The Role of Cultural Relations in Conflict Prevention and Resolution

Culture is how people think, says Martin Davidson, CEO of the British Council. Thinking of culture in this way creates the necessary intellectual space to conceive of cultural relations and cultural diplomacy as something more than engagement that a payoff that is subtle and decades away. It is a way to create pathways that can be leveraged to prevent or resolve conflict in the short term.

On March 2, 2010, the British Council, with NATO and Security Defence Agenda, hosted a conference in Brussels at the Bibliothèque Solvay titled “Conflict Prevention and Resolution: the Role of Cultural Relations.” The purpose was to discuss the value of building dialogues between groups that can be non-linguistic – such as sport, art, or civic development – to create opportunities for engagement, understanding, with goal of, as the title said, preventing and resolving conflict.

Knowing how people think, how they relate to one another, and how they communicate is essential within and across cultures. Cultural activities may be expressed in terms of exchanges of teachers, students, sports, languages but there is more to it then exchanging art work. We take for granted the vocabulary and points of contact even as understanding culture is ingrained in our daily lives. In corporate America, for example, this can take the form of participating in office betting pools during college basketball finals to playing golf with the boss or clients.

To engage culture, one must, ironically, overcome cultural differences. This was a goal of the British Council event. While the purpose of defense-minded groups and cultural relations experts are the same – decreased conflict – they rarely seem to find the common ground to discuss and support each others requirements. This was done by including examples of cultural engagement in conflict situations – such as the use of “military English” to combine three militaries into a single armed force in Bosnia-Herzegovina and an attempt to prevent new riots in the upcoming Kenyan election – plus putting military and non-military folks on the same stage and listen to them speak toward the same end.

Still, the challenge of differences in language, understanding, perceptions, and practices between the military and cultural communities must be overcome. At the conference, for example, Martin Davidson, CEO of the British Council, described cultural relations as important to building trust and dialogue while Martin Howard, NATO Assistant Secretary General for Operations, rejected the phrase “cultural relations,” preferring, in the context of engagement in Afghanistan, “not going against Afghan grain.” 

In today’s global environment, where both information and people move around the world, political borders are increasingly irrelevant. Culture is important in struggles that are increasingly global, especially in terms in understanding how to engage as well as undermining the effectiveness of adversarial engagement.

At the conference, two comments reinforced the global nature of conflict in the case of Afghanistan. Sixteen year old UK student Hewod Aziz Jan, who fled his native Afghanistan country with his family when he was eight, said,

NATO is fighting for the security of the West, not the Afghan people…. If NATO really wants to help, why does it not engage and help the Afghan in Germany?

During questions, a Counselor with the Egyptian embassy to Belgium reiterated Hewod’s observation on the diaspora comment. The Egyptian said he wished General Stanley McCrystal would have “thought more about soft power in his report” and that McChrystal should have addressed the issue of engaging Muslims and Afghans outside of Afghanistan. The unspoken point was the Taliban raised $100 million in outside donations in 2009, how is the US and NATO raising their own support and undermining Taliban’s global engagement?

Another speaker, Ilana Bet-El, made the point that in a war among the people, with an enemy among the people, culture is central. Understanding the pressure points, the arguments, the do’s and the don’ts, the relationships, and the opportunities, requires cultural awareness and aptitude.

Awareness and aptitude fosters authenticity which fosters credibility. Cultural diplomacy is two-way and not only with the elites. Cultural awareness is not the same as shared values and can, ultimately, create connections.

After the conference, I sat down with Martin Davidson to discuss the ideas raised by the event. He said the conference is part of a trend of engaging NATO. A clear purpose was to  instill in NATO the importance of creating the capacity and capability for military cultural aptitude.

In the conference, Martin Davidson there must be a different way of operating. The focus must not just be on the end state but on the way the end state is achieved. He advised against imposing values, but creating shared awareness and understanding of what matters to the other side. There is a need to be attractive, not dictatorial, in policies and practices, so that these actions can themselves create opportunities for support and engagement. There is, he continued, a richer range of opportunities for discourse that extend beyond the verbal or written language. But, all these require cognition that this is a long-term endeavor that requires patience and partnerships to be effective.

There are lessons here in the art and practice of influence. It is difficult to engage an audience if you do not understand them. Communication, as our adversary frequently demonstrates, is more than just written or spoken words.

Building this aptitude and capacity requires appreciation and commitment by senior political and military leadership. Having this aptitude and capacity across the spectrum of engagement, including and beyond the military, creates opportunities for better quality and more effective engagement that can potentially diffuse or lessen volatile situations, so many of which are dependent on misinformation and disinformation at their start and continuation. 

Nearly 200 were at the conference, with another 200 on the waiting list, according to the British Council. From an American perspective – I was one of perhaps three Americans in the room – it was a refreshing to hear a discussion focused on NATO and not the US. In fact, the US rarely came up. One time it did was the suggestion that in Afghanistan NATO should differentiate itself from the US.

Not addressed was how far cultural relations should be brought into the world of ideational not kinetic influence operations. Is there a point at which cultural diplomacy is militarized to the detriment of the purpose? Our realization that we need to have ability to understand other cultures gave rise to Human Terrain Teams. But the HTT, the US military’s anthropological foray into understanding other cultures, are one-sided investigators and not multi-way engagers. This capability must be endemic in more areas and be capable of facilitating bi- and multi-directional engagement.

As with information activities, cultural engagement means we must, as Martin Davidson cautioned, be aware that “we may get something we don’t particularly like… the ‘target’ society may have different priorities and different solutions.” This can include a political system that is appropriate for the local community but alien to us.

Hopefully the dialogue on cultural as a means of engagement to prevent and resolve conflict will continue. It will be helpful if this dialogue could be expanded in the US. The conference has already influenced my offline writing & discussions on related subjects.

The US faces challenges in hosting a similar event for several reasons. This includes the obvious: we do not have an independent body like the British Council to facilitate such discourse, although we do have the myriad of think tanks that could, in a small way, attempt to bridge this particular gap but agendas are likely to get in the way. Perhaps the best avenue is the United States Institute for Peace, which itself would need an education on cultural relations and cultural diplomacy to moderate such a discussion. At the State Department, it is more likely the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (“DRL”) within the Office of the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (“G”) would lead than the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (“ECA”) within the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (“R”).

Nearly thirty years ago, Frank Ninkovich wrote that in the US, cultural relations is a fringe area of “diplomatic marginality.” The remains generally true today. To change this, and we must, requires both the cultural and the military folks to appreciate the importance of the work of the other and, most importantly, shared goals. 

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