The Art of Diplomacy and the Diplomacy of Art

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by Her Excellency Ambassador Prof. Gabriela von Habsburg

The Ratiu Forum has been honoured to support as a partner the conference The Art of Diplomacy and the Diplomacy of Art, hosted on the 17 of November in Cluj-Napoca by the Faculty of European Studies, Babeș-Bolyai University. The main speaker of the event was Her Excellency Ambassador Prof. Gabriela von Habsburg, former Ambassador of Georgia to Germany (2010-2013). 

The integral speech is available below or it can be downloaded by clicking here

More information about Her Excellency Ambassador Prof. Gabriela von Habsburg is available here

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, dear Pamela,

I am honoured to address you today on the topic of “Art of Diplomacy – Diplomacy of Art” in a World of Geopolitical Turmoil.

It is an interesting journey, which has been a part of human history for centuries.

To some degree, it also reflects my personal journey. I started as an artist doing abstract/nonfigurative stainless-steel sculptures. From there, I was drawn into politics when several of my students became part of the peaceful Rose Revolution of Georgia in 2003. Not that my family had ever been far from politics – but this was my first real personal involvement.

After being granted Georgian citizenship (and briefly losing my Austrian one as a consequence) I then became Ambassador of Georgia to Germany, representing this country I had grown to love vis-à-vis the government of Angela Merkel. As an ambassador, I used a lot of art in order to facilitate diplomacy: starting with musical performances to open the doors to politicians, over sculptures and memorials for important events to taking art students on cultural exchanges.

The term “Cultural Diplomacy” may be a modern construct, but the roots of its practice stretch far back in time. If we look over the annals of history, we find evidence of this art form flourishing in the interactions of explorers, travellers, traders, teachers, and artists. These pioneers, unbeknownst to them, were the living embodiments of what we now refer to as “informal ambassadors” or early “cultural diplomats.” Their encounters with diverse cultures, whether in the present or the past, paved the way for a continuous exchange of ideas and values.

Indeed, the contours of cultural exchange exist across human civilization. From the earliest trade routes that linked distant lands, facilitating the exchange of information and culture, cultural diplomacy has been a silent yet powerful force shaping the course of history. Those who engaged in these deliberate efforts, whether traders forging connections or government representatives fostering understanding, laid the foundation for what we recognize today as cultural diplomacy or diplomacy of Art.

So, let’s first talk about Diplomacy of Art: Languages spoken, religions practiced, ideas shared, arts celebrated, and social structures examined – these exchanges have consistently acted as bridges, connecting divergent groups and fostering mutual understanding. The seeds of friendship sown through such exchanges have improved relations and strengthened ties.

I can tell you from my own experience as an artist, having had numerous exhibitions in many countries and different continents. I had the best conversations, also often controversial, with visitors of art shows about my art and about politics, but all sharing the passion for visual arts. That is how we found often mutual understanding, even in disputes.

Although I work non-figurative, my sculptures have often a political background. For example, at the border in Hungary where in 1989 for the first time the iron curtain was cut open and hundreds of East Germans escaped to the West and to freedom, I was asked for the 7th anniversary to make a sculpture. I made an abstract piece of barbed wire that is standing upright and is therefore not any longer effective. It is 8 meters high and stands on a hill right where the Pan European Picknick took place and the iron curtain was physically cut open with a big wire cutter by my sister Walburga. What a courageous act, there were close by watch towers with soldiers pointing guns at her and the people.

Because a barbed wire is always having its spearheads in all four directions, so it also forms a cross that you can see from all sides. It is a sign that our western values based on Christianity prevail in the end over the communist ideologies.

But also, other forms of Art work as Art of Diplomacy. Go to a concert, you will find people from all political opinions and colours that are united through the love of music. All kind of art can be understood even if you do not speak the language used in the very country.

Art is a universal language!

But art in its composition can also influence the spectator. There are compositions that either strengthen or weaken the person watching it. I do always a muscle reflex test with my students who don’t believe it and it never failed!

Art and music can influence single people but also masses, just think of the national anthems. They can move nations emotionally. I just heard that they use music at training of football teams with great success! Let us go back in history! The military marches could motivate whole regiments to move forward.

Consider, for instance, the role of explorers navigating uncharted territories. Their encounters with new peoples led not only to the exchange of goods but to also the sharing of cultures.  The paths they treaded became the way through which ideas, arts, and societal norms connected civilizations over geographical boundaries.

Look at Georgia. Throughout millenniums it was invaded by the Byzantines, ancient Greek, Romans, Ottomans, Persians, Mongols, Arabs and the Russian Empire. All left again but some of the culture remained. In the realm of commerce, trade routes became decisive for cultural fusion. Traders transformed their marketplaces into arenas of cultural exchange, where languages intermingled, traditions blended, and a shared understanding emerged. They all left their imprint in the dishes/food, the tunes and the art that was created. This is what makes Georgia special up until today.

Now we get to the Art of Diplomacy. Professional Diplomats are somewhat different. As George Friedman once said, ‘the art of diplomacy is really about creating an illusion. It minimizes the vital and enlarges the trivial. It creates a portrait of power that is never as great as it might seem, and it seeks to make one’s counterpart believe he is dealing with a trivial matter and is far weaker than he actually is. The illusions are crafted over meetings at conference tables, embassy parties and very long lunches in the hope that the picture that has been sketched will be transmitted back to the foreign capital and cause the government to change its position’.

This is a subject of importance, one that has evolved significantly over the years and is now facing new challenges in our ever-changing global landscape. I can also tell you about my experience as a diplomat, when I was Georgian ambassador in Berlin. It was soon after the Russian invasion in Georgia. The Georgian Embassy was way out in Eastern Berlin, in Pankov. In coordination with the government, I moved the Embassy into the diplomatic centre, close to the parliament, as location is always crucial. If it is easy to come to an invitation and there is good food, the invited people will also come easily. Other ambassadors, parliamentarians or figures from the government or opposition would show up because the time and place are convenient. The same I did with the residence, it was located close to where cultural events happened then you only needed to adept the timing and the people were coming. As I said location is really crucial!

I organized very frequently cultural events in the embassy like concerts, I had a well-known pianist as a diplomat. That of course was lucky. Over time, these events became a place where politicians and diplomats would like to spend their time, and it allowed my diplomats and me to approach them under very friendly and open conditions. There were several Georgian painters and sculptors in Berlin so I could organize exhibitions that also had political critical content and afterwards we had discussions. I had readings of Georgian literature in German and English, archaeologists who gave interesting speeches so we could talk about all political events in ancient times and today. And of course, speeches of scientists with discussions – but also crucial was always delicious Georgian food and wine. The events happened at least 2 times per month and I invited broadly to raise awareness. The little Georgia was petty unknown to the Westerners. Many only knew the countries they were bordering.

During the Cold War, cultural diplomacy played a distinctive role in the way geopolitics were conducted. It was driven primarily by two key motives. The first was to establish a basis for mutual understanding between two opposing geopolitical blocks, each of which held almost diametrically opposing values. The second was to directly and indirectly influence the societies on the other side of the divide.

In this bipolar geopolitical constellation, the role and scope of cultural diplomacy were clear and well defined. For the past three decades, since the fall of the Berlin Wall, we have lived in a more or less unipolar world. Cultural diplomacy thrived in various domains of culture, including arts, literature, music, and theatre. The prevailing belief was that open borders, globalization, and economic prosperity could overcome geopolitical tensions. It was believed that this environment would create ample space for a consensus on a value system to be promoted through cultural exchange. Economic prosperity was expected to lead to the spread of democratic values, human rights, and the principles of inclusion and diversity.

This belief, however, has been challenged by the shifting geopolitical landscape, especially in the wake of events like Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine and the subsequent collapse of the European security architecture. The motto: ‚Wandel durch Handel‘ – ‘change through trade’ by Egon Bahr and Willy Brandt was a myth that turned out, in the long run, to be a complete failure. Of course, the situation that led to the war in Ukraine is very complex and has also a lot to do with the energy prices and pipelines like North Stream 1.

Today, we find ourselves in a multipolar world, where global powers like China and regional powers such as Iran and India are vying for relative geopolitical advantage. They also seek to promote their respective value systems, and the Chinese model, in particular, has gained popularity in many parts of the world. This model combines economic prosperity with authoritarian rule, presenting an alternative to the European value-based system that values peace and coexistence as the product of democratic development. China does not demand political reforms, and its approach focuses on creating dependencies through economic investments and infrastructure connectivity projects.

This new global geopolitical context poses challenges for cultural diplomacy as its reach and ability to spread its values have been severely curtailed. In this environment, art of diplomacy is more likely to thrive within blocks that share common value systems, rather than between blocks, until a new international consensus emerges. Even though emerging powers like China try to establish themselves as cultural players in movie production and even music, it is improbable that cultural diplomacy will become an active tool of geopolitics among blocks in this context.

However, this does not discount the fact that technological developments, such as artificial intelligence and social media, will continue to play a crucial role in cultural exchange.  These technologies are often value-driven, reflecting the value systems of the societies that develop and implement them. For example, AI algorithms can either legitimize or enable higher degrees of control over social life, depending on the values embedded in them. Within the European Union, privacy is of paramount importance, and AI and social media regulations reflect this emphasis on privacy.

Technological developments will continue to influence cultural exchange, even if traditional forms of cultural diplomacy, such as theatre, art, literature, and deliberate cultural efforts undertaken by governments, become more limited in their cross-cultural reach. Institutions that have historically promoted cultural exchanges, such as the British Council, Goethe-Institut, and Alliance Française, have been instrumental in facilitating cross-cultural understanding. We have the ICD, Institute of Cultural Diplomacy, there is even a Cultural Diplomacy Dictionary, the iCultural Diplomacy, and there is the IFLC international Festival of Language and Culture. It exists since 2003 and today 160 countries are participating.

However, their activities may face limitations imposed either by the countries themselves or by other blocks in a multipolar world. But we need to see the geopolitical perspective and the good that can come from an intercultural exchange of ideas.

In conclusion, the multipolar world we find ourselves in may become equally multi-polarized in terms of its values. This could significantly restrict the ability of cultural diplomacy to operate as it did in the last 30 years.

Nevertheless, it is essential to recognize the ongoing role of technology in cultural exchange, even as traditional forms of diplomacy face challenges in this evolving landscape. Cultural diplomacy or better the Art of diplomacy and diplomacy of Art must adapt to these changing circumstances to continue fostering mutual understanding and cooperation among nations in a world of geopolitical turmoil.

Let us have a critical look at ourselves: there are new tensions between multiple member states in the European Union, such as between Austria and Romania. While each country has its unique culture and interests, let us not forget the common heritage that we have. If we can focus on our shared values and the joint interests we have in an increasingly complicated and fragmented world, we can overcome the challenges we face.

We need a united Europe, and I hope that all of you can become (cultural) ambassadors for that cause.

Thank you.