IN my capacity as a working writer, I’ve chiefly engaged with writing as an art and a means for communication. But over the last several years I’ve come to know writing on a different level: as an arm of cultural diplomacy. And it’s exciting to learn that the arts can serve not just to enlighten and illuminate our lives, but to build bridges between countries, cultures, and peoples as a deliberate way of enhancing the more traditional ways and means of foreign policy.

Typically, nations pursue their foreign policy objectives through political, economic, and military means. But in the 21st century, when the use of force is limited, conventional warfare is unwanted, and the US suffers an image problem particularly in the Muslim world because of its adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, public diplomacy, or the art of ‘winning hearts and minds’, has taken on more importance in foreign policy.

It uses soft power to ‘attract and persuade’ other nations to a path of friendly cooperation by highlighting values that America holds in common with them — family, faith, the desire for education, for example.

Cultural diplomacy, which branches out from public diplomacy, makes use of the arts — theatre, art, music, literature — in order to achieve understanding between the people, as opposed to the governments, of respective nations.

Christopher Merrill, director of the University of Iowa’s International Writers Programme, describes how cultural diplomacy “attempts to create dialogue on the playing fields of culture in which people from disparate cultures and countries listen to each other, explore creativity together, and emerge with a deeper understanding of the world and of each other”.

The US government actively pursues cultural diplomacy, bringing artists, writers, musicians and poets to America in order to perform their art for American audiences and to collaborate with American counterparts on artistic endeavours. And they send American artists to other countries for the same activities, in the hopes that art will appeal to those nations in deeper, long-lasting and more meaningful ways than the traditional methods of diplomatic outreach.

The International Writers Programme, which I attended in 2011, is one of the most robust of those programmes, though budgeting US taxpayers’ money for cultural diplomacy programmes is always under dispute, much to the dismay of the proponents of cultural diplomacy in the State Department.

My experience with cultural diplomacy makes me wonder, could we in Pakistan do something similar — project our values and our strengths through an active diplomatic programme of cultural activity, administered by the Foreign Office and spearheaded by our missions abroad? Instead of projecting hard power, could we project soft power, and would that soften our image abroad, and make other nations more eager to do business with us?

The Pakistani embassy in Italy had just that idea when they hosted a Pakistani Literature Day in Rome last year and invited me and the Pakistani writer Musharraf Ali Farooqi to participate. A seminar was organised in Rome’s beautiful Capitolino Museum: we discussed Pakistani literature, two Italian writers discussed the book they’d written about Abdul Sattar Edhi; a Pakistan literature professor paid tribute to a recently deceased Italian expert on Allama Iqbal. The next day, Musharraf and I gave readings at the Casa Della Letturatura. Both events were well-attended by Italian journalists, editors, and publishers, and academics with an interest in Pakistani literature, and everyone walked out of the events with an entirely new perspective on Pakistan.

The event was a success only because of the vision of Ambassador Tehmina Janjua and her hardworking team who put it all together without any help, financial or otherwise, from the Foreign Office. It was on her initiative that the first Pakistani Literature Day was held six months earlier, focusing on Urdu literature, similarly well-received but similarly unsupported by anyone outside of the Pakistani embassy.

Now imagine what strides we could take in cultural diplomacy if Pakistan had a dedicated department in the Foreign Office, envisioning and planning international cultural exchanges and events like these all over the world. If we sent Pakistani artists abroad and arranged for artists from other nations to come and visit Pakistan in order to see this nation for themselves, to practise the arts together with local counterparts, to visit universities and schools and speak to students and members of civil society.

Or if Pakistan had a clearinghouse like the British Council, independent of the government, but dedicated to the promotion of Urdu and other national languages with centres in all the world’s major cities.

Remember that cultural diplomacy is not the same as propaganda: its practitioners don’t spread ideology or proselytise about the greatness of their own nation or culture. Instead, they humble themselves and listen to the people they visit or invite, in order that they may learn from one another, and the learning process and artistic collaboration is what builds the bridges that will outlast political upheaval and the changing of governments.

The benefits of such a programme of cultural diplomacy for Pakistan would be huge. The potential for outreach to valuable members of civil society in foreign nations is even bigger. Trust-building, which is what Pakistan sorely needs right now, would be natural and organic.

By practising cultural diplomacy, Pakistan could very possibly achieve the ultimate goal of diplomacy, which is as Christopher Merrill writes, “the cultivation… of better relations between one people and another, in spite of their political differences”.

The writer is an author.

Twitter: @binashah



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