Can Cultural Diplomacy Be Seen As Merely Propaganda?

The devil is very influencial because he is holding a bait which pleases the fleshly eyes. By: Kyei-Afrifa Ma Germa

Clearly, cultural diplomacy has critically been examined in different ways by both politicians and government think-tanks, trying to unravel the myths surrounding it, and why countries have adopted this phrase to foster unity amongst countries. In their findings, it was concluded that the term cultural diplomacy has been in existence since time immemorial where countries have used it to build up strong relations with other countries.

History has it that the existence of cultural diplomacy can be traced back to the colonial era, in the days of slave trade especially in Africa where countries from other nations exchange of gifts through education, trade, culture, religion and other forms of practices to facilitate cordial relations between countries. In the days of slave trade, Europeans who came to Africa for instance the British and the Portuguese were able to push their cultural and foreign policies through trade, religion and educational institutions to establish firm relations with the foreign country and used it as a conduit to promote their country’s cultural values in other to sustain long term relations among them.

This kind of diplomatic practice helped them to export their cultural values, language, linguistics and political authority to prepare the minds of the people to accept them as people who have their country’s interest at heart. In short, cultural diplomacy as introduced in the early days was simply to promote European culture in Africa and some parts of Asia to establish long term relationship and promote their country’s interest by imposing their culture and political authority on foreign countries without their will. It is therefore worth quoting Joseph Nye, cultural diplomacy as a form of ‘soft power’ where countries have adopted as a tool to pursue their cultural values and ideas without resorting to the use of force ‘hard power’ to achieve their country’s interest or foreign policy. Increasingly, it is quite interesting to understand Nye’s ‘soft power’ agenda trying to compare diplomacy with culture which is a way of life of people in a particular country who have common objectives, using cultural diplomacy as a tool to implement foreign policies in other countries.

Whilst many definitions have been used to describe culture by some scholars, some individuals have also given various descriptions to the term culture. However, Kroeber and Kluckhohn (1952) compiled a list of 164 definitions of ‘culture’ in one of their books (Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions). They observed how culture has helped some countries to promote peace and maintain a long term relations with other countries. Through the observation they came up with three descriptions of ‘culture’ that suit any country which wants to adopt culture as a ‘soft power’ to pursue its country’s interest. According to Kroeber and Kluckhohn, culture can be described in three ways, excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities also known as high culture, an integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behaviour that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and thirdly social learning and a set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices that characterises an institution, organization or a group.

Culture has shaped peoples way of lives in other countries. It has also unified people and empowers them to understand their cultural values that promote peaceful co-existence within the country as well as the international world. It is therefore worth noting to acknowledge Samuel Huntington’s ‘The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, (2002),’ where he tries to pinpoint the future of ‘culture’ in every society and how people within countries will use it to determine their future allies. Huntington points out that in the New World, culture will define a state’s place in the world of politics, its friends and enemies. Therefore, considering the concept of culture holistically and from the depth Huntington is coming from, one can argue that in the New World, culture will be seen as a pivot on which every country will revolve in order to strengthen its relations with other countries.

Cultural diplomacy has strengthened Nye’s ‘soft power’; it has helped countries to establish Mutual Corporation among other states. Cultural diplomacy highlights on areas that seem beneficial to the local people and stress the importance of using cultural diplomacy tools such as education, publication of tracts, libraries for instance British Council, showing documentary movies on a particular country’s culture and exchange programmes to strengthen foreign relations. However, in order to understand in more details how cultural diplomacy works, let me quote from one of the British political think-tanks, ‘culture exchange gives us the chance to appreciate points of commonality and, where there are differences to understand the motivations and humanity that underlie them’. This assertion replicates the importance of cultural diplomacy to the local people as a way of bringing a particular country closer to the people who were far from the international community.

In furtherance to the above, cultural diplomacy has changed the traditional functions of ambassadors who were formerly in constant talk and privately with government of the host country, they have now moved closely to the general public by way of educating them on issues concerning their country through the use of education exchange programmes, sports, cultural exhibitions, libraries (British Council), media and distribution of publication tracts to promote the interest of their country in areas of politics, trade and cultural beliefs.

As former British Ambassador to Washington once said, ‘I think it is a very elegant re-invention of the wheel’. According to him, cultural diplomacy has been in existence for quite a long time, but one thing that the ambassador wanted to draw people’s attention to is the fact that the term cultural diplomacy has been practiced over the years where in those days ambassadors were only seen in their embassies and have nothing to do with the general public and every countries foreign policies were shared secretly with the host government. What has changed recently is that, today’s ambassadors prefer to be seen on television, newspapers, public functions and radios to defend their countries policy programmes and use the medium to persuade the public to understand a country’s cultural values which was formerly not the usual practice.

This form of approach of building long term relations with the general public has termed cultural diplomacy as propaganda machinery using in almost all foreign ministries to disseminate information to the general public. Some people see cultural diplomacy as an exchange of ideas and other aspect of culture among nations and their peoples to foster mutual understanding that will enhance their long term relations, but sometimes their approach can inflame passion among the public. Similar situation occurred under Sir Henry Wotton, the then British Ambassador to Venice in the seventieth century tried to distribute publication materials to the political elites in the country to incite them against the Vatican (Pope). Arguably, what happened in Venice, in relation to cultural diplomacy will not fit in today’s real life situation in that people will continue to see it as a pure form of propaganda unless these foreign ambassadors try every possible to redeem them image. Although, traditionally it was unacceptable to see ambassadors trying to interact directly with the general public and even to the extent of sharing its country’s political, education and cultural philosophies with the local people, that was usually done in secrecy with the host country’s government, and this can be described as counter-productive as the host country may assume that the ambassador and his country is interfering in an internal affairs of the host country.

Sir Henry Wotton’s conduct has been criticised by some politicians and even ambassadors who think such approach can undermine their hard won reputations and not until foreign ambassadors do everything within their powers to win the public sympathy, cultural diplomacy will still be seen as a propaganda tool use by ambassadors to pursue their countries interest in a particular country. However, Sir Nicholas Henderson, a former British Ambassador to France once said, ‘it would be thought odd and might prove counter-productive with the French government for a foreign diplomat in Paris to appear to be advancing his country’s cause in public’. This attests to the fact that it is wrong for any ambassador to use cultural diplomacy to incite the public on its own government, rather cultural diplomacy should be used to strengthen the long term relations that exists among countries.

While we try to condemn Sir Wotton’s conduct for inciting the public through cultural diplomacy, we will also urge such critics to consider the issue in two ways, whether his action can be justified in a democratic country where the general public are so desperate looking for information to make their own informed choices so that the government of the day will not take them for granted and make policies that will be detrimental to the people of that country. Or does it mean that in those days France was not a democratic country where they thought the information given to the people by Sir Wotton was not for public consumption, but was meant to be shared with the host country’s government privately.

In a democratic dispensation, cultural diplomacy will be the actual that every foreign representative and their ambassadors will adopt to reach out to the general public. They will make good use of any available platform that will enhance their country’s aspirations. They will obviously explore all avenues through the media and public functions to interact with the people and to know at first-hand how the public think about their country and its policies and use it as an opportunity to put across any information that they think can advance their country’s interest. Quoting Lee D. Ross, ‘when you are persuaded by something, you don’t think it is propaganda’, it is based on this statement that we debunk every notion that cultural diplomacy is not a propaganda machinery as described by others but as a way of persuading the public to accept a country’s cultural values. Cultural diplomacy has now been adopted in most countries as an effective way of communicating with local people within the hosting country to achieve its goals. Cultural diplomacy is not a propaganda tool, but as a way of articulating one’s country’s policy directions on issues that bothers on foreign policy, that the country thinks can help to achieve its goals.

For instance, in well democratic countries like the United States and United Kingdom, it will not be appropriate on the part of an ambassador if he fails to share his country’s views on more sensitive issues that centred on its foreign policy. A classical example is, when Ambassador Henderson moved to Washington in 1979, that was the time the Northern Ireland and the Falklands crisis has started, and the people of America wanted to know the position of the British government. The Ambassador used the state television to articulate the British government’s position on the issue to address considerable issues very sensitive in Washington on the crisis. Ambassador Henderson was highly elated for using such medium to reach out to the general public in America, and the response received from the people of America was very impressive because it helped him to handle the issue in a very successful way.

Cultural diplomacy brings countries closer to the general public and as stated, ‘a country’s image and reputation are at stake if the public refuses to share their views because it is through the public that a country can create a successful environment for individuals to enjoy.’ Cultural diplomacy creates an enabling environment to sustain long term relationship among countries. Putting China into perspective, China is rising through the ranks to become an emerging economy in the world, however, China’s Human Rights record is nothing to write home about, this is putting much pressure on China in the international world to ensure that it redeems its image which is sinking in the mud.

China has adopted cultural diplomacy as a ‘soft power’ tool to bring the general public closer to the government and re-assuring them of China’s commitment of good governance. It was through the use of cultural diplomacy that China was able to win the bid in 2008 Olympic Games. China is building its image around cultural diplomacy and advancing its course on culture and language through education exchange programmes to convince countries around the world to continue to have confidence in them and not to see it as a threat to global security. Through the use of cultural diplomacy, China’s image has been redeemed around the world, as been manifested in the areas of cinema, education exchange programmes, traditional medicine, Chinese Cuisine, literature and martial arts, all these are helping to promote China’s culture to the rest of the world. China is relying on these to strengthen its economic, political, education and cultural ties with the international community and its entirety. Interestingly, China has gotten an English Language, Chinese Newspaper, television and journals, focusing on foreign audience to promote its policies. This is in line with the UK’s BBC radio and its British Council, as well as Americans CNN and Voice Of America (VOA) to promote both countries language and culture and at the same time use it as a platform to disseminate information to those countries on its economic, political and cultural beliefs.

Interestingly, China’s traditional cuisine can now be found in every part of the world as means of promoting its unique cultural heritage in other countries. Its Chinese Restaurants have spread across the world and this can be seen as another way of promoting the country’s cultural and strengthening its diplomatic ties with other countries. China’s Confucius Institute has become a monumental structural institution to promote Chinese language and culture in the international communities. Since its inception about two years ago,? China has established about eighty Confucius Institutions in thirty-two countries through its education exchange programmes.

Britain believes that in the days where wars were been glorified is over, ‘we now live in a world where cultural diplomacy through the use of ‘soft power’ is been seen as an effective tool to communicate with people from other countries on issues which particular countries have interest.’ Britain was able to achieve its aims by way of exporting its language and culture to especially countries it colonised and some countries to establish long term relations and to sell its culture and political ideas to them. For Britain to be successful in its agenda, it relied on its foreign ambassadors, establishment of schools and exchange programmes and more importantly the media to reach out to the people. BBC Service Radio and the use of its libraries, ‘British Council’ to disseminate information that seeks to promote its culture and political philosophies have helped Britain a lot to seek the public audience.

The British government saw that in a global world, public opinion is an essential tool especially in democratic countries where non-governmental organisations are increasingly becoming more powerful in the country. Besides, cultural diplomacy is the best form of practice for countries to promote their countries interest through sports, cultural exchange programmes, organising exhibitions, musical festivals and the use of the media to whip up the interest of the public to educate them on British cultural values, its interest on issues that has attracted international community’s attention.

Additionally, another country that has used cultural diplomacy to salvage its image is the former Soviet Union. The former Soviet Union (Russia) understood its ideas and values by establishing links with countries that opposed its political and cultural policies to strengthen its relations with the international communities. Germany also used cultural diplomacy to redeem its image after the World War II. Not to mention France and the Netherlands, where culture provides a means to expand upon ideas and cultural images to reach out to the general public. For example, Tulips and wooden shoes might attract tourists to the Netherlands. France has considerably used its language and education to reach out to peoples around the World, including the Middle East.

Kirsten Bound (2007) on BBC News Channel also described how cultural diplomacy has helped to strengthen cultural institutions like the British Museum in Britain to enjoy good relationship with Iranian counterparts. For instance, Their 2005 Forgotten Empire exhibition about the World of Ancient Persia saw the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, sharing a stage with the vice president of Iran. Cultural diplomacy can literally provide forums for a different kind of political debate away from official negotiating tables. She went on to describe the United Kingdom’s rich cultural resources and stressed on how the UK is well equipped for cultural diplomacy. But her subsequent publication on the Demos found out that more often these resources are poorly coordinated in their international efforts. The contribution of the international activities of cultural organisations, institutions and the World Service and British Council should be much more than the sum of their parts, she said. Kirsten hinted on The British Council, one of the United Kingdom’s two official institutions of cultural diplomacy and mentions some of the plans that the UK government is proposing to reduce a number of its European offices in order to redirect £7.5m to increasing its activity in the Islamic World. The aim of this new strategy is to contribute to the fight against global terrorism and strengthen relations between the UK and the Islamic world, according to ‘The Times’.

Whilst cultural diplomacy has helped to sustain cordial relations that exist among countries, there are certain situations that have portrayed the phrase cultural diplomacy making people to conclude that cultural diplomacy is a pure propaganda tool that some countries have adopted to pursue their interest. This became an issue in America after the September 11 attack, considering how the whole incident happened, American people became concern about their country’s foreign policies especially its country’s cultural diplomacy which according to them is failing, especially in the Arab countries and wanted to know what the state is doing about it. During the debate some policy makers contributed to the programme and stated categorically that the reason why cultural diplomacy is failing in America is that, ‘if only other people had access to the same degree of information that we have and the same degree of insight, then they would agree with us’. The policy makers stressed that the problem goes beyond basic ‘psyops’ activities such as dropping ‘leafless bombs’, for instance showing a member of the Taliban beating a group of women and bearing an inscriptions, ‘is this the future you want for your children and your women’ and what make it more disturbing is that such messages are written in their own local dialect.

This form of diplomatic practice make the work of diplomats very difficult because while they give audience to governmental bodies, they must also prepare adequately to meet the general public to educate them on their country’s policy directions. This came to light when the US diplomat, Christopher Ross, who was brought back from retirement to mastermind public diplomacy in the Muslim world, said, ‘I conceived of public diplomacy as being the public face of traditional diplomacy. Traditional diplomacy seeks to advance the interests of the United States through private exchanges with foreign governments. Public diplomacy seeks to support traditional diplomacy by addressing non-governmental audiences, both mass and elite. It works very much in coordination with and in parallel to the traditional diplomatic effort’.

Ross claimed that Cultural diplomacy has made the work of diplomats very difficult in that they must always be seen on Television, public functions and on Radios articulating their country’s foreign policies which can sometimes inflame passion among the people in the country as well as the representative country. The former Secretary of State of the United States Colin Powell once said, ‘During Desert Storm ‘we really were seeing this 24/7 phenomenon, at least in my judgement, for the first time – I used to tell of the members of my staff,’ ‘Remember, when we are out there on television, communicating instantaneously around the world, we are talking to five audiences.’ First, the reporters who ask the question, second, the audience, the American people who are watching. Thirdly, 170 capitals that may have an interest in what the subject is. Fourth, you are talking to your enemy. It was a unique situation to know that your enemy was getting the clearest indication of your intentions by watching you on television at the same time you were giving that message. And fifth, you were talking to the troops. Their lives were on the line.’’

Clearly, this statement is a word of caution to all public figures especially ambassadors from various countries who have adopted cultural diplomacy to be wary of the kind of information that it relay to the public. They should be guided against the word ‘trust’ as the key component in public speech if indeed you want to win the public to your side to pursue your country’s policies. If you don’t present yourself to them in a modest way and they get to know that you have taken sides of country ‘A’, the trust and the respect they have for your country will beginning to diminish and this will take a long time before such country can redeem its image. Also, ambassadors who sometimes have the public platform being television, public gathering or radio should try to desist from being partisan, and try as much as possible to be very objective on any issue that might crop-up during their deliberations.

In conclusion, in this global word, majority of the people have lost confidence in politicians especially in Britain based on public opinion conducted by MORI Which suggests that in Britain only 20% of the population trust politicians and government ministers, as compared to doctors at 91%, TV newsreaders at 71% and even the common man on the street at 54%. All these figures attest to the fact that the general public have lost confidence in politicians so any ambassador who tries to rely on cultural diplomacy to promote its country’s political, cultural or trade interest will do a great disservice to his country because it won’t work and you may end up creating enemies for your country.

By Peter Twumhene


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