Global affairs are increasingly influenced by populism, nationalism, religious conflict, migration, and identity politics. Paul Smith, British Council Director, Indonesia, blogs about the vital and growing importance of culture in international relations.
Events in 2001 sent culture from the margins to the centre of what matters. Politics and economics became a subset of culture. Not just the culture which embraces the arts, anthropology, and sociology, but the culture which deals with identity and religion, values and behaviours, inclusion and exclusion - and therefore walls, bridges, and social fracture lines.
Perhaps the most important question of our modern age: who belongs in my homeland, and who doesn’t?
Culture is organic. It is the primary means of identifying, describing, and distinguishing the different human societies and communities that make our world. Culture is near synonymous with historical inheritance and with the contemporary face of tradition. Culture defiantly - sometimes prejudicially – asks perhaps the most important question of our modern age: who belongs in my homeland, and who doesn’t?
All people are imbued with their cultures. Every aspect of every person’s social being and individual identity is culturally conditioned. That includes everyone’s disposition towards politics and power, economics and value, religion and belief, social mores and whether anyone we encounter is ‘one of us’ or ‘other’. Nations identify and define themselves culturally. When they threaten to split, through secession or civil war, it is along cultural fracture lines. Cultural identity is increasingly asserting itself at many local levels.
As we traverse the seas of modern global life, the surface is always choppy with the daily waves of politics and economics. But it is the deeper, silent but governing undertows of culture which more profoundly determine human dynamics. So, to embrace culture as a remit is to claim engagement with the most important geopolitical issues of our times.
The issues that are changing lives everywhere are all cultural. Distrust and misunderstanding of each other’s values, beliefs, and identities are some of the major causes of today’s troubled international relations. We critically need to understand different cultural perspectives to get a global consensus and a global grip on major issues - issues like immigration, refugees, extremism, multiculturality, and marginalisation.
The 21st century needs cultural engagement as the bedrock of its international relations because the bedrock of nations is culture
Nations, including their constituent communities, cultures, and ethnicities, must collaborate to understand and resolve issues and to mobilise around the principles for shared prosperity and mutual security. Before anything else, that means each understanding the other’s deeper cultural contexts to build the respect that can lead to collaborative prosperity and security. The 21st century needs cultural engagement as the bedrock of its international relations because the bedrock of nations is culture.
By investing in international cultural relationships, the UK declares that a secure global future will only be feasible if nations contribute collaboratively to cultural understanding. This is in the UK’s own geopolitical interests. There is a clear strategic need for cultural engagement to nurture long-term trust with others.
Cultural engagement focuses on what remains after the to and fro of daily international news has washed by. It continually interprets our world's major narratives after the newspapers have been tossed into the bin. And it brings the peoples of the world together - as opposed to diplomacy, which arbitrates between their leaders and institutions. It is engagement with conscience. Cultural engagement forges prosperity and security together. It removes them from political self-interest and delivers them to the wills of ‘the people’. This has the ultimate aim of a secure and prosperous global community. Cultural engagement can also ensure that ‘projecting our global influence’ comes through our values and motivations, and not just through government policies - our values enshrined in the diversity of the peoples of the UK. In our cultural engagement, we bare our souls.
Cultural engagement focuses on what remains after the to and fro of daily international news has washed by. It continually interprets our world's major narratives after the newspapers have been tossed into the bin. And it brings the peoples of the world together - as opposed to diplomacy, which arbitrates between their leaders and institutions. It is engagement with conscience.
Cultural engagement takes prosperity from the economists and security from the military and puts them together through the human prism – gives them to the people. What cultural engagement can best do is break down walls and construct real bridges of understanding. How can we live singularly in plural societies? Can national sovereignty and cultural authenticity be realigned? How shall we celebrate cultural difference whilst ensuring tolerant social harmony? How can we maintain local identity amidst global homogeneity?
Today culture is no longer the fluffy fringe; it’s the hard stuff
When joining the British Council thirty years ago, staff were told that we could promote anything British in the world except religion, politics, and security. Things have very much changed in the world and the British Council today. The last twenty years have shown us that, if we don’t do those three, we don’t do culture. The interface of the world's cultures - of the world's peoples - is the world’s most complex place of interaction and change. Today culture is no longer the fluffy fringe; it’s the hard stuff.