Cultural Diplomacy and Cultural Imperialism

There can be no question that in today’s world, cultural diplomacy and cultural imperialism if the two things be different, is of prime importance.  We as a race have at some level become aware that in our psyche, our identity and thus our culture matter highly leading us to a notion that controlling this independent variable would provide power over other dependant variables. History’s most successful empires have always given top priority to the arts of its empires. There is a popular saying in America, ‘There is no business like show business’. Schiller (1996, p. 2) talks about the term ‘cultural industries’ establishing a direct link between culture and industrial power, pointing out the rise of the informational and cultural sector to a commanding place in the economy in the twentieth century and more specifically during the last twenty five years. Culture and economics are without doubt related to each other but how do we ascertain whether this prosperity is a result of moving a people’s belief to better suit your business or if it is indeed a consequence of different ways merging together so as to yield a way that is most advantageous in an existing situation for all the peoples involved.

First it is vital to get a realistic picture of the subject and its present status quo. The term imperialism provides a picture of having to unwillingly pledge one’s ways to a single entity an emperor or an empire. Schiller (1992) explains the inaccuracy of the term or rather how the term is clearly outdated. As a matter of fact Schiller (1992, pp.14-15) says that the term ‘American cultural imperialism’ fails to adequately describe the present global cultural condition, although in spirit it continues to exist. He chooses to adopt a more useful approach by viewing the central force as a ‘transnational corporate culture’ that seems to have retained a heavy flavour of U.S. media mechanics that have been founded on its long experience of marketing and entertaining skills. Schiller (1992, pp.12-13) arrives at this conclusion by stating that while it may have been accurate in the 1960s to refer to American media and cultural imperialism, now it is essential that not only the term but also the concept be recast. He also points out that apart from America there are also German, Japanese, French, Brazilian, English and other national capitals that are becoming increasingly invested in what he calls ‘transnational enterprises’. Thus the international popularity of the U.S. cultural styles has become transnationalized and is now the current norm of many markets around the globe regardless of where it originated from. “When the Japanese electronics conglomerate Matsushita bought out one of the Hollywood “majors”, MCA/Universal, in 1990, it made a special point of retaining American creative and managerial material talent. Sony, in its earlier acquisition of U.S. media properties acted similarly. The Japanese, German, and other purchasers of American cultural industries recognize talent and ability. They also can afford to pay for it.

What was once uncontested worldwide American media domination, therefore, has become increasingly transnationalized in its ownership. The new directors, however, retain the American quality and form of the media product because they have demonstrated their extraordinary ability to do the job-to grab the attention and stir the emotions of the audiences.” (Schiller, 1992, p.31)

Therefore while cultural imperialism does exist in the sense that the ways of one culture are displaced and substituted by the practices of another culture, the nature of the switch is voluntary and more importantly it is more of an integration of another’s ways, that proves to be more beneficial, rather than unconditionally adopting the ways of a single entity. Given the stigma presently associated with the term cultural imperialism, cultural diplomacy may be a more accurate term to describe this phenomenon indicating it to be non aggressive and voluntary. The term also hints upon its integrating nature. Therefore while cultural imperialism is the same as cultural diplomacy in truth, it may be argued that it is different in spirit.

It can be quite a task to ascertain an accurate picture of the levels of objectivity in the current practises of cultural diplomacy around the world, simply because of the amount of propaganda present and extensive studies that align facts to paint a specific picture. A factor that is deeply ingrained with cultural diplomacy is American imperialism. Tunstall (1994, p. 13) points out that the media which are essentially the instruments of cultural diplomacy are American just like spaghetti Bolognese is Italian and cricket British. He explains that though the U.S. did not invent newspapers, movies or space satellites it was the U.S. that gave these mass media channels their basic format which was then copied and adopted by the rest of the world. Tunstall (1994, p. 39) argues that American television programme exports has resulted in the local culture of many countries being put on the defensive by homogenized American culture. This is an indication of the integration of American culture into other cultures. “Over half American export media revenues are earned from the young people who buy pop records or visit cinemas, and from advertisers, around the world.” (Tunstall, 1994, p.44). Why is it that the younger generation of many countries are able to identify with American culture, more than with the local culture? What is it that these local cultures are unable to fulfil in the younger generation? Tunstall (1994, p. 57) touches upon this issue stating that cultural identity is part of a bigger problem and that is a low level of national identity. While the people in the United States, Britain and France have a fairly strong national identity, they belong to a minority of the world’s nations. Almost every citizen of the above mentioned countries speak the same language and yet there are internal frictions even in these countries, namely regional, ethnic, language as well as social class differences. He points out that this degree of national identity has been achieved only after centuries of national existence, including civil wars that were often followed by brutal subjugation of ethnic and regional minorities. Interestingly it is these countries; the United States, Britain and France that have an unusually strong national identity are also the countries that have had the longest traditions of press and other media which is primarily conducted in a single national language.  In Latin America the strength of national identity is less. This could be either despite or because all of its main countries except one use Spanish as the language.  In many parts of eastern, central and northern Europe, a single state may contain two, three or more different languages, religions and cultural traditions. This pattern can be found on an even larger scale in the Soviet Union, India and some other Asian countries. There are such patterns in Arab countries as well with Africa being the continent with least level of national identity. Therefore a major factor in cultural imperialism and in low levels of national identity is many nation states having a variety of languages. Another factor is the extreme differences between urban and rural areas, an uneven pattern of development in some backward areas in comparison with areas that possess exportable resources. This results in a climate of peasants’ rebellions, guerrilla uprisings, palace revolutions and even large scale civil war either breaking out or an immediate realistic prospect. This is definitely unhealthy for the national identity of these nations. It thus may not be in the best interests to strengthen ‘authentic culture’ in countries where the prime object of its policies is to reduce the threat of armed conflict. Tunstall (1994, p. 58) points that this authentic and traditional culture seems inappropriate not only to the ruling elite but to others as well, partly due traditional cultural sanctions which today would be called civil war but also because traditional culture is archaic, based and depending on religious beliefs, whose influence has been declining, and does not accommodate modern values of equality and justice. It was a small elite namely scholars and priests that benefited from traditional cultures often using a language that was understood only by few others and not by the masses. Not just Arab and Hindu cultures but many other cultures as well delegated women, the youth and the occupationally less favoured to a subservient position. All these factors are largely what contribute to western culture being embraced rather than it being forced upon other nations. Therefore to say that it was imperialism would be inaccurate while to call it cultural diplomacy would be more relative.

A debate relating to this phenomenon, and whether it is one that is mutual or whether it is one that is aggressive, one that is integrating or whether it is one that is unconditionally one-sided, is the use of military means. Schiller (1992, p.120) writes that the absorption of resources by the military has overshadowed and reduced to pitiful proportions the role of communications for enlightenment in the developing world. Schiller (1992) also writes extensively about the radio spectrum in the U.S. being largely dominated and regulated by federal authority. There seems to be no compelling evidence for the use of military means other than this. As a matter of fact Tunstall (1994, p. 262) argues that though there definitely has been a military element that has contributed to the high sales of media products from America, the media imperialism thesis has sought to exaggerate its significance in the Cold war era and underplayed it in earlier periods. The media imperialism thesis also ignores the enormous significance of the British Empire, among other factors.

Another topic that in many regards has evolved to serve as a base for discussion and debate about cultural diplomacy is the “motives” that America or the west may have. The speculation on what these “motives” are has brought many and varied possibilities, some of which are too baseless and others that may have elements of truth in them. “There is much room for disagreement over the motives surrounding media exports and the subjective attitudes of the exporters, intermediaries and audiences. Did the enormous scale of media exporting result from carefully laid Machiavellian plans, or was it an innocent accident which surprised importers or exporters alike? Were commercial middlemen and government officials in importing countries engaged in corrupt agreements or unseemly conspiracies? Some businessmen’s most ambitious plans worked, while others did not. In some cases a nonsense, or chaos, view of history would be viable.” (Tunstall, 1994, p.262) Propagating culture for financial gain seems to be a recurring theme in most of these speculations and is definitely something that has certain elements of truth in it, but a realistic image is required in order to gauge its relevance. The most important factor here is Globalization. When it comes to finance or culture Globalization is without a doubt today the biggest factor. Tomlinson (2003, p.13) describes quite functionally the effects of globalisation on culture through his ‘green thinking’ illustration. He explains that adopting the technical solution to combat chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) from depleting the ozone raised a whole raft of international political issues, in the attempt to achieve a treaty on the usage and regulations of CFCs. While ascertaining this – the 1987 ‘Montreal Protocol’ – differences arose between two economic interests, the CFC producing nations and those that were just consumers of the product. The nature of these problems were a case of ‘First  World’ as opposed to ‘Third World’ interests and universal compliance brought up the issue of economic assistance from the developed world as an incentive so that poor countries like India would comply. The required transition also entailed a change in cultural sensibility. It required that people had to adopt ‘Green thinking’ and incorporate change by linking global consequences to mundane aspects of life. It brought about cultural changes like sunbathing suddenly being a risky activity with the danger of getting cancer – one of the great symbols of fear in the developed world. An important point to note here is that regardless of the “motives” this cultural change did bring about positive and constructive change where people were more conscious about the environment, not to mention a healthier lifestyle. How is that a bad thing? What is happening in the metropolitan cities in India is culturally significant. Since the 1950’s students in India were encouraged by parents and teachers alike to become either engineers or doctors, this was very much in accordance to the existing culture being one that encouraged elitism. An environment was created wherein the students were made to feel that the arts were useless and something of a hobby rather than a profession. Students that were naturally inclined to arts and to a certain level commerce as well were discouraged, and felt worthless. As a result the country produced a huge number of engineers and doctors setting competitive standards. But what of the many students that were discouraged, a good percentage of whom didn’t pursue higher education. Most of them found menial jobs but a large portion was left dejected with nothing to do. The call centres was a move that really made the odds even in this situation. Suddenly they had jobs that did not need high educational qualifications and all that was required was being able to speak English. The pay was huge because the companies they were working for were getting paid in dollars and pounds. This resulted in an interesting situation where a section of society that was discouraged and made to feel useless, was now the section bringing in the money. They went from having a lot of time and nothing to do because they did not have much financial income, to a lot of money and a hectic work schedule. This factor coupled with interaction with western clients and training that included learning about western culture has made a huge impact not only on culture but in almost every aspect of life in the cities. People from villages come flocking to the cities to capitalise, even if it is to serve tea for the call centres. This change in culture is arguably the biggest topic of debate at present in India. But how is it a bad thing? It is a fact that despite the authentic culture being eroded the government is making it more conducive for these businesses to thrive, which in itself is testament to it being a positive thing. “If  the fact of certain people in New York and Washington planning a world-wide sales strategy – including tactics for persuading governments to change their minds – constitutes media imperialism, then this has happened repeatedly.” (Tunstall, 1994, p.262). But if it is in fact enabling the economic growth of a country, how is it a bad thing? There is much debate about the attitude of disregard in the corporate world. Schiller (1996, p.xii) expresses that a ‘largely freewheeling corporate enterprise system’ is exerting its will locally and globally, working ‘in tandem with an unprecedentedly influential and privately-owned information apparatus’ whose objectives are money making and the avoidance of social criticism. Schiller (1996, p.xii) claims that it is the corporate world’s rejection of social accountability that is steadily unravelling the social fabric and producing a national mood of futility. But what if that is exactly the kind of attitude required given the needs of humans, the planets resources and in many ways the binding structure of nations and their boundaries. According to Ohmae (1994, p.11) the government’s role lately has been changing in economics and it is a must for this to happen. He argues while in the past, in the interest of the people it was the government’s role to protect them from the threat of foreign corporations as this served the purposes of its people, this is no longer the case. People in today’s world are informed and clever, and that is the present reality, this has been a consequence of living in a ‘truly global information era’. Now it is the governments that have become the major obstacle for the people being able to have the best and the cheapest from anywhere in the world. As a result the world’s resources are not being put to its best use either. Ohmae (1994, p.12) points out that now it is not the countries with large resources that are prosperous rather they are nations like Switzerland, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan – countries that have small land masses and not much resources, rather they have well-educated hardworking people with an ambition to participate in global economy. As a matter of fact possessing abundant resources has slowed down the development of a country as a result of bureaucrats still thinking that money could solve all problems. He points out that “In a truly interlinked, global economy, the key success factor shifts from resources to the market place, in which you have to participate in order to prosper. It also means people are the only true means to create wealth.” (Ohmae, 1994, p. 12). He concludes that in a ‘truly interlinked economy’ no country can fail single-handedly nor can any country win alone. How can this be a bad thing? There will always be doubts, speculations and conspiracy theories about motives, but the fact and the reality is Globalization and Cultural Diplomacy is manifesting itself in good, beneficial ways that are yielding not only progressive profits, but also deeply human ideals.

“Many mass culture critics also had very harsh things to say about the large audiences which went to western and crime films in the 1930s – films which yet other cultural experts have subsequently decided were masterpieces after all. Even more bizarre, however, is the western intellectual who switches of the baseball game, turns down the hi-fi or pushes aside the Sunday magazine and pens a terse instruction to the developing world to get back to its tribal harvest ceremonials or funeral music. Such a caricature illustrates that the real choice probably lies with hybrid forms.” (Tunstall, 1994, p.59). This phenomenon of integrating of cultures is refinement and allows for our civilisation to achieve greater levels of intellect, which is really what culture is in the first place. We are not loosing ‘our culture’ but gaining our culture through this integration.

Reference list

Ohmae, K (1994), The Borderless World, HarperCollins, London.

Schiller, H (1992), Mass communications and American Empire, Westview Press, Oxford.

Schiller, H (1996), Information Inequality, Routledge, London.

Taylor, P & Bain, P (1999), ‘An assembly line in the head: work and employee relations in the call centre’, Cage.

Tomlinson, J (2003), Globalization and culture, Polity, Cambridge.

Tunstall, J (1994), The Media are American, Constable, London.


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