Photograph of a decorated ceiling in UN office Geneva
‘Gift-giving, string quartets, and ornamentalism?’ UN office Geneva ceiling by Miquel Barceló. Photo ©

Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0, adapted from the original.

December 2017

Research from King’s College London into the use of culture in UN diplomacy raises interesting questions about the efficacy of the arts in creating soft power.

Culture, diplomacy, and political power

A new research report, The Art of Soft Power: A Study of Cultural Diplomacy at the UN Office in Geneva(Melissa Nisbett and James Doeser, King’s College London (2017)), takes the UN’s Office at Geneva as a venue in which to study the role of cultural activities in contemporary diplomacy.

The report finds that Cultural Diplomacy is important, and valued by diplomats as a key means of securing influence, even if its precise impact may be difficult to measure. Faith by many diplomats in the power of Cultural Diplomacy is strong in Geneva, where it forms an important element of life at the UN. 

The report suggests that, at the UN office in Geneva, culture can be both a vehicle for political messages and a forum for cultural clashes. It concludes that more resources put into Cultural Diplomacy can translate into more Soft Power (the US, for example, is found to be a ‘Soft Power Superpower,’), but that ultimately, at the UN, culture is often being “used to preserve and express hard political power.” These findings are a useful addition to the study of Cultural Diplomacy.

The report sums up the goal of its research as being “to provide a better understanding of how art and culture are used as levers of power and diplomacy within the context of the UN”. As a study of diplomatic practices within the UN it is certainly illuminating, and the findings provoke some useful reflections. 

Firstly, the report’s observations on cultural interaction as a sort of ritual are interesting and merit further research. The practices it describes at the United Nations office Geneva sometimes seem old fashioned compared to modern British practice. Thinking seems to have progressed considerably outside the UN bubble. 

Secondly, there is a tendency, in Geneva and elsewhere, to reject definitions. When it comes to Cultural Diplomacy and Soft Power, the report notes, “there is no consensus on the precise meanings … [t]he participants in this study used them interchangeably...” This statement might cause surprise in organisations like the British Council, where there is a good deal of thought about exact meanings. Indeed, the conflation of Cultural Diplomacy and Soft Power is held to be an error, as it risks confusing activity with desired effect. 

The King’s researchers make a useful initial distinction between Cultural Diplomacy “reaching out” and Soft Power “standing out,” (though this may not reflect thinking within the UN itself, where there seems to be more confusion about terminology). The idea of Soft Power as an instrument that can be wielded for the projection of power does need questioning: the recent report for the British Council by ResPublica, Harnessing the Soft Power of UK Institutions, states that:

Soft Power is a resource first, and an instrument second. It cannot be “deployed” or “wielded,” but rather is generated by government and other agencies in the form of cultural capital, based on the attractive qualities – the ideas and values, together with the behaviour, credibility and moral authority – of the agent. In this way, questions such as how British society is organized, its fundamental value system, and the (foreign and domestic) policies its government pursues, all affect the UK’s capacity to generate Soft Power. 

Soft Power can too easily become an empty phrase. In reality what it means is the cumulative, long-term bank of national assets - moral and cultural, which predispose people to listen to a country

Soft Power can too easily become an empty phrase. In reality what it means is the cumulative, long-term bank of national assets - moral and cultural, which predispose people to listen to a country.

A Deeper Analysis of Soft Power

Definitions are important because the work that the British Council defines as Cultural Relations (rather than Cultural Diplomacy, since the focus is on reaching out to other countries’ peoples rather than to their diplomats) depends on the development of mutual relationships and trust, though increased Soft Power is an important beneficial outcome. 

The King’s report goes on to say, of the UN, that “there is widespread consensus, that this sort of activity works,” but “[i]ts precise mechanics and effects remain something of a mystery.” There seems to be a systematic confusion amongst the report’s interviewees of inputs and outcomes, talk of “evaluation by way of counting the number of attendees or … tickets sold” and by way of anecdote. Indeed, the report concludes, no one has “robust empirical data to substantiate their claim that … Soft Power [has] the effects they attribute to [it].”

Yet, looking beyond the UN, evaluation is becoming a crucial area of professional thinking in this field. In a recent Soft Power Today study, for example, the British Council and IICR at Edinburgh take up the question of imprecision and measurement, and propose “a framework that measures the conditions under which a broad set of Soft Power influences translates into economic, political and cultural benefits.” The report analyzes statistically the impact of e.g. the scale of a national cultural institution’s global presence on Foreign Direct Investment and international student recruitment; or that of a nation’s world cultural ranking on its political influence. It proposes new models for exploring the relationship between voting behaviour at the UN General Assembly with cultural influence, noting that “soft power and cultural diplomacy might matter more” than “the hard power of economic strength … for global political influences.” This builds on other academic studies that have shown clear statistical connections between soft power and trade for Foreign Direct Investment.

The King’s report is a good starting-point. The interesting nature of that starting-point is the lack of clarity that diplomats at the UN seem to have in analysing their own practices

The next stage for this useful research at King’s, therefore, should be looking at different possible ways out of the theoretical mazes discovered at the UN. The King’s report is a good starting-point. The interesting nature of that starting-point is the lack of clarity that diplomats at the UN seem to have in analysing their own practices. But the report also highlights a number of areas where more research is necessary in a much wider context. These areas are those in which the lack of clarity is most startling at Geneva: the development of a robust understanding of the concepts Soft Power, Cultural Diplomacy, and Cultural Relations amongst diplomats in Geneva; and the examination of more scientific approaches to defining objectives - and then evaluating projects and institutions against those objectives. This would ideally focus the minds of practitioners at the UN and elsewhere on what they are doing and what impact it may achieve. 

Martin Rose, Senior Advisor, Cultural Relations, British Council

See also

External links