Cultural diplomacy: A walk on the other side

Gihane Zaki
Tuesday 21 May 2024

Cultural diplomacy has always aimed to spread mutual understanding, promote trust and respect, and reduce the barriers among peoples, writes Gihane Zaki


The world of today is riddled with a complexity that is growing more than at any other time in history. The difficult balance between national policies and international sovereignty has become ever more complicated.

To help ordinary people understand the challenges of our time, we need to offer them tools to manage the complexity that they observe around them on daily basis and allow them to interpret it as a series of interconnected and inter-related wholes rather than as linear causes.

Though knowledge management is fundamental, it also requires cross-cultural interactions, openness of mind, and an understanding of events from the side of people one meets as well as from one’s own side.  

From time immemorial, whether they were travellers, traders, missionaries, or just ordinary folk, people from around the globe have been accustomed to moving from one place to another and initiating interpersonal connections, relationships, and interactions. Although they often did not speak the same languages, believe in the same gods, or share the same cultures, they nevertheless developed productive involvements in each other’s lives, known in modern terms as cross-cultural interactions.

The term “cultural diplomacy” did not exist at that time, but its substance was understood and reflected in various practices going back to ancient times.

In the third millennium BCE, for example, the ancient Egyptian Prince Harkuf was one of the first individuals documented as practising culture diplomacy, as his biography, beautifully carved in hieroglyphics on the facade of his tomb at Aswan, attests and representing a precious piece of diplomatic history.

Throughout the ages, cross-cultural interactions have always had a strong influence on societies, proving their deep impact on people’s beliefs and ways of life in the most important episodes of human history.  

It seems obvious to us now, but cultural diplomacy has been practised since ancient times, long before it was defined by scholars as a new sub-field of public diplomacy or as the exchange of art, ideas, and other cultural expressions among nations, as happened during the Cold War in the 1950s.

But the main target of cultural diplomacy, whether as something practised since ancient times or, later, studied as an academic discipline, has not changed across the millennia. It has always kept the same spirit: spreading mutual understanding, promoting trust and respect, and reducing the barriers among peoples.

In the 1990s, cultural diplomacy became associated with the glamorous term “soft power,” which, popularised by US academic Joseph Nye, means the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get the outcomes you want.

The first mention of cultural diplomacy in an academic context came in a 1959 article by Chinese academic Shen-yu Dai entitled “Peking’s International Position and the Cold War” that analysed Communist China’s foreign policy. The powerful tool of culture that allowed China to strengthen its political position not only in Asia but also in the Middle East and Africa was clearly highlighted.

In the middle of the 20th century, the international political context was complicated by the competition of two major ideological systems: Capitalism, spearheaded by the US and its close ally the UK, and Communism, promoted by Soviet Russia and China.

The introduction of cultural diplomacy at this time, both as a practice and as a new field of scholarly research, seemed justified as a powerful tool for establishing meaningful dialogue.

IDENTITY AND BELONGING: Intercultural dialogue between peoples is one of the earliest and is still one of the most essential ways by which peaceful coexistence can be brought about in a divergent world.

This dialogue does not tend to harm – as has been suggested by some – one’s own culture but, on the contrary, fosters a sense of belonging (intima’ in Arabic) and upholds the values of equality while emphasising interdependence, tolerance, and shared humanity. It helps to dismantle cultural barriers and advance cultural identity (haweya) by enlightening minds and creating harmony between the past and the present and a reciprocal understanding and interchange of ideas, art forms, and values.

These principles help to draw up an appropriate framework for harmonious ties, a deep sense of cultural identity, and the mutual enrichment of different nations.

To clarify the past and future of cultural diplomacy, a new study has recently been published (March 2024) by scholar Natalia Grincheva who rigorously summarises and analyses academic scholarship in the sub-field of public diplomacy and has produced, for the first time, the largest curated bibliographical and citation database available.

The focus on the high arts as opposed to popular culture has been one of the most important elements for criticism, since this narrows the scope and limits the diversity of audiences for cultural expressions, as was noted by US scholars Heather Hurlburt and Bill Ivey in 2007.

The field has continued to be criticised, especially by professionals working in the cultural and diplomatic domains, on the grounds of a lack of clarity regarding the scope and impact of the activities involved, as well as the job descriptions of its actors. This is mentioned by Canadian scholar Patricia Goff in her book the Routledge Handbook of Public Diplomacy published in 2020.

As Grincheva notes, cultural diplomacy has been defined by scholars in terms of the ways that various countries integrate it into their national and international diplomatic strategies. For example, the US uses the term interchangeably with “soft power” as a sub-field of public diplomacy, while the UK favours the term “cultural relations” instead.

In Japan, “cultural exchange” is the official term used by the government. In Europe, things are more pragmatic and functionalist since cultural diplomacy has gone beyond the context of political governance and international relations and spread out into disciplines such as the creative arts, humanities, social sciences, history, philosophy, cultural sociology, cultural geography, cultural studies, and the fine arts.

Germany has opted for the term “foreign cultural policy,” while France refers to “culture in external relations.”

Art is a driving force in human societies, encompassing their relationships with others. There are many meanings given to the notion of art, in particular when it overlaps with civilisation. The notion is very complex. The 19th-century British anthropologist Edward Tylor placed art within “the complex whole (of culture), which includes knowledge, belief, morals, law, custom and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society,” for example.

 In a contemporary variant, Nicholas J Cull suggests in his book Public Diplomacy: Taxonomies and Histories, published in 2019, that there are several kinds of cultural diplomacy and includes “art diplomacy” that operates through music, the fine arts, theatre, or dance within in. In fact, art has always been an expression of national cultures and traditions and has played a foundational role in establishing bridges across borders, bringing peoples together in a meaningful dialogue that nurtures mutual trust and understanding.  

Art diplomacy has also recently found a place on the curricula of the fine arts departments of some private universities in Egypt. For example, the German University in Cairo (GUC) has created an art centre for branding called the “Branding Egypt Centre.” In 2017, it launched a project for branding the Upper Egyptian city of Luxor as part of its new visual identity concept shaped under presidential auspices.

In 2022, a series of conferences on art diplomacy was also held with the aim of rendering art useful for society and putting it in an international context in order to stress the meaningfulness of art dialogue.


The writer is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee of the House of Representatives and a researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Sorbonne University.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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