By Salim Fredericks
In November 2011, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened what is considered to be one of the finest collections of Islamic art in the world. This exhibition, from the Islamic World, may be a means of healing wounds, 10 years after the events of September 2001. This, potentially, has a special symbolic significance. The Metropolitan Museum of Art stands six miles to the north of the spot where the World Trade Center stood. As well as captivating the public, the Museum is hoping the displays will also help dispel stereotypes about Muslim culture in the United States.
The presentation of a people’s art, poetry, music, dance and science to other peoples is an aspect of human existence that has been with us since ancient times. It has taken on formal, as well as informal forms. The burning desire for each of us to want to share and spread our own individual adopted thoughts and emotions is something innate within all of us. Culture is meant to be exhibited and displayed to those who; reject, accept, sympathise with, or empathise with our own culture. Communication of concepts is one of the things that defines us as a species. Today there is a plethora of platforms to present our thoughts. Mass migration, cheap air-travel, 24-hour news, e-mail, instant messaging, twitter, skype, youtube and facebook have augmented the speed at which cultural concepts may be exchanged. These modes of communication have allowed people to interact with each other face-to-face, through electronic and direct methods, on a global scale: unprecedented in history. This all leads to greater cultural understanding or misunderstanding. This can be used to improve relationships and warmth between bodies of people. However it can also be divisive. Enter the realm of culture and realpolitik.
Four years ago the British Council was ordered to close its offices in Russia. The Russian authorities’ decision was based on their claims that the British Council was operating illegally in breach of tax regulations. However it was perceived by many, in the UK, as having little to do with tax-laws and lots to do with poor relations between the two countries. This was in the wake of the Alexander Litvinenko affair and the expulsion of Russian diplomats. Since then, much has changed in the world. Recently the British Council announced plans for an exchange of art work for 2012. Exhibits by Henry Moore and Antony Gormley are planned for display in Kremlin and the Hermitage (St Petersburg) for the two artists respectively; as well as an exhibition of work of poet and painter William Blake at the Pushkin museum. There are plans for Russian exhibitions in Britain, including one on Catherine the Great, from the Hermitage, intended for the National Museum of Scotland. The British Council is also backing an exhibition of British fashion in Moscow, featuring the work of Vivienne Westwood, Hussein Chalayan and Paul Smith. These cultural exchanges are to coincide with the visit of David Cameron to Russia. They represent an entente cordiale in cultural diplomatic relations. Martin Davidson, chief executive of the council, commented that cultural connections “build trust, and trust underpins trade”. This statement is very revealing, in that this thaw in Anglo-Russian relations is about trade and national benefit. From the UK’s perspective, perhaps it is about promoting an appreciation of the notion of Jerusalem being built on England’s pleasant pastures rather than the Angel of The North.
The UK relies heavily on its culture and heritage as importance sources of revenue. More importantly, these are sources of prestige and international standing. The image of Man United, Mr Bean and Mini Coopers are to be found all over the world. People flock to Britain in their millions, carrying their billions, for Beatrix Potter, Harry Potter and Perry the transvestite potter. Greater than 30 million tourists visit the UK each year, contributing more than £14 billion. These people do not come to take in the sun, sand and surf of Skegness and Scarborough. They come for the cultural heritage and the museums. Indeed, surveys suggest that more than 70% of tourists say just that. They come for culture, not Cameron and Clegg. One of the roles of the politicians, in this respect, is to promote this culture abroad. It is not in the interests of the nation for politicians to get in the way, by souring international relations with wars and arguments over economics. Policies and politicians have to tread cautiously. Diplomacy has to be deployed to keep the cultural juggernaut moving. Diplomatic matters have to be managed and manipulated.
Cultural diplomacy, or the more pejorative alternative – cultural imperialism, has become important player in global events. Cultural diplomacy may be seen as a tenet of international relations. It is one of the ‘soft’ aspects of state interactions. This is dissimilar to the ‘hard’ items of statutes, treaties, blocks, pacts, multilateral bodies and the military. The former US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld, said that he did not understand the concept of ‘soft power’. This, statement maybe rhetorical, but then again knowing Rumsfeld’s finesse in international affairs; it is probably the literal truth. A more honest observation has been articulated by the Jewish American historian Walter Laqueur: ‘Cultural diplomacy, in the widest sense, has increased in importance, whereas traditional diplomacy and military power . . . are of limited use.’ The employment of soft power is a reality. It is soft-influence masquerading as no-influence; a wolf in sheep’s clothing. It has been widely adopted, even by Bush’s administration; not in Donald Rumsfeld diplomacy but in McDonalds and Donald Duck diplomacy.
Cultural exchange has been inextricably linked with foreign relations through many parts of history. This is illustrated by the reciprocal gifts between the Doge of Venice and Kublai Khan. Explorers, archaeologists, teachers and artists may be all considered examples of informal ambassadors or cultural diplomats. The relationship between culture and politics is precariously positioned. The British model of this balancing act is admired by many, although probably not by Rumsfeld. This approach has been central to the UK government’s approach to world politics, especially, since the demise of the empire. The British government understands the value of culture and its potential in international relations, but maintains an arm’s length approach, in order to avoid the political exploitation of culture.
This principle is underpinned institutionally. There are two main bodies charged with the responsibility of exporting the Great British values to the world, without the appearance of direct linkage to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. These are the British Council and the World Service of the BBC. These are the two instruments of soft power. British Council has offices in over a hundred countries and an annual budget of over £600m. It runs educational programmes, English language courses, cinema screenings, live performance, and art exhibitions. In some countries it operates out of the British Embassy. However, it prefers separate offices. This separation aids the creation of an image of independence from the organisations of government. As for the BBC’s world service; the mere fact that it is funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office absolves it of any notion of independence from the UK government. Contrary to common perception the world service is not paid for by the licence fee that the British public cough up once a year. The public pay for BBC home-service, through the licence fee, and pay for BBC world-service through their tax.
The BBC chants a persistent mantra proclaiming its full editorial freedom and control over news and programming. This is assumed to be true. The current darling of the western media; Aung San Suu Kyi seems to have bought this line. She has been reported (one the BBC) to have said Dave Lee Travis’ BBC World Service music request show gave her a lifeline under house arrest. The UK government may not be directly involved with the minutia of day-to-day operations of the BBC world service, but they are their financial backers, so they control the bigger picture. At the time of the Soviet Union the BBC’s World Service focused mainly on the Eastern Bloc. However more recently, it has switched its attention BBC Arabic and Persian TV. This is the direction dictated by the BBC’s paymasters at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The BBC is a bloated expensive beast of a corporation, even before this time of austerity, administrations have of talked of massive cutbacks in spending. However the UK government has decided to increase its funding for the world service. Recently William Hague agreed an increase in funding for the BBC; “an additional funding of £2.2m per annum to enable the World Service to maintain the current level of investment in the BBC Arabic Service. This will increase the World Service’s funding as a proportion of the FCO’s budget to just over 14.5%.” Under the previous government this proportion was just above 12%. The government decides which languages the BBC broadcasts in. The government decides which regions of the globe it concentrates its attentions. Is this not implicit control? The document defining the relationship between the government and the BBC; The Broadcasting Agreement for the Provision of the BBC World Service, states that it is obliged to set its “objectives, priorities and targets” with the Foreign Secretary. It needs written permission from the Foreign Secretary to start-up, or to terminate any language services.
British Council and the BBC world service are respected throughout the world for their balance, impartiality and independence. However they function in tandem as a Trojan horse. Their strategies and objective are indivisible from the political strategies and objectives of the government. Through subterfuge they spread power and influence throughout the world under explicit instruction from the UK government.
Salim Fredericks is the author of “Political and Cultural Invasion”. His family is originally from Cape Town, South Africa, while he was born and raised in the UK. He is currently working as a University teacher.