Art and culture are often treated as lesser subjects in the field of foreign policy, sidelined such that the academics and policy wonks can focus on hard power—the often aggressive or coercive use of military and economic force to influence the behavior of other states or political bodies. By focusing so heavily on the elements of hard power, however, we lose something essential. Culture binds societies together, art can spur social change, and globalization has allowed artists and designers around the world to collaborate and share experiences on an interpersonal level. Happily, the tide seems to be turning in favor of taking the power of “soft” elements like culture seriously in the theory and practice of international relations. In early April of this year, Foreign Policy, in conjunction with TCA Abu Dhabi and TCP Ventures, hosted the first international Culture Summit to explore, among other things, the role that culture could play in addressing some of the major political challenges currently going on around the world. The arts are an important element in the foreign policy toolbox for a variety of reasons, and deserve continued attention.
The Culture Summit was held in Abu Dhabi, which, after decades of being known as a cultural wasteland, has been building its reputation as a hub for international art and design. Topics covered during the five-day conference included “What the Arts Tell Us About How We Can Come Together,” “The Why and How of Cultural Preservation in the Coming Decades,” “The Arts & Advocacy,” and “The Unintended Consequences of Technological Change.” Speakers were diverse, ranging from Madeline Albright to ministers of state to photographers and comedians. Artists from around the world performed, and there was an award ceremony for “Cultural Diplomats,” musical performances, workshops, and carefully curated meals. All in all, an event designed to impress, and hopefully the first of many future culture summits where leaders from the political and artistic worlds meet to discuss the ways in which art, design, and technology can be used to drive foreign policy objectives.
For an example of how culture can be used to influence behavior of other political entities, take the recent partnership between the MBC (a private media group based in the Middle East) and U.S. television writers who are looking at ways in which high-quality, compelling television shows can combat the influence of ISIS’s propaganda and shake their hold over potential new recruits. Such a partnership could undoubtedly work in reverse, too, introducing Americans (and other Westerners) to a side of the Middle East besides ISIS, the Taliban, and other enemies of wars past. Or, look at a project that was discussed as a part of the Culture Summit: an effort spearheaded by the International Rescue Committee and the nonprofit organization behind Sesame Street to bring the Muppets to Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. The goal of the program is to support development for children who have been uprooted and trapped in war zones and who would otherwise face relatively bleak futures as adults, by introducing them to the Muppets in schools, clinics, broadcast media, and web and mobile sites. Both programs are specifically aimed at leveraging arts and culture to affect an outcome internationally, a tactic often referred to as “cultural diplomacy.”
Other artwork is more subtle in its message, less overtly related to global politics but still very relevant. The Bulgarian/Moroccan husband-wife duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude have for years created large-scale, political artwork that draws crowds of visitors from around the world. Their floating piers in Italy and gates in Central Park seem even more poignant today, as they celebrated open borders and global movement, in stark contrast to the recent talk of walls, fences, borders, and travel bans. All of their exhibits would be impossible to build and showcase without the cooperation of multiple countries and the ability for tourists to travel freely. Christo has already had to cancel a piece in Colorado over conflicts with President Trump. Artists throughout history, from contemporaries like Ai Weiwei and Banksy to historical figures like Picasso and Rembrandt, have sought to convey political messages and sway opinions through their artwork. Artists can raise global awareness of a particular issue, such as the effects of climate change or human rights violations perpetuated by a regime—or just express an opinion on a policy, political figure, or situation—in a visual way that is often more poignant than an article in a journal or a report filed by a UN commission.
There are dozens of other touchpoints between arts and foreign policy: the global art trade has been bustling for hundreds of years, moving money and culture across borders; fashion borrows designs and trends from different societies; ISIS has been destroying (and/or selling) antiquities as part of their campaign; culinary influences have travelled across borders for centuries; and cultural diplomacy seeks to create mutual understanding by facilitating exchange across borders, for example. China, Russia, Israel, Nigeria, and many others spend billions (combined) on cultural diplomacy, and even the United States was once a strong proponent of cultural exchange, despite recent signs to the contrary. When the various roles that the arts and culture are taken more seriously in summits, G-20 meetings, policy discussions, and even international relations classrooms, we will undoubtedly discover new ways they can support economic growth, global education, health and human rights, and political thought, it addition to more ambitious goals like reducing global terrorism and combating climate change.