The global human society is in a constant state of flux, every dimension and aspect of human activity is undergoing change. Politics is no different, especially international politics. Ever since the establishment of the Westphalian state system in 1648, there has been sea changes in the notion of power and the national and international power profile of nation-states across the world.
Power, as understood in international politics, is the sum total of a nation-state’s overall strength—not just economic strength, but also military strength, the power and cohesiveness of the national society, the extent to which the country’s political system promotes or doesn’t promote the growth of liberal democracy and its related institutions and values.
Diplomacy, on the other hand, denotes who the nation-states negotiate with in the comity of nation-states, not only to secure their national interests but also to maintain and promote international trade, peace and security with the oft repeated phrase of liberal internationalism—‘rules based world order’.
Culture provides people with the mode of thinking, seeing and intepreting things around them. Culture is ingrained in every aspect of human life—be it the clothes we wear to the food we eat and even the language we speak. In Frode Liland’s dictum: “The cultural side of foreign policy is a vast and treacherous area”. Culture plays a crucial role in influencing the policies we make. Vlahos argued that “pattern of thought and behaviour are shaped by culture; they are not the product of mere nationalism”.
Frode again asserted that cultural diplomacy has deep roots and can be easily be found in the archives of external affairs ministers. A nation inherits a style and culture, which in turn, influence and decide the course of actions the nation has to follow in relation to other sovereign states.
The foreign policy of many Asian and African states have been historically conditioned by their former colonial masters be it Britain, Spain, Portugal, Germany etc. This is more illustrated among French-speaking African countries such as Senegal, Mali, Benin, Ivory Coast etc. France, hence, becomes their best comrade in international politics. Same can be said of the former British colonies such as India, Gambia, Ghana, Cameroon, Cyprus etc.
In the context of the theme, ‘soft power’ is what refers to the new and more nuanced and layered dimensions of national power—it is markedly different from the notion of hard power which largely talks about military power and strength.
Soft power deals with the ability of nation-states to sway global public opinion and bolster its national interests by the appeal of its culture, knowledge, customs, traditions, history etc. Cultural diplomacy is intimately connected to soft power. It denotes how a country utilises the cultural-historical treasure of any nation to promote its national interests and agendas among the comity of nations. Globalization has buttressed the idea of a borderless world where citizenship has become increasingly cosmopolitan in nature and has contributed to the use of culture as an essential tool of diplomacy.
In this contemporary world, cultural diplomacy and soft power are very essential parts of any country’ national power. Whenever we talk of cultural diplomacy and soft power, the first country that comes to mind is India—the land of Bharat, the land of myriad cultures, religions, sects, languages etc. India, besides China, has inherited a civilization which is over 5,000 years old and is rightly called the ‘melting pot of the ancient and the medieval world’. Culture forms an integral part of the national power profile of India.
India is the birthplace of some four major religions. Therefore, it is undoubtedly the abode of cultural diversity—this is what Jawaharlal Nehru had articulated in his magnum opus work ‘The Discovery of India’. In this context, governments since independence have promoted cultural diplomacy, some examples include the Buddhism tourism circuit in the eastern parts of India, the conscious promotion of Hindu tourism circuit throughout India—especially the southern part of India which boasts of some enormously majestic temples like the Tirupati temple, Brihadeshwara temple to name a few. Other examples include the Islamic holy sites of Ajmer Sharif dargah etc.
Since 2014, cultural diplomacy has been promoted as a cardinal feature of the Indian foreign policy. Soft power is also promoted as a part of the cultural diplomacy—such as the immense popularity of Bollywood films like ‘Dangal’, ‘Taare Zameen Par’ in China, ‘Sholay’ in Russia etc. A new and unique feature of Indian cultural diplomacy is that after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration of the Ram Mandir compound and the Kashi Vishwanath corridor, the government seems keen to promote cultural diplomacy to bolster the tourism numbers surrounding the popularity of the temples that are going to be built.
In the context of the contemporary world, cultural diplomacy has been used by western countries to develop the famous “clash of civilizations” thesis of the political scientist and academic Samuel P Huntington, where he has argued and prophetically, that the future wars or conflicts will not be fought over ideologies or economic supremacy but over cultural and religious issues.
Now several western countries like US, Britain, France, Israel etc have been using their Greco-Roman-Judeo civilisational heritage and its holy sites to challenge the worldview of the Muslim world. Perhaps the best example is the tussle between Jews and Muslims over veneration rights of the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Over the years there have been several clashes and conflicts over the right to worship. Israel promotes the compound of the Mosque as a Jewish tourist and cultural centre much to the chagrin of people belonging to the Islamic faith.
Coming to the question of soft power, it has been quite instrumental in aiding the rise of China. Chinese culture and its Buddhist heritage have been systematically promoted by the atheist communist regime to fulfill its Machiavellian purpose of making careful use of culture and religion to bolster its national power profile abroad.
Chinese films is another medium through which China has been increasing its influence globally. Chinese soft power is evident from the rich heritage that it has inherited from its Buddhist past and the Confucian traditions. The expanding network of Chinese language institutes and cultural institutes is the quintessential epitome of Chinese soft power.
In West Asia, Saudi Arabia and UAE have used cultural diplomacy as an instrument of statecraft to not only position themselves as centres of economic activity but also to promote a moderate version of Islam. The latter assumes special significance as Saudi Arabia was considered as a global pariah state owing to the radical notion of Islam which preached Wahabbism and Salafism, and emerged as the most potent security threat in the form of Islamist terrorism across the globe.
Now both UAE and Saudi Arabia are promoting a moderate and tolerant version of Islam which embraces modernity while at the same time promoting modern values. This is evident from Saudi Arabia’s groundbreaking recent decisions such as allowing its women citizens to drive, allowing them entry into football stadiums, allowing women cadets to serve in the military and announcing Vision 2030 to reduce Saudi dependence on non-renewable sources of energy like oil and natural gas.
While soft power and cultural diplomacy has played a key role in bolstering the national power profiles of different countries, it is to be noted that they are not without pitfalls. The pitfalls are primarily with cultural diplomacy.
Diplomacy is said to be the art of negotiation, to get what is best in the national interests of one’s country. But cultural diplomacy is different from other types of diplomacy. In a country with ethno-religious diversity cultural diplomacy can open a Pandora’s Box causing problems for socio-religious co-existence. This is evident from the case of Israel, in 2019, the Israeli parliament passed a law declaring Israel a “Jewish nation”. And in doing so, Israel effectively discredited and denied its long historical Arab and Muslim heritage. If Israel could have played a careful balancing act promoting itself as the abode of Islamic and Jewish heritage it could well have given extra edge to its cultural diplomacy and perhaps heal the ever widening schism between its Jewish and Arab citizens.
In conclusion, it is necessary for nations which are culturally and ethnically diverse to carefully make use of soft power and cultural diplomacy to improve their international standing abroad. They must learn from their past and should make strident efforts towards healing not only their own polities but also make the world a better place for people of all religious, ideological hues and shades.
Therefore, nation-states across the globe should base on their shared cultural heritage, historical experiences and customs and traditions and should develop effective ways of portraying themselves onto the global stage by using the tool of cultural diplomacy which would aid in increasing their soft power appeal.
– The writer is currently working as a Research Associate at Defence Research and Studies (dras.in) and is a columnist. The views expressed are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of Raksha Anirveda