Introduction to cultural relations and cultural diplomacy
Hello! My name is Simon Williams and I am the Director of the British Council in Ukraine. Today I’d like to talk about international cultural relations and cultural diplomacy, and why and how countries engage in these kinds of activities.

But first a bit of history: the British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We were established in 1934, partly in response to the rise of fascism and communism in Europe and the growth of disinformation. During the Second World War, one of our annual reports described our purpose as being “to create a … friendly knowledge and understanding of the people of this country, of their philosophy and way of life, which will lead to a sympathetic appreciation of British foreign policy.”

This all remains very relevant today! The work of the British Council contributes to the UK’s soft power around the world. Soft power is about influencing and attracting, about persuading and building trust. More and more governments are investing time and resources into building their soft power capability, as an important ingredient of a country’s success in the 21st century.

But soft power includes a range of different activities, while a country’s relationship with the rest of the world covers, of course, hard power as well as soft power. This can be seen in this diagram, which shows the range of ways a country engages with other countries, from aid to military action.  You can see from this that there is a clear overlap between some aspects of cultural relations, cultural diplomacy and – another term – public diplomacy.

At the British Council, we very much see ourselves as a cultural relations organisation. There is no universally shared definition of cultural relations, but generally it is agreed to mean interaction between different cultures with a focus on intercultural dialogue and the aim of bringing about mutual understanding and benefit – it’s a two-way conversation.

Cultural diplomacy is perhaps more one-way – for example, showcasing a country’s culture through concerts or exhibitions. While public diplomacy is, similarly, more one-way, but with a focus on states getting their policies and messages understood by the people of other countries, not just by the governments. All of these approaches are valid and relevant, but they may be best led by different parts of a country's international machinery. Public diplomacy, for example, sits most comfortably within Ministries of Foreign Affairs alongside traditional (ie government to government) diplomacy.

An important principle of many effective cultural relations bodies is their independence from government, even through they may be wholly or significantly funded by the state. Thus, the British Council – and other equivalents such as the Goethe Institut – are legally and organisationally separate from their country’s government. This level of independence will vary between countries – and may vary over time within a country as politics and society changes! Again, different models will suit different countries best.

Some years ago, the British Council published a report on how international cultural relationships build trust in the UK and contribute to the growth of the UK economy. This showed that if people learn more about another country, for example by taking part in a cultural activity or by studying that country’s language, then they are more likely to trust that country (and its government’s policies), and they are more likely to want to visit or study in that country – and ultimately do business with it. It’s obvious, really! and is why the title of the report was Trust Pays.

The importance of cultural relations is also increasingly recognized at supra-national levels. In 2016 the European Commission and High Representative published a Joint Communication on international cultural relations, seeking to define how the European Union could engage with other countries in this arena – including Ukraine. This identified three areas for focus: 

– supporting culture as an engine for sustainable social and economic development 

– promoting cultural and intercultural dialogue for peaceful inter-community relations 

– reinforcing cooperation on cultural heritage

These priorities have been reflected in subsequent cooperation programmes funded by the EU in Ukraine within the framework of the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, such as the Culture Bridges Programme managed by the British Council. They are also reflected in many countries’ bilateral cultural relations programmes with Ukraine.

Here at the British Council, for example, our objectives since the Revolution of Dignity have been to support Ukraine's European choice and ambitions for international partnership, while making the UK a partner of choice for Ukraine in reforming its education system and revitalizing its cultural sector. So we have been working with the Ministry of Education and Science to support the roll-out of the New Ukrainian School initiative, by training 135 master trainers who have then trained all 17,000 year-one teachers of English across the country. We have also linked more than 30 Ukrainian universities with UK universities to share experiences, programmes and ideas relevant for Ukraine’s higher education reforms. And we have trained more than 500 creative entrepreneurs in business planning and development, using UK techniques.

But we are also using the UK’s expertise to address the educational, social and cultural consequences of the conflict in the east of Ukraine. We have provided training to all of the student associations in the universities displaced from the Donbas and Crimea, have set up after-school English clubs in 20 schools in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and have been working with communities and local governments across those same regions to transform young people into active and engaged citizens through training and social action. We expect that our work in these areas will grow in the coming years.

Each country must decide how it wants to engage with and be seen by the world in the 21st century – an arena increasingly crowded with competing and sometimes deliberately-misleading information and projections. Cultural diplomacy and cultural relations are a vital tool for that engagement and it is important that any country, and any society, takes seriously the opportunities and challenges they bring.

Thank you for listening!

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