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Dhaka Tribune

The French connection

 How the French president’s Dhaka visit can usher in a new era for our foreign diplomacy

Update : 29 Sep 2023, 10:47 AM

The month of September can be marked as an important one for Bangladesh, owing to visits from high officials such as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and French President Emmanuel Macron. Although the purpose of these two top leaders was to attend the G20 Summit held in India, their footholds in Dhaka, on the other hand, showed Bangladesh's growing geo-political and geo-economic importance amid the changing global scenarios. 

Between these two flagship visits, the visit of a French president, in almost three decades, was noteworthy since he portrayed Bangladesh as an alternative partner. Although France’s abiding interests are to “consolidate” Indo-Pacific push and counterbalance “new imperialism” to halt China’s growing influence in the region, bringing Bangladesh’s culture into the limelight cannot be sidelined. 

During his short visit to Bangladesh, the French President enjoyed the traditional panshi boat ride, the Turag River's beauty, and the general people's warmth. He also visited the residence of Rahul Anand -- the popular music artist and founder of the urban folk band Joler Gaan as well as the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Memorial Museum. Additionally, the Shilpakala Academy arranged classical dance and music for him and this attempt from Bangladesh’s side showcased the importance of culture in strengthening bilateral ties with France.

In contemporary times, the role of culture in foreign policy or diplomacy is observed as immense for any country to address shared global challenges (eg Covid-19, conflicts and wars, energy crises, climate change, etc). It is also regarded as an alternative approach to soft power and public diplomacy that assists in upholding a country’s image in the world arena. The French president visiting Bangladesh’s historic and natural sites and his enjoyment of our culture again prompted that France always values culture at a political level. 

By and large, France believes that culture is a powerful tool that unites people instead of dividing the community. For this country, culture is not only encompassed with people’s attitudes and behaviours but more to a whole range of distinct material, intellectual, and emotional features that give a nation a distinct identity. France has been pursuing active cultural diplomacy for a long time and has invested substantial financial and human resources to achieve its desired goals in modern international politics. In particular, it has been utilizing cultural resources by setting up cultural institutions worldwide.

One of the better examples is the set up of Institut Français -- a non-diplomatic body -- back in 1910. In fact, the origin of modern cultural diplomacy appeared unprecedented in the 19th century when French diplomat P Cambon founded this institute for promoting the French language abroad in 1883. In this country, actors known as Francophonie have a significant role in spreading public and cultural diplomacy. Disseminating the country’s language, art, museum, tourism, books, films, etc. These are the primary pillars of its diplomacy.

Like many other countries, the importance of strengthening diplomacy through culture is immense for an emerging economy like Bangladesh to secure its foreign policy (FP) goals. In Bangladesh’s FP, the word “cultural diplomacy” is not distinctly dealt with by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA), rather it is annexed with the framework of public diplomacy (along with with press and media) whose key role is to directly set up communication with foreign audiences.

Primarily, cultural resources are reflected in Bangladesh’s public diplomacy in two directions: First, it is an important tool to achieve the country’s socio-economic goals and promote national interests; second, it can facilitate a conducive environment appropriate for dialogue or negotiation with other countries. Linking to these, cultural diplomacy through utilizing cultural resources can assist Bangladesh to create trust and a positive image in the world arena.

Due to the proliferation of various challenges and increased levels of engagement, the country wants to establish better rapport with more countries. Bangladesh is indeed endowed with enormous cultural resources, thankfully. Our diverse cultural components like arts, crafts, language, literature, movies, cuisine, etc have been our defining strengths. The intangible cultural heritage has been internationally recognized as cultural resources that give the country a distinct image in the global arena.

Notwithstanding the various resources of culture and the realization of its importance in terms of FP, the country lags in this sector due to a wide range of bottlenecks in policies, the economy, and other factors. For example, limited coordination between the government and non-government bodies, a deficit of coherent strategies, fund constraints, cultural aggression, and so on often create barriers to promoting Bangladesh’s culture abroad. 

No relationship lasts long if there is no binding for maximizing economic interests. This has also been observed between Bangladesh and France through the signing and commitment to buy 10 Airbus aircrafts and a satellite by the former. On the contrary, France is an important export destination for Bangladesh and the latter wants to ensure GSP facilities after graduating from LDC status in 2026. But surpassing all these, the promotion of culture was seen as an important means for mutual understanding, strengthening diplomatic ties, and supporting each other economically.

Realizing this fact, it can be suggested that it is high time for Bangladesh to take innovative initiatives in this area to create a distinct appeal to the global public. The country can focus on certain ventures in the cultural arena (eg, establishing cultural institutes, strengthening social media presence, working on nation branding, utilizing the talents of the diaspora, and promoting cultural tourism) to disseminate its traditional cultural values, increase global outreach, and help the country to take a new height in this interconnected world.

Razia Sultana, PhD, is a Senior Research Fellow at Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies (BIISS), under MoFA

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