The Cultural Protection Fund is a partnership fund between the British Council and DCMS, which supports efforts to protect cultural heritage at risk from conflict and climate change. The twin aims of the fund when established were to protect cultural heritage at risk, primarily due to conflict, and to create sustainable opportunities for economic and social development through building capacity to foster, safeguard and promote cultural heritage.

The UK Integrated Review in 2021 recognised “the source of much of the UK’s soft power lies beyond the ownership of government – an independence from state direction that is essential to its influence. The Government can use its own assets, such as the diplomatic network, aid spending and the armed forces, to help create goodwill towards the UK – for example, through support to disaster relief or through our international work to protect cultural heritage in conflict settings.” The Government’s main role is to create a conducive enabling environment in which independent organisations, assets and networks, like the British Council, can build mutually beneficial international relationships.

For nearly five years, the Cultural Protection Fund has recognised that cultural heritage protection is a route to powerful and effective cultural relations.  The starting point is often identifying what people value most, then bringing partners together to protect, nurture, dignify and celebrate the source of that value.  Cultural relations involve reciprocal interactions between societies and fosters participation, dialogues, reciprocity, and trust:  “The value of cultural relations lies in processes that bring together stakeholders in participatory ways to enhance mutual understandings” (Review of Cultural Protection Fund approach to Cultural Relations by George Mason University, 2019).

Cultural heritage protection is increasingly being understood by nation-states and other actors as playing a critical intersectoral role in supporting development and diplomacy. Historically, cultural heritage protection has suffered low prioritisation by governments and policymakers, who have taken the view that the area is in competition with a range of other economic, social, security and political demands. However, including and supporting cultural heritage as part of ‘Development Assistance’ (appreciating the impact it can have on social and economic betterment) can in turn generate soft power benefits. In formulating an emerging ‘What Works’ approach to the Cultural Protection Fund, we are starting to see international partners coming together to build an international evidence base.  It is also an approach that is revealing how heritage protection can contribute to international agendas, such as climate change and contribution to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, by building on that collective evidence base and by sharing learning.

Governments recognise that soft power is a process rather than an outcome in itself, which can deliver a series of influence and attraction outcomes to improve a country’s or region’s image abroad. Soft power relies not on coercion but persuasion, the capacity of actors to convince others to pursue goals that match their own. This power of persuasion is based on intangible resources, such as the attractiveness of an international actor’s culture and values. It also depends on the values and culture of the target audience. The influence dynamics in international affairs are affected by growing and deepening mobility, connections and relationships.  The external evaluation of the UK’s Cultural Protection Fund highlighted that 

Stakeholders provided evidence that the Fund has offered a means to improve the reputation and recognition of the UK, particularly associated with cultural heritage. On a global level the Cultural Protection Fund is said to have generated curiosity at the highest level (i.e., from country leaders), and at a country level it has, for example, enabled the British Consulate to engage in a more productive way.

Understanding the growing use of cultural heritage protection in international politics demands the rethinking of the relationship between heritage and power. The conceptualisation of cultural heritage protection as soft power is useful to understand the political dynamics of heritage and diplomacy, including the presence of paternalism versus reciprocity-based cultural relations. The external evaluation of the Cultural Protection Fund found that the Fund plays a “valuable role in both diplomatic and Cultural Relations terms by demarcating safe spaces for dialogue, ideas and projects around which people and institutions with very different perspectives can come together in a shared endeavour, potentially as a prelude to undertaking more difficult conversations.” 

A forthcoming research report by George Mason University, commissioned by the British Council, highlights that successful cultural relations and soft power approaches are the ones that have common elements of culture as a shared value and principles of cooperation, mutual trust and reciprocity. This report analyses how, and to what extent, international heritage protection approaches can be understood from soft power and cultural relations perspectives. Chief among the findings is a similarity among the European cultural relations approaches to heritage protection, and the weightage placed on public diplomacy in the United States approach to heritage protection. 

The analysis in the report demonstrates that although some aspects of cultural relations and soft power are mutually exclusive, there is also a significant overlap between the two approaches. This overlap between cultural relations and various forms of diplomacy can strengthen and challenge foreign policy establishments to think beyond instrumental foreign policy goals, through blending the use of both cultural relations and soft power approaches within the same programme or intervention. 

Future studies on various types of cultural heritage protection as soft power in other countries can further advance our conceptual development of the relationship between cultural heritage protection, cultural relations and soft power.