Cultural diplomacy writ large: Is Canada anywhere to be seen on the world stage?

Blogger’s Note: On December 14, 2017 I appeared before the Senate Foreign Affairs and International trade Committee to provide testimony on the place of culture within Canada’s suite of international policies and relations. A lengthy Q&A session followed my oral presentation, the transcript of which  may be found below.



Many thanks for the kind invitation to share my thoughts with you on this important matter.

When I was reflecting on the subject, I was drawn to what might be considered a radical assessment, at least in the sense of a fairly high level of analysis of trying to get to the roots of three key issues which I think are in play today. I’m going to set out my argument in terms of background, foreground and a conclusion, a bit like a briefing note. I would like to begin by posing three of what I think are the most fundamental questions.

When we speak of culture, diplomacy and science, what exactly do we mean? In each case, if at all, how are these big blocks of human enterprise interrelated?

Culture is perhaps the most all-encompassing yet amorphous of the three concepts, but it is not airy-fairy and fuzzy. In fact, it can be defined or understood as a collectivity of the norms, customs, characteristics, traditions, artistic expression and behaviour of human groups. It’s transmitted through social learning, which I think is key.

Science, which is often regarded as dense and impenetrable, is an empirical, objective and evidence-based method of knowledge creation which through interrogation, trial and error, and rigorous analysis provides systematic insights into the nature of things. Its methods include postulation, experimentation, data analysis and theorizing.

Diplomacy, sometimes described as the world’s second oldest profession and usually terribly misunderstood, is actually an approach to the management of international relations characterized by dialogue, negotiation, compromise, problem solving and complex balancing. Its tools include soft power, the power of attraction, advocacy, persuasion and influence.

Culture and science, along with education, media relations and advocacy, when bundled together and used by governments internationally to pursue their interests, promote their policies, and project their values is commonly labelled “public diplomacy.”

Let’s dig deeper by unpacking and examining the connections among and between these three critical but too often misunderstood aspects of Canadian foreign policy.

That’s the background. Now I’m going to move you into the foreground.

As a form of international political communication, diplomacy through active listening and meaningful two-way exchange privileges talking over fighting and supports the peaceful resolution of differences. In so doing, diplomacy encourages and reinforces values such as cooperation, non-violence, accommodation and peace as elements of culture. Diplomacy’s art content, by the way — creativity, imagination, innovation, improvisation — remain largely unappreciated.

Through the generation and application of knowledge, science is used to address problems of underdevelopment and insecurity, ranging from climate change and diminishing biodiversity to public health and management of the global commons. In so doing, science encourages and reinforces the values of openness, transparency, collaboration and constructive dissent as elements of culture.

Science and diplomacy once enjoyed pride of place in the firmament of Canadian foreign policy, as illustrated convincingly in a survey of modern Canadian diplomacy and international relations from Pierre Trudeau to Justin Trudeau. These historic achievements and their legacy, which I would be happy to go into in the Q and A, have contributed to shaping Canada’s values, cultural identity and brand. Think: helpful fixing, honest brokerage, peace keeping and enlightened thinking about international policy, more generally.

Culture, science and diplomacy transcend borders and serve as a bridge between nations, groups and peoples. In the context of public diplomacy, international cultural relations and artistic expression deepen understanding and forge new networks and partnerships. Together, they represent an antidote to some of the downsides of globalization and salve the paradox of connectivity. They also help weave together the exquisitely delicate fabric of civilization.

In conclusion, culture, science and diplomacy are undervalued instruments of statecraft and should once again be integral in the definition and construction of Canada’s contemporary image, reputation and brand.

So I hope you’re fine with all of that, because my next sentence is “and yet, and yet . . .” Here I launch into the challenges or the critique. Here is the rub: When it comes to governance and public administration, the responsibility and accountability for public diplomacy, culture, arts and science are splintered, atomized, disintegrated and uncoordinated. I believe my colleague Gaston touched upon this, because he is in the midst of it.

These functions are split between Global Affairs Canada; Heritage; Innovation, Economic Development and Science; Environment; Natural Resource; Parks Canada; the Canada Council; and on and on.

Now ethereal, almost invisible, that key focal point that we would like to see is, in fact, scattered in the wind. There is no strategy; there is no plan; there is no central point.

Second, I think we have to consider the lasting but in-large-part unheralded damage that resulted from the decade of darkness, 2006 to 2015: The muzzling of scientists and diplomats; the firing of thousands of federal scientists; huge program and resource cuts; and, not least, the sidelining and marginalizing of then-DFAIT, which, I might add, as — — and I hope we can get into this in the Q and A — remains adrift, struggling, near catatonic and appallingly under-resourced.

Canada 150 has been a significant marker, mainly as an unrealized opportunity to showcase Canadian diplomacy, culture and the performing arts. But to expect something better, such as an active, engaged foreign policy that Canadians were promised and now expect, from a reamed-out, beaten-down public service is a bit like asking a former athlete who has been lying on a gurney for 10 years on life support, with muscles atrophied and reflexes dulled, to get up and run a marathon. It’s not going to happen.

Of course, there are always public policy and administrative challenges. I certainly appreciate that, having spent 30 years trying to address them. Also, one must always hope for improved performance and a better tomorrow. If the interrelationship between these desperate swaths of enterprise can be properly understood and constructed, then the possibilities are actually limitless, and the potential enormous.

At the end of the day, culture in the arts, diplomacy and science should be understood as the defining features of “brand Canada” — a globalization and innovation nation.

So what are five take-aways for you? First, identify culture, science and diplomacy as international policy priorities. Situate them firmly within an integrated and coordinated framework, strategy and plan.

Second, rebuild. Reinvest in culture, diplomacy and science. There is a direct dialectal relationship between results and resources. Moreover, this formula is highly cost effective and leveraged. I was a skeptic, I’ve got to tell you, when I entered government in 1981, but after 30-plus years of actually doing it, I have become a believer.

Third, public diplomacy, including culture, the arts and science, connects with democratization, transparency and openness. Therefore, pitch to the popular, not just the elites. Focus on grassroots: students and the general public. Go storefront; go retail with this stuff. But don’t forget the grass tops: the opinion leaders, the organizations and associations, and the influence aggregators.

All of this is to say, we need a really comprehensive approach when we think about using culture as an instrument of foreign policy.

Fourth, the government is committed to culture, arts and science, but has overpromised and, in my view, largely under-delivered, resulting in the real risk of plunging headlong into a say-do credibility gap. What, for instance, is it Canada doing to substantially, as opposed to rhetorically, support the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

Finally, point five, the next federal election is now only two years off, our G-7 presidency and summit hosting are coming up next year and we have declared our candidacy for a seat on the UN Security Council with the campaign in 2020 and the election in 2021. What, I ask you, exactly is on offer? The emperor desperately needs some presentable new clothes.

Senators, now is your chance to help turn adversity into opportunity. I say to you, carpe diem.