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Last Updated: Wednesday, 28 February 2007, 12:21 GMT
The art of diplomacy
Dame Helen Mirren
An Oscar win for Queen and country

Can culture win over the UK's critics abroad? Kirsten Bound, of the think-tank Demos, sketches out how Britain could make better use of its cultural assets for diplomatic purposes.

Do fundamental differences in values make a "clash of civilisations" inevitable? Most people think not, according to the results of a recent major Globescan survey.

Only 29% thought conflict between the Muslim world and the West can be explained in terms of cultural difference. In contrast, over half of those surveyed blamed conflict of political interests for the divide.

The problem is culture and politics are never completely separate. Misunderstandings and divisive claims about cultural and political values are the oxygen that extreme minorities use to fan the flames of conflict.

Actress Shilpa Shetty
Big Brother made Shilpa an ambassador for India
The UK must not underestimate the value of culture as a positive force in international relations.

The phrase "cultural diplomacy" conjures up images of ambassadorial dinner parties and the elite pastimes of the Fererro Rocher set.

But it stands for something much more important: a web of informal connections and relationships between the UK and other countries, grounded in the exchange of cultural values, that can not only complement, but enable traditional diplomatic channels.

Much of this happens through cultural institutions themselves: educational exchanges, jointly curated exhibitions and intense scientific collaboration underpin the work of our museums, galleries and performing arts.

Cultural bridges

Some of it is happening through everyday interactions. Mass communication and cheap travel make different cultures and ideas more accessible than ever.

Critics may charge that trying to fight global terrorism with culture is like spitting on a forest fire, but the best way to put out a fire is to take away its fuel
In the past foreigners saw an image of the UK only as it was projected to them through the BBC. Increasingly they can learn about it through direct encounters with Brits abroad, or through virtual encounters on websites like MySpace and YouTube. We are all diplomats now.

The Demos report argues cultural diplomacy matters for two reasons. The first is that cultural links can keep a line of communication open when formal diplomatic ties are strained or impossible.

Cultural institutions like the British Museum enjoy a good relationship with Iranian counterparts, for example. Their 2005 Forgotten Empire exhibition about the world of ancient Persia saw the then foreign secretary, Jack Straw, share a stage with the vice president of Iran. Cultural spaces can literally provide forums for a different kind of political debate away from official negotiating tables.

Cultural creep

The second is because of the importance of what some have termed "soft power". The ongoing difficulties of the United States in achieving its goals in relation to members of the "axis of evil" - Iran, Iraq and North Korea - have forced even the world's last remaining superpower to recognise the limits of traditional military and economic might.

Singer Lilly Allen
Lily Allen reached a global audience using MySpace
Many within the US are urging its government to remember the lesson of the Cold War, which was won by investing in culture and ideas as much as weapons systems. Interestingly China and India seem to be devoting considerable resources to their cultural diplomacy efforts as they come to terms with "rising superpower" status.

With its rich cultural resources, the UK is well equipped for cultural diplomacy. But in the report I've co-authored for Demos, we've found that too often these resources are poorly coordinated in their international efforts. The contribution of the international activities of cultural organisations, institutions and the World Service and British Council should be much more than the sum of their parts.

The British Council - one of the UK's two official institutions of cultural diplomacy - is reportedly planning to cull a number of its European offices in order to redirect 7.5m to increasing its activity in the Muslim world. The aim of this new strategy is to contribute to the fight against global terrorism and strengthen relations between the UK and the Muslim world, according to The Times.

The paradox is that the more valuable culture is to political relationships, the more independent of politics it must be. The British Council is most effective where it is seen as an independent force for creating cultural bridges.

Risk being perceived as an undercover embassy and any good work will lose its value. And as an organisation that spends 186 million of tax payers' money a year, value is a big issue for the British Council.

Cultural misunderstanding and ignorance are a breeding ground for extremists. Critics may charge that trying to fight global terrorism with culture is like spitting on a forest fire to put it out, but the best way to put out a fire is to take away its fuel.

Kirsten Bound is a researcher at Demos and co-author of Cultural Diplomacy, a report out on Wednesday.


Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

The moment we try and use culture consciously as a tool for an end, it will be viewed suspiciously or at least not considered genuine. We would probably be better advised to let it play its own free course. Just increase the exchanges globally to understand and explain perspectives through one to one contact. If we move quickly on systematic and increased exchanges, cultural diplomacy will automatically catch up.
Anuj , London

What about e greatest cultural asset Britain has: the English language, which is now not only the world-wide language of science, medicine, business and diplomacy, but is also used by millions of ordinary people worldwide. We should make more of this asset, and appreciate it more too!
Eric, Leeds, England

I think that for the first time in the past 30-40 years the UK is enjoying true uplift in our pop culture. With our music and film industries really picking up, we may well see our trendsetting being (hopefully) more reminiscent of the 1960s. All we have to do is recognise who we, as a nation, really are - and be proud of it.
Chris B, Southampton

I'm here from Poland. Culture, as far as I have noticed, is not a problem-raising issue here. It is always about politics. Since as long as both parties respect each other's culture, no anger should be born. That's rational. I suggest reviewing the political goals of the governments, not only in the UK, but also in other countries.
Dan, Lublin

Just as we need to introduce ourselves and explain our culture to others around the world, we also need to learn about other cultures and welcome them into our own country. There have been too many incidences recently where it has been proved that people in this country learn most about the different cultures around the world from the headlines of newspapers and magazines. How about a documentary series on the cultural differences between countries that is not a news or current affairs programme? Maybe a reality TV series about people living abroad or cultural exchanges would be interesting...
Heather, Wolverhampton

Culture helps diplomacy; this can be achieved on an almost individual basis. I play an unusual musical instrument called a Vienna horn. This instrument is not widely played. Lars Michael Stransky (of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra) managed to bring together three Vienna horn ensembles from Tokyo, Scotland and Vienna. We rehearsed, performed, and dined together. Despite language limitations, we became good friends during the few days that we spent in each others' company. For the 40 or so people involved, the world became a very small and peaceful place during our time together. Activities that make individual friendships from around the world do make a difference that lasts a lifetime.
Terry Leese, London

We only seem to have a culture clash with certain sections of Islam - so why is this debate pussyfooting around? Part of the problem is that there is an elephant in the living room & no-one in any authority is addressing it. Handing this ideological battle over to London-centric culture vultures is errant nonsense - do you think that you are going to convince hardened extremists of the merits of our decadent society with a few Tracy Emin efforts?
Ian Michie, Whitwick, England

Ian Michie, you are incorrect. Muslim society in Britain reflects British society in general. Four percent of our population is Muslim and four percent of the Muslim population is formed of English, Scottish, Welsh, Afro-Caribbean and Indian converts. Muslims by and part contribute both economically (31bn) and socially. You just need to open your eyes to it.
Farhad Navkhoda, Preston, Lancashire, England

Regarding cultural links, I would urge people to look at the Choir of London website. This is a professional group who are waiving their fees to travel to Israel at the beginning of April, taking The Magic Flute and various concerts and seminars (led by the head of academic studies at the Royal Academy of Music) to students of all faiths and races.
Annette, London

If we're all ambassadors now, please let's make a combined effort to make our cultural exports of a higher quality than Big Brother. To critics who see us as crass, unthinking and decadent, a group of morons drinking, flirting and talking rubbish on television can do nothing but add fuel to the fire.
Al, Kent, UK

Al, Big Brother is a Dutch invention and a clear example of us embracing foreign culture. And if our culture is all about getting boozed up on lager (thank you Europe - more cultural embracing) then isn't the real trick going to be disguising the fact? And why should we embrace other cultures when we surely wouldn't expect a village in Afghanistan to welcome one of our stag parties. So why should they expect us to welcome their habits?
Bill Nelson, Belfast

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