Culture and Diplomacy: Europe's Enabling Power in an Open World

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    Cultural relations are not only an asset in the race for soft power competitiveness. In times of crisis in Europe, they also represent a potential to be better exploited internationally. In this article I would like to emphasise the enabling power of culture in external action, as an increasingly dominant form of new diplomacy

    A few months ago, an old friend of mine who works as an international sales manager for a giant European electricity company told me: foreign policy and diplomacy are not only done by ministries of foreign affairs.

    It is now more than obvious to acknowledge the role of non-traditional and non-Westphalian actors in diplomacy: from Angelina Jolie and Bono, to churches, terrorist networks, endangered species and global philanthropists, humanitarian relief NGOs, Nobel prize winners, microfinance and the temperature of water. 

    Because international affairs have gone far beyond “diplomacy”, the term “external action”, used by the European Union in its treaties, allows us to encompass a broader mix of stakeholders, practice and phenomena than the historically narrower notion of diplomacy. 

    Today’s international affairs have an increasingly significant cultural dimension: they relate to translation and language learning, cultural differences and mutual understanding, the use of social media and global web-based technology, the weight of cultural and creative industries in global value chains. 

    Attraction to Multiple Poles

    One of the consequences of new forms of multipolarity in international affairs is the emergence of diverse international poles of symbolic production and exchange. Today’s world is a world of “influence and attraction” (1), to use the terms of a recent report by John Holden for the British Council. Cultural flows between people keep intensifying in our globalised world.  Economic hubs also become cultural crossroads. (Re)emerging powers are designing world-wide cultural policies. Powers of the so-called “Global North” are all engaging in the design of new international cultural strategies. 

    A lot of evidence has been placed in the public domain about the economic impact of the cultural sector and the value of public funding for culture: research, press articles and even pedagogical videos (2). It is not enough to say that the first objective of cultural practice is itself: something unmeasurable like Gross Domestic Satisfaction (GDS), to echo the fans of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). 

    The positive economic impact of culture has also been researched a lot, but never enough. Various cultural research organisations in Europe, often funded by the European Union (EU), work to assess the value of culture. For instance, the Arts Council England has produced an insightful study on measuring the economic benefits of culture (3), with many useful references. These economic impacts are not only limited to tourism, but also consumption engendered by cultural events - for instance festivals, sports competitions, such as the World Cup in South Africa, taxation revenues, employment, and the whole university/education market. The Council of Europe has produced interesting material on the role of culture in regional development, showing that what is needed is to integrate cultural work into development strategies (4) and many of their programmes have become models for local development strategies and local governance in the EU as well as in Eastern Europe. 

    We often tend to think that culture is a luxury for the poor, but actually culture in its broad meaning also touches the deep core of people's minds and can encourage them in their actions, whilst creating value. It will always be hard to measure the economic and human impact of cultural action, but in my view, not much harder than other dimensions of development.   

    In other words, culture is already part of the “comprehensive approach” that the EU is calling for, although not explicitly recognised as such, while it is the golden thread of trust in international relations.

    Power, Politics, Policy and Culture

    When Stefano Manservisi, who believes that culture matters in development, was heading the DG for Development in the European Commission (EC), he pushed a lot for more work to be done on "culture and development". The current management in DEVCO has surprisingly not followed through on his initiatives and decreased its priority by cutting staff and keeping culture out of most budget programming.

    In addition to its deep political power - look at the role of cultural professionals and social media in the Arab spring/revolutions/popular movements - and metaphorical power (always useful to reconcile values and interests), culture in its broad sense, is an economic sector like any other contributing, on its own scale, to GDP. Think of the range of activities from the arts, education, heritage, handcraft, sports, video games, to design and architecture, and the creative industries.

    It is estimated that the film industry in Nigeria contributes directly or indirectly to the livelihoods of two million people; in the EU eight million people are employed in the cultural sector.

    And what is nice with culture as factor of development is that it is also fun! It is not completely bureaucratic and is certainly more environmentally friendly than the extractive industries. I remember an Egyptian festival director explaining his participation in a workshop on culture in the EU’s external relations held in Cairo last year by saying: “I am here to avoid a world governed by EU bureaucrats.”

    A front page of the International Herald Tribune from August 2013 featured an article on the Baalbek international festival in Lebanon, with one interesting quote, not to repeat the famous sentence of Jean Monnet about starting European integration again with culture: "the mission that transcends all wars is culture" and "that will save Lebanon". 

    If All the World’s a Stage, What is Europe’s Role? 

    In a 40 page-long monograph published last year on the role of culture in the EU's external action entitled "More Cultural Europe in the World" (5) I have identified twenty pilot measures that the EU could include in its external action to unleash its cultural potential. One of them is the creation of a EU worldwide cultural radio station (6). 

    As far as the EU's external action is concerned, the topic of culture in external action - beyond Nye's concept of soft power which has been debated at length - is now becoming part of the EU's policy making agenda, not least in relation to huge cultural powers such as China (there is an ad hoc working group of senior officials from ministries of foreign affairs and ministries of culture currently working on a EU cultural strategy with China), India and other strategic partners. At the request of the European Parliament, the EC is conducting a preparatory action on the role of culture in the EU's external relations (7). I am actually part of it and hope it will bring interesting learning material and inspiring recommendations for a EU international cultural strategy. 

    Similar to the EU’s 2003 security strategy “A secure Europe in a better world”, its 2014 cultural strategy could be named “Europe’s enabling power in an open world”.

    Dr. Damien Helly is Policy Officer of the EU External Action Programme at ECDPM and visiting Professor at the College of Europe.










    This article was published in GREAT Insights, Volume 3, Issue 3 (March 2014)

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