Studying the impact and utilization of culture and arts in foreign policy and diplomacy

feat. Daryl Copeland, Colin Robertson, and Sarah Smith

November 30, 2017

Remarks to the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee on the impact and utilization of Canadian culture and arts in Canadian foreign policy and diplomacy

November 30, 2017
Colin Robertson
Vice President and Fellow, Canadian Global Affairs Institute


The great English art critic John Ruskin observed that “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.”

After 33 years in the Canadian foreign service with postings in New York, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Washington, I know firsthand the importance of cultural diplomacy both as an end in itself and as a vital instrument for advancing Canadian objectives in peace and security, trade and investment, immigration and development.

This is what I learned:

First: We need a cultural diplomacy strategy that draws and collaborates with other levels of government – provinces, territories and cities and the private sector. This will create a critical mass to advance Canadian culture and arts. Specifically:  

  • Closer collaboration among key federal government departments and portfolio agencies such as PCH, GAC, Canada Council, Telefilm, National Film Board, CBC, national museums and national art galleries as well as with private and not-for-profit sectors, especially those with expertise in digital and animation.
  • Draw inspiration from existing initiatives like the Advisory Council on Economic Growth and the Business and Higher Education Roundtable.
  • Where responsibility for promotion finds a home – the Canada Council, Global Affairs Canada, Canadian Heritage -  is less important than that it exists. It does mean dedicated officials, dedicated budgets and a minister dedicated to being its champion.

Second: Make Canada a world platform for cultural productions. Specifically:

  • Develop a turnkey policy of tax credit and regulatory environment at the local, provincial and national level that recognizes the rapid convergence between content, production, and technology.
  • Bring together the content of culture with its delivery means - in person, on screens, in games, through virtual experiences.
  • Launch a Brand Canada that draws from the positive experiences of other recent nation branding campaigns. Great Britain used cultural diplomacy very effectively to position the UK brand – GREATBritain - as an innovative country that is open to tourism, international students, and investment. The Calgary and Vancouver/Whistler Olympics significantly advanced a global sense of Canada as a northern country and a nation where pluralism works.

Third: Promote Canada's key missions as cultural spaces and exchanges abroad to project Canada's progressive social and economic dynamism. Specifically

  • Re-brand our cultural presences in key cultural and media places like Paris, Berlin, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Delhi, Seoul, Jakarta, New York, Los Angeles, Mexico City through the creation of Canada Houses, as we do currently in Paris, for stand-alone cultural spaces abroad.
  • Set up artist exchanges in priority countries – starting with our G20 partners -  to share Canada's artistic excellence.
  • Develop a cadre of entrepreneurial cultural attachés with a long-term career path that would include stints at Canadian and international cultural institutions. In a practical sense this could include an assignment with the Canada Council or Canadian Heritage, helping to manage a symphony or dance company, museum or cultural center, experience in digital media combined with postings abroad. In short, develop a career trajectory that attracts and retains practical cultural expertise with an appreciation of the bottom line.
  • Encourage missions to innovate. For example, when I was in In Hong Kong in the late 80s, we began a Children’s Film Festival and through our films, most notably those of Roch Demers and les Contes pour tous, we underlined Canada as a place to live, study and work. Exposure also helped Roch Demers sell his films for distribution into China.

Fourth: Create a modernized Canadian Studies program to highlight, amplify and contribute to Canada's research excellence.  

  • Focus for study would include the integration of migrants into big cities, effective pluralism, agri-food, clean energy, Arctic development, oceans management, climate mitigation – all areas in which Canada has or is developing expertise;
  • Youth exchanges like we used to do through programs like Canada World Youth create long-term goodwill. For example, the current Indonesian ambassador and his wife are both Canada World Youth alumni.

When it comes to culture and the arts we punch way beyond our weight.

That’s why it’s odd that in recent years, successive governments have cut back on their investment in the promotion of our cultural industries. Programs have a natural life cycle and should be re-examined for effect, but the curtailment of support for our cultural industries abroad was extreme.

An example.  When I was Consul General in Los Angeles we created an on-line talent guide to Canadians working in the industry that helped win us more production in Canada. We should recreate this so that it appeals not just to Hollywood but to Bollywood as well as European and Chinese film production.

Advancing our cultural industries brings with it collateral benefits. In the wake of 9-11, then Prime Minister Jean Chretien led a Team Canada mission to Los Angeles to help sell western goods and services but to also underline Canadian solidarity with the USA. I enlisted my friends Paul Anka and David Foster and we hosted an event at the Getty Museum that drew international attention. And it also helped sell Canadian products and draw investment.

When you consider that we do a million dollars a minute in business with the USA alone it makes you wonder about false economies.

If we continue to treat cultural diplomacy as an afterthought within Canada’s international relations, we miss opportunities to use our foreign policy to generate economic, political and security benefits for Canadians.

Canadian culture and the arts should be a major pillar of Canadian diplomacy and foreign policy. Others – Australia, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Mexico, Korea - derive real economic and political benefits from their much more strategic use of short and long term cultural, educational and scientific exchange programs.

Without support from governments – federal, provincial and municipal - travel by our world-class orchestras and dance groups and exhibitions by our visual and digital arts is severely constrained. But our arts has been, and again can be, important tools in advancing our foreign policy objectives as well as an end in themselves.

In her recent speech outlining Canadian foreign policy goals Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland asked the question: ‘Is Canada an essential country at this time in the life of our planet?’

The answer is yes. We are an essential nation, especially in our daily practice of pluralism and in how we have compromise with our geography and climate. 

With acknowledgement to John F. Kennedy, I look forward to a Canada that will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to a Canada that will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.

With commitment, we can do much better when it comes to promoting Canadian culture and arts. Our sense of what it is to be Canadian is nurtured and reinforced by how we are seen beyond our borders. Investment in our cultural industries is both profitable - it creates and sustains jobs – as well as a positive boost to our identity.


Sarah E.K. Smith, Assistant Professor, Communication & Media Studies
School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University

Remarks to the Standing Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade

Thank you for the invitation to speak. Cultural diplomacy is understood to encompass a range of activities orchestrated by diplomats that employ cultural products to advance state interests (for instance, involving art, literature, and music).[i] Only considering initiatives aimed at foreign publics that are propagated by state actors is, however, limiting. I suggest the committee consider cultural relations in a broader sense—one that might contribute to their study as a better frame of reference for understanding how culture can be productively deployed to project a positive perception of Canada. You might consider the operation of culture beyond government actors, acknowledging the role of diverse networks of cultural exchange in our globalized world.[ii] Such actors can include, for instance, artists, students, cultural institutions, and non-governmental organizations. Put another way, cultural relations allows us to think about people-to-people relations, in addition to the state-to-people relations of cultural diplomacy.[iii]

Cultural diplomacy is a crucial means by which Canada can engage in the world and effectively respond to current issues. Its significance lies in the fact that it is a non-oppositional means to respond to potentially destabilizing forces, such as radicalization and hyper-nationalisms. Moreover, cultural diplomacy fosters authentic connections between people, organizations, and states, and also builds a foundation for subsequent targeted and strategic interactions. In making clear the benefits of cultural diplomacy, I would like to draw the committee’s attention to a 2012 report by the British Council titled Trust Pays.[iv] This study provides substantial quantitative evidence for how cultural relations (defined as arts, education, and English language activities) fuel trust in the UK, which in turn drive business and trade. These findings are pivotal to grounding discussions of cultural diplomacy in quantitative evidence.

There is increasing interdisciplinary academic interest in cultural diplomacy and cultural relations. I am a founding member of the North American Cultural Diplomacy Initiative (NACDI), an exciting multi-disciplinary partnership of academics, policymakers, cultural organizations, and practitioners from North America and beyond. I have provided a statement on this group to the committee. Led by Dr. Lynda Jessup at Queen’s University, we are deeply invested in thinking about cultural diplomacy as a critical practice and a valuable tool in international relations. This research dovetails with growing government interest in deploying culture to advance Canada’s aims. As such, I suggest that government-academic partnerships are a means through which new thinking on cultural diplomacy programs may take shape.

Cultural diplomacy is not new to the Canadian state and has been successfully employed in the twentieth century. For one example, I refer to the work of Dr. Jessup.[v] She argues that the circulation and exhibition of art was a key means by which the Canadian state engaged with other countries. For instance, Canada was amongst the first Western countries to engage with China following the Cultural Revolution. Jessup’s research reveals that the Canadian state facilitated the display of an exhibition of Inuit art in China in 1972—just two years after diplomatic relations between the two countries had been restored. In 1973, Canada again sent an art exhibition to China, this time a show of historic landscape painting. Beyond demonstrating that Canada was keen to establish a productive relationship with China, which is now Canada’s second largest trading partner, these case studies speak to the range of players engaged in transnational cultural relations. In these cases, the National Gallery of Canada and what was then the Department of External Affairs collaborated to deploy Canadian art abroad.

What these interactions make clear is that so-called elite culture was initially prioritized. In the later 1970s, however, as Canada-China relations continued to warm, the category of Canadian culture widened and new cultural initiatives travelled to China featuring “folk culture.” For instance, in 1976 the Cape Breton men’s choir of working and retired coal miners, Men of the Deeps, toured the People’s Republic of China.[vi] In the later 1970s, Canada also sent school groups on exchange to China. All of these cultural initiatives normalized Canadian relations with China and established crucial and long-standing relationships.[vii]

In conclusion, I would like to provide three key points for your consideration in the formulation of policies in support of the use of Canadian culture and arts for purposes of foreign affairs.

First, there exists a broad lack of understanding of what cultural diplomacy encompasses and how it is being used. This includes a lack of recognition of the many actors involved in cultural diplomacy.[viii] A better articulation of what cultural diplomacy is will help actors engaged in these initiatives to better understand their role and its benefits to Canada.

Second, it is important to create policy that is sympathetic to the overlapping interests of groups engaged in cultural diplomacy. At the federal level, cultural diplomacy falls within the purview of Global Affairs Canada and Canadian Heritage. As well, other arms-length government organizations such as the Canada Council for the Arts and the National Gallery of Canada bring Canadian arts and culture to their extensive web of international connections. Additionally, cultural producers must be acknowledged. This cursory view gives a sense of the complex landscape in which Canadian arts and culture is deployed.

Third, questions about cultural diplomacy’s efficacy have led to an interest in metrics, as we try to quantitatively assess the function of Canadian culture abroad. While studies of the cultural diplomacy of other nations including Australia, South Korea, and Germany have shown how positive cultural climates facilitate productive trade relations, I would like to emphasize that quantitative and economic metrics are limited. These metrics fail to fully address the long-term benefits of investment in cultural diplomacy.[ix] Culture is both an economic and social good, as such, there is a pressing need for qualitative assessment. In an age that seems increasingly characterized by radicalization, the resurgence of right-wing nationalisms, the urge to close borders (Brexit, Trump), and the re-introduction of protectionist measures, Canada is seen on the global stage as a voice for moderation and tolerance. It is “Canada’s moment,” so let’s take advantage of it.[x]

End Notes

[i] Ien Ang, Yuhishthir Raj Isar and Philip Mar define cultural diplomacy as “[a] government practice that operates in the name of a clearly defined ethos of national or local representation, in a space where nationalism and internationalism merge.” Ang et. al., “Cultural diplomacy: Beyond the national interest?” International Journal of Cultural Policy 2015, 21:4, 366. Cultural diplomacy is often categorized as a subset of public diplomacy. Nicholas J. Cull defines public diplomacy as an international actor’s work to engage with foreign publics. For further information see Public Diplomacy: Lessons from the Past, Los Angeles: Figueroa Press, 2009.

[ii] Melissa Nisbett examines how power functions in cultural diplomacy, see Nisbett, “Who Holds the Power in Soft Power?” Arts and International Affairs, 13 March 2016,

[iii] Martin Rose “A New Cultural Diplomacy: The Integration of Cultural Relations and Diplomacy,” ifa Input 3/2017, 1,

[iv] British Council, Trust Pays: How international cultural relationships build trust in the UK and underpin the success of the UK economy, 2012,

[v] Dr. Jessup recently completed a book manuscript on the international circulation of exhibitions of Canadian art, see Jessup, Winners' History: The Group of Seven, the National Gallery and Canada's Global Affairs, McGill-Queen’s University Press, under review.

[vi] Men of the Deeps were the first Canadian performing arts group to tour China after diplomatic relations were restored. See Men of the Deeps, “Biography,”

[vii] For a more recent example of a Canadian cultural institution’s engagement in China, see the Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibition of Egyptian artefacts Pharaohs and Kings: Treasures of Ancient Egypt and China’s Han Dynasty, which was seen by about one million people earlier this year. Press release: “Important works from ROM’s renowned ancient Egyptian collections reach new audience at Nanjing Museum in China,”

[viii] For instance, museums—notably trusted cultural authorities—have long been at the fore of international cultural relations and involved in specific cultural diplomacy initiatives. However, they do not always understand their work to fall within this realm.

[ix] David Clarke suggests that “policy-makers in the field of cultural diplomacy need to begin by undertaking careful research into existing audience behaviour, with a particular emphasis on the meaning-making aspect of reception, before deciding if and how it is possible for states to promote soft power benefits by intervening in this process.” See Clarke, “Theorising the role of cultural products in cultural diplomacy from a Cultural Studies perspective,” International Journal of Cultural Policy, 22.2 (2016): 161.

[x] Key in this regard is the recent Report of the Study Group on Global Education, a collaboration between the Centre for International Policy Studies at the University of Ottawa and the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. This report argues that Canada needs to rethink its approach to global learning and advance global education as a means to build cultural competencies and skills, which will in turn advance Canada’s trade and investment, as well as the country’s values of openness and inclusion. See Global Education for Canadians: Equipping Young Canadians to Succeed at Home & Abroad, November 2017,


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