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
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.
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.
GAC historical curator, Dr Laura Popoviciu interviews Paul Brummell, Head of Soft Power and External Affairs at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
Tim Hitchens was Britain’s Ambassador to Japan from 2012–2016 and during that time, the GAC worked with him to curate new displays of art for the Embassy and Residence in Tokyo. In this interview from 2015, he reflects on the role that art played on site.
Peas Are The New Beans by Bob and Roberta Smith, a 1993 painting, raised a smile at HM Treasury
A new installation of art at the British Embassy in Tehran reminds visitors of the early days of the Embassy, and the longstanding relationship between Britain and Iran.