Cultural diplomacy and soft power

Find out why art can be useful in international diplomacy, and the Collection’s role in strengthening Britain’s soft power

In 2016, PM Theresa May hosted the Prime Minister of Poland, Beata Szydło for bilateral talks between the two nations. © Crown Copyright

Art and diplomacy - what’s the connection?

Britain has long-standing relationships with overseas cultures, forged as a maritime nation and an imperial power. These connections can be expressed powerfully and with an immediacy through art and culture. Many of the works in the Government Art Collection, when placed in the right context, present quiet ways to assimilate past encounters with a culture while offering a continuity with the present.

Why do we need cultural diplomacy?

Exchanges of ideas, values, traditions and other aspects of culture or identity are examples of cultural diplomacy that can help strengthen relationships with other countries, and in turn enhance social and cultural cooperation to promote national interests. An evocative example is illustrated by a portrait of the Qajar ruler, Fath’Ali Shah by Ahmad, which is on display in the British Embassy in Tehran. In 1810, this Iranian ruler with an exceptionally long beard and ‘a wasp-like waist,’ granted permission to the first British Ambassador to Iran, Sir Gore Ouseley, to establish the British Embassy in Tehran. Although this building does not exist anymore and has been replaced with a new one in the second half of the 19th century, Ahmad’s painting is an eloquent reminder of the long associations between the two countries. Its installation in 2019 in the British Embassy in Tehran is even more meaningful today: having been restored after witnessing the 2011 attack on the British Embassy when the two countries broke off diplomatic ties, only to resume them again in 2016, the portrait of Fath’Ali Shah now carries a new layer of history within the cultural and diplomatic relations between the UK and Iran.

Soft Power

The ability to persuade through culture, values and ideas as opposed to military might is called soft power. American political scientist Joseph Nye, one of the first to define soft power in this way, had a strong influence on the Clinton and Obama administrations in the USA and ideas of soft power are taking increasing precedence all over the world. Britain’s GREAT campaign and China’s Confucius Institutes are examples of soft power in action.