Cultural Diplomacy: Key to international relations 

Written by Cynthia P. Schneider is distinguished professor in the practice of diplomacy at Georgetown University and former US ambassador to the Netherlands on 19 August 2013 in Diary
What is cultural diplomacy and why could it help with our approach to Egypt: an exclusive look at Scotland's Festival of Politics coming up this weekend

"Cultural Diplomacy". The name evokes exchanges of symphonies, international art exhibitions, and the “Jazz Ambassador tours of the Cold War era. All these had their place, and updated versions, such as global hip hop jam session, still have value today in bridging divides of geography, culture, and language. But these examples of cultural exchange only tell part of the story of cultural diplomacy in contemporary international politics and diplomacy. 

In today’s world of 24/7 communication, social media, and citizen journalism, cultural diplomacy has a deeper and wider scope, one that reflects its intersection with politics. For cultural diplomacy centers on people to people communication rather than the more traditional government-to-government relations. In the era of the Arab Revolutions, and with citizens asserting their rights and holding their governments accountable from Brazil to Turkey to Cambodia, the people power of cultural diplomacy is more important than ever.

Nigerian novelist and Nobel Prize winner Wole Soyinka best explained the nature of this power when he said, “Culture humanizes; politics demonizes”. Culture in all its forms, whether a narrative in film, theater, or literature, or a piece of music or work of art, digs beneath the surface, beyond the stereotypes to get at the truth of a situation or a person.

Take a country in the headlines today: Egypt. Culture and creative expression provided a key to the Revolution of 2011 that confounded the foreign policy experts around the world, and they reveal much about the divisions tearing the country apart today.

Anyone who had read contemporary Egyptian literature, such as the widely translated best seller The Yacoubian Building, had seen films such as Heliopolis or Chaos, or had listened to contemporary Arabic rap music was surprised only that the Revolution took so long in coming. Artists hold a mirror up to society, examine its faults, and peal back the veneer of stability governments carefully apply. On the surface Mubarak’s Egypt appeared stable, but writers, artists, and musicians revealed the reality of the pressure cooker beneath: no one at any level of society could advance because of the pervasive, government-led corruption, and the iron fist of the state forbad any dissent.

In the Revolution turned coup of June 30th, artists and cultural leaders once again led the way, with the occupation of the Ministry of Culture to protest the Muslim Brotherhood government’s attempts to declare music and dance haram (forbidden under Islam). It was unthinkable that creative voices might be silenced in Egypt, the beating heart of Arab culture.

Culture is inextricably linked to identity, and, in Egypt, the reason most frequently given to explain the backlash against President Morsi and his Brotherhood rule is: “They tried to change our identity”.

Fundamentalists and extremists recognize the power of culture, and, therefore target it in their efforts to exert absolute control. The Taliban banned music and television; the extremists expelled musicians from northern Mali, home to the roots of the blues and other forms of modern music; the Khmer Rouge targeted artists and intellectuals, killing 90 per cent of them in the Cambodian genocide of 1975-79.

If the enemies of freedom, democracy, and civil society recognize the power of culture, their defenders do not always do the same. Culture plays a key, and often unrecognized, role in rebuilding societies in or post conflicts.

At the Festival of Politics, to be held in the Scottish Parliament on Friday August 23rd, cultural diplomacy will be discussed in its full dimension, with important and sometimes unexpected implications for today’s international relations.

For more information about the Festival of Politics, which takes place at the Scottish Parliament 23-25 August, visit

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