By Anne Bostanci

13 June 2013 - 15:03

Culture can 'bring people together – even those with very different world views.' Photo (c) Edinburgh Blog, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.
Culture can 'bring people together – even those with very different world views.' Photo ©

Edinburgh Blog, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

A new British Council reportInfluence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century, discusses global trends in cultural relations and soft power. Anne Bostanci explains.

States work hard to create and protect their influence in their dealings with other states. You could see it as a race or competition – like a beauty or popularity contest among nations. But it’s more complex and more serious than this analogy suggests.

A new British Council report, Influence and Attraction, argues that mutuality and genuine understanding of one another are critical elements of what is called ‘soft power’. The best outcome is not winning an advantage at another country’s expense, but co-operation and exchange. The UK is in a strong position of soft power after last year’s London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and is well-connected to the rest of the world. The report explains why mutuality is so important, through a wealth of evidence.

Governments and culture are interdependent

Governments should understand that they operate in a world in which culture and politics are interdependent. Global communication is getting faster and more frequent, and much of what people want to talk about is culture. One example is the way in which Gordon Brown’s trip to India in January 2007 for trade talks was overshadowed by widespread anger in India caused by racism towards the Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty in the popular UK television show ‘Big Brother’. Instead of talking about commerce, the then-Prime Minister found himself having to answer questions about reality TV.

The many facets of cultural relations

There are diverse actors involved in cultural relations, from nations and cities, to institutions, NGOs, businesses and individuals. The report suggests dividing countries first by size – small or large – and then by whether their cultural profiles are established or emerging.

Cultural relations activities span from formal to informal activities, and inward- versus outward-facing activities. Contemporary cultural relations go beyond the classic aim of boosting a country’s popularity just outside that country. Internal efforts at cultural relations are increasing too. Cultural relations can help create an environment for constructive political and social change, as in Burma or during the Arab Spring.

Are China and other emerging powers about to take the lead in soft power?

One important trend in global cultural relations is how much more seriously Asia, the Middle East and Brazil, Russia, India and China (the ‘BRIC’ countries) are taking soft power. Recently, these countries have been investing heavily and starting large-scale cultural projects. The prime example of this is the spectacular rise of China’s Confucius Institute. This trend is particularly interesting when contrasted with developments in many Western countries, where shrinking budgets, cut-backs on foreign language broadcasting and restrictive visa regimes for foreign tourists and students are common.

The report presents a global breakdown of international cultural relations institutions and activities. This covers the institutions of a diverse sample of countries: Brazil, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Portugal, Russia, South Korea, Spain, and the UK.

The benefits – to the UK and other countries

Cultural relations are also about creating concrete benefits to the UK and other countries. These include trade and investment resulting from the trust gained from cultural relations activities. This is not restricted to the UK’s already highly developed creative industries, but extends to other trade and investment.

Another benefit is the ability of culture to bring people together – even those with very different world views, so they can work on international problems together.

A related debate between subject experts took place in London on 18 June 2013. Read the transcript.

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