Prof. Federica Olivares: Cultural Diplomacy proves its power to tear down walls

The EU has a sort of “embarrassment” when talking about culture and cultural identity

Beyond the recurring ambiguity between Soft and Hard Power, Cultural Diplomacy is used in a big range of diplomatic activities, not only because it is effective in normal international relations, but it is particularly suitable in situations of high tension between Heads of State, where any other diplomatic tool has failed, Prof. Federica Olivares says in an interview to Europost. 

Ms Olivares, culture has always played a role in human relations, but only recently it has been recognised as an important tool of Soft Power. Why?

The idea of “Culture” has always played a crucial role in defining what Soft Power is and does. In fact, the “father” of the concept of Soft Power, Joseph Nye, professor at Harvard university, in 2004 in his book “Bound to Lead: the Changing Nature of American Power”, defined Soft Power as “the ability to get what you want through attraction rather than coercion or payments. It arises from attractiveness of a country's culture, political values, ideals and policies.” Therefore, Culture was recognised from the beginning as a tool of Soft Power. What is more recent is the understanding and its use not only by state-actors but by non-state actors who recently began to use it as one of the more strategic tools in global relations. The reason why, is because Culture is the perfect universal language. In fact, Culture is eminently a means and a tool of international relations, both bilaterally and multilaterally, able to project the influence of a country on the world scene, in order to assert its distinctive identity and influence, develop multiple relations and open new ways of dialogue with conflicting countries when other means have become impossible. Culture is indeed, as Wendy W. Luers pointed out in 2010 through her article “The Soft Power of Art”, a “universal icebreaker that can tear down walls and build bridges between the most hardened of enemies. It may not turn foes into instant friends, but it does allow nations to find points of commonality that transcend politics.”

In which case could Cultural Diplomacy replace Hard Diplomacy?

 Cultural Diplomacy is one of the many forms in which Soft Power can be displayed. The use of Soft Power is always preferable to the use of Hard Power which has historically been the predominant measure of national power through quantitative metrics such as population size, military assets, or a nation's gross domestic product. But sometimes, the difference between Soft and Hard Power is very subtle and hard to tell. For example we can look at the Aachen Treaty, a Franco-German friendship accord signed by Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron in January 2019, that established the creation of at least 10 joint Cultural Institutes around the world by 2020. However, with the same agreement France and Germany encompassed military cooperation, development aid and cross-border transport links: Soft Power and Hard Power hand in hand!

Although, beyond the recurring ambiguity between Soft and Hard Power, Cultural Diplomacy is used in a big range of diplomatic activities, not only because it is effective in normal international relations, but it is particularly suitable in situations of high tension between Heads of State, where any other diplomatic tool has failed. Look at the current situation between Russia and USA, in which ballet is becoming an important diplomatic tool - despite the intensely cold political relations between the two countries, cultural exchanges remained warm. When the Mariinsky Ballet at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC performed Le Corsaire, last April, the warm response by the American public told a different story from what we typically see in media coverage about their worsening relationship.

Don't you think the EU was a bit late in realising the role of Cultural Diplomacy in its ties with the world?

Culture is the EU way of life and Cultural Diplomacy is significantly present in the activities of the European Union. However, the European Institutions prefer to use the broader term and paradigm of “International Cultural Relations” and have coined a new category - “Culture in External Relations”, in order to sidestep many of the pitfalls of the current over-use of the term Cultural Diplomacy in an ever increasing culturally diverse EU at 28 countries moving towards a Union of 33 countries. Cultural diversity is indeed an integral part of the values of the EU, and this is why the EU has a sort of “embarrassment” when talking about Culture and Cultural Identity and never recognised some cultural values as distinctively “European” (such as the Judeo-Christian roots of European Culture).

Some EU leaders already use Soft Power to push forward their policy. Was French President Macron a pioneer?

Definitely. French President Emmanuel Macron shows some good examples of the use of Soft Power for achieving his political or economic aims. In fact, from his first year of presidency, he acted as an international champion of Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy: in all of his diplomatic travels abroad he brought symbolic gifts or loans to Heads of State worldwide - from the horse presented to the Chinese President Xi Jinping, to the Bayeux tapestry loaned to Theresa May - and he always put a great emphasis on the teaching of the French language in schools. But perhaps the biggest display of Soft Power by President Macron, which leveraged an enormous asset of Cultural Diplomacy, was the opening in November 2017 of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the first, gigantic franchise of the historical museum that brought to France around $525m for the use of Louvre's brand and $750m for loans, temporary exhibitions and advisory services. That day, during the opening of the Louvre Abu Dhabi, Macron's speech was a deliberate display of Soft Power, underlining the similarities between the cultures of the two countries, based on the concept of Light. But on the same day, right after the inauguration, he visited the French naval base, a strategic outpost of French Hard Power!

Can we consider EU programmes like Erasmus and European Capital of Culture as successful examples of modern diplomacy?

Yes, indeed. The Erasmus Programme is one of the best practices of a specific form of Cultural Diplomacy: Exchange Diplomacy. It is a country's strategy to manage the international environment by sending its citizens, students and professionals to foreign countries and reciprocally accepting those from foreign territories for a period of study and/or knowledge transfer. Cultural exchanges are a major tool for international engagement and a priority for the United States, which supports cultural and educational exchange beyond most other means of Public Diplomacy. For Europe, the most known example of Exchange Diplomacy is indeed the Erasmus Programme (European Region Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students), which from 1987 promotes university students' mobility between universities of Europe. In the past 30 years, over four million students have benefited from Erasmus grants. The programme is considered the ideal platform for dialogue between younger generations all over Europe and is so successful that it identifies an “Erasmus generation”: young people born in the 90s.

The European Capital of Culture is at European level a tool for creating a Soft Power capital, especially for cities of different dimensions. And, as you know, Bulgaria this year, together with Italy, is one of the two countries which have won ECoC, with Plovdiv and Matera. The concept of the European Capital of Culture since 1985 moves along four objectives: to improve the quality of life in European cities; make culture a focus of city life; create strong networks between cities; project cities into their future. And it is particularly important to Europe as a whole, because it is designed to highlight the richness and diversity of cultures in Europe but celebrating the cultural features Europeans share and increasing European citizens' sense of belonging to a common cultural area. All of that is fostering the contribution of culture to the development of cities.

Being awarded the title of “European Capital of Culture” and implementing the proposed work programme is therefore a unique opportunity for the city to raise its international profile, receive visibility, increase local tourism, give new vitality to cultural life. Then, a city is not chosen as European Capital only for what it is, but above all for what it plans to do and become.

What could be the most negative impact of Brexit in the field of culture, according to you?

As one can imagine, now with Brexit, the importance of Culture in UK's international relations has increased exponentially - the United Kingdom must present itself to the world anew, re-engaging with old friends and new allies alike. In fact, when major political changes occur in a country, Soft Power becomes essential and has to be reshaped in the country's communication strategy to global audiences. This is the reason why the UK government is now leveraging on a non-state actor such as the British Council and on initiatives sustained by such an independent institution as the “Seasons of Culture” in order to try to reduce the impact of Brexit on UK's perceived global image. The Seasons of Culture initiative is a bilateral outreach initiative promoted by the British Council itself that helps to strengthen and build new cultural connections between the UK and a foreign country. It is currently happening in Japan and formerly in Germany in 2018. The next Season of Culture 2020 will be between the UK and Italy, and I am very honoured to be a Programme Board Member in these challenging times to prove what unites people culturally creating a platform of common understanding which is stronger than the political divisions and fractures. A Season of Culture is planned in both countries by engaging with artists, creative entrepreneurs, influencers and researchers in order to create a structured programme based on public events, industry workshops, exhibitions and competitions supported by a major digital campaign. All the activities are organised bilaterally and with the awareness that, as the UK leaves the EU, cultural relations will play an increasingly important role.

You have created the first Italian Master in Cultural Diplomacy. What about Digital Diplomacy? The future belongs to it, don't you think?

 I totally agree. Digital Diplomacy is the spread of digital initiatives conducted by ministers of foreign affairs and non-governmental entities. A clear example is the adoption of social media platforms that has changed the way diplomats engage in information management, Public Diplomacy, strategy planning, international negotiations or even crisis management. Therefore, it is a pivotal shift in diplomatic practice that places an emphasis on conversing with different publics and through different platforms. It is a cultural and a technological shift which requires that diplomats develop digital skills. In fact, digital technology has changed the ways firms conduct business, individuals conduct social relations, and states govern. That is why the Master Programme in Cultural Diplomacy and Global Communication at Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Rome that I created two years ago is the first in Europe to combine in a single course three different fields of study: Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy; Public Diplomacy and International Relations; Global Communication and Digital Diplomacy. Since Digital Diplomacy is such an important issue, we developed a strong collaboration with the Digital Diplomacy Research Centre of Oxford University, and our students have the opportunity to follow lessons from one of the most important experts in this field - Corneliu Bjola, who is director of the centre.


Former cultural advisor to Italy's minister of foreign affairs (2011-2013), responsible for strategies and initiatives of Cultural Diplomacy, Federica Olivares is a professor of Cultural Planning at Universita Cattolica in Milan since 2005. In 2017 she created the first Italian Master in Cultural Diplomacy at the Catholic University in Rome. Her company Edizioni Olivares publishes volumes in the fields of media studies and visual arts and develops consulting projects for public and private institutions interested in projects in Culture. She is VP and member of the board of directors of Piccolo Teatro - Theatre of Europe in Milan and member of the board of the Gallerie dell'Accademia Museum in Venice since 2016, as well as board member of the Italy-US Fulbright Commission since 2012 and member of the Council for the Arts at MIT, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, since 2007.



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