top of page

Cultural Diplomacy: What Role Does It Play?

United Nations flags [Photograph] - UN SDG

Culture is a central component of international relations. From the mutual gifts of the ancient monarchs to modern-day Expos, culture has been used as a way for leaders and states to show who they are, affirm their power and build lasting relationships. In foreign policy, where realpolitik is the dominant element, culture is often perceived as being desirable, though not essential. In fact, it is widely believed that, while cultural diplomacy can help establish and support working relationships between countries, it is strictly subordinated to the “hard powers” of a state. Although the concept of cultural diplomacy is not new and, indeed, its centrality within the complex international dynamics saw its highest expression during the Cold War, nowadays the role of culture is increasingly being investigated and reaffirmed by politicians as a fundamental tool of soft power.

To start with, it is essential to define some crucial elements. The concept of cultural diplomacy is indeed very broad and lends itself to multiple interpretations as well as applications. The reason lies largely in the complexity inherent in the very concept of culture, as it means the set of values, beliefs, habits, legal systems, artistic expression and any other manifestation defining the identity of a specific group. In politics, however, since culture is not considered only in terms of mere production and transmission of objects, it assumes an instrumental value of use intrinsically connected with the exercise of power. So, in diplomacy, culture is an eminent instrument of international relations, which can be exerted both bilaterally and multilaterally, so as to affect the impact of state on the world stage. In fact, culture allows the affirmation of the identity and influence of a country, as well as the opening up of new forums of dialogue capable of engendering multiple relationships.

Therefore, it is obvious that the exercise of cultural diplomacy necessarily falls within the category of soft power, defined as the ability to achieve what you want through attraction rather than by means of coercion: it arises from the attractiveness of a culture, political values, ideals and policies. Consequently, cultural diplomacy consists of the exercise of a governmental activity aimed at projecting a suitable image of one’s country in the rest of the world through the internationalization of its cultural life, thus enabling the development of alliances and the exercise of one’s influence.

As has been affirmed, cultural diplomacy is not a new phenomenon and, indeed, its origins can be found in the ancient Empires. However, in recent times, the United States has been considered as an advocate of cultural diplomacy, where the exercise is well known and placed in the context of the Cold War of the last century. In particular, looking at this country, it emerges that the value of culture as an instrument of the international projection of a nation has been crucial since the dawn of the American Republic. Therefore, considering this as a model of success, it is important to underline what happened during the Cold War, a context in which the United States used the power of culture as a “weapon” against the Soviet Union and its ideology. What happened was an unprecedented spread of American creative expression and lines of thoughts around the world. There were numerous cultural programs, all brilliantly adapted to their respective goals. In this smart operation of communicating the values of freedom in the West, American music played a fundamental role, which thus penetrated the Iron Curtain thanks to nocturnal music programs. Until the fall of the Soviet Union, both public and private parties contributed to the definition of the image of the United States abroad though music tours organized by the State Department, exhibitions of art in various museums and the distribution of films.

The pillar of international relations [Image] Open University

Cultural diplomacy practised during the Cold War also offers precious lessons for today’s challenges. In fact, American actions aimed not only to transmit its cultural features externally, but also to recognize the greater Russian writers of the past, as well as the dissidents of the Soviet regime, thus enabling Washington to gain important allies in Soviet society and communicate with the people living under that regime. All this was realized thanks to American politicians and diplomats who understood, at that particular historical moment, the importance of national cultural expression in a perspective of respect for the cultural and artistic achievements of the Russian world.

Alongside the context of the Cold War and the two main actors, the strategy of strengthening cooperation in the field of cultural heritage is central to the European Union’s external perspective, taking into account the closest geographical situations. Cultural heritage, being one of the most important manifestation of diversity, falls under a particular program of protection and preservation that allows the development of tourism and subsequent economic growth. While the world’s cultural heritage is fundamental for the glorification of different cultures, it is nevertheless highly exposed to impoverishment and destruction from multiple threats.

In the context of the progressive development of cultural action in relations between states, which is also reinforced by the synergy between different parties and entities, it is interesting to underline that, like other areas of international relations, there is a growing role for non-state actors. While the government strategy remains central, the presence and influence of non-state actors in the diplomatic scenario is becoming more substantial and cultural institutions as museums are gaining importance as platforms of cultural diplomacy. The comparison of the current role of museums with that of the past is interesting. Once, museums were repositories of actions of “hard power”, safeguarding the spoils of war and reflecting the hegemony of a state, while in more recent times they have become facilitators for the creation of “safe zones” between countries. This is very clear in those cases where political tensions increase, as museums are often one of the few viable paths left for diplomatic relations. In the last thirty or forty years, the transfer of museums from government agencies to civil society institutions has led to a significant increase in their weight in soft power strategies. As a result of this new place acquired in civil society, nowadays museums have a renewed role in the strategy of cultural diplomacy, such as the creation of jobs and the enhancement of territorial identity.

To sum up, it is worth pointing out the significant change that has taken place in the global cultural landscape, characterized by an ever-increasing demand for exchanges and intercultural cooperation, is fuelled by the digital revolution. The challenges in the world are numerous and complex; nevertheless, the potential inherent in culture must not in any way be overlooked, since the arts, if properly valued, can contribute to the strengthening of societies and the improvement of international relations. Each country should by fully aware of its cultural heritage and the creative forces that characterize it and define it with respect to others. Against this background, the projection of a state in the world can only move, among others, along the path marked by cultural diplomacy, which will allow for the development of further channels of dialogue between different people and their cultures, with a view to a greater emergence of their autonomy and influence. The exchange of points of view and intercultural dialogue are necessary elements in the long and difficult path of diplomatic rapprochement between states, which promotes, more than any other means, the socio-economic development of countries, an essential prerequisite for peace and stability.


·Cultural Diplomacy. (2021). Institute for Cultural Diplomacy.

·Ryniejska - Kiełdanowicz, M. (2021). Cultural Diplomacy as a Form of International Communication. Cultural Diplomacy as a Form of International Communication.

·Introduction to cultural relations and cultural diplomacy. (2021).

·Bound, Briggs, Holden, Jones, K. R. J. S. (2013, April 17). Role of culture in international diplomacy. CultureHive.

·Bolewski, W. (2020). Diplomatic Processes and Cultural Variations: The Relevance of Culture in Diplomacy.

·Norrman, K. (2013, January 10). Definitions, Ideas, Visions and Challenges for Cultural Diplomacy. E-International Relations.

·Ang, Raj Isar, Mar, I. Y. P. (2015). Cultural diplomacy: beyond the national interest? Taylor & Francis.

Image resources

·The pillar of international relations [Image] Open University:


Author Photo

Federica Panico

Arcadia _ Logo.png


Arcadia, has many categories starting from Literature to Science. If you liked this article and would like to read more, you can subscribe from below or click the bar and discover unique more experiences in our articles in many categories

Let the posts
come to you.

Thanks for submitting!

  • Instagram
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
bottom of page