Home Commentaries & Articles Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy in the Contemporary World

Soft Power and Cultural Diplomacy in the Contemporary World

Power plays a crucial role in international politics, the idea of power has been traditionally understood in terms of military capabilities  and outcomes  in wars and conflicts. With the  advent of global revolution of democracy, culminating  from the second half of the 20th century, the notion of power has undergone radical changes with the power being understood in terms of  augmenting influence not from the point of victory in war but in terms of peace. In this context the contous of soft power has  gained significance; a crucial component of soft power is cultural diplomacy which is calling the shots in the field  of diplomacy and has   undergone monumental transformation with the evolution of soft power.

Ever since the establishment of the Westphalian state system in 1648, there has been monumental  changes in the notion of power and the national and international power profile of nation-states across the world. The focus of this article is to explore  the nature of soft power and cultural diplomacy in the contemporary world, however it is necessary to first  articulate and clearly understand the meaning of ‘soft power’  and ‘cultural diplomacy’

Power as understood in international politics is the sum total of a nation-states’ overall strength and not just economic strength, but also military strength, the power and cohesiveness of the national society, the extent to which the country’s political system promotes or hinders the organic and institutional growth of liberal democracy and its related institutions and values. Diplomacy on the other hand denotes how  nation-states negotiate with each other in terms of affability   of nation-states to not only secure their national interests but to maintain and promote international trade, ensure peace and security and develop what the often repeated phrase of liberal internationalism says-‘rules based liberal world order’. 

Culture proffers  people with ways of thinking, and help them to intepret their surroundings .Culture is ingrained in every aspect of human life’ the way we dress, the food we eat and even the language we speak In the words of Frode Liland- “the cultural side of foreign policy is a vast and treacherous area”. Culture plays a crucial role in influencing the policies we design . Michael Vlahos argued that “pattern of thought and behaviour are shaped by culture; they are not the product of mere nationalism”. 

A nation inherits a culture which in turn influence and decide the course of actions, the nation has to follow in relation to other sovreign states.. The foreign policy of many Asian and African states have been historically conditioned by their former colonial masters be it Britain, Spain, Portugal, Germany or others  And can be seen widely  among French speaking African countries such as Senegal, Mali, Benin, Ivory Coast . 

Thesoft power is what refers to the new and more nuanced and layered dimensions of national power,it is remarkablydifferent from the notion of hard power which largely constitutes of military power and strength. Soft power deals with the ability of nation-states to sway global public opinion and bolster its national interests by the appeal of its culture, knowledge, customs, traditions and history.. Cultural diplomacy is closely connected to soft power.,it denotes how a country utilizes the cultural-historical treasure of any nation to promote its national interests and agendas among the comity of nations. Globalization has strengthen the idea of a borderless world where citizenship has become increasingly cosmopolitan in nature and has contributed to the use of culture as an essential tool of diplomacy. 

In this contemporary world,cultural diplomacy and soft power are essential parts of any country’ national power. Whenever we talk of cultural diplomacy and soft power, the first country that comes to mind is India-, the land of myriad cultures, religions, sectsand languages e India  has inherited a civilization which is over 5,000 years old and is rightly called the melting pot of the ancient and the medieval world. Culture forms an integral part of the national power profile of India.  

India is the birthplace of  four major religions in the world. It is undoubtedly the abode of cultural diversitywhich is rightly articulated in Jawaharlal Nehru’s magnum opus work ‘The Discovery of India’. In this context, governments since independence have promoted cultural diplomacy, some examples include the Buddhism tourism circuit in the eastern parts of India, the conscious promotion of Hindu tourism circuit throughout India,especially the southern part of India which consists of majestic temples like the Tirupati temple, Brihadeshwara temple, Dakhineshwar temple to name a few. Other examples include the Islamic holy sites of Ajmer Sharif dargah and Hazratbal Shrine of Kashmir . Since 2014 cultural diplomacy has been promoted as a cardinal feature of the Indian foreign policy. Soft power is also promoted as a part of the cultural diplomacy,such as the immense popularity of Bollywood films like Dangal, Taare Zameen Par in China, Sholay in Russia . 

 Also cultural diplomacy is used as a means to burnish India’s credentials of being a moralpolitik and a great power which is  strongly opposed to the traditional notion of power i.e hard power and is committed to the use of soft power to heal a world deeply divided by divisive issues ranging from climate change and the pernicious effects of neo-liberalism,such as mindless consumerism and the problems of global inequality and inequity arising from it. India is committed to the emergence of a more peaceful, tolerant and inclusive moral and secure world order where there will be no exploitation of fellow human beings and where all individuals   can develop their moral and intellectual faculties to the fullest

Soft power has been quite instrumental in aiding the rise of China,  and Chinese films is another medium through which China has been increasing its influence globally. China draws  its soft power from the rich heritage that it has inherited from its Buddhist past and the Confucian and Lao Tzu traditions . The expanding network of Chinese language institutes and cultural institutes across the length and breadth of South-East Asia and the West is a  quintessential epitome of Chinese soft power. 

In West Asia, Saudi Arabia,UAE and Qatar  cultural diplomacy as an instrument of statecraft to not only position thems as centres of economic activity in the Islamic world but also to promote a moderate version of Islam. . This is evident from Saudi Arabia’s groundbreaking recent decisions such as allowing its women citizens to drive, allowing them entry into football stadiums, allowing women cadets to serve in the military and announcing Vision 2030 to reduce Saudi dependence on non-renewable sources of energy like oil and natural gas and diversify its economic basket with the intention of weening its over-reliance on hydrocarbon reserves which seems to become obsolete in the near future as the world moves aggressively to save the  planet from climate change. 

While soft power and cultural diplomacy have played a key role in bolstering the national power profiles of different countries, it is to be noted that they are not without pitfalls. The pitfalls are primarily with cultural diplomacy. Diplomacy is said to be the art of negotiation, to get what is best in the national interests of one’s country. But cultural diplomacy is different from other types of diplomacy

It is necessary for nations which are culturally and ethnically diverse to carefully make use of soft power and cultural diplomacy to improve their international standing abroad., Nation-states across the globe  through shared cultural heritage, historical experiences and customs and traditions. and  should develop effective ways of portraying themselves onto the global stage by using the tool of cultural diplomacy,which can  increase their soft power appeal.