A recent New York Times op-ed by Irina Bokova stressed the relevance of cultural heritage to international security. The Director General of UNESCO provided poignant examples of deliberate destruction of World Heritage sites, such as during armed conflict in Syria and political violence in Mali, which led up to a recommendation of “seeing cultural heritage as an international security issue.” With an increasing interrelation of threats to cultural heritage and regional security, nations have both a responsibility of and a strategic interest in countering threats. The relevance of cultural heritage to security has implications for foreign policy. What policy might nations adopt to protect, and potentially leverage, cultural property in the interest of national security?
Issues of cultural property prompt a similar question for diplomacy. Turkey’s assertive campaign for repatriation of cultural treasures and China’s campaign to develop cultural soft power illustrate the exploitation of cultural property in foreign policy. Simultaneously, both nations face criticism for domestic cultural policy. Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plan to construct a mosque in Taksim Square has been met with opposition from secularists, and Chinese officials’ continued pursuit of “cultural security” is perceived as oppressive from abroad. With other emerging nations experimenting with the potential of cultural property as a means to a voice in international affairs, Turkey’s and China’s balancing of foreign and domestic cultural policy provide valuable case studies.
In the sort-term, threats to cultural heritage in conflict and the trends of repatriation and cultural soft power may seem like distractions in the face of armed conflict and tension in foreign relations, but investing in strategic responses may lead to more effective application of culture in foreign policy. By examining the challenges with the intent of finding long-term constructive solutions, nations would gain practice in considering the value of culture as a medium for diplomacy and as instrumental to security.
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