Cultural diplomacy designates a policy field, in which states seek to mobilize their cultural resources to achieve foreign policy goals. The nature of those goals, and of the cultural resources mobilized to achieve them, has been subject to historical change, and a range of terminology has been used to designate this kind of policymaking in different national and historical contexts. Nevertheless, the term cultural diplomacy is a viable one for designating this particular area of foreign policy, which is often understood as one component of a state’s broader public diplomacy or, following Joseph Nye’s terminology, its “soft power.”
Cultural display and exchange have arguably always played a role in the relations between peoples. With the emergence of the modern state system in the early modern period, such display and exchange became an expression of formal diplomatic relations between courts, yet it is only in the 19th century that we see the emergence of cultural diplomacy in the sense it is understood today: It is no longer a matter of communication between rulers, but rather an expression of national identity directed at an international public. Throughout the 19th century, cultural diplomacy was closely associated with the rivalry of the Great Powers, particularly in the colonial context. However, following the end of the First World War, cultural diplomacy increasingly came to be understood as a means to pursue ideological competition, a trend that became central to the cultural diplomacy of the Cold War. Nevertheless, scholarship’s focus on the cultural dimensions of the confrontation between the two Cold War superpowers has drawn attention away from other varieties of cultural diplomacy in the “Third World” or “Global South,” which sought to establish forms of solidarity between postcolonial nations.
The post–Cold War world has been characterized by a shift in the rhetoric surrounding cultural diplomacy, which now frequently contains an economic dimension, as states compete for markets, investments, and attention in the context of neoliberal globalization. Nevertheless, we also see a pluralization of strategies of cultural diplomacy, in which a range of actors tailor their approach to cultural foreign policy according to their own perceived position in a multipolar world. Nevertheless, despite the continued popularity of cultural diplomacy in policymaking circles and the significant attention it has received from researchers in the 21st century, the assessment of the impact of cultural diplomacy remains a challenge.