Modern Times: Arguments for Cultural Diplomacy

Songs, dances, and rituals have for millennia been used to enhance cooperation and exchange between different peoples and nations. Cultural exchange is as old as organised human society and it has been used to enhance relationships between states since ancient times. Why then, is culture ignored as an instrument of diplomacy when our future – our prosperity and security – largely depends on our capacity to work with people of different nations.

What is cultural diplomacy? ‘Culture’ attracts many definitions – some more poetic than others. It is the expression of the highest values to which humankind can aspire. T.S. Eliot once described it as “that which makes life worth living”. Diplomacy is a system of conducting relations between sovereign states. Cultural diplomacy can thus be understood as initiatives and exchanges directed by sovereign governments that use cultural expressions such as literature, education, music, dance and sport. As societies have evolved, so have cultural expressions. Over time, as the level of social organisation has grown, gift giving, rituals and dances have been replaced by more sophisticated forms of cultural exchange. Cultural exchange, heard in many languages and taking many aesthetic forms, now takes place on an unprecedented scale in our universities, through the dissemination of novels and poems, in theatres and on sporting  fields. But these modern expressions of culture are seldom used in the service of diplomacy. This is most unfortunate. Culture has not, of course, been used in the service of peace alone. Survivors of concentration camps during the Holocaust recalled that Wagner was played over the speakers in concentration camps and Mishima used the most beautiful words to describe his preference for a uniquely Japanese xenophobic nationalism. David Warner’s demands that an Indian opponent “speak f**king English” did little to enhance relationships between the peoples of India and Australia. But cultural exchange has largely served to shorten the distance between di fferent peoples. It has enhanced understanding and enlarged the minds. And if it is possible to grow mutual understanding through shared interests in literature, learning, music or sport, what policy could better serve the national interest? To increase the flow of trade and investment from Asia; to find our security in Asia and not from Asia, as Keating once urged; to continue to enlarge our minds and hearts through an open exchange with the world, the practice of cultural diplomacy is of fundamental importance. It is ironic that, in a moment in which our national interests depend on our capacity to work with people of di fferent cultural backgrounds, we resist policies and practices that will enhance our chances of success and survival. Few academics or diplomats today refer to cultural diplomacy, more comfortable with the related concepts of soft power and public diplomacy. Since the early 1990s, prolific academic Joseph Nye has advocated that culture is used for ‘soft power’ – to use the force of attraction to positively in fluence the actions of other states. Most diplomats and foreign ministers, including our own, prefer the term ‘public diplomacy’, which stresses the dissemination of information to promote the positive aspects of a nation’s culture. Cultural diplomacy, which was intended to encourage mutual understanding through cultural exchange, has been lost in a forest of symbols. We must do more than promote an attractive image of Australia if we are to seize the opportunities and address the challenges of this Asian century. It is common to the point of the banal to speak of the opportunities open to Australia in Asia, but what do we know of Asia? How deep is our understanding of China? What do we know of India, and the aspirations of its diverse people? An enduring commitment to cultural diplomacy will allow the present and future generation of Australians to engage from a position of understanding. It will also help our neighbours in Asia to have a more complete picture of our modern nation, with its attractive dimples and nauseating warts. Mutual understanding, the original goal of cultural diplomacy, is crucial. It is important that our e fforts – our words and actions – return our focus to achieving this important outcome.

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