What role for culture in foreign policy: How important is the relationship between culture and international relations?



Kimmo Aulake
Special Government Advisor and Deputy Head of Cultural Exports and Exchange Unit, Ministry of Education and Culture (Finland)

Kok Heng Leun
the Arts Nominated Member of Parliament (Singapore)

Isabelle Schwarz
Head of Advocacy, Research & Development and Knowledge Management, European Cultural Foundation (France/Germany)

Anupama Sekhar
Director of the Culture Department at the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) (India)


Anupama Sekhar
Director of the Culture Department at the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF) (India)


Daniel Ho Sheng

Key words: 

horizontality; global cultural citizenship; mobility; people-to-people; international ecology; international cultural policy; equal partnerships; facilitation; shared principles; critical thinking; self-reflexivity. 





The session sought to explore the relationship between culture and foreign policy; specifically, whether calls for a growing and deepening role for culture in foreign policy are merely cultural diplomacy under a new guise, or if the role of culture and the arts is / can be far more substantial.

It was generally acknowledged that culture and diplomacy, when taken in relation to each other, create a conceptual mess. One approach therefore is to view the role of culture in a state actor’s external relations (state-centric view), while the other more meaningful approach is to view a culture / cultures through its / their own external relations (i.e. an international culture policy). It was also acknowledged that it is a fine balancing act between respecting artistic autonomy, economic prerogatives, and broader societal goals, and that different actors and their artistic practices are best suited for playing specific roles (i.e. one cannot be the best at everything, therefore one must learn to collaborate).

The discussion reaffirmed the intrinsic value of culture and challenged the notion that culture in the context of foreign policy should merely be treated as an instrument for achieving political outcomes. Artists, arts managers, arts networks etc. should continue to push for a transformation of the models that dominate our current thinking, with the hope that both culture and foreign policy can be effectively managed to advance shared interests for the betterment of all.



On Cultural Leadership in the 21st Century

Leadership has to happen at all levels. At the level of the state, governments need to harness the growing interest and passion for international cultural relations by updating the political mechanisms that facilitate such relations. It was discussed that perhaps governments should not control cultural encounters, but provide support from a distance to allow the sort of mobility that enables such encounters to take place and bear fruit. Governments need also look at creating the conditions for an international ecology (i.e. create an enabling framework) where artists can collaborate in different ways, not just with the same categories of peers. State-level programmes can do better to involve the various actors (networks, organisations, city governments, artists, etc.), starting from the origination of the idea to the planning, implementation, and evaluation stages – this will allow stakeholders to see and experience both the aspirational aspects of the project, as well as the political impact of the project.

Artists and arts networks/organisations, too, must realise that they create and/or are part of more complex structures – this in itself is a form of artistic practice that they need to take responsibility for and leadership in.They must know why they are doing their art and how to navigate a broader space – this means the education of the artists is extremely important in shaping his/her view of what his/her role in society is, in building critical thinking and self-reflexivity that allows him/her to see different possibilities).



Examples provided of leadership development 



ASEAN as an institution where state players have different needs and levels of development, but where on a government-to-government level there is strong intent to work together to advance shared objectives (albeit due to political necessity).

EARS (Europe Asia Roundtable Series) as a platform for European and Asian cultural professionals to meet – fills a void for practical yet easy networking.


Problems/obstacles to developing sector leadership 


  • The tendency for state actors to view culture as an instrument of foreign policy, as opposed to the external relations of culture itself.

  • Inequalities embedded in collaborative processes no matter how well-intentioned the partners may be.

  • There are sometimes unintended consequences of exchange (e.g. cultural tourism, extractive community projects).

  • Policies that do not enable artists to do what they already want to do / are good at, but force-fit them into doing what generates greater economic wealth.

  • Measurement of success in terms of immediate impact, as opposed to longer-term metrics such as the quality of the narrative, resilience of the ecosystem, etc.
  Recommendations for action to enhance sector leadership


  • Focus on the shared principles behind foreign and culture policy, not just of the individual sector – this will allow for a clearer appreciation of the mutually-supportive objectives of both (e.g. promoting peace, mutual understanding) and more actionable progress to be made.

  • Creation of an international ecology where actors can collaborate in different ways (and contribute to all stages of the collaboration), not just within their traditional silos or during specific phases.

  • Government must sometimes take a step back and facilitate mobility rather than controlling cultural encounters.

  • Strengthen people-to-people relations as a complement to government-to-government arrangements.

  • Arts practitioners and managers must continue to press for culture and the arts to be involved in the broader conversation on diplomacy and international development

  Key quotations

Promoting horizontality between policies/players (and equalising the terms of exchange).

We must step into the half-open door before it closes again (i.e. find ways to make the best of the already rather favourable opportunity, rather than merely feel sorry for the situation).

Our cultural lives need not necessarily be intertwined with the objectives of our nations.

Cultural diplomacy is often about words (i.e. statements, documents), but culture and the arts is a lot more than that.