Cultural Relations as a Double-Edged Sword: Terror in Paris and Trouble at UNESCO

Politics Culture

The repeated terrorist attacks in Paris and the disputes within UNESCO between Japan and its neighbors highlight the danger that culture can become a source of international confrontation.

The Founding Ideals of UNESCO

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization was established after World War II in hopes of saving the world from future such calamities. The spirit of the organization is set forth in the preamble to the UNESCO Constitution, in which the founding member states declared:

“[S]ince wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed. . . .“[A] peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world, and that the peace must therefore be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind. . . .“[T]hey do hereby create the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization for the purpose of advancing, through the educational and scientific and cultural relations of the peoples of the world, the objectives of international peace and of the common welfare of mankind for which the United Nations Organization was established and which its Charter proclaims.”

This document expresses the idea that true peace can be built only through cultural relations and mutual understanding. And as the French historian Maurice Vaïsse has noted, when relations between states turn sour, cultural exchanges play a “defensive role” in checking the further deterioration of the relationship.

For example, the closer ties arising from the youth exchanges that France and Germany undertook from the 1960s on helped promote reconciliation between these two former enemy nations at the grass-roots level, thanks to which subsequent differences of opinion and bilateral friction had a very limited effect on the two countries’ relationship. This is just one of many such successful examples, another being the promotion of exchange between China and Japan through the Training Center for Japanese Language Teachers (“Ōhira School”). This center, which was established in 1980 based on a 1979 agreement between Japan’s Prime Minister  Ōhira Masayoshi and China’s President Hua Guofeng and was succeeded in 1985 by the Beijing Center for Japanese Studies, provided a foundation for the strengthening of bilateral ties.

But developments like the January and November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, which occurred in the context of a backlash against Western values, and the serious discord between Japan and South Korea and between Japan and China within UNESCO over registration of historical sites and documents show that culture can also be used for political purposes and can cause friction to turn violent. In other words, culture can lead to conflict and even war—quite the opposite of the ideals set forth in the UNESCO Constitution.

The East Asian Strife over UNESCO Listings

In July 2015, UNESCO decided to approve Japan’s application for the listing of the “Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution” as a World Heritage site. Prior to this decision, however, the South Korean government expressed strong opposition on the grounds that the industrial facilities in question had been sites of forced labor by workers drafted into service from Korea when the latter was a Japanese colony. This resulted in a tug of war between Seoul, which sought a Japanese statement admitting that “forced labor” had taken place, and Tokyo, which wanted to complete the listing process without such a statement. Matsuura Kōichirō, former director general of UNESCO, declared, “Properly speaking, the focus should be on cultural aspects, with political factors set aside, but unfortunately this is difficult in practice” (Asahi Shimbun, July 6, 2015). As this indicates, the combination of cultural elements and political considerations led to this confrontation.

Then, in October 2015, UNESCO approved China’s application for inclusion of documents about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre in its Memory of the World Register. Japan had attempted to block this decision lest it give international legitimacy to China’s historical views regarding the Sino-Japanese War of 1937–45. The significance of documents like these is something to be revealed through academic research by historians. In this case, however, the historical materials, which are cultural elements, became a cause for friction in the political sphere.

Western Values and the Terrorist Attacks in Paris

“Culture” covers a broad range of meanings, and if we focus on the aspects relating to values, ideology, and beliefs, we can also consider the role of culture in connection with the terrorist attacks staged in Paris in January and November 2015.

The January attack was directed at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical French weekly that had carried cartoons mocking Islam, provoking a severe backlash from Muslims (and also coming under criticism within Europe as slanderous attacks on a particular religion). In isolation, the shootings were a bloody incident perpetrated by a pair of extremists, but in a broader sense they can be taken as a clash between the freedoms of speech and expression that are fundamental Western values and the prohibition of graven images espoused by adherents to a strict interpretation of Islamic teachings.

In 2011 France adopted a law banning the public wearing of the burqa, which some Muslim women use to conceal their heads and bodies. This ban was an expression of the principle of gender equality, a core Western value, as this attire was seen as something that women are coerced into wearing in violation of their human rights. But this view clashed with the position of those Muslims who consider this form of dress to be a normal part of their culture of clothing in keeping with the teachings of Islam. The January 2015 attack may be seen as a violent outburst that arose from the friction produced by this clash of cultures.

The November terrorist attacks in Paris, in contrast to the January shootings, struck multiple targets and took the lives of many random ordinary citizens. But both incidents shared a common thread: They were aimed at people living in France, whose society embodies Western values, by attackers who consider it legitimate to use violence as a means of protest in the cause of Islamic fundamentalism. We must also note, though, that the November attacks were conducted by supporters of the so-called Islamic State in revenge for France’s September move to participate in the bombing of targets in Syria.

One point in common, however, was that the perpetrators of both the January and November attacks in Paris were natives not of countries where Islam is the dominant religion but of France and neighboring Belgium, European countries where Western values prevail. These European-born people had embraced radical beliefs and turned to terrorism. The September 2001 attacks in the United States were similarly perpetrated by people who had become radicalized and taken to terrorism, but the fact that the 2015 terrorists were “home grown” represented a new aspect. As globalization has progressed, societies have become more fiercely competitive, while the safety nets for young people who lose out in the competition for jobs have ceased to function properly. Some of these young people, feeling alienated from the superficially affluent societies in which they live and hopeless about their own prospects, have been attracted by this sort of radical thinking. Here we see values, which are cultural elements, being used as tools to turn young people toward violence.

The Bright and Dark Sides of Cultural Diplomacy

Nowadays major countries are all energetically undertaking cultural diplomacy and public diplomacy. These efforts involve reliance largely on ordinary citizens rather than government organs and diplomats to spread the word about their country’s attractions to people in other lands. In France’s case, the main vehicle is the Institut Français, with branches around the world spreading French culture. It devotes itself not just to teaching the French language and disseminating French arts but also to conveying the appeal of France’s thinking, scholarship, and technology. Japan conducts similar efforts through the Japan Foundation, an independent administrative institution supervised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, though both the budget and staffing levels for its activities fall short of France’s.

Cultural diplomacy can, however, turn into a double-edged sword. Strengthening a country’s “soft power” by actively disseminating its culture and advertising its appeal is an effective form of diplomacy. But if the strategy adopted for this purpose is too blatantly aimed at achieving greater international political clout, it may backfire, causing the country’s soft power to decline.

Adverse reactions are often seen in cases where former colonial powers take a high-handed approach to disseminating their culture in the countries they used to rule. It is true that cultural diplomacy by France and other Western countries has been attractive to local citizens in the target countries and has also helped promote cultural norms like human rights and democracy on a global level. But when the historical background of the colonial era causes the transmission of values to become “pushy”—or to be so perceived by people in the target countries—it is liable to produce a strong blowback. And if the pushiness escalates to the use of military force, the reaction can turn violent, leading people to resort to terrorism as a means of resistance. The possibility of this sort of outcome is one that even Japan cannot ignore.

The Age of Cultural Security

Culture, as embedded in a society in such forms as traditions, customs, and norms, represents what the American anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn called “designs for living” created by people over the course of time. Such cultural elements should be protected. But if these elements come to be used as tools for attacks on countries or societies with conflicting rules, then one may assert that they need to be reined in by the countries or societies that adhere to them. People need to protect culture, but they sometimes also need to be protected from culture. This paradoxical situation exists in real life.

The ideals expressed in the UNESCO Constitution from which I quoted at the start of this article are lofty and, far from having lost their meaning, are of even greater relevance today. Culture, though containing some dangerous aspects, has become more important than ever as a core element for building and maintaining peace. Japan, offended by UNESCO’s October 2015 decision to add China’s Nanjing Massacre documents to its Memory of the World Register, hinted that it might even withdraw from the organization. But I believe the current situation makes it all the more essential for Japan to step up its support for UNESCO and contribute to the international community by promoting “cultural security.”

(Originally published in Japanese on December 9, 2015. Cover photo: A scene from Paris after the terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015. © AP/Aflo.)

security UNESCO culture terrorism