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More Culture in Global Politics

Europe needs to invest more in cultural relations worldwide to capitalise on its experience of peaceful coexistence, artistic sources of inspiration for governance initiatives, cultural and multilingual dialogue and the practice of confidence-building in the EU. Europe also has experience with intellectual freedom that could be of benefit elsewhere.

The debate on the cultural components of the EU’s external action is expanding. While less than a decade ago, the relevance of cultural relations in EU’s diplomacy was still being questioned, today it is almost taken for granted. Diplomats now see that Europe, beyond nation branding, needs to develop a proper cultural diplomacy as a block in an increasingly multipolar, if not interpolar, world. The military found itself dramatically exposed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon and Africa and had to learn the value of culturally-sensitive approaches to crisis management. The development aid community is currently experiencing an existential crisis and looking for alternative approaches to international cooperation. National cultural diplomacies are at risk of being diluted in a globalised world where transnational communities have now learned how to develop their own multicultural initiatives.

Networks that have understood that their ideals of equality, common humanity and imagination could potentially lead to multi-dimensional and multi-lingual dialogues and conversations have finally recognised that, in this environment, cultural relations are suited to playing a central role.

From NGOs and lobbying networks to supranational institutions, from cultural institutes to the European Parliament, experts in international affairs are recognising that culture really matters and are asking for more culture in global politics.

At last, some decision makers, politicians and donors are now convinced that, in the interests of all Europeans, cultural relations require sound, smart and ambitious policies in every corner of the globe. Policy-making is a dangerous pastime and a double-edged sword – too much strategy, too many concepts and too much bureaucracy simply get in the way of action.

A young woman looks at a pro-Ukrainian mural branching a barbed wire fence and a dove of peace.
Cultural relations and social relations are a garden that has to be cultivated, cared for and watered. photo: Artur Widak / NurPhoto via picture alliance

Artists, curators, cultural activists, citizens, journalists and computer geeks have not been waiting around for the USA and the EU to do what others are now preaching: doing culture tous azimut, tutti frutti and at all levels of globalisation. They know what they need to do to develop their projects and realise their ideas, and it’s time that we listened to them.

Conflict prevention is just one of many tools used by the EU in its external action. Prevention is one example of an area where a great deal can be done. It constitutes a wide range of actions in a familiar cycle, moving from crisis prevention, crisis management, post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding to peaceful coexistence. I would now like to give a definition of cultural relations as a preventive tool.

As a preventive tool, cultural relations are about creating, sharing and performing metaphors for conflicts. It implies a degree of questioning; the identification of the tensions and violence that are to be prevented; an effort of reformulation, translation and transposition, in order to achieve a result that is a kind of cultural production characterised by its aesthetical strength and complex meaning. It does not necessarily have to be linked to the arts to be aesthetically strong: learning a language or new skills also has its own beauty. (For another definition, see Helmut Anheier and Yudhishtir Raj Isar, “Conflicts and Tensions”, The Cultures and Globalization Series, page 281.

Early Warning and Early Action

Cultural early warning is about putting conflict and violence on the stage before it erupts into reality. This can take many different forms. The concept of cultural rapid reaction intervention groups, suggested by Ferdinand Richard on the basis of his experience of working in Marseille with young hip-hop professionals, could inspire the creation of European cultural early warning and early response teams, on the model of existing CRTs (Crisis Response Teams). Deploying cultural professionals in conflict-prone areas to assess cultural prevention needs could be one way forward. This could initially be done via pilot projects in urban areas that studies have shown may be melting pots for social, political, environment and security-related tensions in the future.

Culture is not justice, but it voices it and spells out new possibilities for the future.

The work of detecting risks of violence and crisis is known as early warning. Which members of society are better placed to have a sense of when things are going wrong than artists and cultural workers? Who creates the link between cultural production and social emergencies? And who better to deal with the surrounding issues than those who are sensitive to multi-layered identities, to misperceptions, miscommunications and multicultural tensions? One recent example of the prevention of cultural conflict within Europe is the Art as LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans) Activism: from Britain to Belarus initiative which ran as part of the Transeuropa Festival 2011. It surveyed performance campaigns for lesbian and gay visibility across Europe and showed the burning issues of anti-gay violence in Belgrade, Zagreb and Minsk.

When things go well, the media don’t bother to report it. Nor do they acknowledge that some people are working to make things go well. Cultural relations and social relations are a garden that has to be cultivated, cared for and watered. Cultural relations provide the means to help us live together, despite all the economic hardships. Take them away, and relations soon start to fall apart. The destruction of symbols engenders hatred. The part played by a TV series depicting the peaceful co-existence of communities that was developed by the NGO Search for Common Ground in Macedonia and Sierra Leone is a good example of the preventive work that can be done using traditional media. There are many other examples around the globe, such as in Sri Lanka, where theatre has been used to address inter-community violence, (for more on this see Helmut Anheier and Yudhishtir Raj Isar, “Conflicts and Tensions”, pages 296-305. This same book also includes a chapter on radio stations in Colombia and Afro-Reggae in Brazil).

Which members of society are better placed to feel when things are going wrong than artists and cultural workers?

Culture is the hope that, like flowers and trees, grows from seeds planted in the ruins. Rainfall and oxygen are all that is needed to make human ecosystems fresh and fertile once again. Likewise, culture can restore hope to destroyed psyches and communities and help them move beyond nightmares, grievances and revenge. It is not justice, but it voices it and spells out new possibilities for the future.

A Worthwhile Investment

Cultural activism in post-conflict settings is a worthwhile investment: it can go from clowning performances by soldiers in the wake of a battle (as in the case of Brazilian troops in the shanty town of Cité Soleil in Haiti in 2007) to the revival of cultural infrastructures after a conflict and the relaunch of cultural initiatives that were brought to a halt by conflict. Other initiatives related to transitional justice and mediation may also entail strong cultural components, such as the Gacaca system in Rwanda, (for more on this see Helmut Anheier and Yudhishtir Raj Isar, “Conflicts and Tensions”, pages 306-312).

When people have stopped believing in the outdated ambitions of their elders and the past, then it is time for new generations and for those artists who have remained young at heart to reinvent their heritage beyond their all-too-familiar horizons.

A clown from Clowns Without Borders performs for children in Cite-Soleil in Port-au-Prince on Friday, August 8, 2008.
It is time for cultural relations to take to the streets, change its face, compose new songs and write new play, photo:: Ramon Espinosa / ASSOCIATED PRESS via picture alliance

When Europe is suffering political decline, when those who represent our democracies cease to fight for them, then it is time for cultural relations to take to the streets, change its face, compose new songs and write new plays.

How is it possible to ensure peaceful co-existence without becoming an empire or returning to the nationalism of the 1930s? The European renaissance is a scenario that has begun to be written in blogs, music scores and European films both long and short. It is the fresh and aromatic surf on the new waves that lap the hospitable shores of Asia, Africa and America, driven onward by the movements of a new Europe riding her mythological bull.

Films by Fatih Akin such as “Gegen Die Wand” are metaphors of contemporary Germany and Turkey, where language, migration and contemporary mental nomadism represent the complexity of European culture, and how individuals are experimenting with it. It links people with our societies and with the collective concerns we have about peace.

However, the establishment of spaces for cultural relations should not be a goal in itself unless it is backed up by a strong collective consensus on method and values. Europeans still need to reach this consensus by holding thorough debates on controversial topics.


Preventive Power or an Instrument of Hegemony?

The first of these is the relationship between cultural relations and the use of force: is the military justified in carrying out cultural work or even being associated with preventive cultural initiatives? Isn’t “the military” and “cultural prevention” a contradiction in terms? Or should we try to think of ways in which the role of the military is acceptable in the field of cultural relations?

The second issue that Europeans need to debate is the link between cultural relations and international political domination. In other words, under which conditions is European soft power a force for prevention rather than a tool for hegemony, neo-colonialism or neo-imperialism? Can hegemons claim that their cultural diplomacy is based on the principle of a partnership of equals?

The third challenge for Europe’s external cultural preventive action is to combine cultural relations and social class disparities. This dilemma is not a new one for cultural policies, but it still applies in the case of cultural diplomacy: are cultural relations the preserve of the elite? How should cultural relations deal with social inequalities and class warfare?

Finally, it is important to discuss the question of compliance with a set of values relating to the protection of human rights, and these values must be established before the launch of any new initiatives. Cultural relations cannot afford to be accused of breaches of human rights and compromises are not acceptable. But to what extent is this really possible in every context, when the boundaries between effectiveness, interests and values become blurred and when culture is used as a temporary and by-default mediation tool to promote (legitimate) change?

Culture can restore hope to destroyed psyches and communities and help them move beyond nightmares, grievances and revenge.

To cut a long story short: Europe needs to invest more in cultural relations worldwide in order to capitalise on its existing experience of peaceful coexistence, of artistic sources of inspiration for governance initiatives, of cultural and multilingual dialogue and the practice of confidence-building, of intellectual freedom as a multiplier of utopian projects. This is a recipe for tackling conflicts and, above all, preventing them. The European Parliament’s 2011 report on the cultural components of the EU’s external action has harnessed most of what needs to be done in terms of policy: it needs the kind of intelligent, assiduous and thorough attention to detail that our institutions are well placed to execute. It is time to act and to implement these recommendations, working closely with the cultural relations institutions and organisations around the world that are already representing Europe but still desperately lack support from those who have – democratic – power and money.

Europe should no longer be a goal per se, provided, as Javier Solana once said, that the “spirit” of the treaties is implemented whole-heartedly. In a way, our goal has already been reached with the latest treaties and the creation of the Union. It is now time for Europe to be more creative in the way it expresses itself. The temple has been built, now it just needs some performances and ceremonies It needs its own metaphor. It needs its own mythology, its own sacrifices, its own symbols.

Spreading these freely-accessible European temples of culture across the globe and in the process creating and supporting spaces for cultural relations (such as museums, theatres, houses of creativity where cultural relations can develop) will provide the basis for the establishment of spaces for the prevention of cultural conflict.

About the Author
Damien Helly
Independent Cultural Consultant

Damien Helly is an independent cultural consultant and director of his consultancy dh creative partnerships. He is also co-founder and board member of culture Solutions, an independent social innovation group that aims to strengthen the EU's international cultural relations. 

Previously, he was a Visiting Professor at the Department of International Relations and Diplomacy at the College of Europe in Bruges and worked as Head of Cultural Skills, EU for the British Council and as a Senior Program Manager at ECDPM (European Centre for Development Policy Management) and EUISS (European Union Institute for Strategic Studies). Prior to EUISS, he was Head of the NGO International Crisis Group's office in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In 2005-2006, Helly opened and managed an EU branch of the British NGO Saferworld in Brussels.

He works on sub-Saharan Africa, Euro-African relations, and the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP). Research interests include conflict prevention and crisis management.

Culture Report Progress Europe

Culture has a strategic role to play in the process of European unification. What about cultural relations within Europe? How can cultural policy contribute to a European identity? In the Culture Report Progress Europe, international authors seek answers to these questions. Since 2021, the Culture Report is published exclusively online.