The Art Of Soft Power – A Study Of Cultural Diplomacy

In January 2015, I attended the World Economic Forum in Davos where I spoke about the impact of arts and culture on some of our global challenges – across society, the economy, education, health and wellbeing. In the questions that followed, I was asked whether there was equivalent evidence for the use of culture in the service of soft power. Having looked at a wide range of research to prepare for my speech I could confirm, unequivocally, that there is not.

Over recent years, soft power has gained a significant reputation and, in some countries, substantial government investment. This is despite the absence of a body of research that would prove the efficacy of art in soft power. Those people working in arts education or in the area of arts and health can draw upon robust research to make their case and to make effective choices around how scarce resources are allocated. There simply isn’t the same kind of evidence available to people working in the field of cultural diplomacy. Given the enormous claims made for the role of culture in diplomacy – and the drive towards evidence-led policy – it’s surprising that this particular contribution of the cultural sector has remained out of the critical gaze of academic scrutiny: poorly articulated and poorly understood.

This may be an apposite time to attempt to increase our understanding of soft power’s potential: as the world-order undergoes significant change and long-held international alliances shift and evolve, the kind of diplomacy that operates outside the formal channels of hard edged politics is likely to become increasingly important.

My interlocutor at Davos turned out to be Lithuania’s Ambassador to the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG), Rytis Paulauskas. In follow up conversations, Rytis suggested that UNOG – a microcosm of world politics in which communities of diplomats seek to influence one another not only through formal sessions but through a structured Cultural Activities Programme – might offer a unique laboratory for investigating the ways in which culture is deployed in the service of diplomacy.

The contained environment of UNOG had immediate appeal. The study of soft power is fraught with practical problems. It’s easy to measure how many people saw a piece of art: much harder to measure whether (and how) it changed their feelings towards the country that presented it – particularly when that change may take place in different ways, in different circumstances and, often, years down the line.

Another significant challenge is the absence of a shared understanding of what soft power (or cultural diplomacy) really means – the terms are used interchangeably (and, by some people, consciously avoided). There is, of course, Joseph Nye’s famous starting point – the ability to attract and persuade – but our research in Geneva uncovered over 150 responses to a question about how soft power is articulated, understood and practiced.

It’s also true that cultural diplomacy has something of a shadowy reputation and may even be most effective when government involvement is at a distance, out of sight. A report by Christopher Hill and Susan Beadle for the British Academy in 2014 urged caution for scholars seeking to measure, understand or account for soft power, and for governments seeking to deploy it. They argued that when governments conspicuously use soft power (in national branding campaigns, for example) it frequently backfires. None of us wants to feel that our feelings are being targeted in order that they can be at best influenced or, at worst, manipulated – and we certainly don’t want governments doing the manipulating. So soft power is, if you like, the ninja of the cultural policy world. It operates by stealth. This presents a challenge to anyone wanting to study the ways in which it works.

Researching the processes and effects of soft power among a community like UNOG may present its own challenges. In a multilateral environment, sophisticated diplomats attempt to influence the thoughts, feelings and behaviours of fellow sophisticated diplomats – professionals whose skill-set includes the ability to resist (or at least moderate) external influence. This is different from a bilateral setting, where the influencing effort is focussed on people who don’t necessarily possess these same attributes.

The research project that followed was based on interviews with 20 diplomats and the UNOG secretariat undertaken during five fieldwork trips to Geneva by Melissa Nisbett and James Doeser This data – and additional information relating to the Cultural Activities Programme in and around the Palais des Nations, the main UNOG campus – was investigated using Thematic Analysis.

The opportunity to study this distinctive ‘tribe’ in its natural habitat was both rare and revealing. Private spaces and private lives were shown to be important soft power tools and – in contrast to academic assumptions in the existing cultural diplomacy literature – the researchers found a clear connection between cultural spaces and political meaning. The manifold responses of the various interviewees fell into two distinct categories: ‘reaching out’ (cultural diplomacy) and ‘standing out’ (soft power). These dual notions might initially seem to be at odds, but they mirror the blend of leadership and collaboration required in tackling the kinds of global challenges that are the daily business of UNOG.

The experience in Geneva led the researchers to question whether an alternative to the usual starting points of political science, economics or sociology methodologies might prove fruitful in the study of soft power. The rituals, performance and behaviours of the diplomatic tribe – along with the settings, clothing, mannerisms and body language displayed – suggest that looking through an anthropological lens could offer new insights.

In the initial scoping visit to UNOG, I was privileged to take part in early conversations in which diplomats and their officers shared fascinating insights into the ways in which arts and culture create opportunities to develop, enhance and maintain relationships. There were many different perspectives but over and over, the same truth emerged: interviewees expressed an intuitive feeling that ‘something good’ came out of cultural activities, but admitted that they had never stopped to question, explore or articulate this supposed chain of causality.

Over the course of that visit, it dawned on me that I was almost certainly the only person in the conversations who had actually been deployed as a tool of cultural diplomacy. As a dancer with The Royal Ballet I performed in many tours abroad, some of which were at particularly strategic moments in time: China in 1983; Russia in 1987; Australia in 1988 and many more. In 2008 I danced in Beijing again, in the section of the Closing ceremony of the Olympic Games that marked the handover to London, the next host city.

Perhaps the artist in me should be happy to believe that art has the power to change how people feel, think and behave – to accept that ‘something good’ happens, and leave it there. But the analyst in me is not. And besides, if we can evidence what so many of us believe instinctively to be true – that art can build bridges and promote understanding between nations – this might be a very good moment to understand more about the how and the why.

For more information and to read the full report please visit the King’s College London website

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