Watch video: His Highness the Aga Khan at White House Conference on Culture and Diplomacy hosted by US President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton

“It is worthy to note that in almost  every speech that His Highness has made this century, the subject of pluralism has never failed to escape his vision for a better and more harmonious world. He has referred to it as being part of the cosmopolitan ethic, and as an Imam and a global citizen that he is, the Aga Khan represents the very best of that ethic through the mission that he has undertaken to serve humanity at large.” – Ottawa based photographer Jean-Marc Carisse in his photo piece Aga Khan presides over first pluralism award ceremony

His Highness the Aga Khan to preside over 2019 Global Pluralism Award

Aga Khan with winners of first pluralism Award
His Highness the Aga Khan with winners and honourable mentions of the first Pluralism Award held in Ottawa on November 15, 2017. Photo: © Jean-Marc Carisse.

Compiled and prepared by MALIK MERCHANT
(Publisher-Editor, BarakahSimerg and Simergphotos)

On Wednesday November 20, 2019, three winners will be honoured at a ceremony in Ottawa for the second Global Pluralism Award. His Highness the Aga Khan, Mawlana Hazar Imam, will preside over the ceremony. The first award ceremony (see photo, above) was held at the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat in Ottawa on November 15, 2017 during Mawlana Hazar Imam’s first Diamond Jubilee visit to Canada. Barakah was present at the event.

Comprehensive Report: White House Conference on Culture and Diplomacy

Adapted from a report prepared by US DEPARTMENT OF STATE

Note: Video link follows report

Relevant to the subject of pluralism and ahead of the second Pluralism Award, we bring you a comprehensive report as well as a complete video of a thought provoking conference on culture and diplomacy which was hosted at the White House on November 28, 2000 by the then US President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton.

Hilary Clinton, Aga Khan, White House Conference, Barakah and Simerg
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton opens the White House Conference with His Highness the Aga Khan and other dignitaries looking on. Photo: US Department of State.


The conference brought together a remarkable assemblage of nearly 200 cultural and artistic leaders from around the world who addressed a wide variety of issues, such as the vital role culture plays in diplomacy; the importance of preserving cultural diversity, sites, and artifacts; support for cultural expression in the developing world; the need for trust and equality in cultural exchange; the challenge of projecting to audiences abroad an accurate image of America’s cultural diversity; the need to improve understanding among Americans of the other cultures of the world; the central role played by language, especially English, in cultural exchanges; the untapped potential of the Internet to enhance international cultural understanding and communications; and the role of multinational companies, NGOs and multilateral organizations in promoting cultural understanding.

Key Themes

Throughout the day-long conference, panelists, President and the conference chair, Secretary of State Albright, repeatedly returned to several key themes to set the intellectual framework for the conference discussions:

• “Culture” is a central element of all relations among peoples because it relates to human creativity beyond the scope of politics.

• Programs in exchange and collaboration in the arts and cultural fields enable people to communicate on human terms, identifying the common elements that unite all human existence.

• President Clinton observed that “…..cultural diplomacy does have the power to penetrate our common humanity.” Cultural programs promote mutual understanding at the most basic level and help shape the context for all other official communications among nations.

• Cultural diversity exemplifies the vast wealth of human experience developed over the centuries and must be preserved. The wealthy societies of the earth which have the economic and technological means to explain their cultures should assist societies that are less visible internationally to share their cultural heritages.

• Education is the key to cultural understanding. Panelist Yo-Yo Ma quoted a Senegalese poet saying: “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand. And we will understand only what we are taught.”

• Democracy is a core American cultural value which will be present in all of our cultural contacts with other countries. Respecting cultural diversity does not mean accepting uncivil or abusive practices which are explained as “culturally based.” Respect for universal human rights must go hand-in-hand with respect for cultural diversity.

• The United States has as much to learn from the rest of the world as we have to share. In the words of President Clinton, cultural exchanges “definitely should be a two-way street.”

White House Plenary Highlights Major Themes

White House Conference on Culture and Diplomacy. Participants President Clinton, His Highness the Aga Khan and others; Simerg and Barakah
Conference participants: l.-r.; Rita Dove, Yo-Yo Ma, Giovanna Melandri, Secretary Albright, President Clinton, His Highness the Aga Khan, Wole Soyinka, and Joan Spero. Photo: US Department of State.

Filling the East Room of the White House, the opening plenary drew upon the insights of the President and Mrs. Clinton, Secretary of State Albright and six panelists of international renown: His Highness the Aga Khan, Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims; Her Excellency Giovanna Melandri, Italian Minister for Cultural Heritage and Activities; Wole Soyinka, Nobel Prize-winning novelist from Nigeria; Rita Dove, former Poet Laureate of the United States; Yo-Yo Ma, cellist; and Joan Spero, President of the Doris Duke Foundation.

The Centrality of Cultural Diplomacy

First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton opened the conference by underscoring that the arts and culture play a central role in the daily lives of all people. “It is the arts and humanities that give us roots,” she declared, “that foster our civil society and democracy, and create a universal language so that we can understand each other better as nations and human beings…”

“At a time,” she added, “when resources are scarce and fears of a global consumer culture that threatens to homogenize us all are on the rise, we are searching for new ways to share and preserve our unique cultures around the world.”

Observing that the time had come for such a conference, the First Lady said, “And many people understand that if we want history and identity to be preserved in the global marketplace, culture matters.” She added: “This conference grew out of the ongoing efforts by Secretary Albright and Under Secretary Evelyn Lieberman to ensure that culture is not marginal, but central to our diplomacy. And it grew out of many recommendations we’ve received about how to strengthen U.S. cultural life and understanding around the world, including the report done in 1997 by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which specifically suggested a White House forum.”

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, conference chair, added: “Cultural factors play a pivotal role in many of the international challenges we face, from establishing rules for trade to finding common ground in the pursuit of peace.” She stressed that “… our cultural programs are central — and I underline that — central — to the success of American foreign policy.”

President Clinton provided the policy context for the conference by juxtaposing “… two apparently contradictory forces;” “… the emergence of a huge number of racial, religious, ethnic and tribal conflicts…” and “… worries that the global information society will rob artists of… their independent power to inform, enlighten and enrich.”

The President expressed his optimism that culture’s role will be positive, “… because it will teach us to understand our differences and affirm our common humanity.” The President argued that the Internet is not leading to the homogenization of language and society, citing the examples of people all over the world chatting on the Internet in Welsh, downloading fonts in Bengali, and ordering on-line courses in intensive Cherokee. He stressed that “… it is important that we understand and appreciate our differences, and then recognize, as important as they are, somehow we have to find a way to elevate our common humanity. That’s where cultural diplomacy comes in.”

He added that he did not agree that knowing more about one another’s culture dilutes the world’s cultures. Instead, the President stressed, “… American culture has been enriched by the rest of the world, and hopefully we’ve been a positive force on the rest of the world.” And that “… American art, in many ways, is the art of the rest of the world.”

Referring to the anxiety engendered among some groups by globalization, the President countered “… globalization, in the end, will be a force for diversity, not uniformity.”

The President underlined the obligations of the United States — to close the digital divide, include the poor in cultural exchange and ensure America’s contributions reflect our cultural diversity. He highlighted the use of public-private partnerships in meeting these goals in addition to the government commitment.

The President ended his comments with support for the legislation introduced by Representative James Leach and Senator Joseph R. Biden to create an endowment to support State Department cultural presentations.

Assisting Culture in the Developing World

According to His Highness the Aga Khan, creative artists in much of Asia and Africa do not live in economies “… in which they can survive from their commitments to culture.” In response, the President noted that America, with its resources and media access, can play a role in ending this deprivation and isolation. He stressed that more needs to be done to close the digital divide so that the poor of the world can exchange cultural information and participate in collaborative cultural projects. His Highness emphasized that more must be done to assist cultural and educational institutions in the developing world, particularly in Africa and Asia “… where the humanities are not really taught to a significant level in the universities…..”

Trust and Equality

Panel participants underscored the importance of overcoming cultural insularity through trust and human interaction based on equality. With trust, YoYo Ma noted, coexistence can evolve into coreliance. Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka offered the view that “Politics tend, I think, to have, as its first principle, the demonization of the other, whereas culture tends toward the humanization of the other.” He added, “… if the other side — politics — is merely dividing peoples, I think then other human activities, such as culture, have a right also to be romantic in that sense.”

Both Prof. Soyinka and Rita Dove felt that “cultural exchanges should be among equals.”

Preserving Cultural Diversity

Italian Minister of Cultural Heritage Giovanna Melandri highlighted the urgency of the challenge of preserving cultural diversity by stating, “If preserving the environment and biodiversity are in a way the last battles of an industrial society… preserving cultural diversity may be considered as the first challenge of the information society.” She noted that the risk of universal homogeneity could be overcome by using culture as a connecting link that leads to integration rather than assimilation. This effort, she said, calls for multilateral and bilateral cooperation.

The Limits of Business and the Role of Government

Former Under Secretary of State, Joan Spero, now President of the Doris Duke Foundation, pointed out that U.S. business has been effective in spreading American culture worldwide as a commercial enterprise and through contributions to nonprofit cultural exchange. On the other hand, she made it clear that “there are certain limitations to the role of business.” One is that business supports mainstream work that draws large audiences. Ms. Spero said that for this reason, she saw the role of the State Department and embassies as “generators of ideas, as conveners, as provocateurs…as marketing agents.” She said that the embassies must be used “not just in a financial sense, but in a creative, catalytic way.” It is the government and embassies that understand what can be useful abroad and “can support things that are controversial or things that are contemporary or not mainstream,” she concluded.

Language, the Internet and Cultural Communications

A lively exchange of views took place on the relationship between language and culture, as well as the impact of the Internet on communication among cultures. His Highness the Aga Khan urged assistance in making English more widespread as a means for cultures to express themselves and carry their rich messages to broader audiences. Rita Dove stressed the importance of language in cultural communications, noting that it is an amalgam of human experiences and difference. Poetry, she noted, was more useful than the mass media in defining our identities.

After the morning East Room session at the White House, the conference moved to the Westin Fairfax Hotel for workshops, following which Secretary Albright chaired a plenary session during which she received the rapporteurs’ reports on the workshop discussions.

C-Span video with complete remarks by President Clinton and His Highness the Aga Khan

Please click here or on photo below to watch video

Video White House Conference on Diplomacy attended by Aga Khan, Barakah and Simerg
Please click on image for link to complete video including remarks made by His Highness the Aga Khan. Readers will also be able to zero-in on transcripts of remarks made by each participant. Photo: AKDN / Mansur Saleh.

Date posted: November 14, 2019.

Before departing this website please take a moment to visit Barakah’s Table of Contents for links to more than 180 pieces dedicated to Mawlana Hazar Imam, his family and the Ismaili Imamat.


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This website, Barakah, is a special project by and is dedicated to the textual and visual celebration of His Highness the Aga Khan and members of his family, as well as the Ismaili Imamat.

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