Photo: Rodion Kutsaev, via Unsplash

"Cultural exchange forms the lifeline of dialogue between societies"

Christian von Soeast about sanctions and cultural relations



For decades, sanctions have been a frequently used tool in foreign policy for prosecuting the violation of human rights, infringements against international law or the development of weapons of mass destruction. The objective is to isolate the sanctioned country economically, thereby inducing the government in question to change its policy. However, such measures also have an effect on the local population and the cultural relations with the pertinent country. Thus, as a foreign-policy instrument, sanctions are the subject of controversial debate. Christian von Soest, the expert for the ifa’s Research Programme on "Culture and Foreign Policy", deals with the influence of sanctions on cultural relations.

 The interview was conducted by Isabell Scheidt.

ifa: Neither sanctions nor the research done in this field are new. Their effects on cultural relations, however, are seldom considered. Why is this?

Christian von Soest: Generally, cultural relations are not targeted by sanctions. On the contrary: those who impose sanctions, such as the European Union, often deliberately try to maintain cultural relations. It is, however, important to note that the greatest number of sanctioned nations, approximately four out of five, do not have a liberal-democratic government. In countries such as Belarus and Zimbabwe, those in power discriminate against political opposition, violate human rights, influence the media and manipulate elections. In single-party states such as North Korea or China, political opposition is not even permitted. Cultural policy is often used as a mechanism of power. In such an environment, the scope for critically creative culture is restricted a priori and contact to the outside world is subject to tight control, whereby the pressure caused by sanctions also increases the distrust towards artists and outside contacts.

ifa: How do you explain that those sanctions that actually target political and economic elites also have a tremendous impact on cultural relations?

von Soest: There are sanctions that are specifically tailored to particular decision-makers, for example by freezing their accounts or barring them from entering western countries. However, such approaches also contribute to an atmosphere of confrontation. The elite attempt to legitimise their own actions by means of these "illegal" sanctions. This makes it easier to prevent undesirable civic and cultural activities as well as contact to the outside world. Co-operation with foreign artists, institutions and scientists is under close observation.

ifa: The United States, the EU and the United Nations are increasingly using smart sanctions in an attempt to avoid undesired consequences for the people in the target country and to support opposing forces. In fact, just how "smart" are such "smart sanctions"?

von Soest: The basis for the change in direction from wide-ranging to smart sanctions was formed by the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the full embargo imposed by the United Nations against Iraq in the 1990s. While the Iraqis were suffering from the economic crisis and the total collapse of their health care system, the Iraqi ruler, Saddam Hussein, continued to consolidate his power and even increased the oppression of the people. However, smart sanctions can also have unintended consequences, for example for cultural exchange. Thus, I would not use the term "smart", but rather "target" when talking about sanctions.

ifa: One of the criticisms of sanctions is that they interfere with cultural relations. In view of the violations of human rights or international law, although such interference is unfortunate, must we nevertheless accept it?

von Soest: Yes, for western countries this really is a dilemma. On the one hand, they must acknowledge the grave violations of human rights and the risks to their safety, for example from atomic weapons programmes. On the other hand, sanctions affect the economy and thus, indirectly, often the cultural sector of a country as well, for example in Iran. But the mental effect of sanctions on artists and communicators is even more important: government critics could perceive these measures as outside support. At the same time, however, such measures could also create a "barricade" mentality and ensure that citizens side with the government. Scientists and artists find it less opportune to co-operate; pupils often lose interest in taking part in exchange programmes. This tension cannot be completely dispersed. We can only attempt to reduce the impact in these fields by providing increased support.

ifa: Are there ways or means of preventing or at least restricting these unintended consequences? Which measures would you regard as conceivable?

von Soest: Cultural exchange, with its often small and uncontrolled ramifications, forms the lifeline of dialogue between societies. Thus, in view of the conflicts at the political level, we should do everything possible to maintain this dialogue or even, if possible, to strengthen it. When considering each sanction, decision-makers should, therefore, consider the individual measures very carefully and regularly monitor their actual effects. Sanctions reflect the deterioration of relations. At the same time, they also further deterioration. The “shrinking space” that refers to the field of cultural co-operation and rigid adherence to existing positions must, therefore, always be considered. Naturally, however, sanctions can also be a starting point for stronger social and cultural commitment. The twinning agreements between the cities of Freiburg in Germany and Isfahan in Iran or the numerous civic and cultural activities between Germany on the one hand and Cuba, Belarus and Russia on the other are good examples of this, and they must be reinforced.

ifa: How would you like to see sanctions handled and used in future? Which developments are you worried about, considering the numerous sources of conflict?

von Soest: It is vital that this dialogue is not broken off. Those who impose sanctions must make it very clear: "This is not about what you are, but about what you are doing." On the other hand, every package of sanctions should include measures for increasing the support for cultural and educational relations. This would help to reduce distrust. The example of Russia has shown us that there certainly can be a lively exchange in the fields of culture, education and science, even if the general atmosphere remains more hostile to the western world. Funding is, however, limited. I am afraid that the numerous international conflicts, which are often waged through sanctions, will in future affect cultural and scientific relations even more. This makes it all the more important that we promote cultural exchange.

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