Act, react, and interact on the culture scene: The role of culture diplomacy

Gihane Zaki
Thursday 13 Jul 2023

While 'culture' is not typically viewed as an academic or university discipline by the majority of people globally, it is associated with education, behaviour, and knowledge in the common mind.

 

Consequently, individuals exhibiting such characteristics are often deemed 'cultured.'

Countries with rich cultural heritage and ancient civilizations have a distinct character, shaped over millennia through tangible and intangible remains that create their identity and authenticity. As demonstrated by writer Gamal Hamdan in The Character of Egypt, there is a reciprocal effect between cultural development and social structure, with the former influencing people's behaviours to be consistent with new scientific visions and models. Hamdan also argues that geography is like history in that no region repeats itself, just as no era occurs twice.

Despite the importance of culture in shaping a nation's identity and authenticity, there are growing concerns about its deterioration, particularly among younger generations. This is often attributed to national strategies that have downgraded the priority of culture. Critics argue that policymakers have failed to recognize culture's value as a 'backbone brand' for an entire nation, instead regarding it as an accessory.

As an actor in the international cultural arena for many years, I emphasize the need for an innovative approach to cultural tools and for prioritizing cultural dossiers. Doing so will have a positive impact on both national and international levels.

Who are the key players in the international cultural arena? The culture attaché and culture diplomat are both considered as critical figures in shaping a nation's cultural image. The former can be likened to a general practitioner, while the latter is more like a specialist surgeon. Although this comparison may seem unusual, it is an apt way to illustrate their contrasting roles and responsibilities.

The cultural attaché is a permanent member of a diplomatic mission's organizational structure, responsible for overseeing cultural and educational matters and supporting the ambassador, who primarily handles political affairs. Governments appoint the cultural attaché to this role.

As the main driver of cultural cooperation, the culture attaché's primary responsibility is to ensure that their country's cultural roadmap remains on track and aligned with the government's approved direction, which has been shaped over past decades by previous cultural attachés. Given their privileged position, the culture attaché plays a critical role in education by bridging the gap between youth in their home country and abroad. They can innovate university channels, open new pathways for knowledge seekers, and create new horizons for curious and talented artists.

The role of the cultural attaché can be likened to that of a general practitioner in medicine. Both rely on scientific foundations and draw from a wealth of experience to fine-tune their knowledge in their respective fields. Similarly, the general practitioner inherits a wide range of prescriptions for common ailments but can adjust doses or even avoid certain medications based on their expertise. Likewise, the cultural attaché follows a cooperation roadmap designed by their predecessors but has the flexibility to adjust it through rerouting bilateral conventions, university agreements, or Memorandum of Understandings (MoUs) based on the current political climate and their government's updated vision.

The second critical figure is the 'cultural diplomat,' who may be a traditional diplomat with a new approach to culture and history, or a cultural actor with political acumen and diplomatic skills.

The concept of 'culture diplomacy' was brought to the forefront at the end of the second millennium, although it has existed as a diplomatic practice for centuries.

Egypt has a long history of integrating culture and politics. Cultural exchanges have been a fundamental part of the country's foreign strategies since ancient times. Egypt's diplomatic mission of Prince Herkhuf (2700 BC) and the creation of the Kap school during the New Kingdom (1570 and 1544 BC) were crucial in shaping the minds of Egypt's elite and foreign communities. Queen Hatshepsut's innovative expedition to Punt broke traditional diplomatic practices and enhanced the exchange of cultural and natural heritage between Egypt and Punt. Meanwhile, King Akhenaton's diplomatic letters inscribed on the Amarna ostraca (1350 BC) featured unprecedented protocol formulas, and Amenhotep III enriched the colourful palette of colours after his artist's experiences in the kingdom of Mitanni that once covered northern and western Syria and northern Iraq (1600-1340 BC(.

Culture and politics have been mutually influential since early civilization, with both considered two sides of the same coin. Navigating the tumultuous waters of politics and culture requires a unique skill set, making the role of a cultural attaché more complex than traditional matters and a national issue in the international arena.

In recent decades, the world has faced unprecedented global challenges, including unprecedented armed conflicts that have deteriorated relationships between countries, identity crises that have led to diplomatic ruptures, and economic issues that have complicated the actions, reactions, and interactions of global actors, particularly states, especially in underdeveloped countries.

Restitution of artefacts, indecent artworks, disrespectful movies, and documentaries produced by the host country are delicate cultural topics that pose significant challenges to bilateral relations.

The Cultural diplomat can be compared to a surgeon who can act in emergencies in hostile environments to save lives and prevent diplomatic ruptures.

 

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