A shrinking world, social media diplomacy and Kanysh Satpaev

1366800103On New Year’s Eve, as we look back on the year of 2013 quickly rushing by and think of what lies ahead of us in 2014, I think the past year has been very eventful and productive.

I addressed the public on the results of our work in a briefing at the Central Communications Service on December 19, so there is no need to repeat myself here. I will comment only on the important trip by President Nursultan Nazarbayev to Moscow on December 24 to participate in the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council meetings. There, the heads of state had a serious conversation on the future of the Eurasian Economic Union and approved a roadmap for Armenia to join the Customs Union. The visit also saw the signing of five bilateral agreements with Russia, including in the areas of military-technical cooperation, common use of the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and the transit of Russian oil through Kazakhstan to China. The visit once again highlighted the importance for Kazakhstan of the economic cooperation and integration processes underway in Eurasia.

As our President pointed out during the visit, though, this process is not about a return to the Soviet Union. This process is exclusively about mutually beneficial economic cooperation and economic integration.

Most people in Kazakhstan share this view, by the way. According to a recent Gallup poll, 45 per cent of people in Kazakhstan think that the collapse of the USSR and Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991 has had a positive impact on their country, whereas only 25 per cent think the breakup of the Soviet Union has brought more harm. I think this is explained by the fact that Kazakhstan has ensured peace and stability in our multi-ethnic house, prudent use of our abundant natural resources and rapid economic development. Obviously, without the strategic vision and pragmatic leadership of President Nazarbayev, this would not have been possible.

It is already a year since we began implementing the new “Kazakhstan 2050” Strategy. This clear and comprehensive document sets out clear aims in many areas, including foreign policy, with detailed guidance on both short-term and long-term priorities.

Inevitably, a country’s geographical position heavily influences its foreign policy outlook and approach. Over the coming years, Kazakhstan will continue to develop its strategic partnerships with Russia and China as well as with our Central Asian neighbors – Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. At the same time, we will develop mutually beneficial and constructive cooperation with our partners that are far away from us geographically, but close in terms of interests – the United States and the European Union, as well as key countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America and Africa. Naturally, we will continue working on other foreign policy priorities such as further strengthening the regime of nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and promoting global nuclear disarmament, attracting investment and technologies into our economy, preparing for the international specialized exhibition EXPO 2017 in Astana, as well as advancing Kazakhstan’s bid for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council for 2017-18.

As Thomas Friedman, the American commentator and writer has correctly noted, the world has become flat. I would add that the world keeps shrinking, and we are all becoming closer to each other. In the era of mobile Internet and other manifestations of globalization that are eliminating borders and barriers, we see opportunities for mutually beneficial and dynamic cooperation with the most distant places on our planet. Being in the center of Eurasia, we do not find it strange that our partners on the other side of the Earth, for example, in Chile, Argentine, and Brazil, are just as eager to cooperate with us as we are with them and that we have many common interests.

Today, as the world experiences rapid transformation, so does diplomacy. Diplomatic services are under pressure to work differently to exploit the opportunities of today’s shrinking world. Running effective foreign policy is inconceivable without use of what I call social media diplomacy (SMD). In fact, along with social media marketing, I would rank SMD as a priority in the work of our Ministry and our 84 embassies and representations abroad. Our Ministry is working hard to keep up with modern technological trends, and we are very grateful to our friends and followers for their interest and attention.

The changing nature of diplomacy makes it all the more important for us to recruit high-caliber young professionals to deliver the results we need. The Bolashak presidential scholarship program continues to serve as an important source of highly qualified, culturally adaptable people with the skills and motivation to be successful diplomats. Bolashak alumni already hold positions from attaché to deputy minister. In addition, we expect to recruit over time a new generation of graduates of Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools and Nazarbayev University, those centers of learning truly new in the spirit and quality of their programs that are unique in the post-Soviet space. We believe the implementation of “Kazakhstan 2050” Strategy including in the area of diplomacy, will depend fully on a new generation of professionals, brought up and educated differently, without ideological baggage from the past.

Today, as we look ahead to 2014, I encourage both our young and more mature diplomats over the coming year to continue improving their skills and knowledge and strive for new goals. The importance and priority of English as the universal language of international affairs and modern diplomacy remain absolute. Of course, this is not to diminish the role of less popular and rare languages that are still required. For example, our Ministry is short of Spanish-speaking and Amharic-speaking professionals, and we are facing these shortages when we are about to open new embassies in Mexico and Ethiopia next year.

In this respect, as a sort of good wish to those who work hard to learn the language of Shakespeare and Byron, I would like to share three curious stories (though there is no way to verify whether some of these really took place).

In 1956, during his first and only trip to London, Nikita Sergeevich Khruschev arrived for his meeting with Queen Elizabeth II. Wanting to make a positive impression on Her Majesty with his English, the first thing he asked her was: “Do you speak English?”

Several decades later, the prime minister of an Asian country had been very thoroughly preparing for his visit to Washington, learning key phrases in English to open his meeting with the U.S. President, including “How are you?”. Upon arrival at the White House, the prime minister, full of anxiety, instead asked President Bill Clinton “Who are you?”. The story goes that the host remained unperturbed and answered: “Well, I’m Hillary Clinton’s husband.” To which the guest, as he was tutored to, replied, “Me too!”

Indeed, natural wit and ability to tell politically correct jokes and anecdotes at the right time and at the right place are very important in diplomacy. They can create a favorable atmosphere in meetings and negotiations and last long in the memory.

This again reminds me of London and a visit there by Soviet deputies of the Supreme Soviet in March 1947. Among the group was the member of Soviet parliament and eminent geologist, Kanysh I. Satpaev. The story goes that as the delegation was being feted at a reception hosted by the former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, an unusually tall Asian man caught his attention. When Churchill learned he was a Kazakh, he half jokingly asked him if all Kazakhs were as tall as he was. The founder of Kazakhstan’s school of geology answered: “I am actually the shortest one!”

Standing back and looking from a wider historical perspective, Kazakhstan is among the youngest states in the world: we are only 22 years old. Despite our tender age, I am confident that the path of development set by President Nazarbayev in the “Kazakshtan 2050” Strategy will lead us to further great successes.

2014 promises to be another exciting and challenging year on this road. Happy New Year to all readers! I hope that 2014 will bring peace, happiness and success to all.

The author is Minister of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan.

This opinion first appeared as a blog by Minister Idrissov on the website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Kazakhstan on Dec. 30, 2013. 

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