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“Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect”

by on March 29, 2012

“Cultural diplomacy: an art we neglect” (Louchheim, Aline B, 1954), this was a headline in a New York Times magazine in 1954, fast-forward to present day, some western powers lamentably still echo similar perceptions to the importance they place on cultural diplomacy as a practice.  Helena H Finn in her paper ‘The Case for Cultural Diplomacy: Engaging Foreign Audiences’ highlights the same sentiments while commenting on the US’ strategy on tackling radical Islamist terrorism (2003:1), similarly, Demos (2007), a UK based think tank group also challenges the insufficient value placed on cultural diplomacy, stating that, as compared to other formal diplomatic practices of “bilateral negotiations, multilateral structures and military capability” cultural diplomacy is often “regarded as being desirable, but not essential.”  Both observations also make the clarion call for the significant contribution cultural diplomacy can add to international relations, Finn by advising the current Washington policymakers to learn from the political direction of the Cold War era, which “understood the link between engaging foreign audiences and victory over ideological enemies” and Demos, by encouraging foreign policymakers  to capitalise on the use of culture as “a critical forum for negotiation and a medium of exchange in finding shared solutions” (Finn, 2003; Demos,2007).

Why then is cultural diplomacy an art often neglected?  Well, it may be to do with its diversity for an accepted definition of what it is, or maybe, it is the “the lack of clarity about what precisely the practice entails” (Mark, 2009).  There is however a widely accepted definition of cultural diplomacy  by the American political scientist and author  Milton  Cummings, who defines it as: “the exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding’ which ‘can also be more of a one-way street than a two-way exchange, as when one nation concentrates its efforts on promoting the national language, explaining its policies and point of view, or “telling its story” to the rest of the world” (Mark, 2009, p.9) citing (Cummings, 2003).

Reading through the Demos report: ‘Culture is a central component of international relations.  It’s time to unlock its full potential’ (2007), some very engaging if not enlightened observations were made on the direction and place  cultural diplomacy will likely take on the political and diplomatic stage in the future, if not already at a head start.  It’s of the opinion that with respect to the new emerging BRIC countries “future alliances are just likely to be forged along lines of cultural understanding as they are on economic and geographic ones” (Demos, 2007, p.13).  These emerging powers, unlike the West, understand the importance of culture, not as a bolt-on to other diplomatic channels but as “a means to project themselves not just to foreign governments, but also to global public opinion and potential partners and allies” (ibid, p.18).

So, can western countries catch on to this new practice in town?  I believe the UK and US have only been having a slight case of amnesia, or maybe, as the Demos report noted the UK has been resting on its “cultural laurels.”   I am sure any person on this globe can engage, admire or relate to at least one aspect of the British or American culture; it might be language, Hollywood, books or even the UK’s royal connections – the Monarch!  If the British or the US are a little demure on following nations such as India and China in exploiting their cultural wealth for more gain, maybe they could take a leaf out of the HSBC advertising book.  Coincidentally, some of my favourite television adverts have come from the HSBC bank; I have to grudgingly agree with commentators, who extol corporate entities’ promotion and protection of their brands’ identity.  States unfortunately lag behind these global brands in understanding the cultures they are trying to influence, or capitalising on the given rich impressions their cultures already entrust to the multitudes.   There maybe a lesson or two in cultural diplomacy that the HSBC YouTube clip below may offer……and is it just me who loves that catchphrase?  Well, maybe! – “At HSBC we never underestimate the importance of local knowledge…”



-Bound, K., Briggs, R., Holden, J. and Jones, S., Cultural Diplomacy, 2007, available at

-Finn, H., The Case for Cultural Diplomacy, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 82, No. 6, 2003

-Louchheim, Aline B, Cultural Diplomacy: An Art We Neglect, New York Times Magazine (3 January 1954).

-Mark, S., A Greater Role for Cultural Diplomacy, 2009, available at


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