The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in a ‘new normal’ of safe distancing measures, restricted social gatherings, and SafeEntry check-ins. It has been about two years since the coronavirus hit the world, almost forcing everyone to accept the importance and inevitability of adapting to changing landscapes in order to keep things going.
As such, there also seems to be a ‘new normal’ for diplomacy to address situations of countries increasingly closing off from each other; retreating from multilateral approaches to solving world problems, and focusing on internal issues. The international world order as we had once known of has changed. In this inward-looking atmosphere of heightened tension and competition, there has to be a new way of conducting diplomacy. This is where cultural diplomacy comes in.
Stripping Cultural Diplomacy Down to its Bare Essentials
Culture is commonly associated with language, religion, cuisine, music and the arts, specific to each country and to each group of individuals. It thus has a variety of definitions and means different things to different groups of people. UNESCO defines culture as “a set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, that encompasses not only art and literature, but lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs”.
According to the National Museum of American Diplomacy, diplomacy is defined as “the art and practice of conducting negotiations and maintaining relations between nations; skill in handling affairs without arousing hostility”.
Putting the two definitions together, cultural diplomacy is thus understood to be the sharing of one’s culture in the art of diplomacy. The Institute for Cultural Diplomacy defines cultural diplomacy as “the exchange of ideas, values, traditions and other aspects of culture or identity”, as the cornerstone to “strengthen relationships, enhance socio-cultural cooperation, promote national interests and beyond”. As reiterated in Patricia Goff’s “The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy”, “bridging difference[s]”, and “opening new avenues of communication” are areas in which cultural diplomacy can be helpful in “soften[ing], clarify[ing], complicat[ing], and provid[ing] expanded opportunities for connection”.
Hence, even though culture is fundamentally distinct in each country, the sharing of it can actually provide understanding and knowledge, breaking down the fear of the unknown to draw people closer. Cultural diplomacy, therefore, has the novel ability to shape global public opinion and beliefs because it can redirect perspectives on cultural differences. According to the Institute of Cultural Diplomacy, successful cultural diplomacy could essentially lead to more respect and recognition of cultural diversity and heritage, as well as increased protection of international human rights. It is even said that there is a possibility of achieving global peace and stability. Considering the nature of the world today is globalised, interconnected and interdependent, cultural diplomacy plays a more important role than ever before to build upon and fortify these relations.
Diplomacy Digs its Own Grave
To further understand why cultural diplomacy has to take the center stage now, we need to first understand how diplomacy was employed pre-COVID-19 and how it can be seen to be struggling even more in present times.
Threats to Diplomacy Before COVID-19
Practising diplomacy has always been prevalent. Diplomacy involves the use of three types of power: hard, soft and smart. Hard power is considered a coercive approach involving military or economic strength to influence discussions. Soft power, which includes cultural diplomacy, is observed to be a more persuasive approach in doing this. It involves the use of the country’s reputation in culture, political values, and foreign policies that highlight the best of the country, to influence decision-making. Smart power is a combination of the two aforementioned powers at an appropriate degree the context calls for.
Soft Power 30 by the media company Portland, reports changes in countries’ nature of global power and influence. In their latest 2019 report, it was stated that dominant trends were “geopolitical uncertainty” and an “eroding international order”. This was accredited to three main occurrences: 1) the rise of populist-nationalism in Western democracies and the probable emergence of isolationist, nationalist and protectionist policies, 2) the United States deserting its “traditional role as the guarantor of the rules-based system and the pre-eminent champion of multilateralism” and 3) the risk of “rising powers challenging and overturning existing international order” due to the heightened uncertainty.
Using the analysis of the US’ decline in its soft power rankings from first in 2016 to fifth in 2019, the lack of cultural diplomacy seemed to have adverse effects on international relations. During that time, which was when President Donald Trump’s right-wing administration ruled, US-China trade wars and US tariffs on traditional friends and allies undermined global economic growth and the global trading system. The use of hard power to secure and push the interests of each country ultimately affected the wider rules-based international order. There was observed to be little effort in gaining a cultural understanding of these traditional friends and allies which possibly led to countries viewing each other as threats, which may have caused an adoption of a “zero-sum game” mentality when it came to diplomacy. Moreover, Trump’s reluctance to engage in global issues such as the 2018 and 2019 G7 Sessions on climate change further corroborated the US’ withdrawal from leading the world stage and its traditional leadership position in facilitating cooperation and discussion in tackling global challenges. This absence of a major world power undermines efforts in solving problems; a clearly missed opportunity for the use of cultural diplomacy, which has the potential to attract countries to work together on global problems.
The rise of populist politics and challenging powers created chaos in the geopolitical landscape. The labour pains of the coming new order that we see today is not isolated within the pandemic’s timeline. With more zero-sum approaches with populist governments and governments having the ability to act more aggressively with economic and military diplomacy, the need for a different approach to diplomacy started to grow.
Diplomacy’s Problems in a Pandemic-Stricken World
Ever since the emergence of the coronavirus, the political landscape that had already been changing became more apparent.
In ‘Public Diplomacy in Asia 2021’, a global engagement organised by the Singapore International Foundation, Dr Cull shared his opinion of the geopolitical world today, that “the situation [we are in now] has multiple problems.”
The first problem Dr Cull outlined was that “the media is in crisis”, that it has been “weaponized by hostile governments”. Reporters Without Borders deems the role of the media as providing essential information to any democracy. However, with ‘fake news’ becoming more prevalent today, misinformation about vaccinations have been uploaded, causing serious impacts on public health and countries’ defence against the pandemic.
A better example of how weaponized media affected diplomatic relations was the ‘Covid-19 Lab Leak Theory’ which was an accusation of the Chinese government manufacturing the virus that caused the pandemic. In response, The World Health Organisation (WHO) released a statement to debunk it, claiming it was “extremely unlikely” for there to be an intended laboratory incident involving the infection of staff from laboratory activities.
So, what does this have to do with diplomacy? Even though the theory had been corrected, the ‘Lab Leak Theory’ still gained traction, with some American government officials and leading scientists fuelling the narrative. Alex Lo, a journalist from the South China Morning Post (SCMP) hypothesised that the “US weaponis[ing] the Covid-19 ‘Lab Leak Theory’’ was an attempt to “exploit the pandemic as part of a full spectrum campaign against China”, adding that it was exacerbated by “a racist fear the new ‘yellow peril’” (America’s perennial ‘communist’ paranoia), and “the natural reflect of politicians to blame others”.
The second problem Dr Cull highlighted was that politics is in crisis. He observed that “problems in the world are too big for one country to deal with, for one actor to deal with” and due to that, countries are falling back into a “counterproductive strong man politics”. Despite the fact that global inoculation is vital to overcome the pandemic, ‘vaccine diplomacy’, in which COVID-19 vaccines have become weaponized, seems to be hindering this. Vaccine diplomacy has been used to forge regional ties, boost one’s power and global status, while also being used to cast doubt on the intentions and efficacy of rival powers.
These problems then lead to the third problem of diplomacy being in crisis. Dr Cull explained that “the voice of the diplomat [has become] less credible”. He added that credibility has always rested in similarity. In the world of social media, one prefers to get information from someone with similar views. Many wouldn’t find diplomats from a foreign country similar to them, so these diplomats face tremendous headwinds as they try to justify the credibility of their claims and be understood in the world.
Cultural Diplomacy: The Antidote for Diplomacy’s ‘New Normal’
World events seemingly hint at how the geopolitical state is in shambles:
The alleged chaotic withdrawal of American troops out of Afghanistan, the many third world countries that have their access to COVID-19 vaccines blocked and the much lower vaccination rates in less developed countries as compared to more developed countries.
In response, Dr Cull said it is “time to acknowledge that soft power is not just a luxury for the richest countries”.
He also mentioned that “in a crisis, reputation can help you,” he cited Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and the lack of international action to support Ukraine to illustrate the tremendous need for countries, especially less powerful ones, to develop their reputation.
It seems that the general trend now in diplomacy is not primarily focused on ensuring trade or forming allies but instead on establishing the country’s international image and relevance since these are areas that are commonly contested and attacked.
Dr Cull stressed that “relevance is the key to reputation” and there is a need for “reputational security”, which he defined as the degree of safety accruing to a nation-state that formed from being known by citizens of other nations.
It is interesting to note that a country’s ‘culture’ can therefore be considered a key contributor to the nation’s image. He noted that since “people are interested in countries that they like”, it is a good diplomatic strategy for the international actor to explain what makes them different and special.
But states can do more than this, they can collaborate in cultural space and develop the kind of foundations for the collective solutions that are needed to move forward and really tackle problems like climate change, migration or economic instability. Mutual education, seen in programs like the EU’s Erasmus Program could make the biggest contribution in coming together.
There is a real danger when countries adopt a very unilateral brand, where countries just talk about themselves. They cut off the approach to collaboration. But cultural diplomacy done right can act as a mechanism to model collaboration and open the way for dialogue.
“We are in an era of global challenges,” Dr Cull said, “and we need global solutions.”
What Needs to be Done for Cultural Diplomacy to be #1?
Cultural diplomacy is built upon these premises: understanding and respect, and the assumption that art, language, and education are the most significant entry points into a culture. With this knowledge, we can ideate what needs to be done for cultural diplomacy to thrive and survive.
To create an optimal environment for cultural diplomacy, connections should be valued. Countries are encouraged to genuinely connect and work together, instead of seeing connections as a mere tool to achieve national interests. Cultivating cultural diplomacy means taking the posture of trust, understanding, listening, and mutual respect. Cultural diplomacy cannot look like a show-and-tell with one country sharing and the other just listening, it should include collaboration, exchanges, engagement, and inclusiveness.
According to Dr Cull’s “Public Diplomacy: Foundations for Global Engagement in the Digital Age”, there are four classical approaches to practising cultural diplomacy:
- Cultural gift: sharing the best of your country to increase prestige
- Cultural information: sharing an unknown dimension of one’s culture with the intention of correcting or perpetuating an image
- Cultural capacity building: teaching of cultural skills to promote understanding and development
- Cultural dialogue or exchange: the mutual knowledge gained from cooperating in the cultural field
In addition, the Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy handbook highlights, “a more consistent commitment must be made so that the fruits of cultural diplomacy are in place when crisis hits”. In other words, another key factor for cultural diplomacy to thrive is consistency, which is vital in building any relationships— even ones among countries. To build this, countries need to give culture a permanent seat at the table.
Last but not least, innovation. It is argued that innovation can be a driving factor to revitalise the practice of cultural diplomacy by attracting more countries and individuals. This is where other actors can take centre stage in contributing to cultural diplomacy. Tapping on the idea that cultural diplomacy does not have to be practised solely by diplomats, this would mean that anyone can contribute to cultural diplomacy. Consider how some cultural exchanges have moved online such as the Singapore International Foundation’s Arts for Good Projects that brings together artists and different sectors of society to collaborate. Among the different programmes is the ‘World Wisdom Map’, an interactive digital map that documents life lessons of individuals from each of the 195 countries in the world, and showcases an inspired series of exclusive artworks by Southeast Asian artists and students. This can be cultural diplomacy. Innovation and technology can make cultural diplomacy more important or prominent to the general public; mainly because this sharing of culture can be done in a more attractive, engaging way and can be seen to be a ground-up initiative, with non-politicians being the main contributors. The pressure points of culture being language, education and the arts can be stretched and reconceptualized with the use of technology. Technologically speaking, the sky’s the limit.
It is easy to look at the world today and lose all hope that diplomacy would make a difference. But do not throw the baby out of the bathwater just yet. Diplomacy still has its value, the world just has to adapt to a new way of doing it: putting cultural diplomacy at the forefront, and letting economic and military diplomacy take the backseat. All hands on deck are needed to make it work. Cultural diplomacy is, in its very nature, alive and breathing. It can take on many forms and be used in many ways. Everyone has a different idea and understanding of culture, but there should be at least one thing that everyone must have a consensus on— cultural diplomacy has to step into the spotlight, and everyone needs to do what they can to set the stage.