Cultural Diplomacy: The Dancing Diplomat Behind the Scenes

Posted on Posted in Analyses, Cultural Diplomacy

By Niko Costantino, Senior Researcher KEDISA

Cultural diplomacy generically defines as “the use of creative expression and exchanges of ideas, information, and people to increase mutual understanding”. However, it is often conceived as state-centred – as in the interest of single nations who build their individual strategy. Despite that, cultural diplomacy is a most valuable tool for international organisation: while single nations often view cultural diplomacy as a tool to build a one-way street, cultural diplomacy is best expressed as a multilateral approach that builds bridges. It seeks to foster international cooperation by developing respect for others and their ways of thinking.

Cultural diplomacy is about increasing mutual understanding, with the aid of arts in all their forms, while using cultural connections to ease international cooperation. On a broader note, cultural diplomacy classifies as a form of soft power, that is, the sort of power that exercises through the attraction and persuasion of values, ideas and culture. In practical terms, any person who interacts with different cultures, facilitates a form of cultural exchange, which can take place in fields such as art, sports, literature, music, science, business and beyond. A most known example of cultural diplomacy exercised by government officials is the usual cultural gifts they present to one another during state visits – often in bilateral meetings. Other than that, cultural diplomacy efforts can vary and present themselves through many diverse events, whose objective is to resonate within the community they are directed to.

Cultural diplomacy has long existed, most valuable reports dating back to Greek-Roman relations. Particularly emblematic is the phrase by Horatio (Epistulae, Il, 1, 156): “Graecia capta, ferum victorem cepit”, meaning that the conquered Greece (by Rome) itself conquered the “rough” conqueror, with its culture, arts and literature. In fact, still despite the military power was Rome’s, the cultural primacy was unquestionably Greek, which allowed the latter an overt prestige and privilege, although being a conquered land. On these sole premises, one can figure the potential of cultural diplomacy.

Modern cultural diplomacy, which gained momentum during the Cold War, tends to be perceived as a resort for emergencies and, as soon as the emergency is over, it is considered obsolete. Nor is its more nationalistic interpretation fruitful today. Foremost, a global vision is essential in a modern, ambitious cultural diplomacy. Its old-fashioned variant, intended as plain nation-branding, cannot live up to the historical moment with its current challenges to peace. It is, and should be, an opportunity for civil society and international organisations to bridge the gaps that single national governments cannot fill. Today’s diverse societal configurations less and less allow for the dominion of a “cultural standard”, making nation-branding an obsolete practice to achieve whatsoever effectiveness in the strive for peace.

Cultural fragmentation around the world is nothing new. Particularly, cultures have mainly been defined at the ethnic level, involving linguistic, religious, and custumal layers that defined the level of cultural proximity. More than 800 ethnic groups counting over 500’000 individuals have been presently identified in 160 countries (Fearon, 2003). Still, today ethnicity is not the one defining character of cultural boundaries, multiplying cultural layers within same ethnic groups. Despite that, the subcultural factor has a proven a great aggregational power, being able to connect different ethnic groups.

Among arts, dance and music produce some of the most successful efforts for cultural diplomacy. Such was the case for rock ‘n’ roll as a global phenomenon, as a voice for freedom with its criticism to authority, binding diverse cultures worldwide. Or jazz, with musicians such as Duke Ellington whose tours were often government-sponsored, inciting the masses to go to its concerts and insisting jazz was not only for the elites, thus promoting values of equality and freedom abroad.


Dance also produces some of the most impactful initiatives in cultural diplomacy. Such was the case of a break dancing group visit to Damascus in the 1980s. It is reported that the audience got so enthusiastic during the performance that even the security guards joined the dance from their glass cages. Clearly such an event has undisputable communicative power. In another occasion, the (American) Alvin Ailey Dance Theater’s visit to Tanzania had a profound two-way impact. Then, the American dancers held a study period throughout the country, where learned about the local dances and culture, while the Tanzanians experienced the American innovations in dance. The exchange later produced a long-term engagement with African traditions for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. One of Rockfeller’s first projects was in the field of dance, when Balanchine held a tour in South America to “reveal to South American people, through a medium that transcended the language barrier, that the North American colossus had a soul and was not just a grasping materialist” (Taper, 1996). Musical “Porgy and Bess” by George Gerswhin toured Europe under the auspices of the Eisenhower presidency, bringing stories of racial oppression to oppressed people in former Yugoslavia that “made America and their people better known and appreciated” (Prevots, 2012).

Today, culture is not that primordial element composed by a “protothypical ethnic group” (Fearon, 2003) sharing distinguishing cultural features as language, religion and customs, a shared history they feel represented by, and through which they develop a worldview. In a recent past, discourse and culture were produced by the more restricted class people who could emerge thanks to once rare features as education and wealth, which resulted in highly homogeneous cultures with no questionability (McGee, 1990). Today, within same ethnic groups, a relevant culture is not always shared and often questioned. With subcultures by now often overwhelming ethnic-based culture, diversity within a same culture is increasing, and the cultural  represents potentially a complication to the mission of cultural diplomacy. At the same time, they offer cultural diplomacy greater chance to build bridges across even polarised ethnic cultures through, for example, music-dance genres.

For the above reasons, today even more is diminishing cultural diplomacy dangerous, as Laqueur put it, defining cultural diplomacy as the chief tool for facing with the endogenous disorder of the world, achieving a deeper kind of appeasement that traditional diplomacy is not able to achieve. In this regard, one may especially think of culturally-based conflicts – among which especially identity-based conflicts (Rothman, 1997). Cultural diplomacy is a tool of foundational importance for peace processes in this kind of conflicts, which are more likely to occur in countries with an ethnic (or cultural) majority and a large minority, unlike with homogenous or highly culturally fragmented countries (Horowitz, 1985).

Arts are a humanist discipline and, as such, they humanise, they make us women and men of rational thinking. They elevate the spirit and emancipate the mind. Arts, and culture, can be the last resort to create effective communication between peoples involved in conflict. And that should not just be missed across the spiralling storm of guns, coercion and violence that today overpowers a timid, deconsecrated diplomacy.




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