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The United Kingdom: Foreign Cultural Policy by Robin Baker

The United Kingdom: Foreign Cultural Policy

Dr Robin Baker at the IFA conference 'Europe - A Union of Culture?',
12 - 14 October 2003, Berlin

Dr Robin Baker, Deputy Director General of the British Council, contributed a paper to the IFA conference on foreign cultural policy in October 2003:


To a cultural relations practitioner of twenty years ago, today's landscape would be unrecognisable. The bi-polar rigidities of the Cold War era and the relative self-containment of cultures within national frameworks not only provided a clear context for cultural relations policy, it maintained the cultural diplomat at the centre of activity between nations.

In the intervening two decades, change has been heaped upon change - political, technological, economic and, perhaps most bewilderingly of all, in the interface between religion and politics.

Ten years after the introduction of the Internet, we still seek to make sense of a means of communications which banishes distance, makes nonsense of national boundaries, and destroys simple categorisation of how people seek their information. Additionally, the growth of international satellite television enables audiences to select not only from a myriad of channels - but also to watch stations from other countries which may give a very different perspective to events than those portrayed by their national media.

Nearly fifteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we are still coping with the ramifications of resurgent nationalism and ethnic polarisation, and only now are we finally preparing for a genuine unification of Europe with the accession of ten more countries to the European Union.

And two years after September 11th 2001, we are now coming to terms with the deep misunderstandings which colour the relationship between parts of the West and parts of the Arab and Muslim world.

None of the above is static. As we find answers to one part of the jigsaw, another changes. While we seek to ensure we are not simply reacting to events, we also know that our scope for shaping them is limited.

It is not only the global paradigm that has shifted. Our domestic one has too. Half a century ago, our societies appeared to be more uniform, even if they were stratified by class. Cultural pursuits for most were limited in their range by lack of options, while a broadcasting monopoly imposed further uniformity: educational systems maintained rigidity and hierarchy.

Even by the early 1960s, this was changing. The author, C.P. Snow, delivering the BBC's Reith Lecture in 1959, commented: "We have lost even the pretence of a common culture". W Foster Dulles's famous remark that the British had lost an Empire, but had not found a role, was not simply a geo-political issue - it was a cultural one as well.

Today, we accept that cultural change occurs organically. We place an emphasis on celebrating our diversity, in the hope that a looser framework will accommodate difference without losing the overall set of values which unite us overall.

In contrast to the tidy, written constitutions of many of our neighbours, we have developed a ramshackle set of governmental systems which accommodate two legal systems, one based on Common Law, the other on Roman Law. We give legal recognition to encourage our older, Celtic languages: in Northern Ireland, we accept the equal validity of two differing nationalist traditions; and we view cultural influences which have arrived with successive waves of immigration as a source of enrichment.

To start imposing a uniform policy on both the cultural structures within the United Kingdom, and on the fast-moving changes in the global arena, would appear to be the politics of the madhouse.

To add further to the complications, cultural policy per se cannot be said to be the preserve of any one specific body or agency in the United Kingdom. A host of ministries and agencies legitimately have a finger in the pie: none could be said to the unique "owner" of the country's external cultural policy.

A range of ministries and non-departmental public bodies have a legitimate interest in promoting UK culture overseas: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Council, the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the arts councils for the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, and the Department of Trade and Industry.

This multiplicity, untidy as it may appear to outsiders, is far from being a weakness. Much as in the same way that the BBC World Service embodies one of the most important attributes of a democracy, that of a genuinely independent and impartial service of news and information, so the UK's overall public diplomacy is strengthened by the lack of any one single statement of foreign cultural policy.

With a number of players in the cultural field, the UK in reality lives the diversity message it seeks to portray internationally: a fully creative and diverse society can at best hope to undertake the international dimension of its cultural work through a number of institutions and partnerships acting on the global stage.

In this context, it is more appropriate to talk of a "cultural relations framework" than a "foreign cultural policy", and for the purposes of this paper, the term will be interpreted as meaning relations between differing cultures, rather than cultural interchange as such.

Not surprisingly, each player is likely to view cultural relations from a different perspective. For the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, cultural relations today form a sub-set of wider public diplomacy activity: essentially, they view cultural activity as having a value in contributing to the broader effort of winning influence for the UK, and of improving perceptions of the country among target audiences in countries overseas.

For the British Council, its cultural relations work contributes to such goals, but it places a strong emphasis on ensuring it works towards building sustainable partnerships which can stand the test of time, and which are free, as far as possible, from the immediate stresses and strains of short-term political and diplomatic needs.

Other departments, such as that of Trade and Industry, and Culture, Media and Sport, also take in to account in their policies issues such as copyright, protection of intellectual and performing rights, and the promotion of the creative industries (now more important to the UK economy than traditional sectors such as manufacturing, mining and engineering).

Fashioning a cultural relations policy after the Cold War.
The emphasis of the British Council's own cultural relations policy obviously had to evolve to reflect the differing phases of global politics following the end of the Cold War at the end of the 1980s.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a self-evident need for increased cultural relations with the newly freed countries of central and eastern Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of communism in Russia itself also required a step change in educational and cultural partnerships with that country.

Much of the emphasis of the cultural relations work of this period focused on capacity building in English language teaching and in assisting economic, educational and governance reform in countries which had been under Communist dominance for four decades.

The economic opening of China and the implementation of the accords which heralded the return of sovereignty over Hong Kong to Beijing in 1997 opened a new era of cultural relations with the People's Republic.

In South Africa, the other country to undergo major constitutional change in the 1990s, the British Council had adopted a policy of remaining inside the country in the closing stages of the apartheid era. But it had eschewed contact with the governing authorities and instead had worked only with groups excluded from power up to 1994 - once again specifically in the areas of education and governance.

The experience which these geo-political changes represented essentially presented the British Council with a stark choice about its resources - it could either continue to fund activities for cultural relations with countries with which the UK already had strong relationships, such as France, Italy and Germany. Or it could rise to the challenge of developing meaningful activity with transitional economies -- not just the above mentioned regions and countries, but other awakening giants on the global stage such as India, Brazil, Malaysia, Korea and Indonesia.

In terms of both need and of the chance to make greater impact, the choice was a clear one - after all, the same amount of money spent in, say, the Balkans or the Baltic republic was bound to have a greater impact than in a country such as France where there were already strong links and much competition for the attention of target groups.

So between 2000 and 2005, the British Council has been making a significant shift of its resources from western Europe to eastern Europe in particular.

In practice, the change has not been as stark as it might have been: most major operations in western Europe have succeeded in maintaining their level of programming through additional revenue, either from sponsorship (particularly in the arts) or from paid services (notably education and the teaching of English).

But the choices made from the experience of the 1990s have not just related to geographical priorities. The British Council took a conscious decision in the late 1990s to adjust its target audiences as well - shifting from seeking influence with the authority generation to undertaking work with younger audiences or the successor generation.

We now see engagement with younger audiences - principally but not exclusively in the 18 to 35 age range - as the British Council's primary function. This does not exclude contact with the authority generation. On the contrary, engagement with them, and in particular with change agents in differing societies, is a fundamental part of helping us to reach those younger audiences.

Objectives of cultural relations diplomacy
In this great swirl of changing environments, is there any underlying change to our objectives? Palmerston famously once remarked that the UK did not have friends, only interests, abroad. Taxpayers would be less than understanding if we did not argue that the objective of cultural diplomacy was to win influence and friends overseas. International audiences might be more than a little cynical if they thought we were claiming to be purely altruistic.

Clearly the balance between cultural diplomacy seeking to influence governments and influence populations has changed. So too has a concern amongst governments about the internal governance arrangements of other countries. It is no longer sustainable to argue that another man's dictatorship is a matter of purely internal concern. In an era where domestic and foreign policy are invariably intertwined, we inevitably place a premium on promoting core values such as democracy, human rights, freedom of expression and access to reasonable standards of health and education.

But we do so today in a very different tone than half a century ago. Mutuality must now be a guiding light in the way we approach cultural relations with other countries. We have switched from lecturing mode to listening mode - to sharing experiences and understanding there is no one correct way to achieve an end.

For the British Council, while we seek recognition, or appreciation of the UK's ideas ands achievements, we are also clear that our interactions with other countries must produce mutual benefit. To take an example: if we are to recruit thousands of fee-paying students from a given country to study in the UK, there has to be an understanding that this is structured in such a way that in the long-term, this does not denude the country concerned of its higher education structures, or that it will lead to a brain drain of its top talent: but that, over time, the skills and know-how is ploughed back into the country, greater capacity is built, and education co-operation moves on to a higher plane.

Effective cultural relations in a mass media age
In an age when the cultures of countries were relatively isolated one from the other, cultural relations was a relatively straightforward affair. Cultural institutes and agencies of given countries frequently provided the only potential point of access to a particular culture, short of actual travel (itself restricted for many).

Today, such bodies are only one of a number of points of access to other cultures. For increasing numbers, the Internet provides an instant gateway to other countries with information which is updated and varied. But it comes without interpretation and guidance - so is more useful for cognescenti who know how to navigate rather difficult waters than for novices.

A few countries are also in the privileged position of being able to portray their societies through satellite television or through radio. The UK, in particular, with the world-recognised impartiality of the BBC World Service, is better served than most in this respect.

Such forms of cultural relations is not by their nature interactive -- but with imagination we can now see how, through building partnerships, we can combine the work of face-to-face organisations such as the British Council with those who have a wider reach. This has led us to forge partnerships with BBC, who can bring both wider audiences and their own production capabilities. In the initial steps in this collaboration, we have pooled our resources in English language teaching capacity building, ensuring we can reach wider audiences than we could solely through our own centres.

In another partnership, that with the World Bank, we are able to combine our own growing capacity in ICT with that of their Global Distance Learning Network, starting with co-operation in the first instance in an IT-based Knowledge and Learning Centre in Accra, Ghana.

The real lesson to be learned from the profusion of new technologies is that no one particular medium is really in the position to act alone as an effective cultural relations mechanism. What is clear is that the future really lies in developing a "mix and match" between differing media and mechanisms, tailor made to suit the individual who seeks to benefit from educational or cultural contact with our country.

An organisation like the British Council is ideally placed to be able to act as the intermediary between the person seeking guidance about an aspect of the UK's education and cultural experience.

We are therefore well advanced in the creation of Internet gateways which can sort out the wheat from the chaff. To give an example: more than 1.4 million potential students visit the Education UK web site every year. But how can they possibly navigate their way through the electronic database of more than 400,000 courses with confidence that what they are reading will really be suited to them?

Clearly, the database can only be one part of the customer journey which has to include face-to-face counselling, the opportunity for potential students to interact directly with the universities and colleges concerned, and relevant information, both on-line and off-line, which provides answers to anxieties about living and studying in a different country.

Other gateways give access to the British Council's huge resources in English language teaching; others explore and guide the user through literature, film and creative writing; while still more can provide access to resources on science, governance and human rights and education.

But we are going further than this in the mix between on-line and face-to-face services, by developing the concept of the Knowledge and Learning Centre. These are high-profile computerised zones inside British Council offices, with high-speed connectivity and with video-conferencing facilities. They provide a mixture of courses and information which bring the creativity and learning of the UK directly to the user.

But they are also enabling us to bring together communities of users from differing interests, such as professional and academic groups hungry for international contact. Our Knowledge and Learning Centres are increasingly replacing traditional libraries, and in doing so are attracting a notably younger audience with a better gender balance. As multi-media centres, they do of course retain stocks of contemporary books. And the old library resources are not lost - in almost all cases, they are donated to appropriate institutions in the countries concerned where they will continue to be consulted. Their disappearance has been lamented by many - but nothing can get around the fact that text books in particular date and that it is considerably more economic to update resources on-line than by purchasing fresh stocks of books on a regular basis.

Institutions: Home and abroad
Both culture and education are devolved matters with England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each administering these subjects in their specific jurisdictions. In addition, each of these four countries have their own arts councils with budgets to promote the development and presentation of the arts.

All are developing their own international ambitions: and it is safe to say that a "British" concept of the arts is a concept in retreat. The culture and education ministries of Scotland and Wales in particular have fiscal autonomy from the central government and are developing their own distinctive policies. Each have international ambitions, albeit modest in scope and tending to be restricted to countries with historic or trade links with the nation concerned.

Missions of the different institutions abroad
Unlike the strict division of cultural attaches and institutes designed to spread cultural assets and languages of countries (such as the Goethe Institute, Alliance Francaise or the Instituto Cervantes) the UK has effectively merged these two functions into one organisation, the British Council. Arguably, a third function, educational representation, also fits to a large extent inside the Council's structure.

It would be incorrect to suggest that the FCO retains no responsibility for cultural relations overseas: indeed, in many countries, such as the nature of the cultural relations agreement, that the British Council Director is denominated as the Cultural attaché of the country concerned - China is a case in point.

The FCO can equally encourage the Council to be in a given country at any time: it was deemed right, for example, that the Council should remain in South Africa to build links with Opposition groups under apartheid: conversely, it decided it was not feasible for the Council to operate in Iraq between the first and second Gulf wars.

In some countries, a cultural thawing has accompanied or heralded a return to normal cultural relations, as has happened in recent years in Libya, or, until a recent hiccup, in Iran.

In general, the intention has been for the Council to be able to exert a degree of artistic licence in cultural relations which may be in advance of what is strictly called for in diplomatic terms. Both the visual and performing arts departments tend to push at frontiers in a way that would be unlikely to happen should they have been an integral part of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Co-ordination with other institutions of your own country
Seeking co-ordination between differing departments and agencies in the field of public diplomacy has been likened to the task of herding cats. However, efforts to improve co-ordination and reduce overlap have in recent years improved. Last year, the British government instituted a Public Diplomacy Strategy Board, which, as its name suggests, seeks to encourage co-ordination at a strategic level.

This body has provided a framework for pursuing public diplomacy overseas. It has produced a general strategy which highlights the specific values and ideas which the main players should seek to pursue in portrayin g the UK in their work abroad.

A number of efforts have been made to ensure that the UK's attempts to raise its profile in particular countries have been run in a more co-operative manner. This year, for example, has seen a sizeable campaign called Think UK in China, which has brought together the FCO, the British Council, Trade Partners UK (the trade arm of the FCO and the Department of Trade and Industry) and other players (not least in the private sector) in a combined effort to promote the UK and improve outmoded perceptions of the UK among target audiences.

Jointly, these agencies and governmental departments have also committed themselves to fund research on changing attitudes among target groups in priority countries, so that we can have a better understanding of perceptions of the UK. That improved understanding should help us to inform our work and activity and make it more relevant to achieving our objectives in a given country.

The British Council has also forged a partnership with the BBC where we seek to use the differing strengths of the two organisations for greater effect. The British Council brings its face-to-face capacity and the BBC its larger reach through broadcasting to the party. Again in China, the two organisations have combined to produce a multi-media resource package called in2english which provides teaching resources for, so far, some 470,000 teachers and learners in China of the English language.

Co-operation with European institutions and organisations from other member states.
How far should membership of the European Union lead the cultural organisations of member states to portray themselves jointly as European internationally?

Objectively, it is undeniable that in many continents there can be little sense in competition in cultural relations terms. Beyond minor one-upmanship and a degree of advantage being sought in commercial terms, our policy objectives are in general similar. Nevertheless, it is undeniably the case that we are in the business of pursuing the cultural relations interests of our own countries, rather than those of the European Union.

While it would prove impossible and undesirable to submerge our own identities, there is scope for co-operation. The British Council has an active policy of seeking co-location with the Goethe Institute (so far in 2 locations). A joint centre is planned for opening in 2004 in Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave which will be surrounded by EU states after expansion to 25 states. There can be no greater statement of European co-operation than such a joint presence in a city which in the 20th century epitomised the divisions thrown up by enmity between the continent's nations.

There may also be sense in a degree of co-operation between cultural relations organisations of EU member states in relation to the European Union's institutions. Much is decided in multi-lateral terms, and if we want improved access to the decision-making institutions of the Union, then an increased degree of co-operation may well be in order.

Problems and prospects.
The challenges faced by bodies such as the British Council no doubt are little different from those of other countries. Looming large over all the strategies and policies of the British Council is the issue of relationships between what is loosely described as "the Muslim world" and "the West".

September 11th 2001 changed a great deal in international relations, but there is no international consensus on its importance. For much of the world, the difference in media emphasis given to the atrocity of 9/11 in comparison to, say, the massacre of 7,000 Muslims at Srebenica or the millions who die of HIV/AIDS in Africa, is simply symptomatic of an ego-centricity which is incapable of placing one tragedy in the context of the many which abound in today's world. For Americans, however, even the articulation of such a view smacks of unacceptable insensitivity. It is this difference of perspective which demonstrates the gulf of understanding.

The debate, such as it is, has become more highly charged because of those who see this as a "clash of civilisations". In this heady brew of mistrust caused by acts undertaken in the name of religious fundamentalism on the one hand, and the "war against terror" on the other, cultural diplomacy is akin to a small fishing boat adrift in an ocean storm.

But it is precisely in times like these that we need interlocutors with other countries and cultures, to reinforce where we can a common ground of understanding which can challenge the growth of the extremes.

When, after September 11th, the British Council was considering its response for the future of cultural relations, it suggested naming its initiative for promoting wider global understanding between different cultures "Open Minds"

The title was not well received in the Muslim world. Whose minds were we seeking to open? Were not the minds of the West those in need of opening?

When the Council started its pilot conferences bringing together young people from differing cultural backgrounds, we rapidly discovered that in a short time, the participants found common areas of interest which overrode perceived religious and cultural differences.

The challenge lies not in being able to make effective a dialogue, so much as being able to do so on a scale which can make an effective difference. If we cannot hope to make a difference on the Arab street or its European equivalent, we can, I think, hope to make a difference among those on university campuses or in media villages who provide the intellectual leadership for the societies they live amongst.

To take forward this dialogue, we need to return to thinking about the principle of mutuality. To engage effectively with the Arab and Muslim world, it is essential that we offer what the region wants in cultural and educational exchange. One of the key requirements is likely to be increased access to English as the global means of communication - both for state-funded education systems as well as for private ones.

The United Nations Development Programme for the Arab world also provides a basis for engagement with the region - particularly in its emphasis on tackling the mismatch between education systems and the requirements of the market place through the re-skilling of the workforce, and through ensuring a greater proportion of women have the opportunity to participate in the economies of their countries.

These two items provide a more neutral meeting point for engaging countries in the region. In time, they will demonstrate our genuine desire to build up trust and dialogue on terms which are equal and in terms which respect differences in culture.

To return to the issue of pace of change, how can we ensure that as practitioners of cultural diplomacy, we do not end up as the cultural equivalents of old generals always fighting the last war?

Our experience tells us that globalisation is only likely to increase, as is its antithesis, a gut rejection of its values. For many, there may be a more complicated "push pull" factor at work in which the head accepts the logic of personal improvement through educational opportunities (many provided by European countries)while the heart is repelled by certain consumerist values which threaten many of the underlying structures of their own society.

How great an impact cultural institutions can make on this "Jihad vs. McWorld" dynamic, as it has been described by Benjamin Barber, is debatable. It is an issue, but it may not be the main question of the next decade. While the dogs bark, the caravan will move on.

The reality will be that those who have embraced globalisation will become increasingly strong and relevant players on the world stage. As the Financial Times pointed out recently, Asia's rise is the economic event of our age. Europe was the past, the US is the present, and a China-dominated Asia is the future of the global economy, it argues.

Poverty levels are falling dramatically in both east and south Asia. Asia accounts for nearly 60 per cent of all foreign direct investment flows to developing countries. It is rising as both a manufacturing powerhouse and as an accumulator of foreign exchange reserves.

We also should not ignore changes which are occurring inside many large countries - the most significant of which is the changing demography of the United States. By 2045, 45 per cent of the US population will be drawn from new or ethnic minority groups. That may seem distant: what is reality now is the growing influence and purchasing power of both Latinos and Asian-Americans.

Two statistics will suffice: in Los Angeles today, Hispanics account for 47 per cent of the population; while 34 per cent of all Californian school children are Latinos. And old stereotypes about poor purchasing power no longer hold: one recent study showed the buying power of Hispanics, Asian-Americans and African-Americans are growing at a faster rate than those of the US population as a whole.

How such changes internationally translate into political influence remains to be seen: but whether they occur in east Asia or in southern California, we need the global flexibility to be able to respond to opportunities to engage the most influential young people of these populations.

Certainly, we can increase the access to our own educational opportunities over the next decade not just through increased recruitment of international students to our own institutions, but perhaps more importantly through access through offshore learning and distance education - in time, a more affordable option for larger numbers.

To do this, we will be laying more emphasis on developing global products - both cultural and educational - which can then be applied locally or regionally. We certainly no longer need to re-invent the wheel in each of the 110 countries we operate in.

By adding these to the global ICT platforms we are currently creating, thereby providing the right mix of face-to-face contact, on-line material and satellite viedo-conferencing, we shall be able both to retain our relevance and fulfil our objectives as cultural relations organisation fit for the start of the 21st century.

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