The subtle distinction between Cultural Diplomacy and Propaganda


During the Cold War the world was split into two contrasting systems that were hardly getting in touch with each other because they were belonging to two antithetical economical-political and cultural realities. A nuclear fear was one of the things that they had in common. The United States of America and the Soviet Union were using propaganda to manipulate the public opinion across the whole world, promoting their own myths and the local one, decrying the opposite country. Cultural diplomacy wasn’t born during the Cold War but it rose and degenerated at the same time, losing its moral appearance which is actually its very first feature. It regained its real meaning just at the end of that period.

It’s been almost a week that I am working at the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy in Berlin, a non governmental organization which promotes a pacific meeting, between the cultures from different countries, based on: culture, music and art benefits, through conferences about the current global topics (from the economy to the human rights, tourism, minorities and genocides).

Diplomacy is the tool which is unquestionably needed to bring the countries closer, in terms of communication and possibly cooperation. Usually it happens through economy and politics. On the other hand Cultural diplomacy works with culture that unhinges stereotypes and gains upon two civilizations and two different way of looking at things. In this framework culture is saw as a traditional heritage of a country, made by arts and music, for example. Therefore Cultural diplomacy which is part of public diplomacy is based on economy, politics and culture, has but an essential difference that makes it actually independent: it is kept on, not only by institutions and corporations, but also by non governmental organizations. This feature gives to the Cultural diplomacy a peculiar moral employment: because of it’s no profit (in financial and geopolitical terms) purpose it has a really important pacific and moral duty. As a matter of fact, to know and eventually become keen on, a traditional music type of a country, or discover it’s natural, artistic and why not touristic side, makes people more connected to the country itself, as on the contrary cannot happen just reading about it in the newspapers or online.


During  the lectio magistralis held by Mark Donfried, director of the ICD (Institute for Cultural Diplomacy), he sharply replied: “No!”to the question: “ Is there any place for Cultural diplomacy as a tool of approach between two countries that are fighting each other as they dislike themselves so much?”

So the mind goes back to the beginning of this article. Even though the political and material walls built during the Cold War degeneracy, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones became well known also by the youth of the East countries, in the 60s and 70s, and they let them dream about what was happening on the other side of Iron Curtain.

At that time, the USA, understood that let them know about the American culture, it’s liberalism and the appearance of alternatives countercultures which were based on the concept of freedom would have been a useful tool to drift away the Communist threats and it’s restrictions that were becoming totally unpopular within the civilians (that were living in the countries of the Warsaw Pact), especially after the events happened in Prague. Is the case of the Jazz musicians used as cultural “ambassadors” from the United States of America.

In fact, during the Cold War, the black American music effected much more than any other traditional diplomatic tool within the idealization of the USA made by the people who where under the Soviet power. Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Dizzie Gillespie during their tours in the Soviet countries (Goodman played the clarinet in the Red Square in Moscow) succeeded in 20 years, better than American foreign policy, in making art a democracy and freedom  symbol opposed to the cultural oppression forced by socialism. This has been one of the “soft power” tool preferred by the American administration of that time. It is then possible to classify them as Cultural diplomacy or was it just propaganda? It is almost impossible to do it, even though the function and the final outcome of this game of seduction totally look like one of that model of traditional propaganda which is based on information. The USA has used the music as a diplomatic tool till nowadays. In Afghanistan, the organization of Jazz and Hip Hop concerts was needed by the administrations to approach the local civilians (or at least, this was their intent) so that they would have eventually accepted the Americans into their own world and daily life.

So becomes Cultural diplomacy a kind of propaganda? It depends. Let’s say that if it is true that diplomacy has been always understood as a tool used by official institutions in each country, is also true that this interpretation could be theoretically widen to the private area of the citizens, the so called “cultural ambassadors” of the no profit-non governmental organizations.

In these terms, the diplomatic corporation is a discriminating that can tip the scales in favour of diplomacy or of propaganda. What actually the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy does with its conferences is Cultural diplomacy indeed, just for the fact that it’s totally no-profit, nor political: it’s about diplomacy and culture, mixed together to achieve goals with a deep moral value, which can be achieved or they are already.  Of course most of the time, the speakers (mostly political representatives) which are called to tell their thesis and discuss them with the conference members, just make a sort of propaganda of their own country, they promote it as a touristic attraction (especially if is the case of an African region or if it is a post-war country), they try to convince the public even though the reality does not correspond with what they say or they even deny that crimes have happened. During his lectio, Mr. Donfried, explained that Cultural Diplomacy is based on trust: trust in the representatives which decides to let their cultures get in touch with each other and in those who convey this transition. Therefore the NGOs and the no profit organizations are the perfect actors to make these transitions true. Afterwards Donfried profiled the history of Cultural diplomacy in the last century, starting from the Alliance française, through the Deutsche Welle, the DAAD till nowadays, with the establishment in 1999 of the Institute for Culrtural Diplomacy. He also made a distinction between the so called “old school” and “new school” of Cultural diplomacy. The former, as the examples told till now, is produced just by governments or agencies created by those. The primary purpose of the Alliance Française, the British Council and the Goethe Institute is to export the culture of a specific country abroad, organizations like the ICD are created to be the representatives for the gathering between cultures and traditions of different countries which are meeting in one place: so they play like a centripetal force that by which bodies are drawn towards a point as to a centre, which in this case is Kurfustendamm Street in Berlin.


What are then the future settings for the Cultural diplomacy? The political vicissitudes which are occurred during the 20th Century have surely changed the meaning of the term, they gave him as if to say, more sense, so that now it is completely detached from Propaganda. But there are still some troubles, as it has been said that some representatives of the governments are making propaganda when they are talking about their countries. It seems that today the Cultural diplomacy starts to walk along its own street that stands out from the government. In a short time, the ICD and the University of Dubrovnik (Croatia) will cooperate to carry on the first course of Cultural diplomacy.

During the last century, the “trust” told by Mr. Donfried has been enhanced exactly by the switching into non governmental organization. But the goal is still the same. The American propaganda that was trying to charming the East youth was headed to common people; today the cultural diplomacy does the same through: conferences, symposiums, roundtables, exchanging of ideas, music performances or just through the networking between people coming from different cultures. It is headed to the same agents: to the people, especially to the youth.  Because they are able to look at what we have done till now and thereby make something different.


One Response to “The subtle distinction between Cultural Diplomacy and Propaganda”
  1. john brown ha detto:

    Mi è molto piaciuto suo articolo.


Inserisci i tuoi dati qui sotto o clicca su un'icona per effettuare l'accesso:


Stai commentando usando il tuo account Chiudi sessione / Modifica )

Foto Twitter

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Twitter. Chiudi sessione / Modifica )

Foto di Facebook

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Facebook. Chiudi sessione / Modifica )

Google+ photo

Stai commentando usando il tuo account Google+. Chiudi sessione / Modifica )

Connessione a %s...

%d blogger hanno fatto clic su Mi Piace per questo: