New podcast focuses on how culture can be used as an instrument of positive diplomacy

Can art be used as a tool towards achieving international peace, or is cultural diplomacy just another tool of international propaganda? How has art been used by great powers in the past? And how can the Czech Republic channel its rich cultural heritage to improve its image abroad? These are some of the questions being tackled in the new podcast Jazzman versus špioni (Jazzman versus Spies) created by the Czech Centres abroad and the Institute of International Studies at Charles University.

Coined by American political scientist Joseph S. Nye in the 1990s in order to help explain the sudden and unexpected victory of the United States in the Cold War, “cultural diplomacy” is still a relatively young term in the art of foreign policy. However, this does not mean that it is a new policy concept.

As a new podcast series called Jazzman versus špioni (Jazzman versus Spies), which was created by the Czech Centres abroad and the Institute of International Studies at Charles University, shows that the origins of cultural diplomacy can in fact be traced at least as far as the Middle Ages in the form of the stints of artists at various noble courts. Its tools can be art, TV shows, music or cultural exhibitions.

Jazz, for example, has been used as an effective form of cultural diplomacy by the United States since the 1950s, spreading the good image of the US in Africa, Asia and Europe.

David Černý: Entropa,  photo: VitVit,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 4.0

An example of its use by the Czech Republic was the Entropa art exhibit created by David Cerny during the Czech EU presidency in 2009, which was exhibited in Brussels and caused quite a stir due to its creative, often controversial depictions of EU member states.

This Wednesday, the use of cultural diplomacy in today’s world was discussed at a roundtable by members of the Czech diplomatic community and academics. The panel included Czech Foreign Minister Tomáš Petříček, who made a point of including science in cultural diplomacy.

“An image about a foreign country is often formed by people on the basis of its artists that they recognise. It can be writers, musicians, or also whether the country is an attractive location for cultural travel. This is why, for several years now, we have been working with our Czech Centres abroad and embassies to present the Czech Republic as a country with a great cultural heritage. Whether it be famous authors such as Franz Kafka and Milan Kundera, Czechia’s rich musical tradition, but also modern artists there is much to profile.

Tomáš Petříček,  photo: ČTK/Michaela Říhová

“However, the presentation of Czech cultural heritage is not just limited to profiling artists. It is also a tool of foreign policy which targets such as increasing the attractivity of our country as a study location for foreign students and among professionals too. Last but not least, culture and science will also be a big theme for presenting the Czech Republic after the COVID-19 pandemic is over.”

It can be very difficult to define what image a state has abroad and it can vary from region to region. The artistic achievements that contribute towards a state’s reputation do not have to be part of diplomatic agenda. Indeed, it is often simply through the popularity of the art itself that people become acquainted with a country, its culture and its institutions. The Netflix TV show “The Crown” is one example.

Nevertheless, Eliška Tomalová, who is the head of the Institute of International Studies at Charles University and one of the contributors to the current podcast, says that the role diplomacy can play in this aspect should not be understated, especially for small states.

Eliška Tomalová,  photo: YouTube

“[Cultural diplomacy] is a very positive agenda. It adds to the otherwise very dry economic and political aspects of international diplomacy. Through focusing more on its value component we could also signal a willingness to the value of global diversity, which is a part of global heritage.

“Of course cultural diplomacy often suffers from the fact that its value is hard to measure. It is also very hard to make cultural diplomacy effective, because it is difficult to make an impact in the political environment and within society as a whole. Cultural diplomacy is a long-term effort, and it can therefore be hard to justify investing in it, precisely because it does not bring clearly identifiable political results. Furthermore, such a focus on the foreign audience is hard to identify by the voters at home.

“This is why I think it is also important to make people in our own country aware of what we are doing in the area of cultural diplomacy, how we are presenting our image. Here I see further usefulness in this podcast, because it informs people about this effort.”

One of the key topics that the podcast seeks to make clear is the difference between positive cultural diplomacy and its possible use by some actors as a tool to cover otherwise aggressive international behaviour.

Cultural diplomacy vs. Propaganda

Czech singer Never Sol at the Czech Center Rome,  photo: archive of the Czech Embassy in Rome

Eliška Tomalová explained the difference between cultural diplomacy and propaganda.

“The difference between propaganda and modern cultural diplomacy lies in the latter being based on open communication with the foreign audience. It should not manipulate public opinion. It should not be hidden, but, rather, open about who is organizing what.

“The original meaning of the term propaganda was actually not very neutral at the beginning, it meant ‘spreading’. However, historical experiences have meant that it has been covered in several negative connotations. It is therefore not a term that can be used with the spread of modern, democratic cultural diplomacy.”

Regional cultural diplomacy

In order for it to be successful, the specific points on which cultural diplomacy focuses sometimes need to be moulded by the regional and interstate experiences.

Petr Drulák,  photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry

For example, Germany, Austria or Slovakia are neighbouring states with whom the Czech Republic not only shares many aspects of its culture, but also specific artists. For example, Franz Kafka lived in Prague, but he wrote in German and there were also several Bohemian aristocrats of shared Austrian-Czech heritage who made lasting cultural and scientific achievements. Asked about how such personalities should be presented abroad, Petr Drulák from the Institute for International Studies at Charles University said that in this respect it is important to stress Czechia’s Central European heritage.

“Central Europe is in this respect a natural cultural region. The Czech Republic lies in this region and plays a vital role within it. The region itself is something that several of our writers focus on in their work. This is why I think the concept of Central Europe should also play a role in our cultural image.”

On the topic of regional cultural presentation, Eliška Tomalová also mentioned that a shared European culture can also have its place in cultural democracy.

The five-episode podcast Jazzman versus špioni (Jazzman versus Spies) can be found on Spotify, or via you web browser here: versus-spioni