On November 9, 2009, the world watched as hundreds of giant, painted dominoes toppled in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to mark 20 years since the end of the Cold War. World leaders gathered to express the symbolism of this momentous event in the context of the global community of the 21st Century. That same weekend, from November 6-9, the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy (ICD) played host to participants and speakers in the framework of “A World Without Walls: An International Congress on “Soft Power, Cultural Diplomacy and Interdependence.” On this momentous day, two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Europe, one sentiment prevailed: we are one people. There is no doubt the age of interdependency is upon us. An age which demands a fresh approach to international relations in the context of these turbulent times, where we are faced by the threat of global warming, religious extremism and controversial military conflict. It is the cue for cultural diplomacy to take to the world stage.
In the 10th anniversary year of the foundation of the ICD, the “World Without Walls” congress brought together the largest range of speakers in the institute’s history to address the most pressing issues facing our world today and the role that cultural diplomacy can play in their resolution. For the last decade, the ICD has sought to promote global peace and stability by strengthening and supporting intercultural relations in the political and international sphere as well as at the grass-roots level. The institute is founded on the principle that cultural diplomacy is an indispensable tool in conducting international relations and is not secondary to political diplomacy, but rather functions as an intrinsic aspect of it. Cultural diplomacy can therefore be seen as a vital foundation of all political activity.
While there is no concrete definition of the term, American political scientist and author Milton C. Cummings’ definition of cultural diplomacy, “the exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs, and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding,” effectively encompasses the institute’s approach to the concept. In this sense, cultural diplomacy can be interpreted to indicate any mutual exchange between cultures.
This exchange—and cultural diplomacy in a wider sense—can be extended via the encouragement of intercultural dialogue in an academic context to include, for example, the politics of Soft Power and the way that international affairs are handled. Professor Joseph Nye Jr. of Harvard University, who coined the term “Soft Power,” underlines that the use of what we describe as cultural diplomacy is an important component of Soft Power. Professor Nye categorizes the resources that lead to Soft Power as culture (both elite and popular); policy-making and its perception from abroad; and a country’s value system and legitimacy in this regard. He further suggests that to successfully “attract” others—a term which he uses to refer to the act of convincing someone that a culture or policy is appealing—leaders must “pay attention to the diversity of views and culture of others and have to learn to listen more.”
During the “World Without Walls” Congress a great deal of emphasis was placed on the fact that the ability to understand changing contexts and situations is critical for good leadership. To comprehend the impulses that lead to opinion and reaction in consideration of the significance of cultural aspects and how they come to bear on society and politics is a useful resource for any world leader. Today more than ever, it is important to understand actions within the framework of the culture from which they are spawned and in relation to which outside culture(s) they respond. Global media and the digital age see to the broadcasting of images and snapshots within the myriad of world cultures constantly being observed and analyzed. One of the challenges we face in today’s world is to aid this reception and encourage the active and effective digestion of this information.
The trend toward accepting the need for cultural diplomacy and the benefits of Soft Power in achieving both common and individual interests has grown significantly in recent years. An obvious example is the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama with its significantly different approach to foreign policy. This may be the most shining example, relished by the media and global thinkers alike, and is certainly easy to reference by the President’s landmark speech in Cairo on June 4, 2009 and the recently bestowed Nobel Peace Prize. Nonetheless, let us not forget UN Secretary General Ban Ki- Moon, who champions the merits of “quiet” diplomacy with his “velvet glove” approach. Ki-Moon describes himself as a harmonizer and consensus builder.
During the ICD “A World Without Walls” Congress, many leading figures in international relations came together to support the need for institutions promoting cultural diplomacy in an often volatile global climate and a world which is becoming increasingly interdependent. Former candidate for the 2007 French Presidential Elections, Ségolène Royal, spoke of the changed world since 1989 and outlined her vision for a United States of Europe, more effective in tackling global issues. During panel discussions ambassadors, academics and former heads of state expressed the views that intercultural dialogue is a necessity in today’s international relations. Additionally, ICD Advisory Board members like Dr. Vaira Vīķe- Freiberga, former Latvian President and candidate for the EU-Presidency have shown their commitment to the message of the ICD. With the support of remarkable figures like this, the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy hopes to continue its work and secure the position of cultural diplomacy at the forefront of international political relations in the future.
By David Watt
David Watt has been a member of the team at the ICD since summer 2009 where his responsibilities include CD News reporting and the co- ordination of the Young Leaders’ Forum “The UK Meets Germany.”