Losing Cultural Diplomacy

This article needs publishing now I feel (Dec 2012), since the decline of state control over its cultural diplomacy is moving fast. The text is an aggregate of various Web contributions culled to construct a keynote presentation I was asked to make to the closing session at the ENCATC Academy held in Brussels on 7 Dec 2012. The overt topic was to promote debate on the impact of social media and commerce on cultural diplomacy.

1. Diplomacy in general
Were I to give diplomacy a health check at the end of 2012, this is what I would say: That it is showing itself to be unable to ensure the security of the citizen or to speak to the mass audience. It remains backward, being solely comfortable with the elites. Not having harnessed the messages of the great brands and the digital citizen, it is no longer in control of the means of communication and so its message gets betrayed.  Not being networked, it is neither really inclusive nor sharing of sovereignty and so is not truly multilateral. Seeing no benefit in the truly ethical stance nor in a genuine generosity, it continues to seek power from influence whilst reputation has demonstrably become the greater asset.
Digital Diplomacy is here, an imperfect hybrid of public and citizen diplomacy, seeking the mass audience through the exploitation of social media. It is operating as an early warning system of emerging social and political movements and it is a way of reaching online opinion formers. Most usefully for the State perhaps, it is also a means of correcting misinformation very quickly. See the Obama Election Campaigns of 2008 and 2012 for an idea of its potential.
Facebook Diplomacy is here. Take the case of Transnistria (Trans-Dneister),a tiny breakaway region of Moldova inhabited by no more than a half million people, a quasi-state situated in the European part of the post-Soviet territory. It is not internationally recognised, it has no embassies and scarce resources for overseas promotion. However intensive usage of the Internet by the Opposition during the 2011 presidential election showed it could affect the outcome in their favour.
So its Foreign Minister, Nina Shtanski, has a significant Facebook profile. She has 1800+ friends including diplomats, journalists and researchers. Her profile is open to the public which makes her humanised, personalised and close to the people. It has a high level of interactivity: posts and discussions are put up even when she is on holiday and include details of her personal life with photos.
Her blog is better received than official government announcements. Crucially, information flow is speedier than diplomatic channels or mass media, which eases regional tensions quicker. Facebook diplomacy like this offers a wide and inexpensive dissemination of information, stances and policies, but Ms Shtanski’s sole use of Russian restricts the global effect. But see also the Facebook group Globcal International for an entirely different motive for doing something similar.
E-Diplomacy is here. That is, Twitter: foreign policy in 140 characters. One would have thought this would not work, diplomacy being all protocol, discretion and nuance, but Twitter is powerfully direct with its abbreviated form and the potential in properly harnessing the power of hashtag hieroglyphics. The top diplomatic tweeters are:
    • Carl Bildt, Swedish Foreign Minister
    • William Hague, UK Foreign Secretary
    • Susan Rice, US Ambassador to UN
    • Anders Fog Rasmussen, NATO Secretary-General
    • Bob Carr, Australian Foreign Minister
The Fourth Front has arrived. During the recent IDF Gaza Conflict, was added to the Military, Home and Diplomatic fronts a fourth: Social Media as Public Diplomacy. This seems intended to operate like a new broadcasting service, using Twitter, You Tube, online gaming tactics and Instagram, but has it backfired? See the post on Buzzfeed itemised below. Also Israel’s hashtag #Pillarofdefense had received only 808 mentions by the Wednesday evening, whilst #GazaUnderAttack – used by Hamas, Palestinian supporters, and civilians – was tweeted 120,000 times (according to the Washington Post). Might it not also have failed on the Second Front too? See the 95,000 likes on the Facebook page: Israel Loves Iran.
Incentive Diplomacy has arrived. With a staff of 150 full-time social media employees working across 25 different offices, and using familiar sites like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, as well as local equivalents such as VKontakte in Russia, this is the new tool in US/Arab relations. A diplomacy that offers incentive as a propensity not a necessity; that provides diplomats with a threshold effect and so is not the same old linear process. More helpfully, it resonates, building bridges like the wound-healing process heals broken tissue. Rather cleverly, it has been grafted onto the whole social context through the autonomous individual. Finally it also demonstrates a positive secondary effect: real transparency.
Whither Cultural Diplomacy then? In 2003 Milton C Cummings defined it as: “The exchange of ideas, information, values, systems, traditions, beliefs and other aspects of culture, with the intention of fostering mutual understanding.” By 2010 the ICD was characterising it as “Multilateral cooperation with a diverse range of international actors that is based on dialogue, understanding and trust.” The practice has not borne this out however and the events of 2011 perhaps redefined it as “Taking power through the technology of cultural artefacts”. Maybe this started as far back as 2003 with Salam Pax, the Baghdad Blogger in 2003? Certainly the Arab Spring of 2011 had its effect and if the Ai Wei Wei Translations Twitter site is anything to go by, maybe this citizen’s version of cultural diplomacy will redefine China one day?
2. Social Media – a whistlestop tour of sundry effects
Helping us see civilisations as starfish networks whilst our government officials remain stuck in spider mode, these sophisticated, open-structure, decentralised networks generate and share content, sometimes called “Produsage”. This is a global net community – with open communication, decentralisation of authority, freedom of creation, production and sharing. Information is disseminated through social interaction, having moved away from Government one-to-many to many-to-many. This is a more democratic environment for cultural diplomacy, facilitating cross-cultural exchange and bigger-scale in terms of the sharing of cultural content and the size of audience that is gaining access to the message.
Use of social media is growing fast. In the circle of wealthy countries with developed economies, social networking, blogging & sharing music, video and photographic content are the fastest growing online activities (Nielsen 2009). Cultural institutions and artefacts like National Theatre Live and NY Met Opera Live in HD are now reaching the mass international audience and unmediated by government. Domestically this also has impact. In the UK 40 000 track the Royal Opera House and 58 000 the British Museum via Facebook. Even 7 000 follow FACT from Liverpool on Twitter.
But are they actually any more accessible? Worldwide progress in this form of international relation is hindered by the slow integration of new technologies and retarded by economic challenges and politics. Do the social media really reach a global audience? Is their international public truly a democratic and inclusive community? Do they promote geographical, social, cultural and political diversity; encourage freedom of expression and political and social cohesion; or positively impact the international work of major organisations due to their “open source” nature? Hmm.
3. Commerce – not forgetting cultural trade
The Diplomacy of the Great Brands continues its march. This has been going on since the nineteen fifties. In the cultural field, Hollywood is the obvious example of a brand undertaking global cultural diplomacy independently of the State, but remember who changed Christmas for everyone? Why, Coca Cola. Which brand is currently successfully promoting England as prestige and Germany as engineering to China? Why, Rolls-Royce.
The great brands learnt to their cost that the consumer now controls the market, not the product – witness the 1997 McLibel case, the 2000 Nike and 2012 Apple-Foxconn labour queries. Countries learnt this too: remember the domestic impact in your country on the very carefully reconstructed German national brand when the 1999 Boris Becker “broom cupboard” incident hit the news?
Commercial Diplomacy is a fact. It secures the economic interests of a state, whose prime diplomatic task is actually to look after its commercial interests. The 1990s saw aggressive bilateral commercial activity of increased intensity and scope because of an acceleration in globalisation, as happened at end of the 19th century also. In the absence of agreed rules of conduct and the emergence of new items on the trade agenda, companies turned to their governments for support; who had no choice but to further their companies’ interests to prevent rivals from benefitting. Thus paradoxically strengthening the role of the state in contradiction of its predicted demise in the face of globalisation.
Cultural Trade as Diplomacy is a fact. The Arctic Monkeys started it when they marked a change in the way bands are promoted and marketed. They burnt a CD to give away at gigs which was promptly file-shared. Thus did they come to swift attention via the fan-based sites, not their own. Result: their début album was the fastest-ever selling in UK music history and turning the country overnight into the digital rock reference. Arcade Fire took this further: they live-streamed via YouTube their Madison Square concert directed by Terry Gilliam. Result: it was seen by 3.7m people, exploding the definition of New York and Canada. Some governments have devolved their export function by creating outfits like Musex (Finnish Music Export) or Music Norway but can they be persuaded to let go? With difficulty it seems.
The above kinds of cultural diplomacy require an innovative approach to success that Government Officials seem unable to provide. As with commercial diplomacy, the equity value placed on a name has been replaced by brand advocacy, using YouTube and Twitter as WOM messengers of favourable comment. I think the recent creation of Sound Diplomacy is a clear signal both in language and in practice that creative entrepreneurs are now seriously considering taking the lead away from government.
Don’t believe any of this? Then take a look at these links and ponder:
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