasingly more relevant as borders became more porous. Hence, more people became involved in both formal and informal international relations through the evolution of the global market, communication and transporation technlogies, and so on.

What’s more, technology and innovation have changed the conditions for statecraft in the 21st century. Just as the internet has changed economics, politics and culture, it is has also significantly impacted the practice of foreign policy and international relations. Hence, today, there are three fundamental networks of  international relations:  trade, which, over the centuries has shifted from ships to railways to highways; communication, which has shifted from post to telegraph to telephone; and mass media, which has moved from print to radio to television. All three of these networks largely operate on the internet. It is a triple paradigm shift converging on a common digital infrastructure.

We must add, however, two other “forces” to the above: demographics with a “youth bulge” under the age of 30, women and girls becoming more active in gender equity and migration flows that alter the composition of societies, culture and economy; and pervasive connectivity where there are more than 5 billion cell phones on the planet, which has a profound influence on the make-up of economies and societies.

In responding to these shifts in international relations, the role of the cultural diplomacy is becoming more effective, helping to extend the reach of the diplomacy beyond government to government communications by reshaping and complementing foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft and therfore reformulating the smart power in global interactions.       

Rexhep Meidani- Former President of Albania (1997-2002)