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Speech: Peters - 2013 Conference on Cultural Diplomacy

2013 Conference on Cultural Diplomacy
Institute of Cultural Diplomacy
Berlin, Germany
Weekend 21st – 22nd December 2013


Thank you for your invitation to attend this conference on a subject of particular importance.

This is a perspective from a country way down in the south west Pacific, called New Zealand.

A world famous opera singer was once asked what he thought of ‘folk singing’. He replied that all singing is folk singing after all when did you last hear a horse sing. Diplomacy is like that. It is about people and being about people diplomacy is about culture, or rather about understanding the culture of others.

New Zealand is a country to which people have immigrated for over a thousand years. The country was first populated by Maori – then about eight centuries later by settlers from other countries.

Our recent census shows more than 70% of the population identifying themselves as European [English, Scots, Irish, Welsh, Dutch, Australian, Croatian, American, and quite a few others].

It also shows the indigenous Maori being nearly 15%, Asians nearly 12% and Pasifika people being nearly 7.5%.

The Māori are from Polynesia and Polynesians are found all across the South Pacific, being Samoan, Cook Islanders, Tongan, Niuean and include the Easter Islands and Hawaii.

Within the broad Asian category we have Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Korean, Japanese and many other Southeast Asian people.

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Our Statistics agency estimates that we currently have more ethnicities in New Zealand than there are countries in the world today!

Over the last quarter century there has been an astonishing transition in the make-up of our society.

New Zealand is actually a modern experiment in diversity.
We cannot say at this point that it has been entirely successful.

What is recently significant is how large numbers of migrants have been absorbed into New Zealand replacing record numbers of New Zealanders seeking better opportunities abroad.

Which probably explains why our recent population transformation has been achieved with tolerance by New Zealanders.

This experience of accepting large scale immigration also owes something to the history of New Zealand

Remember, when significant European settlement began in the 1800’s it was by way of colonisation from Britain.

The history of that settlement and the relationship between Māori and the British settlers was far from perfect or always harmonious.

The impact on the native Māori society was profound.

The outcome was by no means ideal but progress and improvement was possible because the parties talked to each other, significantly intermarried, played sport and went to church together.

New Zealand soon successfully forged an effective and stable democracy that was in many ways the model of a progressive and enlightened society.

New Zealand society worked because there had been broad agreement on the principles of Parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, and a degree of mutual respect between the Māori and the settler community.

Today, one could suggest that what happened in New Zealand does have relevance to the wider world.

Which brings us to the issue of cultural diplomacy which often evokes a sense of nostalgia for an earlier age.

For much of New Zealand’s early history we were beset with “the tyranny of distance”.

It coloured our thinking and affected our developing culture, our literature and the way we saw people and events. It’s encapsulated in the New Zealand expression - ‘a fair go’.

Distance, isolation and security fears all played a role in New Zealand’s development.

Only a few decades ago our diplomats were sent overseas to report on, interpret, and explain their host countries to New Zealand governments that had few sources of information about overseas developments that might impact on our national interests.

This was a time when a government-funded cultural event offshore was probably the only avenue for showcasing New Zealand and its emerging culture to the world.

It was simply too far, too expensive and too seldom.

The impact of the indigenous peoples art exhibition in the US cities of New York, St Louis, Chicago and San Francisco in 1984 under the exhibit line ‘Te Māori’, meaning The Māori, was highly successful. There was more to New Zealand than three and a half million people and seventy million sheep.

Equally, this was a time when a visit to New Zealand by the Soviet era Moscow State ballet caused quite a stir.

It was a rare event, even though most of us knew at the time that this was propaganda masquerading as cultural diplomacy!

But then to be fair, all cultural diplomacy, where culture is used as a tool of foreign policy, is propaganda in some sense of that word.

In that now bygone era governments, through careful use of funding for cultural promotion overseas, could influence the image they wanted to project internationally.

All this was important to small countries like New Zealand because, “soft power” is all we have at our disposal. We are not and could never be in the game of “coercive” diplomacy.

But things have changed dramatically and to be honest the ability of governments to influence how the world sees us is now much more complicated.

When YouTube videos go viral and seen by hundreds of millions within days, when bad news ricochets around the world in minutes, governments can only react and usually belatedly so.

In the modern digital age the image of New Zealand that most international audiences hold is dominated by things the government cannot and should not control, for example:

• the image of the All Blacks performing a haka before a rugby international.
• New Zealand participating in the America’s Cup yachting regatta;
• the epic Lord of the Rings movies
• Our musicians, singers, actors, other sportspeople.

Which does not mean for small, far distant countries like New Zealand that cultural diplomacy is a thing of the past?

Nor should we accept that the age of You Tube and Google has made cultural diplomacy redundant just because it has fundamentally changed many aspects of traditional diplomacy?

The current age and ease of international travel is a factor as well – if you want to see Russian ballet you can take a plane to Moscow. If you like Chinese theatre you go to Beijing. If you want puppet theatre go to Indonesia and for jazz go to New Orleans.

The same applies to whatever aspect of cultural endeavour you can name. We are, so many of us, mobile in a way inconceivable to earlier generations. This in itself is changing the way we view the world and the way the world sees us.

So the tentative present position is that there still is a role for cultural diplomacy but there is no doubt that we are in a period of fluid transition.

And for a small country like New Zealand let us add some caveats or conditions. The most obvious of these is cost.

Speaking as a former Treasurer as well as Foreign Minister cost is an important factor for small countries in what is a highly crowded and highly competitive field.

At the best of times the impact of any diplomatic activity is hard to measure.

Everyone here is familiar with the demands by national treasuries for impact assessments, value for money analysis and then the more transparent accounting of cost to taxpayers.

The second point is that we have to be smart.

In a digital environment where non-government factors dominate the cultural space, governments need to be clever and sophisticated if they are to have any impact at all.

Activities will need clear goals, careful targeting, and monitoring.

On the positive side there is progress.

The ‘tyranny of distance’ referred to earlier has been defeated by technology.

We are connected as never before and our geographical remoteness is no longer such an imposing challenge.

So how do we make the most of the opportunities this presents?

One can offer a few ideas…….not least because many of us come from the wrong side of the generational digital divide! We all face the problem of having to marry cultural diplomacy with new technology.

Perhaps the most obvious starting point is to be smarter about leveraging off what each of our countries is already successfully doing in the world, including the digital world.

We can seek out countrymen already successful in their fields including the arts and embrace them as ‘cultural Ambassadors’ using social media, traditional media and other assets including our Embassies in support of broader national objectives such as trade connections, tourism, educational links.

Opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, film maker Sir Peter Jackson and new singing sensation Lorde, and the most successful sporting team in the world, the New Zealand All Blacks, would have far greater impact than any government minister or Ambassador in promoting New Zealand on the international stage.

Second, we should leverage off other events. We already do this to some extent.

Our tourism people have been active in following-up the enormous interest generated in New Zealand as a country by Sir Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies with a reasonably sophisticated multimedia campaign.

And it has been extremely successful.

In key participating countries we were also able to leverage off our hosting of the Rugby World Cup 2011 to present an updated and modern image of New Zealand using all the media sources now available to get our message across.

Third, we also need to look for opportunities to exploit what other players are doing such as think tanks, universities, and the private sector, while being keenly aware of their own independence.

After all not everybody wants to be seen closely aligned with government and we must respect that.

In certain specific ways there is a role for a more traditional approach.

This is especially so when you are seeking to build new relationships in situations where there is little or no previous history of knowledge and understanding between countries and peoples.

One would not, for example, advocate spending public money on cultural activities between New Zealand and Australia, our nearest neighbour! We know each other well.

But there are certain countries and continents where mutual knowledge is lacking and if, as the saying goes “culture provides a window on the soul of a country” then a carefully targeted programme of cultural diplomacy should be deployed alongside all the other tools of soft power.

Now, throughout this talk today you will have noticed a traditional approach to defining cultural diplomacy.

That is deliberate. It means using cultural programmes and activities to help secure wider national objectives as part of foreign policy. Some will disagree with this and would prefer a broader interpretation.

There are those who will see the exchange of knowledge, insights and understanding that can be gained through cultural exchanges as a means and end unto themselves. Fair enough.

But the point is that the taxpayer cannot be expected to foot the bill every time an artist, writer or musician steps offshore.

In fact if that were the case it would be more reminiscent of something from the Soviet era than our current age.

Some say the Internet is the answer to those who argue for a taxpayer funded global cultural exchange programmes.

Well if haphazard, directionless, unfocussed outcomes are being sought then they would be right. However, cultural diplomacy is far too important to be left to accident.

And the one aspect that none of us should ignore, particularly for those of us who come from the West is the pursuit of the secular state, worldly and materialistic.

In our abandonment of religious teaching we risk the danger of ignorance of the religions of others, and other cultures, on how they think. That ignorance can soon shade in to enormous misunderstanding and unnecessary problems.

Thus the role of education in the culture of others is more important than ever. Without it how can cultural diplomacy be effective?

Other contributions can also make a real difference but none more than knowing history, for those that don’t soon repeat its mistakes.

There is a whole range of activities that count from the work of our diplomats and peacekeepers, public diplomacy more generally, our Overseas Development Assistance programmes, our sports teams and yes individual New Zealanders who make their mark on the world stage, just to mention a few.

This is a perspective from a country in the South West Pacific centred below the biggest economic theatre in the world with all the social and security concerns that that presents. The South Pacific is a huge part of the globe even though most of it is ocean. Perhaps at one of your future events, in addition to focusing on the rise of Asia, you might also consider cultural diplomacy in small island states with diverse cultures.

Probably the biggest contribution to cultural diplomacy will be made outside all “official” channels.

Social media has made the world a much smaller place.

People are making friends with each other across cultures and the physical barriers of distance.

The pain from the recent hurricane in the Philippines was felt in New Zealand.

We all saw that terrible tidal wave in Japan.

In the Middle East uprisings, ordinary citizens sent images across the world.

Much of the news did not come from official sources.

Groups of people were calling across the globe to other groups of people.

This is the new cultural diplomacy we all need to understand.

It is being done without any order or direction which can be either very positive or very alarming – depending on the point of view of course.

And we must all remember that our perception of ourselves can be at odds with the images that shoot across cyberspace.

A mobile phone picture of a mother sheltering a child during a gun battle is far more powerful than a thousand words of diplomacy.

On a lighter note the recent impact of the Gangnam style – something like riding a horse without the horse – raced across the world from South Korea.

Hundreds of millions sharing a harmless craze on YouTube and laughing together may be as helpful for world peace as some meetings at the United Nations.

After all we leave the selection of governments to the people – why not sometimes place our trust in their common sense over cultural diplomacy?

Let’s face it – it’s hard to fight when you are dancing around pretending to be a horse!


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