1 year ago

The Future of International Cultural Relations Conference 2016

Discussing the future role of culture in international relations at a time of rapid change.

We held a conference in January with partners from Scotland, the UK and Germany to discuss the future role of culture in international relations at a time of rapid change.

The conference brought together politicians, academics and practitioners in a day long event followed by a public lecture by Professor Hanns Maull titled: Germany, the last multilateralist?

The range of participants included representatives of the Federal Foreign Office, the Goethe Institut, IfA, academics, the Scottish Government, the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Council.

The aim of the conference was to learn lessons from Germany’s long-term commitment to international cultural relations and from the way in which that commitment had helped shape its response to contemporary crises of migration, terrorism and the economic crisis.

It became clear, from the speeches and during the course of the discussion, that there were differences in how the UK and Germany approached the question of soft power. From the UK participants, from both the Scottish and UK Governments, there were similar emphases on Government-led promotional activities based on strategic communications around national “brands” – for example the “Great Britain” campaign although there were of course some notable differences.

From German speakers, on the other hand, much greater importance was given to the idea of a “foreign policy of societies rather than governments”. The impetus should come from civil society. Cultural policy should be the basis of foreign policy as it builds bridges, fosters exchange and creates networks. Good cultural relations were a “safety net” especially in times of difficulty.

It was important, however, to define goals more clearly in relation to the social power of culture. A good example was the refugee crisis and attempts to find a way to create opportunities for refugees to stay in their region by giving “aid for humanity” i.e. access to culture and education. Post-conflict repair will be essential for the future of Syria. Germany had started to fund scholarships for Syrian refugees, to create opportunity for Syrians to gain skills.

The centrality of culture to Germany’s external relations became very clear. One (German) speaker remarked that cultural categories were fundamental to political action, as culture shapes social discourse and includes all forms of social co-existence. Culture can cause conflict and help resolve conflict. Germany therefore involves cultural figures in political activity.

This approach was reflected within the frame of the German 2014 foreign policy review process, which maintained the view of the state as a social, rather than a political construct – the state does not have an interest of its own, but a responsibility to society.

Lessons for Scotland? The Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Relations observed that cultural relations complement hard power and are becoming more important, as it becomes more difficult for hard power to resolve disputes and conflicts. We need a wider connective view of culture. This is important to Scotland where key issues are national identity and trust. In addition to this, there are instrumental benefits, both economic and promotional from the use of culture in external relations.

The conference discussions did not come to firm conclusions, rather they identified questions.

Does foreign policy need to change to respond to challenges to Western values from radical Islam? Was there a need for a new kind of political leadership, which went beyond the national? What would be the implications for traditional ideas of national identity? How can we think beyond short-term metric-driven activities?

Cultural relations offered a range of pre- and post-crisis cultural relations interventions. How should we engage with civil society when a state was resilient and opposed to its own civil society? Cultural relations activity was needed to monitor the health of state/civil society relations as a focus for crisis prevention and post-crisis reconciliation. Transient populations had neither state nor civil society, but were composed of individuals or networks eg in camps in Jordan. Key questions for cultural relations were how to turn humanitarian aid into “humanity” i.e. helping people beyond satisfying immediate needs, and cultural protection including digital protection.

Modern social media has a role to play in times of crisis. They are news media, but not reliable, which raised issues about the uses of social media around the official communication of information. Social media are good for local relevance and for engagement, but not to exert influence. What do we need to do to equip diplomats and practitioners of cultural relations to use social media effectively and positively?

Universities are a force for cultural engagement, but not if they’re complacent. They are good at being international and reaching out to people who share our values. They are also good at following the money. It was important they focused on shared problems not on their comfort zone. A key question for universities was how to be creative and work with people with whom they are not comfortable?

 Specific cultural images of countries were resilient, and corporations used this to their advantage. In the VW scandal, behind the corporate scandals was a stable picture of Germany. In relation to nation branding, it was interesting to ask to what extent can politics’ use of culture be linked to the economy? There was a division of opinion as to the economic benefits of branding. Were they in country (investment) or abroad (exports)?

The key question in cultural relations was definition of outcomes. These could include social wealth and the common good, but under accountability pressures, we tended to end up with economic measures. There was, however, general agreement (even if it couldn’t easily be proved) about what worked: mutuality; cooperation; face to face encounters; independent or at least arms’ length institutions; a plurality of domestic voices; transparency; patience – cultural relations is a long-term practice; transnational strategies – eg to be a good global citizen. It was easy to agree all this but more analysis was needed – the question was how to incorporate this institutional experience into accepted policy and operational frameworks.

Following the conference, Professor Hanns Maull’s lecture started from Thomas Bagger’s nightmare dilemma for German foreign policy – that Germany could be forced to choose between its global competitiveness and its European vocation.

Professor Maull then discussed his alternative nightmare dilemma: What does a committed multilateralist do when she does not find partners? This German foreign policy nightmare was now about to materialise around the issue of migration, which, in turn was part of a “mega-crisis” – that of the European project itself. What does it imply to be in the European Union, and in its inner circle, the Eurozone? What does solidarity mean? There is a lot of cheap talk about a “community of values”, and it is not clear what those shared values really are. Not only the UK, but all member countries will have to clarify their position towards membership in the EU. The mega-crisis of Europe is not just a mega-crisis of the old continent, it is a worldwide phenomenon. That phenomenon is the gap between expectations addressed towards political leaders and what they are able to deliver. The lecture, ended the day by stimulating a very lively and engaged discussion with an informed audience.

Leave a comment

Replying to (Cancel)

All comments will go to our moderators for approval before being published in order to help us build a thoughtful and considerate community.