How Cultural Diplomacy and Radicalism Challenge the International Order

Cultural diplomacy falls within the wider spectrum of soft power used by states to advance their national interests, although it is not easily defined.

diplomacyCultural diplomacy consists of one of the communications and operational tools of the states when exercising foreign policy and interacting with other states with the final aim being to produce desired outcomes.

As an organizational concept, it is new. However, in practice, it is has been exercised for centuries. The means and the agents of applying cultural diplomacy have multiplied or boosted particularly in the western world, where further democratization and the firm belief in peacefully settling inter-state disputes acquired an institutional blueprint.

Academically there has been an effort to theorize and thus scrutinize the term trying to come up with alternative methodological tools. This is mainly the case in an effort to improve the overall framework of exercising public diplomacy, yet, without being able to come up with a widely accepted grand theory.

After the end of the Cold War in particular and the partial demilitarization of the international environment, cultural diplomacy started to operate as the main tool of exercising foreign policy. It formulated favorite conditions for the materialization of national goals. Cultural diplomacy also began implementing a framework of understanding among states which operate in a politically autonomous way with the aim to maximize their gains in a competitive international environment.

Challenges to the International Order

During the last decade, the international system is facing – at least in terms of intensity – multifaceted challenges. As a result, there has been an enhancement of security challenges. Their impact has operated in support of those views focusing on hard power and its usefulness in terms of security and survival.

The emergence of terrorism as a primary threat to the West has illustrated the urgency of acting on multiple levels in order to deal with a challenge that cannot be dealt with hard power alone.

On a level of interaction between Islam and the West cultural diplomacy may, under circumstances, establish channels of communication and mutual understanding of a stable, not ephemeral character. This because “diplomacy among civilizations” built on the basis of orchestrated institutional action or individual action may affect negative predispositions and prejudices that add to hate, intolerance and radicalism.

The problem today concerns, inter allia, the urgent need to deal with threats or challenges within a time limit spectrum. In other words, while exercising cultural diplomacy requires a time horizon to alter established beliefs, the need to urgently deal with security issues (i.e. terrorism) imposes crucial time restraints. This almost by default supports the use of hard power.

On an evaluation basis constructed on the definition of cultural diplomacy, ideas, values, traditions and the ability to build a constructive inter-cultural groundwork of interaction constitute multiple independent variables. This is important in our effort to establish win-win approaches to international relations (dependent variable) particularly in fields related to inter-religious understanding.

The most important advantage of exercising cultural diplomacy could be that it can be applied by private not just state agents. This very fact may allow the establishment of a parallel axis of initiatives and interactions outside the state framework. It could also take place as a result of cooperation between state and non-state agents.

In a condition of transition of the international system or crucial changes taking place in the periphery, the independent variable to pay attention is fluidity. Of equal importance is the limited, by default, predictive ability and the high stakes produced by internal structural changes (i.e. state partition and the establishment of neophyte states or the balkanization of the Middle East). These constitute major hurdles to produce particular dynamics allowing the organizational deployment of mechanisms and agents of materialization able to offer added value to actions falling within the wider cultural diplomacy spectrum.

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This by no means implies that these mechanisms are not useful but that the exercise of this kind of diplomacy will have to follow a procedural path not affected by fluctuations related to the traditional framework of international relations. This is extremely important since states have communication channels even in times of confrontation or conflict.

The Terrorist Threat

For instance, in our struggle to deal with terrorism it is evident that soft power is indispensable in order to construct time-resistant communication and mutual understanding channels with a potential target group of extremists. These tools will have to be used within a macro strategic framework since immediate results are practically impossible to be produced.

In transition zones in particular, where there is interaction among religions, cultures, and civilizations negative outcomes in the form of zero-sum games are often produced. In these cases, the initiatives taken by agents operating outside state/government control may offer an alternative, parallel to the state level positive ground of interaction among alternative or competing values and norms.

History has shown that the exercise of cultural diplomacy has been defined, inter allia, by circumstances and was seen as an ephemeral only means of establishing communications and cooperation channels.

Current fluidity conditions, regional instability, conflict as well as circumstantial elements point to the need of systematic use of cultural diplomacy tools. This is of paramount importance at a time inter-religion, and the inter-cultural gap is expanding due either to geo-strategic conditions (radicalism in the Muslim world and political representation of the extreme right in Europe) or to the impact of subjectively-based distortion of religious beliefs. The above may lead to the formulations of radical views or distorted mental models of otherness.

In the case of the EU that has traditionally and historically been defined as a normative power, cultural diplomacy may be a major assisting tool in intervening in the radicalization process. This requires policies of involvement, motivation and a number of independent variables that enhance effectiveness. Agents within target countries where radical ideas spread are expected to de-construct otherness-related hostile cognitive elements, a demanding task that still guarantees no success.

If cultural diplomacy in the past referred to the ontology of the ability to alter the way national interests were defined or re-defined (see Détente during the Cold War), today it reflects the degree to which it could operate in the long term as an ontological means of dealing with radicalism, particularly within an urban environment where marginalized or less socialized individuals live.

Transitional phases in the international system and/or the periphery constitute an opportunity not only for those intolerant powers operating on nihilistic motives, but also an opportunity for those able to go beyond the obvious (that is cultural and religious differences).

George Voskopoulos is Associate Professor of European Studies, University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki, Greece. Read other articles by George.