Discorso “Cultural Diplomacy and liberal democracy”

Campus del Polo Universitario Cattolica

Rome, 23 March 2018 – 15.00 – 17.00


I would like first of all to congratulate the Cattolica University, and Professor Federica Olivares for having engaged in a discipline – Cultural Diplomacy- which is absolutely central for today’s and tomorrow’s international relations, from any angle they may be considered.

A quick look at geopolitical developments which have marked this decade shows remarkable differences in how the ” soft power” of culture is interpreted and used.


  1. I) Soft power.

A defining feature of soft power is that it is non coercive; the currency of soft power is culture, political values, and foreign policies. Professor Joseph Nye coined the term in a 1990 book, Bound to Lead: The Changing Nature of American Power. In this book, he wrote: “when one country gets other countries to want what it wants-might be called co-optive or soft power, in contrast with the hard or command power of ordering others to do what it wants”.

He further developed the concept in his 2004 book, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics.

More recently, the term has also been used in changing and influencing social and public opinion through relatively less transparent channels and lobbying through powerful state or non State organizations.

It is highly debatable if the so called “Russia’s meddling” in US presidential elections, and probably in other elections in Europe, may be considered “soft power”: we are there in the realm of deception and illegal interference in national sovereignty, with the aim of subverting democratic institutions and the social fabric of a country.

In 2012, Joseph Nye  explained that with soft power, “the best propaganda is not propaganda”, further explaining that during the Information Age, “credibility is the scarcest resource.”

Last year Professor Nye signed the introduction to Soft Power 30, the annual index published by the Center on Public Diplomacy. According to the Index, France wields the most soft power in 2017. The top twelve include United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Canada, Japan, Switzer- land, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Italy. The United States holds the top spot in soft power as an individual State. However it is the European Union to score the highest soft power presence when considered as a whole.

The index ranking is based on “the quality of a country’s political institutions, the extent of their cultural appeal, the strength of their diplomatic network, the global reputation of their higher education system, the attractiveness of their economic model, and a country’s digital engagement with the world.”

Soft power, then, represents the behavioral way of getting the outcomes a State desires.

It is contrasted with hard power, which has historically been the predominant realist measure of national power, through quantitative metrics such as population size, con-crete military assets, or a nation’s gross domestic product. But having such resources does not always produce the desired outcomes, as the United States discovered in the Vietnam War, and more recently in the fight against radicalization and terrorism.

Soft power is more than influence, which can also rest on the hard power of military threats or economic dominance. It is more than just persuasion or the ability to move people by argument, though that is an important part of it.  Soft power is, above all, the ability to positively  attract, to generate thrust, and establish credibility.

In international relations, soft power can be pursued by governments through policies and public diplomacy as well as by a host of non-state actors within and outside the country.

The success of soft power heavily depends on the actor’s reputation within the international community, as well as the flow of information between actors. Thus, soft power is often associated with the rise of globali-zation and neoliberal international relations theory. Culture and mass media are a source of soft power, as is the spread of a national language or a particular set of constitutional values and fundamental principles: at the first place protection and promotion of the Rule of Law, human rights and freedom.


  1. II) A case study: soft power and cultural diplomacy in the enhancement of Italy- Us relations.


Over the last decade Cultural Diplomacy has played a central role in further strengthening Italy’s relations with the Us. Rome has seized two opportunities: the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Italy’s Unity in 2011, and the 2013 Year of Italian Culture in the Us. In three years , over four hundred officially sponsored events took place in the Us in all the most significant areas of arts, history, political science, research, innovation. It was a strategy of Cultural Diplomacy and soft power at the highest level, rooted in   common values of freedom and liberal democracy dating back to the Enlightment, to the American Constitution, to the principles of humanity and Rule of Law promoted by Cesare Beccaria and Gaetano Filangieri , among others.

The Italian Government was especially interested in making better known the close understanding among Italian and  American political thinkers who did shape our basic laws and democratic constitutions. As Ambassador to the US at that critically important juncture I saw the unique opportunity for raising the American public awareness about Italy as a “Cultural superpower”: an essential partner of the Us, in facing  challenges and threats appearing at the horizon. In 2011 Cultural Diplomacy and soft power were the key elements for a foreign policy aimed at asserting Italy’s credibility and reputation on the world scene. They were an opportunity to show  coherence with a cultural identity which had shaped the Italian society; they emphasized  a narrative far away from abused stereotypes. Some specific projects can be reminded as examples of Cultural Diplomacy: the research on Filangeri-Franklin correspondence; the Presidential Proclamation for the 150th Anniversary of the Italian Unity together with the vast number of similar Proclamations issued by States Legislatures, and federal and municipal authorities.


I consider these two documents successful examples of Cultural Diplomacy for the vast and positive implications they immediately had.


  1. The research on Filangieri- Franklin did underline this extraordinary relationship between these two figures and the importance of Gaetano Filangieri’s thought as inspiration for Benjamin Franklin, and for the birth of American democracy, through the drafting of the Constitution. It was an era in which the inflammatory and destructive effects of the Revolution focused the attention more than expected by the wise and constructive work of great thinkers, who laid to the foundations of today’s civilization. For those who take care of law and justice, and who read the chronicles of the hard ruling of the boundaries between the power of the legislature and that of the court, it’s enough to read a few lines of Filangieri to appreciate the up-to-date thought, or viceversa to take note of our delays in the later evolution. From the first book of the Science of Legislation, after a passage highlighted by Franklin, Filangieri wrote: «[…] The Monarch should protect the Nation from foreign enemies through the War, the Peace and whatever depends on the right of the people and establishes and maintains in the country peace and order as dictated by general laws, accurate, simple and clear […] judges should not misinterpret the laws, do not misconceive them according to their will; the citizen does not consider the legislature as his judge, nor his judge in the legislature; he has to be convinced that the law is what absolves or condemns him, not the favour or hatred of the court».


  1. The Proclamation issued by the President of the United States of America read:


“On March 17, Italy celebrates the 150th anniversary of its unification as a single state.  On this day, we join with Italians everywhere to honour the courage, sacrifice, and vision of the patriots who gave birth to the Italian nation.  At a time when the United States was fighting for the preservation of our own Union, Giuseppe Garibaldi’s campaign for the unification of Italy inspired many around the world in their own struggles, including the 39th New York Infantry, also known as “The Garibaldi Guard.”  Today, the legacy of Garibaldi and all those who unified Italy lives on in the millions of American women and men of Italian descent who strengthen and enrich our Nation.

Italy and the United States are bound by friendship and common dedication to civil liberties, democratic principles, and the universal human rights our countries both respect and uphold.  As we mark this important milestone in Italian history, we also honour the joint efforts of Americans and Italians to foster freedom, democracy, and our shared values throughout the world.


Now, therefore, I, Barack Obama, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim March 17, 2011, as a day to celebrate the 150th Anniversary of the Unification of Italy.  I encourage all Americans to learn more about the history of Italian unification and to honour the enduring friendship between the people of Italy and the people of the United States.”

The positive effects for Italy’s relations with the Us obtained by a well- designed strategy of Cultural diplomacy between 20011 and 2013 became clear at the political, economic, scientific level. Our exports, investments, presence of Italian researchers and students in American Universities increased sharply as did the trends fuelled by an accrued visibility of Italy for Us investors, students and tourist. The effects of the initiatives undertaken during those years- like the program for the curricular teaching of the Italian language in the American high schools and Universities – are still very evident today. As that experience has demonstrated, the most significant lesson I believe has to be drawn is the medium – long term “resilience” and influence that a well-conceived strategy of Cultural Diplomacy can have.

Undoubtedly, while we should consider all this as an opportunity for liberal democracies, it should equally be understood the challenge coming from “revisionists powers” which also engage in Cultural Diplomacy, with the purpose of weakening a liberal values and democracies.


III) Russian Cultural Diplomacy: the Eurasian values.

Alexander Lukin, a high official in the Russian Government  and close a interpreter of the Kremlin vision, wrote in July 2014 a revealing contribution for the US Review Foreign Affairs. His article did set the tone for Russia’s cultural diplomacy.


“With economic cooperation a success- wrote Alexander Lukin- political elites in the countries of the customs union are now discussing the formation of a Eurasian political union… For such a union to be effective, however, it will need to evolve naturally and voluntarily. Moreover, taking post-Soviet integration to a new level raises the question of what deeper values would lie at its foundation. If the countries of Europe united to champion the values of democracy, human rights, and economic cooperation, then a Eurasian union must stand for its own ideals, too. Some political thinkers have found the ideological foundation for such a union by looking to history. The concept of a Eurasian space or identity first arose among Russian philosophers and historians who immigrated from communist Russia to western Europe in the 1920s. Like Russian Slavophiles before them, advocates of Eurasianism spoke of the special nature of Russian civilization and its differences from European society. But they gazed in a different direction: whereas earlier Slavophiles emphasized Slavic unity and contrasted European individualism with the collectivism of Russian peasant communities, the Eurasianists linked the Russian people to the Turkic-speaking peoples -or “Turanians”- of the Central Asian steppe. According to the Eurasianists, the Turanian civilization, which supposedly originated in ancient Persia, followed its own unique political and economic model- essentially, authoritarianism. Although they valued private initiative in general, many of the Eurasianists condemned the excessive dominance of market principles over the state in the West and emphasized the positive role of their region’s traditional religions: Orthodox Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism. However dubious the Eurasianists’ historical claims about the Turanians may be, this theory now enjoys wide popularity not only among a significant part of the Russian political elite but also in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and other Central Asian states where the Turanians’ descendants live. 

Although the old ideas advanced by today’s Eurasianists may seem somewhat artificial, the plan to establish a Eurasian union should not be considered so far-fetched. The culture and values of many former Soviet republics really do differ from what prevails in the West liberal secularism, with its rejection of the absolute values traditional religions hold as divinely ordained, may be on the rise in western Europe and the United States, but in these former Soviet republics, all the major religions—Orthodox Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism—are experiencing a revival. Despite the significant differences between them, all these religions reject Western permissiveness and moral relativism, and not for some pragmatic reason but because they find such notions sinful—either unsanctioned or expressly prohibited by divine authority. Most inhabitants of these post-Soviet states also resent that people in the West consider their outlook backward and reactionary. Their religious leaders, who are enjoying increasing popularity and influence, concur. After all, one can view progress in different ways. If on believes that the meaning of human existence is to gain more politic freedoms and acquire material wealth, then Western society is moving forward. But if one thinks, as a traditional Christian does, that Christ’s coming was humanity’s most important development, then material wealth looks far less important, for this life is fleeting, and suffering prepares people for eternal life, a process that physical riches hinder.

Religious traditionalists see euthanasia, homosexuality, and other practices that the New Testament repeatedly condemns as representing not progress but a regression to pagan times. Viewed through this lens, Western society is more than imperfect; a great majority of Orthodox Christian believers in Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova agree with all of this, as do many people in Central Asia. And these beliefs have propelled to power leaders who support the integration of the former Soviet republics. They have also helped Putin succeed in establishing an independent power center in Eurasia. Western meddling, meanwhile, has only served to further consolidate that power.

Moving forward the situation in Ukraine remains tense. It might very well follow the example of Moldova, effectively splitting in two. The United States has perceived Russian calls for dialogue as an attempt to dictate unacceptable conditions. In Russia, the continuing strife has fueled the activity of nationalists and authoritarians. The latter group has become especially active of late and is presenting itself as the only force capable of protecting Russia’s interests. An uncontrolled escalation of the confrontation could even lead to out-right war. The only solution is for the United States and its allies to change their position from one of confrontation to one of constructive engagement. After all, a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis is still possible. Even during the Cold War, Moscow and the West managed to reach agreements on the neutral status of Austria and Finland. Those understandings did not in the least undermine the democratic systems or the general European orientation of those countries, and they even proved beneficial to their economies and international reputations.”

The same approach is at the core of Alexander Dugin’s philosophy. In his book “The Eurasian mission: an introduction to neo-eurasianism”, Dugin writes that the twenty-first century will be defined by the conflict between Eurasianists and Atlanticists. The Eurasianists defend the need for every people and culture on Earth to be allowed to develop in its own way, free of interference, and in accordance with their own particular values. Eurasianists thus stand for tradition and for the blossoming variety of cultures, and a world in which no single power holds sway over all the others. Opposing them are the Atlanticists. They stand for ultra-liberalism in both economics and values, stopping at nothing to expand their influence to every corner of the globe, unleashing war, terror, and injustice on all who oppose them, both at home and abroad. This camp is represented by the United States and its allies around the world, who seek to maintain America’s unipolar hegemony over the Earth. The Eurasianists believe that only a strong Russia, working together with all those who oppose Atlanticism worldwide, can stop them and bring about the multipolar world they desire. This book introduces their basic ideas. Eurasianism is on the rise in Russia today, and the Kremlin’s geopolitical policies are largely based on its tenets, as has been acknowledged by Vladimir Putin himself. It is reshaping Russia’s geopolitics, and its influence is already changing the course of world history.

In a speech at the Valdai Club on  October 24, 2014 Putin said:

“Essentially, the unipolar world is simply a means of justifying dictatorship over people and countries. […] I think that we need a new version of interdependence. […] This is particularly relevant given the strengthening and growth of certain regions on the planet, which process objectively requires institutionalization of such new poles, creating powerful regional organizations and developing rules for their interaction. Cooperation between these centers would seriously add to the stability of global security, policy and economy.    Vladimir Putin, Valdai Club, October 24, 2014”


  1. IV) Liberal Democracy and European conservatism. Last October, a group of European conservative thinkers published a manifesto titled “A Europe We Can Believe In. The New York Times wrote: ”… a thoughtful document, a rhetorical mixture of national liberation movement discourse from the glory days of decolonization and a retrograde museum guidebook.” I agree only in part. The conservative manifesto is largely inspired by Professor Roger Scruton. He is a leading voice for liberal democracy whose rooths he connects to the Enlightenment, and to the “moralische Gesetz” – the moral law for each individual – taught by Emmanuel Kant.

I tend to disagree with the negative remarks of the New York Time. Some political analysts have defined, simplistically, the “conservative surge” across Europe as a

“nativist revolution” which resembles the left-wing uprisings of 1968. Like the protesters at that time, today’s European conservatives are not trying to simply win elections but to reassert traditional liberal values undoing some leftists legacies of 1968.

The key concept that drove ’68 was “recognition.” Recognition, to that generation, basically meant that those without political power should have the same rights as the powerful ones. The key word of the current conservative revolution is “respect,” not only “recognition: the 21st-century rebels against “political correctness” are saying that all human beings have equal rights, and like the demonstrators in ’68 are preoccupied with the rights of minorities — ethnic, religious and sexual but they are equal concerned about the rights of the majorities. If ’68 was about nations’ confessing their sins — see Chancellor Willy Brandt of Germany on his knees at a monument to the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising — some conservative want to have dignity and respect for their nations finally recognized. The manifesto “A Europe we can believe in” should be considered, with the exception of some questionable paragraphs on the universality of human rights, Rule of Law and global freedoms, a remarkable statement about liberal democracy.


The parties of the Conservative right which the leftist opinion defines as “populist” are, above all, cultural parties. They see their position of power as the opportunity to better shape a national European identity, to get the historical narrative right. They are interested in changing taxation or welfare but their battle on values, and especially on the rights of their citizens, comes first. Far more important to them is how society relates to its past and how children are educated. The debate of immigration is, above all else, an opportunity to define who belongs and could belong to a national political community.

But while in individual countries today’s revolution takes the form of a struggle between liberals and conservatives, on the level of the European Union it is experienced as a marking difference between Europe’s West and Europe’s East. More precisely, it’s a potential conflict between two versions of conservatism.


Western European conservatism has internalized some post 1968 progressivism that has shaped the West in the past half century – like freedom of expression and the right to be different – while rejecting what it sees as the excesses of ’68. In Western Europe, prominent activists and leaders of the far right can be openly gay without raising eyebrows.

In its Eastern version political and cultural conservatism tends to go beyond. It seem rejects modernity together with globalization and sees the cultural changes of recent decades as an attempt to destroy the national cultures of Central and Eastern European societies. To be conservative in Central Europe risks to be not only against the excesses of ’68 but against any form of cosmopolitanism or diversity.

This view has no better spokesman than Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. “We must state that we do not want to be diverse and do not want to be mixed. “We do not want our own colour, traditions and national culture to be mixed with those of others. We do not want that at all. We do not want to be a diverse country. We want to be how we became 1,100 years ago here in the Carpathian Basin”.

His position makes clear the difference between the East’s vision of conservatism and the West’s. In the West, conservatives believe that it is not enough to get an Austrian or German passport to become Austrian or German – you should also adopt the dominant culture. In Mr. Orban’s view, you cannot become a Hungarian if you were not born a Hungarian.

And here is a challenge to be faced for the Unity of Europe. Both Eastern and Western Europe have shifted to conservative thinking in recent years. At the same time  this shift widens the cultural gap between two different mances of conservatism.

While Western Europeans contest the merits of diversity, they do live in culturally diverse societies and have for some time. Central and Eastern Europeans, on the other hand, live in ethnically homogeneous societies and believe that diversity will never happen to them. Conservatives in the Western part of Europe dream of a continent where majorities will be the ones shaping society; in the East they tenor to dream of a society without minorities and governments without oppositions.

So while conservative political leaders like Mr. Orban, and Sebastian Kurz, prime minister of Austria, share similar views when it comes to control over migration or mistrust of old-style conservatism, they are not natural allies when it comes to the future of the European Union.


  1. V) China’s values.

At the beginning of March, the Economist wrote in its editorial page, “China stepped from autocracy into dictatorship. That was when Xi Jinping, already the world’s most powerful man, let it be known that he will change China’s constitution so that he can rule as president for as long as he chooses—and conceivably for life. Not since Mao Zedong has a Chinese leader wielded so much power so openly. This is not just a big change for China but also strong evidence that the West’s 25-year bet on China has failed.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West welcomed the next big communist country into the global economic order. Western leaders believed that giving China a stake in institutions such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) would bind it into the rules-based system set up after the second world war. They hoped that economic integration would encourage China to evolve into a market economy and that, as they grew wealthier, its people would come to yearn for democratic freedoms, rights and the rule of law.


It was a worthy vision. China has grown rich. Under the leadership of Hu Jintao, you could still picture the bet paying off. When Mr Xi took power five years ago China- wrote also The Economist- was rife with speculation that he would move towards constitutional rule. Today the illusion has been shattered. In reality, Mr Xi has steered politics and economics towards repression, state control and confrontation.


Start with politics. Mr Xi has used his power to reassert the dominance of the Communist Party and of his own position within it. As part of a campaign against corruption, he has purged potential rivals. He has executed a sweeping reorganisation of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), partly to ensure its loyalty to the party, and to him personally. He has imprisoned free-thinking lawyers and stamped out criticism of the party and the government in the media and online. He is creating a surveillance state to monitor discontent and deviance.

China used to profess no interest in how other countries run themselves, so long as it was left alone. Increasingly, however, it holds its authoritarian system up as a rival to liberal democracy. At the party’s 19th congress last autumn, Mr Xi offered “a new option for other countries” that would involve “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” Mr Xi later said that China would not export its model, but you sense that the West America and Europe have not just an economic rival, but an ideological one, too.

The bet to embed markets has been more successful. China has been integrated into the global economy. It is the world’s biggest exporter, with over 13% of the total. It is enterprising and resourceful, and home to 12 of the world’s 100 most valuable listed companies. It has created extraordinary prosperity, for itself and those who have done business with it.

Yet China is not a market economy and, on its present course, never will be. Instead, it increasingly controls business as an arm of state power. It sees a vast range of industries as strategic. Its “Made in China 2025” plan, for instance, sets out to use subsidies and protection to create world leaders in ten industries, including aviation, tech and energy, which together cover nearly 40% of its manufacturing. Although China has become less blatant about industrial espionage, Western companies still complain of state-sponsored raids on their intellectual property. Meanwhile, foreign businesses are profitable but miserable, because commerce always seems to be on China’s terms. American credit-card firms, for example, were let in only after payments had shifted to mobile phones.

China embraces some Western rules, but also seems to be drafting a parallel system of its own. The Belt and Road Initiative, promises to invest over $1tn in markets abroad, ultimately dwarfing the Marshall plan. This is partly a scheme to develop China’s troubled west, but it also creates a Chinese-funded web of influence that includes pretty much any country willing to sign up. The initiative asks countries to accept Chinese-based dispute-resolution. Should today’s Western norms frustrate Chinese ambition, this mechanism could become an alternative.

And China uses business to confront its enemies. It seeks to punish firms directly, as when Mercedes-Benz, a German carmaker, was recently obliged to issue a grovelling apology after unthinkingly quoting the Dalai Lama online. It also punishes them for the behaviour of their governments. When the Philippines contested China’s claim to Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, China suddenly stopped buying its bananas, supposedly for health reasons. As China’s economic clout grows, so could this sort of pressure.

Economy, culture, influence have gone much farther than soft power. These former tools us are becoming for Beijing the field of “sharp powers”.

This “sharp power” in commerce is a complement to the hard power of armed force. Here, China behaves as a regional superpower bent on driving America out of East Asia. As with Scarborough Shoal, China has seized and built on a number of reefs and islets. The pace of Chinese military modernisation and investment is raising doubts about America’s long-run commitment to retain its dominance in the region. The PLA still could not defeat America in a fight, but power is about resolve as well as strength. Even as China’s challenge has become overt, America has been unwilling or unable to stop it.


The West has lost its bet on China, just when its own liberal democracies are suffering a crisis of confidence. President Donald Trump saw the Chinese threat early but he conceives of it chiefly in terms of the bilateral trade deficit, which is not in itself a threat. A trade war would undermine the very norms he should be protecting and harm America’s allies just when they need unity in the face of Chinese bullying. And, however much Mr Trump protests, his promise to “Make America Great Again” smacks of a retreat into unilateralism that can only strengthen China’s hand.

Instead the West needs to recast the range of China policy. China and the West will have to learn to live with their differences. Putting up with misbehaviour today in the hope that engagement will make China better tomorrow does not make sense. The longer the West grudgingly accommodates China’s abuses, the more dangerous it will be to challenge them later. In every sphere, therefore, policy needs to be harder edged, even as the West cleaves to the values it claims are universal.

To counter China’s sharp power, Western societies should seek to shed light on links between independent foundations, even student groups, and the Chinese state. To counter China’s misuse of economic power, the West should scrutinise investments by state-owned companies and, with sensitive technologies, by Chinese companies of any kind. It should bolster institutions that defend the order it is trying to preserve. A cultural engagement through all the tools of the soft power is needed today more than ever.

Whenever foreign Governments  engage ,under a “cultural” banner, in activities which openly challenge  constitutional values of another State , precautions should be taken, as it should happen in other areas of bilateral relations relevant for national security, or strategically important industries. Always on China, such is considered by some commentators the case of the Confucius Institutes.

In little more than a decade, a shadowy arm of the Chinese state has established a foothold in hundreds of university campuses across the world.

Confucius Institutes claim their mission is to satisfy overseas demand for learning Chinese. Located within host universities, the centres offer language and cultural classes that in many cases earn students credits towards their degrees. But they are directly administered by Beijing and their rapid growth — the programme now has a presence in more than three-quarters of the world’s countries — is raising fears that Beijing is subverting traditional values of academic freedom as part of China’s global soft power push.

“The fundamental point is the interference in the education process of another country by a country which is used to suppressing academic freedom,” said recently to the Financial times one senior US professor highlighting the extent to which fear of offending Beijing is leading to creeping academic self-censorship .

The Confucius Institute’s governing council is chaired by Liu Yandong, former head of the United Front Work Department, the party’s main organ for exerting influence overseas. The council’s other members are all senior party cadres. An investigation last year by the National Association of Scholars, a right-leaning US educational campaign group, recommended the immediate severing of universities’ ties with the institutes. Campuses made too many concessions to accept Institute funding, the report found, resulting in entanglement between the Institutes and host universities’ operations. Such fears have already led several universities worldwide to close institutes on their campuses, including the University of Chicago and Pennsylvania State University in the US, Stockholm University, the University of Lyon and Canada’s McMaster University. But the vast majority remain.

The first Confucius Institute opened in Seoul in 2004 and the network now numbers more than 500, along with over 1,000 Confucius Classrooms in primary and secondary schools, in 142 countries worldwide. The programme’s presence is strongest in the US, China’s biggest strategic rival, which hosts more than 100 institutes.

The institutes are run by Hanban, an arm of China’s education ministry that oversees the hiring and training of teachers, who are not considered university employees and do not enjoy standard academic freedom protections. Their location on campuses, however, gives the impression that they are affiliated to the host university.

The institutes have been seen as a boon for smaller, cash-strapped universities that may have cut language programmes and research funding. Hanban pays not only for the institutes’ operational costs and selects textbooks, it directly hires, trains and pays for Chinese language teachers.

With China footing the bill, critics say Confucius Institutes are ready-made platforms for the state’s agenda, promoting an overly rosy image of China while discouraging discussion of the “three Ts”: Tibet, Taiwan and the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

“Confucius Institutes are offices or extensions of the [Chinese] state” .

The director of a Confucius Institute at one prestigious US university, insisted that any censorship is “unimaginable” – but did concede that the institute’s Chinese partners maintain close contact over its daily operations for logistical reasons. “When we collect proposals from faculty, we have to submit them all to the institute headquarters,” he said, adding that because of a lack of time, a Chinese co-ordinator, usually a scholar themselves and hired by Hanban, prepares the documentation. The push into US academia comes amid waning American student interest in China. The number of Americans studying in China peaked at 14,887 in the 2011-2012 academic year and had fallen 14 per cent to 12,790 by 2014-2015, the most recent year for which data are available, according to the Institute for International Education.


  1. VI) Cultural Diplomacy is far from being a fundamental tool reserved exclusively to “ Cultural super-powers”. A paper recently published by Kristin Eggeling,”Cultural diplomacy in Qatar”, describes how engaged the Government of Qatar has been over the last years in practices of cultural diplomacy to enhance its standing abroad, and consolidate its legitimacy at home. Looking in particular at key initiatives of international collaboration of the Qatar Foundation and Qatar Museums, the Qatari government strategically uses cultural diplomacy to first produce and then disseminate an elite identity narrative of Qatar being a cohesive, future-oriented and rightfully engaged player in international affairs both inside and outside the state. To develop this argument, the analysis builds on observation during fieldwork in Doha between 2015 and 2016, and is enriched by a textual analysis of primary and secondary sources. Qatar has over the last years used practices of cultural diplomacy to ‘virtually enlarge’ its presence abroad, and spread a unifying national identity narrative at home. A cultural diplomacy as a suitable tool in the context of Doha’s external insecurities and its particular socio-economic internal make-up. Key initiatives of international cultural collaboration are enhanced by the state’s two main cultural organizations. Programs such as WISE or the Years of Culture should on the one hand be seen as strategies of virtual enlargement that demand recognition and inclusion for the Qatari state into a circle of key global influencers. Qatar Foundation, under the leadership of its Chairperson, Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser established the World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) in 2009. WISE is an international, multi-sectoral platform for creative thinking, debate and purposeful action.

These practices simultaneously create and produce an elite identity narrative that paints an image of a coherent and progressive Qatari nation that is simultaneously weary of its past while looking firmly into the future. By continuously being presented as guided by the ‘wise leadership’ of the ruling family, Qatar’s cultural diplomacy validates the state-centric narrative behind them, and become symbolic performances to consolidate and legitimate Al Thani rule on the Qatari peninsula. The current economic downturn has led to the re-scaling of some of Doha’s cultural initiatives but it has not resulted in major shifts Qatar’s national vision and global ambitions.


Similar trends may be observed for Serbia, where Arts, Festivals and Geopolitics are often considered intertwined in an effort to emphasize the value of Cultural Diplomacy.


Cultural diplomacy has to rely on the whole cultural system of a country, equally engaging the public, private and civil sectors. During 1990s in the Balkans, artists and civil sector were developing projects that could send to the world different picture from the one that politics and media had produced (picture of hatred, brutality, overwhelming nationalism). Today, the public and the civil sector collaborate through arts festivals, networks, exhibitions and international, especially European, projects.


VII) Cultural diplomacy is significantly present in the work of the European Union. However, the European Institutions prefer to use the broader paradigm of international cultural relations and have invented a new category, “culture in external relations”. By doing so they sidestep many of the conceptual and discursive pitfalls that the current over-use of the term cultural diplomacy often presents.

In very practical terms, the EU cultural diplomacy success can be tested in many geopolitical realities where “competing values” are at stake. The case of Central Asia  in relation to the EU’s vs. Russia’s cultural diplomacy has been analized in the paper published last February by Domenico Valenza and Elke Boers, of United Nations University Institute on Comparative Regional Integration Studies (UNU-CRIS). The paper focuses on EU cultural diplomacy orts in five Central Asian countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Beginning in the early 2000s, EU Member States looked at the region with increased interest. Aside from major engagements on trade, energy and security, education and intercultural dialogue were stressed as priority areas in the 2007 EU Strategy for Central Asia. To measure EU effectiveness as a Cultural Diplomacy actor in Central Asia, a comparative analysis was proposed with Russia. Since Putin’s return to the Presidency in 2012, Russia has reaffirmed its ambitions to strengthen both hard and soft presence in Central Asia, viewing the region within its sphere of influence. This engagement was reiterated in the 2015 Strategy of National Security and in the 2016 Foreign Policy Concept.

European Cultural Diplomacy efforts had mixed results due to an inconsistent policy towards the region. Although EU cultural heritage and educational influence are widely acknowledged, Russia remains today the major foreign actor in Central Asia, displaying stronger attractiveness among citizenry and elites. Historical and cultural ties, but also institutional and economic efforts allowed Moscow to keep its leading position. However Russia’s future regional leadership should not be taken for granted, as all Central Asian states have been looking at Moscow’s cultural engagement with increased scepticism. Russia has showed increased awareness on the role of Cultural Diplomacy, and Central Asia countries have been mentioned as Moscow’s fundamental area of interest. Russia has deeply restructured its development assistance in the past years, with increased funding of public and private institutions active in Cultural Diplomacy, stimulating student exchanges, language courses and scholarship programs. Russia has mainly tried to build on common values and shared language, culture and history.

When it comes to the EU, efforts have led to mixed results. Despite a strong financial engagement that makes Brussels one of the largest regional donors, the EU’s contribution is not highly visible, and its influence has been declining. One of the reasons might be the inconsistent approach towards the region when it comes to bilateral or regional financial engagement. On top of that, too many priorities were outlined before the new strategy in 2007, which left a lot of financial aid shattered across many ‘key areas’. The EU is more attractive in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, where countries’ elites are the most Russia-oriented at the regional level. Two non-Cultural Diplomacy -related factors seem to influence the EU’s and Russia’s different results in the region. On the one hand, Central Asia occupies a low position in the EU foreign policy agenda. This is somewhat opposed to the early and mid-2000s context, when geographical proximity to Afghanistan was a more serious concern for Western policy-makers. On the other hand the presence of pro-Russia media and “deep cultural and historical ties”, such as the presence of a substantial Russian minority in Kazakhstan and half a million Kyrgyz labour migrants in Russia, help to ensure that Russian state narratives resonate. But while the EU has shown a rather temporary interest, some EU members  such as Germany and Latvia have always been active in pushing the EU agenda in the region.

Some countries have been bandwagoning with Russia, others have followed individual paths and rejected closer ties. Even in the most Russophile Central Asia states, the attitude towards Russia is sometimes referred to “forced interdependence”. In addition, Moscow’s idea and use of soft power portrays the region as a fundamental part of the ‘Russian world’. In the current global environment, Brussels could and should see its cultural diplomacy as a tool to balance Russia’s ‘soft’ assertiveness. By assessing the EU’s and Russia’s roles in Central Asia, we should recognize competing cultural narratives and practices in the shared neighbourhood, where both actors have been consistently engaging.


VIII). In conclusion  the principles of reciprocity, good faith and fair treatment which are the pillars of international relations ruled by customary or conventional international law should apply also- and I would say especially- in Cultural Diplomacy: given the sensitivity of this dimension for national values , identity and traditions.

©2024 Giulio Terzi

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