Interview: Paul Smith

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Having had British Council postings in a dozen countries over 33 years, Paul Smith, Director of the US branch, has come to know more than most about the significance of “culture” in the twenty-first century.

Indeed, his experience of working on promoting education and cultural interaction across five continents means Smith can offer expert opinions on a diverse range of issues. However, underlying everything we talked about was a fi rm and intentional emphasis on the great importance of the multiple cultures he has had contact with. Having read some articles he had written, I knew the concept would play a key role in the interview, but was not expecting such an expansive and detailed answer when I asked what he meant by the term. First, he quickly explained that he is not simply referring to plays and music when he talks about culture, rather “that whole gamut of things which gives people a sense of identity; where their home is, whether they feel included or excluded, concepts of nationhood, obviously which religions (they belong to)”.

For Smith, such cultural issues are at the core of conflicts which continue to take place in nations across the world. A key element of this is that, “[While] the world is populated by nations, even more so it is populated by cultures, [and] cultures don’t always have the same political boundaries as nations.” He makes this point clearly with the case of Afghanistan, where he was based for two years prior to moving to the USA. His time there was not an easy one, with the country in a constant state of unrest and the ‘Green Zone’ area in which he worked being bombed while he was on leave.

However, despite this proximity to the brutal violence which continues in the country, he seems to be quite hopeful of its future. Here he again chooses to distance his argument from the overtly political and economic, as he states, “The real enterprise for Afghanistan, for all these different peoples, is to say, ‘We want to be a nation,’ and really it is an act of the will of the people, it is a cultural act, not just a political act.”

The idea of a decision being an “act of the will of the people” is a recurring theme. He repeatedly argues that it is essential to have self-determination based on a firm feeling of identity, where people come together within a nation and willingly defi ne themselves as such. He seems passionate on this point, as he repeatedly points to examples ranging from 9/11 to secession movements in Scotland, Belgium and Spain as cases where clashes over differences of identity have seen people attempt to assert their differences through whichever means they can.

While he takes care to emphasise that these issues are important domestically, he also repeatedly makes clear that he sees them as equally key on the international stage, at one point even stating, “There is nothing more important in geopolitics than culture.”

In explaining this statement, he slips into the tone of the double first Cambridge student he is, as he notes, “Culture is a deep undertow under the waters. The surface froth of the sea is today’s politics, but the deep things that are causing the waves or the froths are the cultural undertows.”

This point is clearly evidenced in the USA, where his job brings him into direct contact with the politics of the day. I bring up the recent civil unrest in Baltimore, and he again sees identity as playing a key role, noting that these “fi ghts are about recognition”, as peoples of diff erent groups with diff erent legacies and ties attempt to assert their sense of collective and individual rights. The issues here stem in large part from the fact that, in his words, America “is the greatest experiment of the last 200 years of the creating of a nation”. Thus, in the period since it became federalised, it has continued to be a “laboratory” in which radically diff erent groups attempt to find “common means to live together”, as they “try to fi nd the right kind of dynamic to truly respect and live with one another”.

From here, I ask what role Britain can play in a world that is so divided. Here, he says, we must step away from the actions of the past. As an imperial power, Britain played a key role in causing the difficulties which presently exist. A case in point is Afghanistan, which he notes is greatly inhibited by that fact that as a nation, its formulation was largely founded in imperial rulers who said, “We’ll draw a line here and here’s a nation.”

Instead, he says, “This country has developed some of the most democratic behaviours around tolerance which the world has ever known.” Here he seems understandably proud of the role of the institution he works for, as it attempts to peacefully extol the importance of education and understanding.

Turning again to the world stage, I ask what he thinks the future holds. Again, he chooses to highlight “the will of the people” as the key factor in determining what lies ahead, as with the rise of social media and an increasingly globalised and interconnected world, “The weight of authority is moving from the government to the people.”

However, while this may seem a positive vision to many, it comes with the assessment that alongside this rise comes increased friction between two jarring movements, in the form of globalisation and localism.

Smith does not try to predict the result of this conflict. Clearly, the central point of his analysis is that we must not underestimate the role of culture in geopolitics. 

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