Culture and Diplomacy - Building Bilateral Relations

HMA Alison Kemp at a panel discussion in Cetinje, Montenegro

Alison Kemp

Thank you knijižara Karver and Ms Varja Djukic for arranging this discussion, which is taking place both under the banner of Odakle Zovem festival and as one of the events to mark the 140th anniversary of UK and Montenegro bilateral relations. It’s great to be part of such an experienced panel.

It is appropriate to talk about the role culture plays in shaping our bilateral relations, particularly when you consider the role that British cultural icons such as the poets Lord Byron and Tennyson, the author and politician Disraeli, the travel writers Edith Durham and Rebecca West, and even the most famous British spy – James Bond have all played in shaping British views of Montenegro.

These cultural links are something that governments and diplomats have long drawn on. The first British diplomat in Cetinje created a stir with the British fashions he wore, and reported back on the customs and entertainments of the Royal Court.

In this century, before there was an Embassy office in Podgorica, there was a British Council presence. The British Council opened in 1994, offering a library which holds fond memories for many Montenegrins, and also offering education opportunities at a number of British universities and languages schools. As it became clear that Montenegro was once again taking its destiny in its own hands, we established a new Embassy in Podgorica, opened by Prince Andrew in 2009.

Odakle zovem Festival 2018

And in 2016 Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited Montenegro to mark 10 years since independence, and their programme was an opportunity to highlight several of Montenegro’s traditional arts and crafts including icon painting, lace sewing and weaving.

Even these brief sentences demonstrate that culture, by which I mean the arts and intellectual achievements, the ideas, customs and social behaviours of a society are more pervasive than we give them credit for. In many ways Culture, even more so than a diplomat, is the Ambassador for a country, it shapes a people’s response to a foreign country, and influences, enchants or repels decision-makers. Whoever we are, the stories we tell, the content we create, define our ambitions, shape how we see ourselves, and how we are seen.

So I am delighted that culture is at the heart of our 140th anniversary celebrations. The Montenegrin Embassy in London is celebrating the 140th anniversary with a series of cultural events, including musical concerts and an art exhibition. The British Embassy in Montenegro will be doing something similar – including through the British Council’s Play UK festival in Podgorica in September.

Did anyone watch the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex last month? Or the England football game last night? I hope you’ll have come away from these encounters with impressions about tradition, modernity, sportsmanship and diversity in the United Kingdom.

The American academic Joseph Nye coined the term Soft Power to describe a nation’s ability to attract and persuade, rather than coerce or buy the outcomes it wants. If Hard Power is military power, the source of a country’s Soft Power is a its culture, political ideals and policies. One of my favourite Soft Power parables is the about the Russian diplomat who tried to persuade Stalin to reduce repression of Russia’s Catholic minority, in order to improve relations with the Vatican and thus with Catholic global opinion. Stalin roared his refusal asking why the Vatican mattered and how many divisions of tanks it had. The Pope has no tanks. But he influences in other ways.

While military power still matters, those with the biggest armies and economies are not always the most influential. Something that Montenegro, who Tennyson celebrated as the “stony throne of freedom” over 140 years ago, can attest to.

I like to think of culture as the unique selling point or USP of a country. My perception of British culture will be different from your perception of my culture. And visa versa. But I think we can all agree that the UK is one of the most exciting and thriving cultural destinations in the world, ideal for anyone keen to experience a world-class range of cultural offerings. British culture is famous for:

  • its creativity from Shakespeare, whose works have universal appeal and have been translated into 80 languages – including Klingon!
  • to the British music scene where three of the world’s top 5 popular recording artists in 2015 and 2016 were British, where the UK invented punk, dubstep and grime, and continues to innovate; and where over 12m people attended a music festival or gig in 2016. Although we see British visitors now returning the favour: with thousands attending music festivals in Montenegro every summer.
  • British culture is famous for its quality from education - with 4 British universities in the global top 10 and 12 in the top 100.
  • to fashion: British designers who are quite literally dressing the world – from Burberry and Vivienne Westwood, to Stella McCartney and JW Anderson.
  • And British culture is famous for its ability to connect people across the world whether it is the 2,500 thousand museums in the UK which visitors can explore. Or the internet – where Tim Berniers-Lee changed the way we connect and exchange information by inventing the worldwide web in 1991.
  • And of course British culture is inextricably linked to our language: and I’d suggest that English is the language of business, the language of innovation, and a leading language of diplomacy. There are 370 million native English speakers, and an estimated 610 plus million second-language speakers, including anywhere between 200 and 350 million learners/users in China alone.

Certainly experts on Soft Power are impressed by the UK’s cultural impact. The UK has always been ranked either first or second in the Portland Soft Power Index.

The British government is for the first time publishing a Soft Power Strategy later this year. This will set out publicly the UK’s objectives and means of maintaining and strengthening its soft power globally.

In many ways culture speaks for itself: I don’t need to tell you who David Beckham or Harry Potter are, or what the BBC is all about – all of these British cultural exports speak for themselves. But the British government also devotes resources to promoting our culture as a way of explaining who we are and promoting our values and economy.

The British government has a global marketing brand – run from No 10 Downing Street (which shows how important it is) – called the GREAT campaign. It encourages the world to think differently about the UK, introducing the richness of our culture in order to encourage people to visit, study, invest in and do business with the UK.

The UK holds regular bilateral Seasons of Culture programmes with countries around the world, that tend to be large markets, often timed around key events such as diplomatic anniversaries and global sports competitions. For example: in 2017 the UK ran Seasons of Culture in the United Arab Emirates, India, and Korea, and this year we are running a similar programme in Germany. These seasons are run by the British Council in consultation with Department of Media Culture and Sport and FCO.  

As the UK is hosting the Western Balkans Summit this year on 9 and 10 July in London, British Embassies across the region are using cultural events to profile the role of the UK in the Western Balkans and mark the Summit, and to engage with people in the region on the themes of the Summit. That it why, I’m delighted to be opening the Perception’s exhibition at the Dado Đurić Gallery in Cetinje on 3 July. The exhibition considers why there have been no successful women artists, and this resonates strongly with the themes of gender and the role of women that will be discussed at the Summit.

As well as promoting UK culture, we are concerned to value and celebrate culture across the world.

The UK’s £30m Cultural Protection Fund is managed in partnership by the British Council and Department of Media Culture and Sport. Its purpose is to support social and economic development through building capacity to protect and promote cultural heritage, at risk due to conflict. The Fund supports efforts to keep cultural heritage sites and objects safe, as well as supporting the recording, conservation and restoration of cultural heritage. It also aims to support opportunities for training and education in local communities, empowering them to value, care for and benefit from their cultural heritage.    The UK takes an active interest in culture in multilateral fora, most notably UNESCO, where we are a signatory to several cultural conventions and have 31 designated World Heritage Sites, several of which are linked with other World Heritage Sites elsewhere around the globe.

The British government holds regular high-level dialogues relevant to culture with other governments around the world. For example include the UK-China People to People Dialogue (now in its 6th year). Culture features strongly in VIP visits, as demonstrated recently during Prime Minister May’s visits to Japan and China and at the UK-France Summit. The British government also has a number of formal agreements (MoUs) with countries around the world to promote cultural collaboration, including with China, Saudi Arabia, India, Korea, Brazil and Indonesia. 

But behind language and culture lie values. I’d suggest that the underlying values of British culture are fair play and curiosity. As an island, the UK has always been outward looking. We recognise that the UK cannot be prosperous and secure unless we live in a neighbourhood that is prosperous and secure, and globalisation means that our neighbourhood is now global.

That is why, even though we are leaving the EU, Europe matters and the UK will continue to be a work for peace, stability and prosperity across the Continent.

That is why in April, the UK celebrated our links to the Commonwealth, an association of 53 member states promoting democracy, good governance, human rights, gender equality and a more equitable sharing of globalisation’s benefits.

And that is why on 9 and 10 July we will be hosting the Western Balkans Summit in London bringing together the leaders of the Western Balkans countries and like-minded European partners, with business and civil society to strengthen security co-operation, increase economic stability and encourage political co-operation.

As diplomats, we spend our days thinking about values: explaining and projecting the values that form the basis of our society and national interests. And in seeking to understand and influence the values of the countries to which we are posted.

And our values, our culture, drive our international diplomacy. Whether we are standing with Montenegro and 80 other countries in support of a safer world by seeking to improve the ability of relevant international organisations to investigate chemical weapons attacks, or working with Montenegro and 37 countries who have signed the Global Call to Action to end forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking.

These examples prove another important point, that culture and values in diplomacy are powerful ways of building consensus around issues.

A government can’t construct culture, it can only provide an environment in which culture develops. In the UK this means focusing on creativity in education, in valuing the arts, and in ensuring we champion our values through our policies.

Finally, no assessment of culture would be complete without mentioning the internet. More than 95 per cent of all the information that the human society possesses today is digital. Every voice has an equal chance on the internet and in many ways it has improved our lives.

But the internet has given new life to cultural practices that we find challenging for example ISIS’s online recruitment and radicalisation. Tweets will not dissolve our ethnic, cultural or religious differences and in some cases accentuate them: look at the way online commentary has amplified the ethnic and religious hate speech around gestures at the Serb / Swiss football match.

And the opportunities the internet gives to groups that advocate violence, hatred, bigotry and uninformed populism makes global politics an ever more complex, contentious and fragmented issue, and underlines the need for thoughtful and proactive diplomacy which draws on culture to build solutions which address the shared issues we face.

Thank you.

Published 28 June 2018