Cultural diplomacy: Australia’s chance in the Pacific

| September 20, 2018

With DFAT currently conducting a review of Australia’s Soft Power Review, what is the potential for cultural diplomacy?

‘Cultural’ diplomacy provides an opportunity for Australia to retain its important standing in the region. Cultural diplomacy involves deepening cultural connections between states through establishing inter-polity communication using cultural artefacts.

For Australia, this deepening of relations with Pacific neighbours is not for immediate, reciprocal economic gain, but for greater cultural connection between the states. This could allow Australia to remain influential over normative behaviours – the accepted behaviours allowed in a society – that govern the Pacific region.

Consequently, cultural diplomacy could help Australia secure like-minded partners in the region that more closely share Australia’s national values.

‘Cultural Diplomacy’ involves governmental programs that allow populations to interact with each other through cultural artefacts. Those artefacts can reflect any aspect of the state’s culture, and can involve food, visual art, literature, cultural exchange programs, academic exchange and overseas student programs, and language classes to name a few.

An important example of cultural diplomacy is the way in which the European Union (EU) conducts its foreign policy. The EU uses cultural diplomacy through external relations to produce situations in which it can achieve greater mediation of differences with foreign states, foreign populations, and allow EU citizens to better understand others.

This form of diplomacy aims to transform patterns of state behaviour by introducing and reshaping existing values and state interests. Cultural diplomacy is different to public diplomacy as it aims to create inter-public connection through cultural artifacts with the aim of improving intercultural relations for its own sake, and not as a means to a specific end.

Where DFAT defines its public diplomacy projects as deliberately aiming to “inform, engage and influence audiences overseas,” effective ‘cultural diplomacy’ aims to create shared cultural knowledge not to influence or produce immediate economic benefit, but to mediate differences between populations through culture – be it food, art, dance, literature – to shape the conditions within which significant advances in deepening inter-state relationships can be achieved.

Currently, cultural engagement in the region remains underdeveloped. Compared to the AUD 206.6 million budget for regional aid spending in the Pacific for the 2018-19 financial year, only between “$400,000 and $500,000” was made available for the Australian Cultural Diplomacy Grants Program in 2018-19.

While funding programs that may not deliver an immediate and quantifiable economic benefit for Australia may seem an unproductive use of resources, one must remember that the aim of diplomacy is not solely that of increasing economic gain: diplomacy’s role is to mediate between states.

Professor Oran Young argues that diplomacy is a set of established, consistent practices with recognisable roles and fundamental norms that govern behaviour for the management of interstate relations. By adhering to these behavioural guidelines, diplomacy has the ability to “constrain activity, and shape expectations,” which effectively control international systems.

When understood in this way, cultural diplomacy can provide Australia the chance to better understand Pacific nations through cultural exchanges. It also provides a means for Australia to persuade states to change priorities to align with Australia’s interests.

This type of exchange in the form of ‘cultural diplomacy’ has shown promise in building shared cultural understanding, which makes mediating the differences between the societies easier.

As sites for cultural exchange aim to allow for better understanding of foreign publics, and a more positive view of a foreign public amongst a domestic public, this form of diplomacy allows states to seek common ground with foreign publics to identify where there are shared beliefs and goals.

Results of such exchange can dramatically increase connection between societies not normally considered as sharing common understanding. One such example of this connection between seemingly disparate polities is embodied in the 2008 New York Philharmonic’s Pyongyang concert that ended with a rendition of Korean folk song ‘Arirang’.

This cultural olive branch, partly orchestrated by the US State Department, was met by applause “for more than five minutes… orchestra members, some of them crying, waved. [North Korean] people in the seats cheered and waved back, reluctant to let the visitors leave.”

This, too, came amidst what was described as a “low point in US—North Korean relations” – a relationship not exactly famed for its amicability at the best of times. This is illustrative of cultural diplomacy’s ability to overcome political disagreements to open diplomatic sites for engagement where previously it would not have been possible.

By producing shared cultural knowledge without the need for specific and reciprocal financial gain, ‘cultural diplomacy’ can significantly improve the chances of allowing Australia to shape the Pacific region, and allow it to compete with growing Chinese influence not through a dollar-for-dollar spending model which may soon become impossible.

As China increases aid and development spending in the Pacific, it may employ aid that comes with “no strings attached”. This has already been done in states like the Philippines, and has seen China recently become the biggest aid donor to Africa. Given the region’s reliance upon aid, this “opaque” form of lending or spending may be attractive.

However, by deepening the cultural connections that already exist between Australia and its Pacific neighbours – be those sport, artistic, or education – Australia could shape how further aid is spent by respective states. If aid is given without any stipulation on how a portion of it should be spent, Australia’s ability to shape accepted domestic and international behaviours could ensure that money is spent in ways that ultimately benefit not just the recipient state, but also Australia.

The argument, then, is that as ‘cultural diplomacy’ is a government-led action, the cultural artefacts shared or created or consumed are not as important as using that cultural object to genuinely engage in mediation between cultures.

Genuine mediation between Australia and its Pacific neighbours could provide Australia with the ability to shape the Pacific not for any specific monetary gain, but to ensure that Australia can affect how our nearest neighbours see themselves, the region, and their relations with Australia and the rest of the world.

This could help to ensure that even as the make-up of aid donors changes in a region defined by its need for that aid, states may look to Australian normative practices to model how they should construct institutions, laws, and their economic system.

However, increasing the cultural diplomacy budget does not fit with Australia’s current economically-driven diplomatic agenda. As mentioned previously, the shift towards ‘economic diplomacy’ has refocused Australian diplomacy in the Pacific region from mediation towards a focus on integrating the disparate economies with the intention of creating economic interdependency.

This is evidenced even in DFAT’s guidelines for what is required of a cultural diplomatic program, which state that it must “establish networks and exchanges… and international partners, to expand audiences and markets.”

Although the focus on integrating Pacific economies will provide immediate economic benefit, the long term alignment with fundamental Australian goals, including democratic governance and human rights, will allow Australia to compete with far larger economies in the region and allow Australia to shape the region to best reflect its national interest.

This article was published by the Australian Institute for International Affairs and is an extract from Clarke’s article in Volume 11, Issue 2 of the AIIA’s Quarterly Access titled ‘Cultural Diplomacy: Australia’s Chance in the Pacific’. 

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James Miles Carey

James Miles Carey is a graduate student in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Melbourne. He is an editor at Quarterly Access and a Risk Analyst for the Canberra-based online publication Foreign Brief.