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Cultural Diplomacy in Small Countries

Paper for RSA discussion, Danish Institute – July 2013

Cultural Diplomacy in Small Countries – some points of interest

Soft power is not the same thing as less power.  The former, in the case of the U.S or China, is one part of a diplomatic toolbox that is underpinned with intimidating levels of economic and military influence.   Small countries, however, have to be canny in how they set about cultural diplomacy, but when they get it right the results can be impressive. Many people smiled when Irish Minister Jimmy Deenihan remarked on the effectiveness of charm when in Brussels at the outset of the Irish Presidency of the European Union, but agreements on both the MFF and the CAP may have proven him right.

When it comes to cultural diplomacy this point was clearly made to me by Bas Ernst, a colleague at the Educational, Audiovisual & Culture Agency of the European Commission, and Senior Cultural Officer at the Dutch Embassy in Rome.  One solution for small countries looking to have influence in larger ones is to work with with cultural organisations that represent the qualities and values which Holland is associated with abroad.

There is an obvious dilemma for many countries that look to this approach.  While the Netherlands can, for example, work with niche LGBT events in Italy that reflect the political and civic reputation of the Dutch, other countries struggle with a reputation that rests more on a mythic past than a dynamic future.  Flamenco and fado are constantly re-invented but do we associate the music with the values that Spain and Portugal would like to communicate today.  We may like to think that Scotland is associated with scientific innovation and the Edinburgh International Festival.  The reality is that Scotland conjures up rugged landscape and whisky in the mind’s eye of most of the world’s population.   Scotland’s tourism development professionals know this all too well and are constantly making connections between overworked stereotypes and what the country offers visitors today.

This problem then takes us to what the move away from cultural diplomacy to a focus on place branding means for smaller countries.   While places can be quite different, the process of place branding is remarkably uniform and can tend to translate everywhere into what it is imagined that the international investor, or well heeled tourist desires. A stultifying effect that Boris Groys refers to as the  ‘Medusan gaze of the romantic tourist’.   The reach of cultural diplomacy can also outperform the branding exercise as it operates on more levels.   For example when in Birmingham we developed the Brilliantly Birmingham Festival of Jewellery to the point that local practitioners were invited to Milan Fashion Week.  The Gallery 31 apprenticeship programme was evolved with ‘sister city’ Chicago, involved business and political leaders from both cities, and became a flagship that was presented in a range of fora, from Europe’s Committee of the Regions, to the European Cultural Forum.   Yet it was the former that was lauded as having more impact, purely because of a better ‘fit’ with branding values and approaches.

In the UK we have a great example of arts and culture refreshing international perspectives of the city and directly regenerating whole areas in the process. Britart shouted ‘innovation’ loud and clear to the whole world and a walk through Hoxton or Spitalfields illustrates the benefits for those that live and work in its shadow.   It does not require a huge leap in faith and imagination to picture Scotland’s default perception abroad, landscape and whisky, translating into environment and renewable energy on the one hand and high quality food exports on the other.  Pioneering work in arts and environment abounds in Scotland, along with a burgeoning multi-disciplinary practice bringing artists and scientists together.  Producers and promoters also play their part.  For example Celtic Connections successfully reinvented international perspectives on traditional culture in Scotland.

While there is a strong case for taking up the artist as a key component of cultural diplomacy and exchange there are potential pitfalls.  London’s Britart explosion may be a movement that has gone on far too long, starving the next generation of artistic pioneers of room to breathe.  The sector’s life blood is audiences and diplomatic roles may be seen as marginal unless properly resourced.

Culture as diplomacy rather than branding can be very effective in small countries looking for international influence and connectivity.  A strong artistic community is a great resource for working beyond national boundaries.  My own view is that Scotland’s creative practitioners would be delighted to contribute to the international influence and relationships of their country providing they were invited in as partners rather than just suppliers of cultural goods.  Give artists the opportunity to create and they will, and you won’t be able to predict the results or the impacts.