Cultural Diplomacy in the Age of European Populism


With populism on the rise across Europe and the globe, there is frequent talk of how to restrain extremism on both the left and the right. Amid these debates, scholars, policymakers, and the media often overlook the potency of a soft-power tool, cultural diplomacy. A reason for this lack of emphasis may be confusion, as well as possible negative connotations, surrounding the phrase “cultural diplomacy.” The term was first used by the U.S. State Department in 1959, when Robert H. Thayer advocated for diplomatic strategies that revolved around citizens, not just governments or heads of state. He declared that cultural diplomacy is “the most important means of bringing complete mutual understanding between peoples, which in turn compels mutual understanding between governments”.[1] Ien Ang, Yudhishthir Raj Isar, and Phillip Mar remark in the International Journal of Cultural Policy that in contemporary discourse, the term “cultural diplomacy” applies to “any practice that is related to purposeful cultural cooperation between nations or groups of nations,”[2] and is often used as a substitute for similar terms such as cultural relations and cultural affairs. In general, cultural diplomacy is thought to be a strategic government tool that uses education, the arts, literature, and gastronomy to connect citizens of foreign countries in some capacity.  Cultural diplomacy is a crucial soft power resource, used as public diplomacy to engage civil society.

There are debates over what cultural diplomacy should look like in practice. While cultural diplomacy can incorporate a wide variety of activities, strategies often center around educational exchange, partially because of the nebulous and intangible definition of “culture.” Michael Kaiser, Director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, argues that some elements of cultural diplomacy, such as sending symphonies and dance companies on high-profile world tours, do no good as those institutions primarily communicate with the elite. He argues that, at least for the United States, the most successful form of cultural diplomacy is through teaching arts management around the world, which builds relationships and advocates for the strength of arts organizations. This reinforces the notion that education is the strongest and most democratic form of cultural diplomacy.[3]  In reality, cultural diplomacy strategies have the potential to be more egalitarian and inclusive than other forms of statecraft as they focus on communicating directly with the citizens of different countries, rather than just the governments.

Recently, prominent examples of cultural diplomacy have been dominated by countries within the Global South. China has been notable in its utilization of soft power and cultural diplomacy, particularly in smoothing over Sino-Japanese relations.[4] Dr. Ahmad Abdul Rahman Al Banna, UAE ambassador to India, recently gave a speech about the importance of cultural diplomacy as a “pillar of soft diplomacy” which has ensured the strength of UAE-India relations.[5].At the Arab Media Forum in Dubai in May 2017, experts called for a stronger emphasis on cultural diplomacy to correct the Western media’s frequent misrepresentation of the Arab World.[6]  In response to xenophobic attacks on Nigerians in South Africa, Nigeria’s Minister of Culture and Information announced a new initiative that will include partnerships between the two countries on musical concerts and films, visits from Nollywood actors to South Africa, and culinary exhibitions of Nigerian food in South Africa. He explained that the goal of this initiative is to strengthen understanding between the people of these two nations, not just between government officials.[7] That being said, the power of cultural diplomacy is certainly not ignored by European officials. Tibor Navracsics, EU Commissioner for Culture, explained at a recent conference in Malta that cultural relations can foster dialogue and promote diversity. Culture ministers from G7 countries met in Florence in May to discuss the use of culture to promote dialogue, along with other related issues such as protecting cultural heritage.[8] The Permanent Mission of Ukraine to the United States premiered an exhibit titled “Ukrainian Insights” at the U.N. headquarters, featuring the work of four contemporary Ukrainian artists. The exhibit “aims to show the cultural, political and spiritual aspects of Ukraine and the promise of Ukraine’s future in a global context.”[9]

The Ukrainian art exhibit is a perfect example of cultural diplomacy being used to promote globalization over populism in modern Europe. In examining the power of cultural diplomacy to stop populism, it is important to clarify two common misconceptions of populism. First, populism is a strategy that spurs movements, not a precise ideology. In Europe today, we see examples of populist parties on both the far left and the far right. While populist rhetoric often blames problems on immigrants or minorities, populism at its core is not always xenophobic. There are often debates over whether populist movements are born from economic crises, cultural concerns, or a hybrid of both. Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris conducted research using the pooled European Social Survey 1-6 (2002-2014) to determine which of these explanations is more prevalent in modern populist movements in Europe. They found more evidence supporting the cultural backlash perspective of populism than the economic insecurity theory, suggesting that xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments are key elements of contemporary populism. Common features of recent populist discourse in Europe include authoritarian leanings, resentment of existing authorities, nativism, mono-culturalism, and traditionalism[10]. Essentially, populism is not always xenophobic, but populist movements in Europe today overwhelmingly rely on xenophobic and nativist rhetoric.

Taking this into consideration, it is necessary to address xenophobia to curb contemporary European populism. There is considerable evidence that strategies of cultural diplomacy, from educational exchanges to artistic collaborations, can lead to lower levels of xenophobia and more tolerance of other cultures and communities. For example, education, artistic events, and festivals have proven to be successful in stopping hate crimes against refugees in a small town in Sweden[11]. Researchers in Finland found that “creating opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue in higher learning” leads to a greater sense of global connectedness among students[12]. Another example of positive exchange, was an intercultural drama project in an Australian school that helped “build young people’s capacity to engage effectively with a pluralistic world” in response to xenophobia surrounding the war in Iraq.[13] Research shows that there is a strong negative relationship between education levels and xenophobic sentiment across 10 countries including Germany, Austria, the Czech Republic, and Hungary – all current sites of extremist populist movements. It is notable that these results proved true regardless of differences in those countries’ educational systems or their average levels of xenophobia.[14] Universities often encourage exposure to new ideas and multiculturalism, and emphasizing international exchange among universities would only fortify these sentiments.

There is no panacea for extremist populism in Europe. Xenophobia is only one part of the phenomenon, and cultural diplomacy certainly will not eliminate all nativist sentiments. However, cultural diplomacy should be part of any government’s foreign policy toolkit when seeking to improve understanding of other countries among their citizens. Within Europe, countries with differing cultures or histories of xenophobic incidents should consider engaging in educational and artistic exchanges with one another. This could be particularly relevant for Central and Eastern European countries seeking to promote understanding of their cultures among their Western neighbors, and for countries with large persecuted minority groups such as Jews and the Roma. In response to growing Islamophobia, countries in the Arab world should consider engaging in cultural exchanges with European countries that have large Muslim populations. These simple acts will not repress populist movements on their own, but the importance of cultural diplomacy should not be overlooked when attempting to stem the tide of populism.
















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About the Author 

Julia Gabriel studies International Leadership and World Politics at Vanderbilt University. Her research interests include democratization and anti-corruption efforts in Eastern Europe and former Soviet countries.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the ERA Institute.

This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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