Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy

Nations have always engaged in activities that seek to project their policies and promote their power. The obvious instruments are war, diplomacy, and economics, but culture has long been the “fourth dimension” of international politics (Coombs 1964). It is a policy subset of a broader public diplomacy, and it is important to distinguish these two components of a nation’s projection of its public self. The first is informational, by which specific goals and political objectives are explained and justified, typically via the use of media. The second is cultural—best understood in its broadest sense to include the visual, performing, and fine arts, as well as the previously noted way of life. The overall goal is the exportation of social influence rather than overt political power.

The instruments of influence tend to be highly qualitative such as educational missions, scholarly exchanges, art exhibitions, and touring by performing-arts groups. The timeline is long term rather than short term. These activities have been amalgamated into a more general concept of ideas (including science and technology) that has been famously termed by Joseph Nye as “soft power” (Nye 2004). Nye argues that the influences of soft power are found in the transmission of ideas as expressed in various aesthetic and educational forms. The argument is that soft power not only complements the aforementioned big three but also influences a nation’s foreign policies more effectively than the predominant instruments of international relations: diplomatic pacts, military might, and economic dominance. The essence of soft power is the substitution of persuasion for pressure. When a dominant nation’s cultural norms are perceived as attractive and persuasive, other nations will be induced to follow its lead without the use of “hard power” (Nye 2004). Not surprisingly the concept of soft power has been derided as “fuzzy” and dismissed as irrelevant. Even Nye asks, “The key question is: what outcomes does soft power explain that cannot be explained with hard power alone” (Nye 1994: 4).

The basic distinction between traditional diplomacy and cultural diplomacy is clear: the former concerns interactions between or among national actors in the international system where the latter seeks to influence foreign public, often through non-official organizations of scholars, artists, intellectuals, and journalists. Essentially, public diplomacy should not be seen as simply an instrument of international politics. However, this is a good that is highly problematic to convincingly realize. First, as official policy, public diplomacy can never be completely divorced from the vagueness of foreign policy goals in general. Second, public diplomacy initiatives can never be completely separated from creating a favorable impression of a country’s policies and way of life, there is inevitably a tendency to engage in international lobbying.

Public diplomacy should be constructed with long-run objectives and not, as noted, focused on short-run international lobbying efforts. The effectiveness of public diplomacy is not argued to be in the short run, but in the realm of building sustained relationships, which can be especially difficult where different cultures are involved. The muted undertone of all public diplomacy is the extent to which it is “propaganda.” It could be put, perhaps too bluntly, public diplomacy equates to propaganda. Of course, propaganda has a negative connotation even if a distinction is made between its good/white and bad/black propaganda (Chapmen and Hewitt, 1992).

The American father of propaganda studies, Harold Lasswell, describes it as “the management of collective attitudes by the manipulation of symbols” (Lasswell 1927: 627). Typically, propaganda identifies an enemy to be blamed for a record of lawless, violent, and malicious behavior that cause international conflicts. To mobilize support, propagandists may appeal to a common history, employ a religious vocabulary, vilify the enemy as an obstacle to peace and security, appeal to collective egotism, and describe the war as one of beliefs (Lasswell 1927: 627). For Lasswell, such dichotomizations explained the Manichean-Satanic character of metaphors associated with much propagandistic rhetoric. Jacques Ellul, distinguishes the aforementioned political propaganda from the sociological variety, which seeks to promote a particular value system as attractive and worthy of emulation. These efforts employ all available means for exporting civilization including the mass media, the arts, and educational methods (Ellul 1965).

The most neutral definition of propaganda is a government’s process of communicating with foreign publics in an attempt to bring about understanding for its nation’s ideals, its institutions, and culture, as well as its national goals and policies (Tuch 1990: 8). French public diplomacy has been associated with its long-term view of itself as a depository of the world’s cultural patrimony. For France, public diplomacy is essentially the cultural dimension. It was certainly not coincidental that one of the most dramatic international coups of Andre Malraux, as Minister of Culture, was the loan of the Mona Lisa to the USA. “The message could not have been clearer: France may well have been inferior to the United States both militarily and economically, but it had a definite and unassailable cultural edge” (Hewitt 2003: 10). In other words, cultural policy reaffirmed itself as foreign policy.

France has long appreciated the co-optive influence of soft power, and used this enormous resources into shaping its international image and cultural reputation. Soft power is the vogue word for describing this identity projection; another term that might be used is from the commercial word, “branding.” This connotes maintaining a distinct national image that is durable, recognizable, and worthy of imitation. France can rightly claim credit for a successful internationalizing of its national cultural values. France has few rivals for the title of being the premier “Culture State.”

As Francois I realized in the 1500s, culture was a powerful weapon of international diplomacy (Lebovics 1999: 177). Consequently, Francois I established the office of “Superentendent des Batiments Royaux” in 1535, where French art treasures would serve as a means of projecting an image of France as the new Rome of cultural greatness (Lebovics 1999: 90). In the post-World War II era, in which an official office within the Foreign Ministry was created to handle cultural affairs, the founding premise was that “the spread of French culture is identical to the expression and spread of its language” (Lebovics 1999: 186). Consequently, France’s cultural diplomacy was rooted in language instruction. As formulated by Raymond Aron, “French culture is a language, and this language transcends political, economic and social differences” (Lebovics 1999: 180). As the first chief of the Foreign Ministry’s Cultural Office established in1952, Jacques de Bourbon Busset rather dramatically argued for propagating the French language throughout the world at every opportunity and at whatever cost (Lebovics 1999: 187). Following in the footsteps of Francois I, Malraux in the 1960s saw the French language as the “Maginot Line of the second half of the twentieth century” for protecting France’s “international cultural capital” (Lebovics 1999: 177). There could be some question if the Maginot Line was the best analogy, given the failure of these defensive fortresses to deter the Nazi blitzkrieg in 1940.

This argument for “soft power” clearly fits into the French concept of its international status. Cynthia Schneider, a commentator on cultural diplomacy, noted the underestimation of “the diplomatic conception of culture as ‘customs and behavior’ and as ‘creative expression’ respectively” (Albro 2010: 2). Accordingly, “France set out to deploy its ample cultural capital to gain an edge in as many of the ways that international power is measured as possible” (Lebovics 1999: 159). By laying claim to unsurpassed cultural superiority, France sought to consolidate the power of its aesthetic universalism. Demoted after the war from the status of a minor major power to something decidedly less, France deployed its arts and, especially, its language to gain a new place in the international system.

In brief, if the elites of the former colonies continued to write in French, they might more readily sign commercial contracts written in that language; and if cultured elites everywhere continued to be open to the charms of French civilization including, variously, the export to the United States of French cooking (as both taught and mystified by Julia Child and associates), the books of French authors, and the traveling exhibitions of French artworks. Then France could expect to bank a good deal of the international value of what Pierre Bourdieu calls ‘symbolic capital’ (Lebovics 1995: 5).

France would secure a reputation as the great exporter of finely made luxury goods, nouvelle cuisine wines, haute couture, School of Paris art, cultural tourism, and linguistic pedagogy. “The accumulation and display and sometimes the creation of cultural capital for the benefit of the rest of the world had become seamlessly integrated into the doxa of France’s national Identity” (Lebovics 1995: 48). The French “brand” is strong and well defined, and attractively recognized. The ambiance of Paris (and perhaps the Cote d’Azur) bespeaks an ensemble culture as a way of life.

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