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Making Sense of Cultural Diplomacy

Mar 17, 2012


LONDON --- “Cultural diplomacy” has a nice ring to it; it brings to mind folk singing, dances around the Maypole, children’s finger-painting exhibitions, and other such feel-good exports that can make even global adversaries think kindly of each other, at least momentarily.

But cultural diplomacy can be much more than artsy fluff. It is a potent form of public diplomacy that reaches people in ways that overtly political efforts often cannot. Its exercise, however, raises questions about whether artistic integrity can be maintained while being used for the subtle furtherance of national interest.

This was a central issue at a recent conference organized by the Ditchley Foundation in its grand Oxfordshire premises. Some of Britain’s cultural leaders were in attendance, as were scholars and other arts aficionados from France, Greece, Australia, the Netherlands, Japan, Romania, the United States, and elsewhere.

For foreign policy strategists, cultural diplomacy has great value as a trust-builder, providing groundwork on which broader, non-arts initiatives can be constructed. Among the strengths of cultural diplomacy is its credibility, derived from an assumption that artists are relatively pure of heart and above political chicanery. That is debatable, at least in some instances, but governments around the world take advantage of this belief.

This presumption of political innocence is a valuable asset, and some at the Ditchley conference favored trying to preserve it by keeping culture apolitical. They stressed notions of “engagement” rather than diplomacy. The semantic distinction is significant; it means maintaining separation between culture and government, and using culture for outreach that is devoid of political/diplomatic subtext.

This might not be a bad idea in an ideal world. Reality, however, works against such niceties. Consider China, which funds more than 350 Confucius Institutes that teach Chinese language, showcase Chinese culture, and recently added Chinese traditional medicine to their repertoire at some locations. The Chinese government is spending many millions on these centers and certainly is not doing so without recognizing their value in using culture to soften China’s image as an assertive global political player. This is an integral element of China’s soft power strategy.

The Ditchley conference did not find foolproof ways to bridge the divide between cultural purity and diplomatic pragmatism, but it did underscore the value of cultural diplomacy and the need for governments to recognize that much more is involved than “feel-good” exercises. Even while it advances the national interest, culture can transcend politics, as was seen during the Cold War when American jazz musicians traveled to the Soviet Union and were received rapturously by audiences willing to briefly detach themselves from the superpowers’ hostility toward one another.

There is little doubt that such influence continues today in exchange programs and many other versions of cultural diplomacy. Still needing to be better defined, however, is the state’s role vis-à-vis the cultural community and the individual artist in the course of these diplomatic ventures. The conversations at Ditchley underscored the importance and complexity of doing this, and made it clear that leaders in both culture and diplomacy must keep talking together if this field is to move forward.


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Thank you for an interesting

Thank you for an interesting article full with real concerns to reflect upon. Another not so broadly discussed concept that is linked to "cultural diplomacy" is so called "diplomatie du peuple a peuple" in French and used by Chinese official government diplomacy books to analyse history. I have no idea if today anybody still considers this as part of diplomacy, but with the growing social media development and the whole communities as well as Arab spring experiences there are several positive advantages there. Greetings from Tunisia, Signe

Artists have always been key

Artists have always been key players in diplomacy since Peter Paul Rubens, the most famous and successful diplomat/artist of all time.Some would also argue Leonardo Da Vinci was a working diplomat for all the corrupt Popes..However, using artists to reach understandings between nations lost its way with the emergence of US as a super power in the 20 Century..Propaganda would have society mistrust artists and their creative artists emerged as the voice of opposition to much of what traditional diplomacy was doing- occupation, arms building,war and conflict..To say there is now a revival of artistic exchange and cultural diplomacy is just another gimmick to help a superpower and their allies sell a tarnished image..until artists universally are given economic recognition, cultural diplomacy is a shallow attempt at fixing a rotten diplomatic system , losing a lot of relevance with the onset of social media.

I read your article and feel

I read your article and feel happy that some of the things that I consider cultural diplomacy were addressed by you nicely. Cultural tools that go hand in hand with diplomacy like the capacity to be trust-builder, the credibility aspect, and the engagement part, get your attention. However, I keep sensing that the real important issues related to culture are hardly ever mentioned. Things like the “mechanisms for cooperation”, the ability to “to build bridges to understand others,” and not least important, the implications it has to “open up doors” for a greater dialogue with other nations. Carefully read, Joseph Nye’s soft power concept draws a lot of its strength in its “cultural capacity” to attract others to your values, ideas and lifestyles. The way I see it, this is culture all the way down.
However, I feel many times confused by the way cultural diplomacy is debated, just as a “little nice brother” of the public diplomacy arena, or as an area that has a hard time showing results for foreign policy officers. This is not the way I see countries like France, Italy, Spain, Germany Sweden or Mexico treat cultural diplomacy. This is because of course, there are different traditions of diplomacy in all nations. But I feel frustrated to see how many ask of cultural what it cannot deliver: cultural diplomacy is usually a long term investment for the foreign ministries, one cannot expect a fast rate of return; cultural diplomacy makes areas of interaction and influence easier for diplomats of other camps to operate under, and that cannot be made overnight; cultural diplomacy creates the opportunity to actually understand other points of view beyond a pure political rational calculation, and literally, “to put oneself in the shoes of others”. This is why I believe is hard to build a bridge of communication between the two, and the classical distinction between CAOs and PAOs continues to be a missed opportunity to join forces.

Very interesting comments.

Very interesting comments. We all see life through the port hole of our personal experiences. Blending or understanding a different culture takes decades not weeks or months. My 35 years in the military gave me a deep appreciation for preserving the peace rather than promoting war. With our advances in communication you can start a war with a "TWEET"...but it is almost impossible to stop a war with a "TWEET" . Peace makers listen to their opponents and searce for common interests and do not just repeat issues which do not change.


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