The international order is going through fundamental change.

Power is shifting from Europe to the dynamic economies of Asia and Africa, and there is increased competition between states such as the United States, China and Russia over the interests, norms and values that govern the international system.

The sense of a world in flux has been compounded by the global pandemic.

Governments are considering what implications these changes have for the prosperity and security of their countries, and how best to respond.

New research for the British Council, Cultural Relations, Dialogue and Co-operation In An Age of Competition sheds light on how one area of soft power - cultural relations – is uniquely positioned to help countries keep open channels of dialogue and co-operation with each other in challenging times.

Soft power responses to a changing world

In its Integrated Review published in March 2021 the UK recognised the need to adapt to this more competitive landscape. The Review placed a strong emphasis on co-operation, even with countries it identified as challengers.

It said that the UK will prioritise working with others to shape the international order and tackle shared global challenges such as climate change and the recovery from COVID-19. 

Soft power is well equipped to address these objectives.

The UK’s many soft power assets will be invaluable for protecting its influence in this new more contested international context. 

Cultural relations builds trust, understanding and mutually beneficial relationships between different nations by engaging people through the most attractive cultural assets of each country, whether in the arts, education, language, heritage, sports, science or cuisine.

The report presents the findings of research conducted in January-March 2021 by ICR Research and Partners. It draws on the work of four leading international cultural relations institutions - the British Council, Goethe Institut, Institut Francais and the US State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

It is based on case studies of their work in China, Indonesia, Libya, Russia and Turkey - countries which reflect a range of conditions in which the bilateral relationship faces challenges.

These include deteriorating bilateral political relations; limited engagement and poor mutual understanding; differences in political ideology and systems; and civil conflict and social polarisation.

Resilient relationships, more effective engagement

The research found that cultural relations contributes to more effective engagement between countries in these contexts in a number of ways. Cultural and educational programmes can help countries to keep channels of communication open with each other even when political relations are more difficult.

In Russia, for example, the British Council, Goethe Institut and the Institut Français have all been instrumental in maintaining people-to-people connections and creating opportunities for positive bilateral engagement between government officials.

Such activity keeps doors open for dialogue and co-operation on mutually valued, less politically sensitive areas such as the arts and cultural heritage.

When people have direct experience of another country through travel or study, or have a deeper understanding of its culture, language and society, this helps create trust in that country and a sense of empathy and connection which is resilient to the ups and downs of the political relationship. 

In today’s shifting international landscape these tensions are more likely to occur, so cultural relations is even more valuable, as a channel of dialogue that often remains open even when those in other, more political areas are difficult or closed.

Professor Caitlin Byrne, a member of the research team, highlighted the particular value of this feature in today’s geopolitical context:

'In this kind of environment where there is a strategic reordering underway, the risk of miscalculation or miscommunication is far greater than it's ever been before so cultural relations actually allows us some opportunity to avoid that.'

In Libya and Turkey, the research shows how cultural heritage preservation projects and education programmes have gained broad-based popular support despite social divisions and polarisation that affect the wider bilateral relationship. They have helped create opportunities for bilateral co-operation and engagement in other areas.  

The research points to a positive impact on public opinion that can help strengthen relations between countries. Building mutual trust, understanding and collaboration through cultural and educational programmes can help cultivate popular support for the wider relationship in both countries.

Speaking in our podcast that accompanies the research senior British diplomat Sir Dominik Chilcott observed that cultural relations has a great role to play:

'If cultural relations are able to promote respect for different cultures and different ways of organizing society and respect, understanding and some empathy, then I think it's much more likely that good, co-operative relations between countries will enjoy public support.'

The research noted how cultural institutions have helped advance their respective countries’ strategic interests in deepening engagement with the Indo-Pacific region. In countries such as China and Indonesia there is an imbalance of trust towards the UK and a relative lack of familiarity compared to other countries with stronger historical connections.

Cultural institutions provide important bridges and sources of expertise for guiding home country partners to engage more effectively whether from the government, the education, arts and culture sectors, and business.

How cultural relations institutions succeed in navigating challenging contexts

Running cultural relations programmes in more sensitive contexts is no easy task and requires significant skill and investment. The research pinpoints a number of factors that are critical:

  • staff competency was highlighted as one of the most important factors. This includes knowledge of the language and local context, the technical and interpersonal skills for programme delivery, and a personal affinity for the country and its people
  • organisational reputation centred on cultural institutions having unique selling points that attracted partners to engage with them, for example, their high standing within a specific sector, or reputation for sectoral expertise
  • arms-length status was regarded as important because it enabled cultural relations to distance itself from politics, thereby reducing the risk that political difficulties would spill over into its own relationship-building activities 
  • tailored programmes which provide opportunities which respond to local partners’ interests were identified in the research as most successful; the involvement of a wide range of stakeholders from both countries was also seen as an ingredient for success
  • sustained on-the-ground engagement is a fundamental condition for building the strong partnerships, reputations and staff competencies upon which effective cultural relations in more challenging contexts depends. 

The ability of cultural institutes to create opportunities for dialogue and cooperation that strengthen the wider bilateral relationship is something which develops slowly over time. Cultural and educational activities are an attractive offer for young people.

At a formative period in their lives, it offers them a rare chance to engage directly with the UK and access a range of viewpoints.

Positive experiences gained through cultural relations can leave a long-lasting impression which increases people’s willingness to engage with the UK throughout their lives.

This reinforces the point that soft power engagement requires investment for the long-term, so that it is maintained to tackle the foreign policy challenges of the future. 

In the rapidly changing geopolitical context of the decade ahead, cultural relations will be a fundamental advantage to those countries seeking to protect their influence and security in a more competitive world.

The UK can harness its soft power to build resilient relationships that enable it to engage effectively even in the most challenging of contexts, and to build the foundations for improved relations over the longer term.