NEW YORK CITY |  Over at Britain’s current affairs and politics magazine the New Statesman, the cultural policy expert John Holden has posted a fascinating argument that the west is failing in the area of cultural diplomacy, while such rising countries as China, Brazil and India are winning the race for soft power. The article, entitled “Why Britain can’t afford to fall behind in the race for soft power,” maintains that the west must not stint in giving financial support for culture and cultural diplomacy. If the west fails to sustain cultural confidence, then “China’s gain in global influence and trade will be our loss.” 

The New Statesman, Britain's current affairs and politics magazine
The New Statesman, Britain’s current affairs and politics magazine

Holden’s spirited argument flushes blood to a new but otherwise dull yet well-meaning report from the British Council and the think-tank Demos, entitled “Influence and Attraction: Culture and the Race for Soft Power in the 21st Century.”  The report describes and maps out, in ways that only wonks can appreciate, how western power face competition from emerging, high-growth economies, the so-called BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India and China) and parts of Asia and the Middle East, which are becoming increasingly outward looking. The revolution in physical and virtual contact between people, Holden says, “has created a new operating context for politics and the new for a different kind of diplomacy.”

Says Holden, an associate at Demos who headed its culture department from 2000 to 2008, writes in the New Statesman:

Cheap flights, 24-hour news, migration and the internet have combined to create a world of mass peer-to-peer interaction. Both the scale and the means of communication have changed but, more importantly, so is the content, which is to a considerable extent cultural. Art, film, heritage, music, dance and literature have become a bridge between people. When we rub up against each other, we go to culture to make sense of our differences. When we explain who we are, we express ourselves through culture. When we want to learn about the world, we watch, read and look at culture.

This huge increase in cultural interaction has big political implications, because what happens in the cultural arena increasingly affects what politicians can do: cultural misunderstandings create political problems, while an attractive culture gives countries a licence to operate in international affairs, and a chance of being heard.

Culture itself has produced a new international political economy – tourism into the UK is driven by culture, and tourists spend about £15bn a year here; Korea is exporting pop music to Peru; the Thai government supports food as a cultural export. But it’s not all benign, because culture has created problems for conventional politics: think of the way in which films like Braveheart, Borat and 300 have influenced debate, or how a TV series has affected Britons’ perception of Baltimore.

The big change is that both communication and culture are now democratised. This is not a coincidence, because they affect each other, and together they have created a massive increase in people power around the world. Artists, poets, actors and film-makers are leading change from Beijing to New York; they have played a major role in Tahrir Square and in Spain’s Indignados movement. And cultural voices are increasingly being heard in the mainstream political media as well: on Monday this week, an artist in Tehran was interviewed on Today about the election of Hassan Rouhani in Iran. Ten minutes later, there was a story about Pussy Riot appearing at the Meltdown Festival in London. Cultural expression and an interest in political freedom go hand-in-hand.

John Holden, former head of culture at the British think-tank Demos
John Holden, former head of culture at the British think-tank Demos

Holden’s New Statesman article adds currency to a 2007 Demos pamphlet “Cultural Diplomacy,” which examined the ways in which cultural relations were changing (spurred on by technological innovation, migration and mass tourism) and their consequences for politics. The only point about Holden’s rhetoric that seems annoying is that he positions the rise of China as the new bugaboo against western retrenchment. Embedded in his column are worrisome assumptions about competition and the nature of political influence that seems to mirror Cold War sentiments. For example, Holden notes:

In contrast to western retrenchment, a lot of countries in the south and east, from Brazil to India, are investing heavily in promoting themselves through culture. The former Chinese President Hu Jintao clearly understood that cultural and political influence go hand-in-hand. In 2012 he worried that “The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status…The international culture of the west is strong while we are weak.” He added, in language that sounds more military than diplomatic: “We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.” There can be no doubt that this is a battle that China wants to win: it has spent £4bn expanding its overseas media, and has opened Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in 104 countries in the last seven years.

Arguing against the western neoliberal response to the financial crisis is one thing. But if “winning” the hearts and minds of the British government means trumping up a new ideological battle of international relations in which culture now plays a powerful role seems to be a reversion to musty old ideological strategies. Culture is deeper than promotions and nation-branding. I think it is sad that turning culture into a competition seems be the only means of pricking up the ears of the British politicians and government officials who would otherwise not realize that international cultural relations are a long game. That kind of post-Cold War thinking can have a deep and possible deleterious consequences for the future of politics, too. Holden is right; winning the race for soft power requires cultural intelligence as well as cultural confidence. But it also requires a fresh cultural awareness, free of turning the rising democracies into rivals or enemies.  — randy gener, in the theater of One World

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