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The then Chief Executive of the British Council has worked with cultural relations and cultural exchange in China for several years. On 8 April 2016 he took part in the Preparatory Action conference, on “Culture in EU external relations: Realities and expectations”.

What added value does cultural exchange bring to the of EU’s external relations strategy? 

“We understand each other through culture – whether that is language, or the arts, or simply our way of doing things. If we want to break down barriers to understanding, cultural exchange is essential. They are a major way of connecting nation to nation and people to people, in the EU or beyond.
One recent example is the way British people’s understanding of Scandinavia has been enhanced by the recent crop of ‘Scandi Noir’ series on British TV. I don’t think that means we think everything is murder and mayhem in that part of the world. It simply means we are more inclined to see the citizens of those countries as people we can identify with – people just like us.”

How can culture change the relations between two states?

“Cultural exchange and explanation can serve to explain nations to each other. Cultural misunderstandings can do the opposite, leading to misunderstanding and – in extreme examples – conflict.”

A good example of positive cultural relations would be student exchange.

“Students travel abroad to study, but far more valuable, often, than the direct learning is the experience of being immersed in a foreign culture. The relationships and memories arising from such exchanges can influence former students throughout their lives – profoundly affecting their choices and their future attitude towards the former host country. Those students are the future leaders and decision makers of their countries.”

 Are some relations more important than others? How should culture be approached in external relations?

“Obviously some nations are bigger players in the world than others – think the USA, China, India, Russia. Any nation would be wise to consider relations with such countries very carefully. On the other hand culture is a great leveller.”

Cultural relations allows smaller nations to offer their very best and be considered alongside their larger neighbours.

“In terms of building relationships, I would say that all nations are equal. We should be in the business of building good relations with everybody. Cultural relations is a long game – nobody should get involved in it for short-term gain.”