Cultural diplomacy: A must for state branding

Gihane Zaki
Tuesday 6 Dec 2022

The main lines of today’s cultural diplomacy were laid down by the ancient Egyptians some three millennia ago, writes Gihane Zaki


A vibrant and innovative academic field of research, cultural diplomacy has successfully established itself as a stand-alone entity within the disciplines of global governance and international relations and no longer as an accessory on the margins. This development in the academic field has been increased by policymakers’ interest over recent decades.  

In a globalised and increasingly multipolar world in which crises pop up more than ever before, among them wars and armed conflicts, the energy crisis, environmental threats, unprecedent sanitation challenges, the proliferation of social media and the increasing mass communication technologies, the tool of cultural diplomacy has become indispensable because it embodies a unique ability to influence public opinion in order to modify the convictions of individuals throughout the world. 

With the development of the modern state system, cultural exchanges and dialogue have turned towards a new type of expression that has yet to be emphasised in the formal core of diplomatic relations. Recent decades have witnessed the wide mobilisation of cultural resources in national strategies targeting political goals to the extent of using them as a one-way tactic more than a two-way exchange for presenting political views to others and promoting the national language. 

Researchers have also recently paid significant attention to the challenges facing the practical and theoretical sides of culture as well as the extent of its current instrumentalisation. Eminent scholars like Ien Ang, Yudhishthir Raj Isar, Phillip Mar, and Milton C. Cummings have defined cultural diplomacy as “the exchange of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding.” 

Other scholars have drawn a distinction between cultural diplomacy characterised by the interest-driven communication of national policy and a more open-ended intercultural dialogue with others. The main target of cultural diplomacy is then to mitigate negative perceptions created by higher-level politics in order to help establish and/or maintain the state’s cultural presence in overseas regions or countries and boost its profile in the economy, trade, tourism, and diplomatic and cultural interests. 

As researcher Simon Mark points out, however, cultural diplomacy has also been associated with instrumental approaches in which the deployment of cultural means (however defined) is subordinated to the pursuit of other policy goals.

Like cultural cooperation, cultural diplomacy is organic as it takes its roots from old practices and interactions between nations experienced throughout history by individuals, communities, or institutional actors. Cultural cooperation is able to enhance intercultural and interfaith understanding, to promote reconciliation, and to encourage peace and stability. 


ANCIENT CULTURAL DIPLOMACY: Evidence of the cultural approach can be seen throughout history and has existed since the earliest human societies. Throughout the years, the interaction of peoples, the exchange of languages, religions, ideas, arts and societal structures have consistently improved relations between divergent groups. 

Earlier studies assumed that the basic structure of diplomacy was simply inherited from ancient Egypt, whose surviving papyri provide a lot of information on the life styles of individuals, although one has to reconstruct the overall picture from hundreds of individuals across the whole of Egypt, even as surviving ostraca (designs on stones) illuminate daily life at the lower levels. 

The political exchanges of the most powerful states of the Near East like Egypt, Mitanni, Babylonia, and Assyria in the 14th century BCE can be seen in some 35 items of correspondence in the ancient Egyptian Amarna Letters that show how conventional forms of diplomacy operated according to what today we call “savoir-vivre protocol.” 

The Amarna Letters are the oldest detailed records of successful diplomacy in the world, and recent studies have also attributed to the Pharaoh Amenhotep III the seven virtues of the ideal diplomat. 

Nevertheless, long before Amenhotep III and during the reign of Pepi II, Prince Herkhouf, then the governor of Upper Egypt, conducted many expeditions in Africa with great success and showed great courage and outstanding skills in building bridges with others. He received many titles that reflected his diplomatic skills, among them “sole companion,” “chamberlain,” “royal seal bearer,” and, most importantly, “interpreter” and the “chief of scouts” who led four expeditions to Nubia and explored new lands in Africa. 

Despite the ambiguity surrounding these expeditions and the difficulty of classifying them as exploratory expeditions or military manoeuvres, Herkhouf spelled out in his autobiography, considered by Egyptologists as one of the most famous pieces of writing from ancient Egypt, the many facets of ancient diplomacy.

They included accompanying the guest “from door to door” in the foreign land and protecting him during his journey and exchanging gifts between rulers, with Herkhouf himself returning from his expeditions in Africa with incense, ebony, exotic oils, panther skins, elephant tusks, throw sticks (used for hunting), and other products including a dancing pygmy from the rulers of African tribes to the king of Egypt. 

They also included creating a tradition of national rewards for “messengers and ambassadors” who realised outstanding achievements. Herkhouf carved on the walls of his tomb in the necropolis of Qubbet Al-Hawa in Aswan the king’s letter of appreciation to him for the establishment of regular trade routes that enabled a massive exchange of information and cultural expressions between communities as well as flattering his role in establishing peace and stability. 

The inscription reflects the changes in the Egyptian world view that were occurring during the late Old Kingdom, showing the juggling between military power and the “soft power” of diplomacy. Such deliberate efforts at cultural and communication exchange can be identified as early examples of cultural diplomacy. “Informal ambassadors” or early “cultural diplomats” like explorers, travellers, traders and artists have also all been considered as living examples. 


THE PHILOSOPHER-POLITICIAN: Sometime between 2375 and 2350 BCE, a wise man named Ptah-Hotep was chosen by the Pharaoh Djedkare Isesi to be his vizier. 

This politician and influential man wrote teachings centred around themes of silence and listening, following one’s heart and being truthful, and avoiding greed and conflict. His proverbial sayings upheld obedience to a father and a superior as the highest virtue, but they also emphasised humility, faithfulness in performing one’s own duties, and the ability to keep silent when necessary.  

Although high-ranking in politics, Ptah-Hotep’s writing could be considered as didactic wisdom literature and perceived as a fundamental part of ancient Egyptian philosophy. 

For Ptah-Hotep, the moral order of the universe is guaranteed by the goddess Maat, the embodiment of harmony and social order. According to the ancient-Egyptian belief system, it was Maat who brought order to the world after its creation, and she was the one responsible for maintaining this order, preventing the world from sliding back into primordial chaos.

The lessons in the Maxims of Ptah-Hotep mostly revolve around themes that could be used in modern times as a basic guide for diplomatic studies. The book involves an understanding of the many facets of human nature that can undermine agreement and stoke conflict and a commitment to unpicking these with foresight and grace. It includes virtues like listening, silence, and following the heart, and problematic emotions that lead to evil like greed, jealousy, slander, aggression, and the inability to listen.

The order of the Maxims is random and does not have any meaning or significance. 

In ancient Egypt, wisdom literature was called sebayt, translated as “instructions” in our modern language. 

* The writer is member of the House of Representatives’ Foreign Relations Committee and a researcher at the French National Research Centre CNRS-Sorbonne University.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 December, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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