Cultural Diplomacy and the City

by Sascha Priewe

Sascha Priewe

Sascha Priewe is Associate Vice President, Strategic Initiatives & Partnerships, at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, and a Co-Founder of the North American Cultural Diplomacy Initiative. He is also an Associate Professor in the Department of History of Art of the University of Toronto, and an Affiliate Associate Professor in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. He holds a Ph.D. in Archaeology from the University of Oxford.

                                                                                                                                                  “Global cities run the world.” With this claim that leaves no doubt as to their importance, Richard Longworth (2015) opens his essay on global cities. He later states that for a city to achieve global status “four pillars—economic, political, educational and cultural” are essential (ibid.:n.p.). Despite its taken for granted status, culture is often a neglected feature of a city’s international relations, though there are some notable examples, such as the European Capital of Culture initiative. In this brief essay, I argue that cities, global or otherwise, should more fully embrace culture’s function as one of the pillars of their international, if not global, engagement.

The growth and significance of cities for our age is a well-rehearsed trope. We know about their importance as engines of the global economy, their role as nodes in global information networks and how they are magnets for people. If projections hold true, most of humanity will be dwelling in urban areas by the middle of this century. Knowledge of this projection is concomitant with the attention now being paid to the ways cities are connected globally and have been developing their own brand of diplomacy to address some of the major issues faced by humanity today. Key examples of cities’ geo-political power are their efforts to address climate change by coming together in support of the Paris Accord and, more recently, the doubling down by U.S. cities on this commitment in light of the U.S. federal government’s move to extract itself from that agreement. National governments are seen as either gridlocked or not sufficiently active in solving the issues that matter. Cities move in to pick up the pieces.

With urban centers accounting for over 70% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, it is hardly surprising that efforts to mitigate climate change figure prominently in the international networks cities have developed to advance their agendas; these networks are one of the main channels of city diplomacy. There is an unprecedented number of them, and although they are predominantly focused on environmental issues, themes such as poverty, energy, gender, peace and culture have also found a place (Acuto 2016; Acuto and Rayner 2016). Given the importance of cities, Michele Acuto calls for “a seat at the top table” for cities in global decision-making (Acuto 2016). And, I would argue that culture needs to ascend to the top table of the global agenda of cities.

Of course, culture has long been part of the policy agenda of cities and is integral to the gelling of international city networks. Some initiatives, such as the World Culture Cities Forum with its 40 member cities, stand out. The Forum argues for culture to become the “golden thread of urban policy, something that is integrated across all policy areas” (World Cities Culture Forum 2015:8). In effect, it is pushing us to see the cultural dimension of urban policy writ large in much the same way that we now see the environmental dimension in every policy action we adopt at a city’s “local” level as giving rise, through networking, to a “global” urban policy on the environment. By weaving culture into all our urban policies, the same may be achieved for culture. The ways in which new cultural policies are propelled by cities were demonstrated in these pages by Boni and Kern (2018), who, based on European examples, call this nothing less than a “cultural policy revolution,” thereby “mainstreaming culture” in relation to a number of policy areas.

The arguments for the importance of culture in and for cities are, for the most part, valid yet well-worn and predictable. Often cited are the ways in which culture is economically beneficial for cities because it boosts tourism as well as attracts a workforce that craves an urban environment driven by the spirit of Richard Florida’s “creative class” (2002). The significance of culture as an attractor for businesses more generally is often emphasized. Additionally, cities are said to exhibit the seductive properties of “soft power,” either as part of economic positioning or by way of ideas, values, and interests that create attraction. Culture is indeed economically beneficial for cities, but the value of culture need not be reduced to its economic benefits only. As it is usually applied, the soft power argument creates more of a challenge. It is difficult to see how it operates in the absence of the sort of mechanisms of hard power—both military and economic—which are generally the monopoly of the nation state (Nye 2011). Nonetheless, soft power has proved an attractive though rather misplaced term when applied to cities. What is common to all these notions is their inclusion in a paradigm that espouses the notion of both projection and attraction. While generally valid and an important part of the mix of what culture can do for cities, this paradigm favours one-way emanations from a city that are aimed at falling upon receptive eyes and ears elsewhere. Great examples of this approach are the Olympic Games and World Expos, which as profile-building activities, are intended to place cities on the map (Beall and Adam 2017). While these mega events may have components that are multi-directional, more needs to be said about the necessarily multi-directional character of global urban networking and about the importance of challenges cities face and the ways in which global cultural engagement is essential to dealing with them.

In Longworth’s terminology, global cities do exhibit certain “pathologies” embodying the challenges of the twenty-first century (Longworth 2015:n.p.). Be they climate change, terrorism, or inequality, to name just a few, these all have a cultural dimension. Taking climate change as an example, it is now widely recognized that tackling it is not simply a challenge of governance or technology but one that needs to be dealt with holistically. Changing how people go about their lives, their culture, “the hearts and minds of the citizens” (World Cities Culture Forum 2018:5), in order to tackle climate change, must be part of that equation.

Another crucial aspect pertains to the consequences of increasingly diverse urban populations. While diversity is generally seen as a quality of a (global) city, the rise of right wing populism is fueled by vilification of immigrants and all people perceived as “Others.” And for those supporting right wing populism, the issue is more a cultural one—the cultural intertwined with but eclipsing purely economic rationales. For example, a recent study has shown that a key factor in the election of Donald Trump was racial resentment and that “racial resentment is driving economic anxiety” and not the other way around (Fowler, Medenica and Cohen 2017 quoted in Lopez 2017). These developments throw into relief the importance of intercultural dialogue. In the words of a recent EU study, intercultural dialogue “opens up a third way [in addition to universalizing human rights that ignore cultural difference and the limits of multiculturalism] which is based on the creation of public goods in complex contemporary societies, on the ability of societies to go beyond recognition of diversity, and on the democratic will to address the issues under discussion” (OMC Working Group 2014:11). Clearly, culture’s role in catalyzing social cohesion in cities is not to be underestimated.

Yet what may seem to be a domestic or local challenge for cities that could be tackled by way of innovative cultural policy needs to be understood from the complementary if not utterly integrated flip side which is its global dimension. There is no need to rehash here the globalized disposition of our world and its multi-layered connectedness, which is of course the essence of global, world and other cities. Views to extol the virtues of projection and attraction and the ways in which city challenges can be dealt with through culture need to be complemented by a city’s external cultural relations. In fact, they are difficult to extricate from each other as “[t]he local and the global are mutually constitutive, creating and recreating each other across conceptual fields in a constant dynamic” (Darian-Smith and McCarty 2017:4). Culture needs to become a prominent part of city diplomacy. Enter cultural diplomacy.

Cultural diplomacy is usually subsumed in the categories of public diplomacy and/or soft power, and is commonly thought of as a technology of nation-state power. It is, essentially, the “soft power” equivalent to the nation-state’s monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and, like that, is seen as an exclusively national policy tool. While it can be those things—limited in scope as a one-way engagement between nations and their publics—a widely used definition by Milton Cummings sees cultural diplomacy more expansively as the “exchange of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding” (Cummings 2003:1). The key element here is the notion of fostering, by exchange, mutual understanding which is not far removed from the notion of intercultural dialogue and extends through networks that criss-cross all levels of political jurisdiction. The global dimension of this adds to the conversation a more conscious engagement with both differences and commonalities that can engender mutual benefits between cities and other global actors as well as within cities. If global and other cities are supposed to be as open and connected as they are claimed to be, then cities would do well to actively engage with and support a city’s culture, its organizations, networks and individuals relating to their connections with those elsewhere around the world. This shift in emphasis will not just deepen the advantages culture brings to a city but also do so on a global scale through a more dialogic and collaborative approach.

I am not saying that cities have no track record at establishing those vital people-to-people ties across national borders by way of cultural activities; indeed, some have been rather successful. But in order to deal with the challenges that cities and the world are facing, to stem the populist tide and to manage life alongside one another in the densest and most connected human agglomerations, a systematic and holistic approach to culture and its global dimensions needs to happen. Following Cowan and Arsenault’s (2008), three layers of public diplomacy, that by and large also apply to cultural diplomacy, and include one-way communication (monologue, or, what I refer to as projection/attraction), two- or more-way communication (dialogue), and, most importantly, collaboration, i.e. “an effort … to complete a common project or achieve a common goal” (ibid.:12), some potential strategies toward achieving a full harnessing of culture’s global dimension for the benefits of cities emerge. A good strategy would be to pay greater attention to culturally driven networks, such as the World Cities Culture Forum, and ensure that they have attention at the mayoral level. In parallel, I suggest injecting culture into networks that would otherwise not pay much attention to it. Only when culture is understood as contributing to combating climate change and fostering resilience, a holistic approach is given. Then, doubling down on proven strategies that in many cases have delivered a more collaborative approach, such as sister city partnerships, is worth considering. In addition to multi-lateral city networks, a direct relationship between cities, building on past relationships as well as pursuing new relationships in parts of the world that fit into a city’s global strategy, can leverage existing trusted people-to-people ties or build new ones, thereby delivering on the goals of cultural diplomacy. Sometimes tried and trusted mechanisms can be harnessed and retooled for future benefit, without having to reinvent the wheel in its entirety.

doi: 10.18278/aia.4.2.20

The author would like to thank Lynda Jessup and Jeff Brison of Queen’s University for hugely insightful comments and editorial suggestions that made this a better piece.


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