This year is my sixth and final year as chief executive of the British Council and it has been a turbulent one.  

The pandemic has taken lives and disrupted livelihoods on an unimaginable scale, not least causing an unprecedented education crisis. 

Growing divisions within society have resulted in equally unimaginable challenges to the norms of governance in even the most staunchly democratic of nations.

The particular circumstances of 2020 are of course just one of the dramas the British Council has lived through since it first received its Royal Charter from Churchill’s government in the early days of the Second World War.  

In the subsequent decades, as events which moved civilisation forward or back played out, the founding principles of cultural relations remained relevant. And so they are today as the world seeks to recover from COVID-19, embrace social and economic progress, and maintain the global peace. 

Fostering knowledge exchange and building trust 

My earliest predecessor wrote in 1940 that the role of the prudent state, whether in times of peace or war, was to foster the interchange of knowledge, ideas and discoveries. This was to create ‘a basis of friendly knowledge and understanding’ between peoples.  

The belief was that this engagement through culture (defined very broadly) would give people on both sides of the activity, opportunities to engage with each other that they would not otherwise have.  

They and their organisations would build lasting, mutually beneficial relationships, and out of all of that would come increased trust – trust in each other individually, as institutions, and as societies.  

Academics will tell us that high levels of trust allow us to reduce transaction costs; we require fewer safeguards. Trust also allows us to take risks, collaborating on the new venture because we know we are part of a shared endeavour.  

We are more likely to do business with a wider range of partners we understand and trust, not just partners who are ‘like us’. 

All these factors have been at play in the global response to the pandemic. Capabilities developed over years have allowed scientists to share data and insight on this new virus in record time, with the English language also playing an important role in the swift exchange of research.

The gene sequence was known globally eleven days after the first alerts went around the planet. As the world seeks to make vaccines available globally, scientists call colleagues they have met many years ago to share ideas, to allocate activities, to pool results.

For that is one of the key insights on cultural relations and soft power. You build the trust before you need it. Not when you are desperate for help.  

To be effective, cultural relations is a product of sustained engagement of years and decades.  

Understanding the role of cultural relations in foreign policy  

Patience is needed to build a great cultural relations capability. It requires building on attractive cultural assets over many years, whether in arts, education, language or a nation’s institutions and people.  

It is also important to engender trust by acting as an example that people want to emulate and by providing them with a lived experience, and to do both in a way that is authentic to values that matter.  

And why is this capability so important when it comes to a country’s foreign policy? The field of international relations draws a distinction between three different approaches.  

Firstly, realism, says states live in an anarchic world and cannot trust each other. So, a strong military backed by a strong economy is essential.  

The second theory, institutionalism, says that states mitigate this distrust by creating a rules-based system backed by multilateral institutions to enforce the rules. States know the limits and choose to abide by them because they know others will too.  

But the third school of thought, constructivism, says that experiences, relationships and values create common norms and common beliefs. If a society has a good image in the eyes of its peers, then other countries will be more likely to want to engage with it rather than oppose or threaten it.  

The likelihood of other countries and people to trade with a country, visit it, study there, or support its proposals in the UN, are all enhanced because people see that the country is like them, or has greater understanding of them – the commonalities are on display, not only the differences.  

Just like shared social capital is an indicator of progressive towns and cities, shared intercultural capital is an indicator of international connections, relationships and collaborations. 

All three theories are of course valid and the prudent state recognises that being strong, engaged and trusted are not mutually exclusive, but can operate alongside each other and should be maximised.  

A state that neglects any of these approaches to foreign policy is limiting its options. If it neglects economic and military strengths, a state risks being imposed on by others. If it neglects multilateralism and the rules-based system, it risks missing the efficiencies of shared costs, common processes and easy transactions.  

Neglecting the powers of attraction, example and experience risks being alone when the crisis hits, not being understood when decisions are to be made, and being outside the flows of tourism, study, business and culture which create shared understanding and trust.  

Conversely, thinking about the underlying issues, approaches, and causes puts you ahead of the game. 

Valuing what we have in common over what makes us different 

Many years ago, I shared an office in Great Britain with a colleague who was also born on the island of Ireland but was from a different tradition. Both out of our homelands, we learned that being different in background did not mean being better than the other, and that we had more in common in our upbringing that either of us had with the fellow engineers in the next office.  

At its simplest therefore, cultural relations is about creating opportunities for collaboration and allowing participants to experience their common values. 

I have seen this in British Council work documenting progress in Northern Ireland such as the ‘Teaching for Peace’ report with Queen’s University, Belfast.  

I have seen it in Tripoli in Lebanon with our Active Citizens project across that partitioned city, with young civil leaders realising their problems are common, shared, and best solved by pooling ideas. 

And I have seen it in the Western Balkans with museums working collaboratively across borders for the greater good and of course for their own enlightened self-interest. 

Contact theory says inter-group encounters reduce inter-group prejudice when conducted in the right way, and so good things are more likely to happen and bad things less so. And where this is a sustained engagement, people realise they have more factors in common than differentiates them. They may support different sports teams, for example, but are fans of the same bands, work in similar jobs and have the same family dynamics.   

Common humanity is more profoundly appreciated where people recognise they share values.  

The bond goes deeper, driven by a mutual passion for equality and tolerance, a shared wish for respect to be given and received, a common desire for peace and safety.  

New research on values in cultural relations and international co-operation 

My final act as chief executive has been to host the launch of our latest research on the role of values in international cultural engagement, The Big Conversation.

Our teams in the UK, Malaysia, and South Africa have worked with the London School of Economics and Political Science to explore the role of values in cultural relations. This included looking at how the British Council understands and uses values in its cultural relations work as we seek to promote international collaboration. 

The findings are striking. While people hold many of the same values dear, they expect organisations to have different value sets, based on the type of work that they do. 

For example, respect is far and away the value citizens want to see at the heart of the identity and action of all institutions, but when it comes to cultural organisations people specifically expect them to champion open-mindedness, diversity and sustainability.  

Meanwhile, they think diplomatic institutions should embody other values, notably ensuring the safety and care of their citizens. Similarly, British Council staff are expected to be collaborative and act in the mutual interest. Government organisations are expected to be more instrumental and to pursue their interest. 

Tolerance of difference and more focus on what is in common were highlighted as among the most important conditions for international co-operation. 

Nations should be seen as more equal when collaborating, a value the British Council calls mutuality - the ability of nations to work together for shared benefit based on respect, and the interchange of knowledge ideas and discoveries.

Everyone brings something to the table, and we achieve more for everyone when we recognise that and seek to harness our collective strengths.   

The impact of COVID-19

The fieldwork for the research was conducted during the pandemic so it has something important to say about how the crisis has affected international cultural relations.  

The pandemic increased uncertainty, fear and distress. It closed borders.  

The pandemic also showed our interdependence and the need to work as a global community to face a common challenge. And it showed that digital platforms could help people outside the major cities of the world access resources and events which previously required physical presence.  

Moving online means the British Council can teach English in more places around the world, not just the approximately 170 places in which we have teaching centres. Yet this has also highlighted the major global issue of digital poverty.

Parting thoughts on the future of cultural relations 

So, what is my view of cultural relations as I walk out the door of the British Council?  

I think that the organisation itself is in fundamentally brilliant shape. More united, focused, digital and creative than ever. It has financial challenges, but they will pass hopefully without inflicting irrecoverable damage.  

The cultural relations approach is needed as much as ever to foster the collaborations which will allow humanity to address the great global challenges.  

The UK needs to decide how central it wants to be to those challenges. And the cultural relations approach is as valid within states as between them. 

Building the right individual and institutional relationships will be important ten, twenty, thirty years from now regardless of what it decides.  

The investment in those relationships is cheaper if it is steady, incremental, consistent, and spread widely, because we do not know where the drama or the brilliance of 2050 will be. 

My biggest fear for what might be called progress, development, or even civilisation is the erosion of values. 

We know in organisations that values need to be protected, promoted and nourished. That is true in international relations, but more immediately it is true within states. It needs to be invested in.  

My plea is therefore for policymakers to take trust-building seriously, to recognise the world-leading assets the UK has, including the British Council, and to deploy them intelligently, and to make sure foreign policy always discusses the hard power, diplomatic, and soft power approaches available.