September 1, 2014
Foreign affairsMonday, April 28, 2014
In praise of Malbec diplomacy
For The Herald
Rightly or wrongly, Argentina has not been doing well in the UK and US press. Without digging too deep into the files, we can recall that January saw negative coverage in the Wall St Journal, the same happened in February with The Economist and March was the turn of The New York Times. Despite the Argentine embassies’ most gallant efforts, it is difficult to rebuke bad press. Unfair as it might feel, the reporting journalist is likely to have more credibility than a foreign diplomat’s letter to the editor. Especially because he is a foreigner and does not necessarily share the cultural and political values of the media and the host country. A simpleton view would, consequently, go for badmouthing the diplomatic profession. The stereotype of seemingly endless cocktails and receptions invites the English-language “gin and tonic brigade” branding. But — in almost all cases — this would be grossly wrong.
Argentine diplomats are unlikely to be part of the G & T brigade. Gin, that Godsend to humanity, thrives in the Northern Hemisphere. Argentina’s blessing is red and takes the form of Malbec wine. And, as luck would have it, many Argentine diplomats are likely to soldier in the Malbec brigade. If they are not, then they are failing to use a powerful diplomatic tool. Fortunately, and in light of what took place on 16 April, that does not seem to be the case. That day, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), in association with a strategic partner — WOFA — staged about 100 events all around the world to celebrate “World Malbec Day.” Some 50 Argentine embassies and consulates were involved. WOFA stands for Wines of Argentina and its mission is to promote worldwide exports on behalf of the wineries. To this end, it has a strategic partnership with the MFA. In fact, some embassies or consulates house the WOFA people in their offices.
This looks like a straightforward arrangement: the wineries trying to market their products and the MFA doing the job of promoting exports. But, in this case, there is a hidden bonus for Argentine diplomacy. It so happens that Argentine Malbec is attractive enough (on its own) to lure people into events organized by the embassies. An ideal lobbying opportunity. Throw in some tango music and dancers as well as beef or other delicacies and you have an irresistible package. Deploy it in an adequate venue, and your playing-field is ready. That would not be the case with “drier” products. (No pun intended.) Most of the country’s other exports have clearly targeted markets. Thus, and with all due respects to Paolo Rocca, it would be difficult to drag in a non-specialized attendance into an event related to the steel industry. So the targets for lobbying would be limited.
But what does “limited” mean? The clientele for any embassy in any country does not include Joe Public. In any “dip” events you will find government officials, opinion formers, businesspeople and, in general, “movers and shakers.” An event like the one staged on April 16 will attract them in droves.
Consequently, in terms of influencing , World Malbec Day is ideal. Addressing non-government but influential audiences has become vital. An embassy can spend hours in drafting and sending letters to editors in order to rebuke disagreeable press coverage. But, unless the rebuke has to do with very hard facts, it will be wasted time. However, a quiet 10-minute chat hosted by an ambassador, a councillor or a minister, while sipping good wine can do wonders in terms of changing perceptions. And it so happens that the interlocutors to be found in an event like this one are also attentive readers of The Wall Street Journal, The Economist or the New York Times.
Granted, not all the guests will be key players. There will be a quota of hangers-on and, more interesting, mid-level contacts with good future potential. The latter may not justify, in these budget-conscious times, the costs of a full embassy meal with all the trimmings, let alone two hours of busy diplomats’ time. But these events are highly cost-effective. Many 10-minute chats to be held in two hours and the private sector footing part of the bill. In short: glasses up for the Malbec Brigade. Interest declared: the author is totally unrelated to the wine industry. But has a 20-year-long, love affair with public diplomacy.