Tuesday, 1 May 2012

To be cultural diplomacy or not to be cultural diplomacy?

Last Friday and Saturday I participated in the first meeting of a new network of scholars interested in cultural diplomacy, organised by colleagues at the Universities of Bath and Swansea. The most exciting, and in many ways the most challenging, aspect of this meeting was its interdisciplinarity. After spending a week at the International Studies Association talking almost exclusively with colleagues working in public diplomacy from an international relations or international communications perspective, I was now discussing the subject with colleagues from area studies, cultural studies, linguistics and sociology. Needless to say we had some extremely interesting conversations which have helped me to understand better the cultural processes and products involved in cultural diplomacy. Not least was the challenge from some to define cultural diplomacy, and some arrived at the conclusion that definitions are not that important, and in fact can be restrictive. Also, where do cultural relations end, and cultural diplomacy begin?

In one of our breakout group meetings I raised the example of the current push in the UK to promote Shakespeare who, like Dickens at the start of the year, is now appearing like a rash across the Radio 4, BBC 2 and 3 schedules. I pose my questions here, but can offer no answers as these are 'thoughts in progress'. I would be delighted to see the opinions of those who read this blog.

The first question is about Shakespeare as a cultural diplomacy product. Why do we suppose that Shakespeare represents Britain (or, more specifically England), and who decides? Is this a particular view of British culture that only represents a part of the nation? For many of my neighbours on the working class council estate in Bradford where I grew up, Shakespeare does not represent their culture. So whose culture are we promoting, and why? Does this remain a class issue? Or educational? Or something else?

The second question arises from a colleague's response to these observations at Bath. Shakespeare is known throughout the world and is performed on a regular basis in foreign languages, with the drama localised for specific cultural settings. In other words, Shakespeare has been appropriated. What are the consequences of this for cultural diplomacy? Is there a point where the appropriation means dilution, and the original product becomes hidden, or even disappears altogether? Does it matter if some audiences watching a foreign language performance of Hamlet in some remote corner of the world have never heard of Shakespeare? If they cannot connect that performance to the UK, does it mean that Shakespeare has no cultural diplomacy relevance?

I will continue to ponder these questions, and I look forward to your comments.



  1. The cultural diplomacy can not be seperated from economic and military power. Half century ago, so many Chinese gifted authors could not get their respect and award in any international competitions, mostly because of their nationality. Shakespear is a lucky writer. In return, this is a win-win agreement between Shakespear and Britain

  2. Hey professor,
    1. as you said, Shakespear cannot represent the whole British culture. for me, UK's multiculture is a treasure to be explored-- media should not just linger on the century old Shakespear...
    2. To manage the distance between cultures is important...too much promotion on the same Shakepear icon makes people bored and thus loose the soft power.
    3. It is inevitable that readers and audience would reinterpret Shakespear, based on their own understanding and experience. The most efficent cultural communication is to look for cultural similarities. For example, a reader from a remote south Asian village may understand Shakespear's Romeo and Juliet because he or she had similar love experience. In this sense,Romeo and Juliet might be re-constructed in the reader's mind with images of village girl and boy. Shakespear's originality might be diluted, but to me, it is not a problem. The success of cultural communication is to create mutual understanding. Emphasizing too much on originality and identity would lose the communication power.

  3. I have a problem with "representative". It surely is unrealistic to expect any single figure or practice to fully represent a country or culture. As you say Shakespeare meant little on a working class estate, nor Goethe, Confucious, Tagore or even perhaps nowadays Elvis.
    I recall David Triesman, when he had the British Council/public diplomacy brief in the FCO dismissing the BC's claim about attendances at arts events " Seeing Macbeth just tells me they like theatre or Shakespeare". Some of his plays however have been very powerful in repressive regimes if they have escaped the censor. The (exiled) Free Theatre of Belarus are showing King Lear in the Globe this month as part of the Globe Shakespeare Festival as a deliberate view on the regime in Minsk. Richard III has also had a powerful effect in Cold War days in eastern Europe. I agree with the previous note: the aim is to engage and be seen to be engaging; the tool is secondary in modern cultural relations.
    Were there any practitioners at the conference? I've always found a wonderful mismatch between academics and insiders!

  4. Thank you for your comments. Zhuying and Steve, these are extremely interesting and help me to clarify my thoughts. I see a bigger research project emerging here; and Steve you are right - we do need the input of 'practioners' to help us understand how these processes work at the coalface.

  5. A useful summary of the current debate amongst practitioners.. from a range of countries.. is here http://www.ditchley.co.uk/page/395/cultural-diplomacy.htm

    Some countries remain wedded to showcasing as part of a nation branding campaign; others to simply acting as the export division of their own arts sectors. More progressive are moving to earning trust which implies a far greater acceptance of criticism (which is China's main weakness of course). In my previous role as director for the network of European Union national institutes for Culture (EUNIC) I saw every variation, just within the EU.. 31 organisations from 25 member states. Now working on developing a cultural relations strategy for EU-China for the EC.