CULTURE dominated the politics of 2016, including the Brexit referendum; Donald Trump’s election as president in the United States, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s further swing toward the Hindu right in India; fears around the spread of the Zika virus; and the movement of refugees across Europe. In each case, cultural anxieties ran high and helped to shape politics, borders, and fear.

Culture is the art of building identity or symbolic representations through inclusion and exclusion. When cultural anxieties run high, questions of who “we” are and what is to become of “us” come to the fore.

Established identities feel threatened. Very few societies sound inclusive in anxious times. 2016 was the year of hardline thinking about territorial and trading borders. Britain sought to extricate its destiny from the EU; New Delhi blamed Muslims; Mr Trump’s America blamed Mexico. How we think of each other across borders is cultural relations, which dominated our politics.

In a year when nations built borders, voters chanted about building walls and human life seemed, to quote Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” we witnessed the dark side of these cultural politics.

In this world, the bright lights of cultural diplomacy are diminished. If our views of each other are hostile and exclusionary, cultural diplomacy cannot smooth out the rough edges.

It wasn’t always like this. In 2008, Lorin Maazel conducted the New York Philharmonic in Pyongyang, North Korea. It was a moment when a great democratic power, with blessings from its foreign policy establishment, reached out. It stood out as one of the most important cultural visits from the US to North Korea. The visit came in the shadow of the six-party talks to address North Korea’s nuclear programme.

It is unlikely that Mr Trump will entertain such cultural diplomacy. His foreign policy rhetoric is gritty, exclusionary, and violent. To his mind, a broken EU is desirable, China and Mexico are evil, and Vladimir Putin is the good guy. His administration seems indifferent to cultural diplomacy. In fact, the Trump inauguration was remarkable for not attracting any major cultural figures.

Under President Trump the future of soft power, or the attractiveness of nations based on their values and culture, is unclear.The US is likely to lead this erosion. The rise of leaders such as Marine le Pen in France would hasten the fragmentation of the post-Second World War liberal world order. All is not lost, however. While cultural diplomacy at the nation-state level may take a few steps back, three major trends stand out.

First, there are pockets of nations and cities that are not so afraid of the world. They advocate open borders. Scotland and the City of London are exemplars but many other such examples exist. Even President Xi Jinping of China preached a pro-globalization gospel in Davos last week. Similarly, the Rio Olympics were a remarkably open moment.

Secondly, those who welcome open borders and interdependence have not diminished. The Brexit vote was close and Mr Trump lost the popular vote but won through electoral college votes. That does not mean a vote for Hillary Clinton was a vote for open borders; it does mean it was not a vote for the types of cultural politics Mr Trump endorsed.

Finally, international cultural relations will continue to exist. This instinct for people and nations to connect is as natural as breathing. Understanding these international cultural relations has never been more important, which is one of the reasons the University of Edinburgh is today launching the Institute for International Cultural Relations.

It will measure and understand the conditions under which particular types of cultural relations arise; conditions that can lead to empathy or misunderstanding, cooperation or discord and cultural wars or peace.

The methods for understanding these cultural relations are varied. We need detailed accounts of the cultural preferences – the hopes, fears, and values – of people in Mumbai, the English Midlands, and Michigan.

We need rigorous macro-level studies on how these local understandings impact on governments and trickle through into trade and migration flows, the foreign policies of nations and even the breakdowns of world orders.

If our cultural politics have lost their poetry, we might need to become mathematicians and begin to measure the cultural relations that tear us apart and bring us close.

Professor Singh has the chair of Culture and Political Economy and is director of the Institute for International Cultural Relations at the University of Edinburgh.