by Christiane Keys-Statham,
Christiane Keys-Statham 
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Executive summary

  • In Australia, there is a renewal of interest in international cultural diplomacy, but the scope and purpose of this diplomacy is yet to be defined.
  • Australia’s international cultural exchanges and collaborations are underfunded, and geared towards trade and economics, rather than international development, mutual tolerance and social reconstruction.
  • This paper investigates whether a foreign cultural policy would assist Australia, not only in the promotion of its own culture, but in building international relations and fostering cultural development in other countries.
  • The paper expresses the view that cultural diplomacy in post-conflict areas should be a priority for the Australian government and should form part of future cultural policy development.

The delayed release of the National Cultural Policy is an indication of the complexity of the issues that need to be addressed by such a document.  Recent articles in the Australian media concerning governmental budget commitments, and the concept of ‘convergence’ in national policies, hint at some of the investigations taking place behind the scenes.  In the meantime, however, the delay provides an opportunity to examine Australia’s cultural outlook, as observed in practice, before it is enshrined in policy.

In 2012, the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper, and the Review of the Australia Council, signalled a renewed national interest in ‘cultural diplomacy’. Cultural diplomacy, the exchange of ideas, information, art, and other aspects of culture among nations and peoples, has often been considered as a way of fostering understanding and tolerance, an increasingly important issue in our multicultural societies. Another way of thinking of this type of diplomacy is as a form of ‘soft power’, a concept developed in the 1990s by American political scientist Professor Joseph Nye. Soft power is the ability to attract and co-opt rather than coerce or use force in international relations. Cultural exchanges and collaborations are an integral part of this process. Soft power is particularly useful in contexts where political uncertainty and unrest are the status quo, and where suspicion of Western imperialist motives can impede more formal avenues of international relations.

At present, Australia’s international cultural diplomacy efforts are mostly directed at increasing trade and economic ties with developing nations such as India and Vietnam.  This is not surprising, as the soft power of culture can help to establish strong and lasting international relationships, which can exist independently of changing political structures.  Economic ties between Australian businesses and those in countries in the Asia-Pacific region are unarguably important for the future.

Yet, the importance of creating ongoing dialogue and positive relationships with countries where Australia has been involved in conflict is also an issue that should be considered. Post-conflict rebuilding of societies should, in the long term, include the regeneration of cultural heritage, institutions and artistic practice, both traditional and contemporary. As the Minister for the Arts Simon Crean recently stated, ‘creative societies are productive and resilient societies’, and this also applies to post-conflict societies.  Ongoing, long-term relationships with countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan are an important aspect of Australia’s international cultural relations.

Under the terms of the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the Law of Armed Conflict (2006), Australia is required to extend protection to cultural property during conflicts in which it is involved, and to train its Defence Force personnel to recognise cultural property in order to protect such property during armed conflict. Australia’s positive approach to the protection of cultural property during international armed conflicts signals an existing commitment to international agreements and policies for culture. An official foreign policy for culture, however, could express this commitment and formalise it.

Along with international agreements and treaties, Australia has an ethical imperative to assist with social rebuilding in countries where it has been involved in conflict. This reconstruction must of course begin with infrastructure, education and other basic social services. Along with these important development concerns, it is worth considering the positive relationships that are developed through cultural exchange and collaborations, which can also help to establish a more stable and secure region. A foreign cultural policy, or at least a section of the forthcoming National Cultural Policy that addresses international relations, is a vital part of Australia’s future position in a stable Asia-Pacific region, and further afield.

A foreign cultural policy provides a strategic approach to international cultural diplomacy.  British writer and former Arts Council England chief Christopher Frayling argued in 2005 that a foreign cultural policy is a way to conjoin the work of various diplomatic bodies, arts and cultural organisations, overseas missions and Government departments, within the framework of international agreements. Australia currently spreads responsibility for cultural diplomacy amongst many groups and departments, unlike the United Kingdom or France, for example, which have major organisations for cultural diplomacy (the British Council and Alliance Française, respectively). These organisations promote their nations through the soft power of culture and can deliver an economic dividend at the same time.

Organisations such as the British Council (UK), Alliance Française (France), Institute Cervantes (Spain) and the Goethe Institut (Germany) promote both language and culture internationally.  Some of these groups operate under national foreign policies for culture, while some have their own internal policies for cultural diplomacy; Germany, for example, has a Foreign Cultural Policy, while the United Kingdom operates at arm’s length from the British Council, which has its own internal policies for cultural diplomacy. Australia’s main body for international cultural exchange is the Australia International Cultural Council (AICC), a relatively small section of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which does not specifically promote the English (or, indeed, any Indigenous) language, but which facilitates Australian cultural activities through country-specific programs and overseas missions.

Christopher Frayling suggested in 2005 that the United Kingdom’s cultural foreign policy was already being put into practice on the streets of Basra, Iraq. By extension, this suggests that one aspect of Australia’s existing, unwritten, cultural foreign policy is already in place in conflict and post-conflict zones where the Australian Defence Forces operate. What idea of Australian culture does Defence Force policy and training promote?  This is extremely difficult to ascertain, due to the classified nature of Defence Force operational and training activities, but worth considering in any theories of cultural exchange. Perhaps a more balanced view of Australian culture would be a positive component of our future relations with countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan and East Timor, as these societies rebuild themselves.

The recent Australia in the Asian Century White Paper provides some insight into Australia’s future approach to international cultural diplomacy, which may be echoed in the National Cultural Policy, if recent reports of convergence in national policies are implemented. The White Paper contains many references to culture and diversity, and notes in its introductory Executive Summary that ‘arts, culture and creativity can broaden and strengthen Australia’s relationships in Asia, both formally and informally’. Australia’s cultural strengths, including being home to the world’s oldest living culture and its status as a country that welcomes diversity, are provided as the supporting structures for its national values.

The White Paper goes on to provide National Objectives for the Asian Century.  The very last of these, the 25th, addresses cultural diplomacy, and describes a future broadening and deepening of Australia’s cultural links with Asian nations. This section of the White Paper provides principles that the National Cultural Policy will hopefully incorporate in its international relations section. It again states that the recognition of Australia’s ‘unique cultural advantage’ is the basis for future programs. It goes on to suggest that the government examines its own activities that support artists in cultural exchange and collaborations, and that it gives consideration in this respect to the 2012 Review of the Australia Council. It states that the Australia International Cultural Council be re-vamped in order to better coordinate support for cultural diplomacy programs in the region, and ends by signaling the government’s commitment to cultural diplomacy.

Notwithstanding the placement of this section at the very end of the National Objectives section, it is clear that Australia’s cultural identity has become stronger and more confident in recent years.  Although practitioners of cultural diplomacy are wary of being accused of promulgating nationalist or imperialist ideals, Australia’s emphasis on the promotion of cultural diversity, and the importance of Indigenous culture, diminishes this criticism. Issues of globalisation and homogenisation also come into play, and are likewise refuted by the promotion of diversity.

In this respect, Australia has put its money where its mouth is.  Australia is a signatory party to the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, and in 2011 the Australian Government contributed $80,000 towards UNESCO’s International Fund for Cultural Diversity (IFCD).  More recently, in late 2012 the Australia Council and UNESCO signed a Memorandum of Understanding to promote cultural diversity across the Asia Pacific, and to support the cultural exchange objectives of the Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.  This is a welcome example of policy being put into practice.  In a multicultural society such as Australia, it appears that the promotion of diversity is a crucial aspect of international relations, but there seems to be lingering reluctance to enshrine in policy a broad and far-reaching definition of what contemporary Australian culture actually is, and what commitments we should make to post-conflict zones.

Does the fact that Australia has no foreign cultural policy indicate that the Australian Government is unsure of what Australian culture is? According to cultural economist David Throsby:

there is a sense in the air that as a society we are economically wealthy but culturally impoverished, or else, if not quite impoverished, at least uncertain about what our cultural values are and in what direction they may be changing.

Australia’s lingering uncertainty about its own cultural values could have far-reaching implications, including misconceptions about Australian culture in other countries.  However, the creation of a National Cultural Policy in 2012 implies that policy makers now have, six years later, a better idea of Australia’s cultural values.  It is time to express these ideas, not only in a national cultural policy, but also in an international cultural policy.  A foreign cultural policy seems a logical extension of Australia’s nascent cultural confidence in the region.

Australia’s last national cultural policy was Creative Nation, published in 1994 by the Commonwealth Government under Prime Minister Paul Keating.  This policy confidently asserted in its Preamble a definition of Australian culture, suggesting that Australian culture is a hybrid of many cultures, a hybrid that has been allowed to flourish and is supported by a democratic and enlightened government.  At the end of the Preamble is a recommendation for the establishment of a Ministry of Culture and the Government to commit to a charter of ‘Cultural Rights’. These recommendations remain unimplemented.

Creative Nation also contained a section devoted to ‘International Projection of Australian Culture’. This chapter could form the basis of a new foreign policy for culture; or, at the very least, a comparable section in the forthcoming National Cultural Policy. Important aspects of this section in Creative Nation are the commitment to significant funding for international cultural diplomacy; the importance of projecting a ‘contemporary’ image of Australian culture overseas; the influential force of cultural exchange programs and their ability to ‘enhance our national image’; and, crucially, the market opportunities and ‘tangible economic returns’ to be gained from supporting the export of Australian culture. The Creative Nation policy was not wholly adopted by the Australian Government, due to changes in leadership; now is the time to rectify that situation, by using Creative Nation as a template for Australia’s new National Cultural Policy, and its future foreign cultural policy. Our new policies must go further, and confirm that cultural diplomacy is an integral part of the development of resilient and creative societies, both in Australia and abroad.

In the absence of such a policy, cultural exchanges and collaborations are nonetheless proceeding. The Australia Council provides assistance for international tours and collaborations, as do individual state arts funding bodies. The Australia International Cultural Council continues its country-specific cultural programs under the auspices of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which will be conducted in Vietnam, Indonesia and Turkey in coming years.  Also in 2013, a major exhibition of Australian art will be shown at the Royal Academy in London. Australia’s presence at the Venice Biennale, and other international exhibitions, consolidates the vitality of Australian contemporary art on the international scene. Recently, during the German documenta13 exhibition, Australian/Afghan artist Khadim Ali, along with other international artists, worked in Kabul and Bamiyan as part of the exhibition’s travelling program: this sort of initiative could be used as a model for future Australian projects in post-conflict areas.  The current Asia Pacific Triennial in Brisbane involves many international contemporary artists and curators: Australian artists need more support to attend similar exhibitions overseas, in order to promote their work, and Australian culture, to the world. After all, contemporary Australian art is an expression of contemporary Australian culture.

In terms of post-conflict areas, the Australian government made a significant gift to East Timor to celebrate its 10th anniversary of independence in 2012: a collection of a historically significant films and photographs, compiled by the National Film and Sound Archives (with funding from the Australian government). The Australian War Memorial operates its Official War Artist Scheme, which involves contemporary Australian artists travelling to conflict areas to record the experiences of Australian troops in war. But more access to the experiences of communities affected by conflict, particularly where the Australian Defence Forces have operated, is a development responsibility for Australia and would be an appropriate complement to the War Artists scheme.

Grassroots cultural diplomacy continues, and the advent of broad Internet access and social media platforms provides unprecedented possibilities for cross-cultural communication and collaborative projects. Along with the renovation of the Australia International Cultural Council, further funding needs to be allocated to supporting this kind of grassroots cultural diplomacy, which although existing outside official political structures, still requires a policy-supported environment in which to function. A bold and visionary National Cultural Policy, based on and developing the innovations of Creative Nation, could lead public thinking towards placing more importance on the role of cultural diplomacy in international development. A foreign policy for culture could go even further.

Selected Further Reading

Bennett, B., 2003. Cultural relations diplomacy: An Australian angle. GAST Newsletter: Gesellschaft für Australienstuden, (17), pp.4–8.

Chey, J., 2010. Cultural diplomacy and Australia-China cultural relations. In AIIA NSW Branch Charteris Lecture. pp. 1–24.

Commonwealth of Australia, 1994. Creative Nation: Commonwealth cultural policy October 1994, Commonwealth of Australia.

Commonwealth of Australia, 2012.  Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.  Available online at: Last accessed 10 January 2013.

Cull, N. 2007. Black Watch: Theatre as Cultural Diplomacy. USC Center for Public Diplomacy and the British Council.  Available at: Last accessed 10 January 2013.

Eltham, B. 2012. “Media, cultural policy: pieces of the puzzle not in place”. Crikey, 7 December.  Available online at:  Last accessed 10 January 2013.

Frayling, C., 2005. What might a foreign policy for culture look like? Why and how? In Catalyst Conference. Manchester and Liverpool, UK.

Miller, T. & Yudice, G., 2009. Cultural Policy, New York: SAGE Publications Limited.

OFTA, 2011. National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper, Canberra.

Peach, R. 2012. “UNESCO and Australia Council look at art in Asia-Pacific”, Artery Australia Council newsletter, 25 October.  Available online at: Last accessed 10 January 2013.

Reimann, H. 2004. On the importance and essence of foreign cultural policy of states.  In Intercultural Communication and Diplomacy, Geneva, Switzerland: Diplo Foundation.

Seares, M. & Gardiner-Garden, J., 2011. Cultural policies in Australia, Australia Council.

Sylvester, C., 2009. Art/Museums: International relations where we least expect it, Boulder, USA: Paradigm Publishers.Throsby, D., 2006. Does Australia need a cultural policy? In Platform Papers No. 7, Currency House, Sydney.

Citation: Christiane Keys-Statham, Australia’s International Cultural Diplomacy. Australian Policy and History. February 2013.


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