Tiffany Jenkins: Culture cannot replace foreign policy

With the West unclear about what it stands for, and diplomacy in disarray, using the arts instead of politics is not a good idea, writes Tiffany Jenkins
Vladimir Putin and David Cameron at the 2012 Olympics in London. Picture: GettyVladimir Putin and David Cameron at the 2012 Olympics in London. Picture: Getty
Vladimir Putin and David Cameron at the 2012 Olympics in London. Picture: Getty

IT MAY have escaped your notice, but 2014 is the UK-Russia Year of Culture. It will see the biggest ever exchange programme of cultural projects between the two countries. We will be treated to an exhibition of Malevich works at Tate Modern and performances of the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra and Sretensky Monastery Choir. They will get Designing 007: Fifty Years of Bond Style, a retrospective of Young British Artists and a celebration of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday. Overall, I think we got the better deal.

The UK-Russia Year of Culture is held in the name of improving relations. The press release, issued by the British Council, states: “It aims to foster cultural exchange and the flow of ideas whilst developing stronger relations between people, institutions and governments.”

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You may not have noticed all of this, due to political developments. That press release was written in November last year, but since then relations have broken down between Russia, the US and Europe, over the crisis in Ukraine. The justification for these artistic events is that culture can bring us closer together and mend bridges. But it’s difficult to be confident about the role of the arts in improving international relations when they have deteriorated so dramatically.

So it has been something of an odd experience attending the opening events when, at the same time, beyond the galleries, there has been talk of sanctions and military intervention. As I supped the complimentary drinks and listened to the speeches, I noticed that those making them neglected to refer to the strained relations or muttered something inadequate about how we now need the arts more than ever. The elephant in the room is that soft power has failed.

The contrast between the cultural offerings and the actual events on the ground shows up the very real problems with cultural diplomacy, problems that need to be aired because it is a hot idea right now. The House of Lords select committee on soft power and the UK’s influence has just published a report which calls for more soft power in international relations, singling out the potential of the creative industries and our artistic offerings. The British Council has also published a report advocating more cultural diplomacy in politics – what they term cultural relations. And Edinburgh University recently opened the Centre for Cultural Relations.

Writing in this newspaper, on the opening of the Centre for Cultural Relations, Lloyd Anderson, country director of British Council Scotland, said that it would “help drive soft power thinking in the future”, which he describes as the use of “attractive assets” – its “culture, education, language and values”. Doing so, Mr Anderson said, would “help to cement the importance of cultural relations in combating barriers and misunderstanding between nations”.

But can culture can reach those parts that diplomacy cannot? Can it improve relations between nations? And what are the consequences of asking it to?

All these exhibitions and performances of Russian culture are wonderful, but they won’t address the very serious political issues currently at stake. Expecting them to do so is a mistake for politics and for culture. It’s wrong for the arts, because it encumbers them with a responsibility they have not asked for and cannot fulfil. The arts are too ambiguous and contradictory to be used in this way. Leo Tolstoy was right in denouncing Shakespeare for failing to provide clear spiritual guidance and a firm moral vision. The Bard’s plays are a brilliant exploration of power, but all those violent tragedies and the killings of so many kings do not make for a good manual.

And it’s a mistake for the political sphere to lean so much on the cultural, when many of the disagreements between powers stem less from “misunderstandings” and more from diverging national interests and wider social and economic trends, all of which require diplomacy, politicians and the people – democracy – to resolve them. There is a danger a focus on a cultural analysis and strategy means a structural one is eschewed. Culture is powerful but is not a good instrument for specific ends. Sometimes you need direct, purposeful power, and soft power just won’t do.

Culture has been used for political ends on numerous occasions, explicitly during the Cold War when America took literature, abstract expressionism and jazz and promoted them abroad as part of a strategy to win people over to their values. Admittedly, there were artistic benefits. Who wouldn’t have enjoyed the performances by Benny Goodman when he went behind the Iron Curtain? As for what it achieved, even though the culture of the West was very attractive to many, as was its wealth, the Soviet Union crumbled more from within, rather than because of the influences of the “King of Swing”. I don’t dispute that culture inspires and expands people’s dreams, and creates important connections between people, but it is difficult and possibly fruitless to harness it in a directed fashion in the service of ideology.

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And there are significant differences between then and now. America, then, had a confident idea of what it was defending – liberal values, freedom and prosperity. Those values are now very shaky, disputed or no longer firmly held. The land of the free is not so free. The riches are not available for all. The “War on Terror” hasn’t helped. The same problem applies generally for the West. This is one reason why cultural diplomacy is in vogue. We are no longer clear about who we are and what we stand for. In this strange context, when our foreign policy is confused and disorientated, politicians can lean on culture to come up with the words and ideas that they are unable to provide. But cultural relations can be effective only if foreign policy has a clear direction. It cannot replace it.

Today, especially with foreign policy in such disarray, culture should be anything but diplomatic.