The central subject of international history is the analysis of relationships among people and states. Although power has traditionally constituted a central category in the study of international relations, culture represents a more recent trend, and since the 1980s there has been a significant movement among historians of foreign relations to integrate the study of culture into the history of international relations. While enriching historical research, this trend has also compartmentalized the study of international relations into those who study “real power” and those who study what is often called “soft power.”
This chapter will outline the research on cultural relations as it has developed in the study of international history and discuss the challenges that have arisen due to a paucity of theoretical engagement. The chapter will then develop the concept of Nation Branding as a way to meet these challenges, and also show how it can be applied to the study of the past.
In the lingo of political history, power (political, military, economic) is the ability to make others do what one wants them to do. Culture, in turn, defines what a person or a people want, for others and for themselves. Culture, that is, has a direct impact on the form, the function, and the content of power.
At the same time, culture and power are neither inextricably nor hierarchically intertwined but can exist independently of and oppose each other. Nations may be politically weak but culturally very powerful, and vice versa. For example, Greek culture is known and admired worldwide but the country's political power in the international arena is rather limited. Canada is a diplomatic key player but few people can tell what constitutes Canadian culture. Cultural relations may even have a way of improving while political relations go sour. In the 1930s, thanks to Japan's vigorous cultural diplomacy offensive, US appreciation of Japanese civilization intensified while political relations worsened because of conflicts over China. While Iran's cultural diplomacy, focusing on the treasures of Persian civilization, meets with acclaim abroad, international concern remains regarding the country's nuclear program.
Hegemonic power remains incomplete unless cultural and political power converge and reinforce each other. For this reason, definitions of power often include notions of “influence” (a form of indirect power) and “recognition” – not just as a sovereign political entity but also as an international key player.