Capitals of Culture: a worldwide activity

Capitals of Culture An introductory survey Steve Green October 2017

Note: this paper is now behind the times.  New CoCs have started  in Slovakia, France, Ukraine, Portugal, Serbia, London Valencia Region.

In the paper, link at the top of the post, I survey all the Capitals of Culture programmes: who set them up, objectives, selection and programmes.  There is a comprehensive directory of programmes including tables of every title holder for all programmes.

The European Capital of Culture programme is well known.  But do you know that since the first edition, in Athens in 1985, there have been over 30 similar titles around the world?  In 2017 23 cities hold a title.  Over 300 cities have held a title, some more than one title, some two titles at the same time and some more than once. Three programmes have yet to start, and 10 have been closed.

The European title has generated a substantial library of reports, evaluations, theses, commentaries and controversy.  Little has been written about the other programmes. Under the auspices of international organisations, national ministries of culture, regional administrations and NGOs the Capitals illustrate different processes, share some common factors and differ in intention and activity.

My aim is to broaden awareness of the programmes, to trigger more analysis of them. More programmes are in the pipeline, there is no indication the trend for more titles will slow down.

The survey is an introduction.  I welcome more information on titles (except  ECOC) and will keep the paper up to date.

Soft Power: can it be measured? Part two

This is the second in a series of articles exploring various Indexes measuring the influence one country may have or may seek over another.  The first article is here.

Commentators on international relations over the last 60 years have identified a number of high level areas where one country can exert, or seek to exert, influence over another.  They tend to illustrate their ideas with diagrams:  a continuum, a spectrum, others use various degrees of concentric circles.  The common theme is that the degree and depth of international engagement increases the chances of success in changing views.  It is a power game.  The ending of the Cold War unleashed more varieties: after all wasn’t the Cold War won without the inconvenience of actually going to War in the old-fashioned military sense?  Of course the multitude of wars since 1989 has demonstrated that good old military might has not gone away.  Indeed the current war mongering by nuclear armed Israel shows that old habits die hard. As do civilians and military personnel in a war.

The prime categorisation of power is hard and soft; based on Joseph Nye’s work from the early 1990s when he was at the Pentagon.  Hard power: the power to coerce from invasion, military strikes, economic and trade tactics is clear.  Soft power: the power of attraction of ideas has its supporters. It also has its denigrators.   Nye has more recently tried to merge the hard/soft dichotomy and handle the critics with a third way: smart power.

Hot on the heels of the academics and commentators are the measurers.  Create an Index based on criteria to demonstrate who is powerful, whose power, hard or soft or smart, is better/stronger than someone else.

Real Instituto Elcano based in Madrid produce a Global Presence Index.  This reviews 54 countries in 5 categories: economy, defence, migration and tourism, culture and science and development assistance.  Unlike most other Indexes it relies on the international element of each indicator and on objective data: no room for perceptions or value judgements.  So Nobel Prize winners do not get a look in as this is based on a subjective assessment of the awarding jury.  There are no subjective views of participants in international arts or youth activities or of views of other countries’ governance or human rights. Just plain hard quantifiable facts.

The Introduction to the Index is a valuable analysis of the methodology. It offers short sharp reviews of 14 other Indexes including those from the World Economic Forum, KOF Index of Globalisation, and even the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom.

The Elcano approach is in my view the most rigorous of all the Indexes.  It seeks to avoid the “multiple indicators of same subject” which comes with those with a longer criteria list.  The rejection of all perception based indicators is novel and marks it out.   The eventual country ranking (USA, Germany, France, UK, China, Japan, Russia, Italy, Spain and Canada are its top 10) is slightly less western orientated than most Indexes.

The inclusion side by side of both the elements of hard power (military and trade) with the soft power categories (cultural, educational, scientific, development assistance) is a useful antidote to one sided supporters of one or the other.

But I’m not so convinced of its core premise:  “Global presence is a prerequisite for the exercise of influence through diplomacy”.  This presupposes that global influence is the aim, or at least feasible.  Most countries do not have a global foreign policy.  They may have a wide Embassy network and most countries have at least some trade with 100+ other countries.  But influence and importance?   Very few aspire to global pretensions.  It is easy to list them so I won’t!  The majority of countries have a triple international policy:  their neighbourhood (which may mean for example for a EU member, the other 26 members), the major countries (roughly the real G20 attendees.. around 25 countries) and very importantly the countries of their diaspora.  A good example came this week with the three Baltic countries clearly saying that their foreign policy was geared to “Russia, Russia, Russia” and their EU partners.

So a Global Presence Index has a use but it is not comparing like with like.   Space for another Index perhaps?

Soft Power? Can it be measured? Part One

This is part one of a series of articles on the topic of whether soft power, or cultural diplomacy, can be measured. The series will look at several attempts to produce an Index and then draw conclusions.   This post looks at cultural factors.

Part two , which looks at a wider soft power approach is here


The old cliché rings true “if it can be measured it can and will be managed”.  Since Joseph Nye coined the phrase “soft power” in 1990 there have been few attempts to measure a country’s soft power.  Nye, merged the  background of the Cold War with the USA’s assumption of being the leader in everything to formulate his core idea:   “the ability to affect others to obtain preferred outcomes by the co-optive means of framing the agenda, persuasion and positive attraction”.    Soft power became one of the new touchstones of international relations.  Since 1990 it has been joined by nation brands (and branding) and public diplomacy to add to the long-standing cultural diplomacy and cultural cooperation themes.

The West’s Soft Power was presumed to have helped win the Cold War.   But there have been few attempts to measure soft power and this is the age of measurement.  Now we have a very thought-provoking attempt from the Institute of Government (a private NGO) and Monocle magazine.  The full report (download as pdf here) gives a sound review of soft power theory and the Index used to rank countries. Using 50 indicators covering politics, culture, business,  higher education and diplomacy the Index almost predictably places the USA, UK, France, Germany in the top four places.

It is commendable effort and should prompt a serious review in Foreign Ministries, Cultural institutes and others interested in the practice of those elements which can come under the umbrella of soft power.   Naturally every reader will both agree and disagree with the Index and its components.  To start the ball rolling here are a few of my thoughts.

* Is this an Index of international engagement rather than of soft power?  The 50 items, from number of embassies and cultural institutes to UNESCO World Heritage sites, to international students at universities and tourists certainly reflect the scope and depth of a countries’ engagement.   But do these translate into a soft power paradigm according to Nye’s definition?   It has been long recognised that people can make the clear distinction between a country’s culture and lifestyle and its current political leadership and positioning.   Green card applicants to the USA from Arab countries are not affected significantly by its stance over Israel.  The report does indeed raise this problem towards the end:  China is indeed increasingly its international engagement but given its human rights record, lack of freedom (western definition)  etc does it have the power of attraction?

* The current leader in the international comparison stakes is the Anholt-GfK Roper Brands Index.  Interestingly the top ten countries in this index are almost matched with the IfG/Monocle Index:  Italy and Netherlands swapping places.   The new index looks down on perceptions in favour of objective indicators.  Result seems the same.   This reinforces my view that this new Index is still  more an engagement identifier.

* The report admits it does not fully cover transnational networks.  In my view this is a serious weakness.  In many ways the most important of these networks if we return to Nye’s definition of attracting people to your way of thinking are now religious based.  Turkey’s growing influence is indeed partly based on its expanding international foreign policy. It is based more on its actions at home: a booming mixed economy with an Islamic flavour and the enormous outreach of the Gulen Foundation.  Saudi Arabia’s influence is driven not just by its oil but by the Wahhabi foundations and organisations funding mosques,  books, pamphlets, satellite TV etc.  The immediate evidence is the surprising vote for the Salafi Al-Noor Party in Egypt.  Brazilian politics are increasingly influenced by Christian evangelical organisations who are increasing their international engagement.  The USA’s evangelical movements are in the same direction, especially in Africa.  Western originated transnationals such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace are still influential but no longer have the field to their own in setting  the “values” agenda.  It remains to be seen how effective the loose network of Occupy succeeds in influencing the world away from disastrous neo-liberal economic thinking.  The more official transnational networks.. for example the European Union need bringing into the equation.

Overall much food for thought. As the report points out soft power is exercised over the long-term.  It is not that susceptible to short-term fixes or changes and at its heart it is not based on international engagement but on a countries’ domestic policies and how they are perceived.  The trends in international cultural diplomacy have moved on from the showcasing and overt marketing of a country’s cultural, educational and language assets. There is a far higher mutual engagement with people, co-operation rather than presentation with key topics being addressed, whether conflict resolution, moving to an ecological future, social cohesion.  Relevance to the audience’s needs brings change.   I discussed these developments in a paper to be published shortly by Real Instituto Elcano in Spain.  A version is on my previous website.