• Johanna Suo

The Art of Positioning Culture on the International Arena for Competitive and Cooperative Advantage

Updated: Feb 3



Competition in international relations is fierce. Soft power, including its use of culture as an instrument, and cultural diplomacy have become popular means for competing. How can effective visibility on the international arena be achieved? What strategy does one need to have in order to stand out? How is it possible to work with culture in this context? These are issues and questions that I have spent a year researching


The problem with asking these questions is that they often lead to actions that are not beneficial for anyone - neither government, people, nor culture and creative sectors. In addition, asking those questions puts pressure on culture to deliver something that is impossible. Thus, culture becomes discredited if expectations are not met. One can far too often see representational approaches without much insight - neither awareness of the cultural and creative sectors, nor ideas on how one can contribute to a global issues agenda.


A deeper and wider reflection about what culture is and real strategy based around it is often missing – often seen by the existence of programmes constructed on the belief that they will positively impact a country’s image.


So how is it possible to be visible on the international arena? I think this is about asking other kinds of lateral questions and having a greater focus on values. It may be that certain values need to be revalued. What about human rights, cultural rights, dialogue, mutuality, exchange, cooperation in the context of international relations? It is the values of a government that decide if an innovative culture and external action agenda can be set. What is important and why? The values of a government shine through its programmes and its actions.


Thinking about the image or the brand of a country and the associated culture clearly places culture in the ”return on investment” thinking spectrum. What if the resulting image is a natural by-product though? A by-product of, for example, focusing on global challenges, multilateralism in cooperation, development and partnerships, internationalisation of the culture and creative sectors, social innovation and sustainable development goals?


Until now, the majority of cultural diplomacy initiatives have been at the service of a country’s external strategy or agenda. Cultural programming and external action is a demanding exercise to get right - but getting it right can contribute to much more than just the image of a country. It can contribute to the fulfilment and empowerment of people, prosperous culture and creative sectors, fruitful relations based on alignment in facing and addressing global needs, the creation of natural ambassadors through people-to-people relations and much more.


It is important to say something about the term ‘cultural diplomacy’. The term, as such, does already say something about how culture is employed. I won’t go into details here as this is a long exercise. However, it is important to say that the actual term is difficult to use as it has a variety of interpretations depending on who you talk to. There are other terms such as ‘cultural relations’ and ‘culture & external action’ that may be more appropriate depending on the actions, programming and included actors/partners.


Lastly, why is it important to think about culture in the context of international relations? For me, the answer is simple. Culture is what we all are made of. It is something that binds us together and keeps us apart. The culture and creative sectors, looking beyond their intrinsic value, social value, added value for health, should be a key component in innovation, the innovation economy and cross sectoral collaboration.


The artistic disciplines, arts and humanities are at the core of human-centric innovation and can make valuable contributions to developments not only in the culture and creative sectors but to a country’s wider economy. The emphasis here should be on the specific high-value core skills, perspectives and experience that the cultural sectors possess. Attributes and characteristics that can be leveraged and applied across the innovation space: for process, product and business model creation or re-design, for architecting next-generation solutions and for creating disruptive transformation.


Johanna Suo, Founding Partner and Principal Consultant in Culture and Creative at Artisans of Innovation and Director at ifa laboratory.


Blog based on the research “Cultural diplomacy – an exercise for a tightrope artist”, Université Lyon Lumière 2, 2020, Johanna Kouzmine-Karavaïeff (Suo)


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