There are many things Ina von Ber loves about San Diego. After all, she’s lived all over the world but was drawn back here, and is quick to extol the city’s virtues. There is, however, one area where San Diego, she feels, falls short: cultural diplomacy.
It is this deficiency that von Ber hopes to correct with a new — or at least newly revived — vision, a series of events called the Ambassadorial Roundtable, which kicked off June 5 with the visit of Bosnia and Herzegovina ambassador Jadranka Negodic at a private home on Mount Soledad.
At the event’s first reincarnation, Negodic delivered an engaging talk to an intimate crowd, speaking on the challenges the country has faced since the 1992 war that broke up several Balkan states, as well as what the future holds for the region.
The next major goal for Bosnia, Negodic said, is to join the European Union and NATO. What most of the rest of the world doesn’t understand, she said, is that the war has been over for nearly 20 years, and the country no longer resembles the war-torn images that were widely distributed around the world in the early 1990s.
“What we need to do now is focus on how to take that image of war and refugees to an image of a country with huge potential,” she said.
That potential will increase, she said, if the nation manages to attract foreign investors and grow its economy. It’s that attraction that von Ber hopes her monthly events will help facilitate for countries the world over.
German-born von Ber, who formerly headed the local chapter of the World Affairs Council, said she feels like San Diego, though it is forging ahead in the arts and other areas, gets lost in the mix when it comes to cultural diplomacy, overshadowed by Los Angeles and San Francisco.
“When you think of San Diego, you think of Canada and Mexico and the Pacific Rim. There’s not much of a global feel. I like to say it’s the smallest largest town,” she said. “When people talk about globalization here, they’re focused on trade, but we don’t have any cultural diplomacy. But we’re not just skateboarders and biotech. We have people who are interested in culture and international affairs. We just need to put ourselves on the map.”
As the head of the World Affairs Council, von Ber had the idea to help make a name for the city by bringing ambassadors from all over the world to San Diego for cultural conferences, which she did once a month between 2005 and 2008. The biggest challenge at the time was getting foreign representatives to see San Diego as a diplomatic destination. Most of them, she said, had never been here.
“I had some ambassadors say they always visit Washington, D.C. or San Francisco,” she said. “Finally they started to take more interest in going somewhere else.”
Using her connections in the State Department and U.N., von Ber gathered a growing list of ambassadors committed to making a local appearance. Past events have seen ambassadors from Kazakhstan, El Salvador, Estonia, Thailand, New Zealand, Spain and many more come through the city, with lectures running the gamut from political and economic considerations to cultural transformations.
Von Ber left the World Affairs Council in 2008, and the Ambassadorial Roundtable took a hiatus while she worked as the consul general for the Bosnian ambassador in the southwest and lectured locally and internationally. When Mayor Bob Filner, who ran heavily on a platform of cross-border cooperation, was elected last year, von Ber felt the time might be right to start up the conferences again. This time around, von Ber was determined not only to bring ambassadors to the city monthly, but also to host an annual two-day conference featuring discussions on national security, healthcare, globalization, education, cybersecurity, tourism, diplomacy and the luxury industry.
“I wanted to focus on two things: the consistency of one ambassador a month and a huge conference once a year,” she said. “The goal is to move ahead and promote San Diego and the region, and be forward-thinking the way [the World Economic Forum in] Davos (Switzerland) and the Aspen Institute are. I just thought, ‘Why can’t we do it here?’”
Von Ber hopes participants in the monthly events will walk away with “a warm, fuzzy feeling,” and the presentations, designed to be somewhat easygoing, include food and live music.
Not unlike Negodic’s hopes for her country, Von Ber, meanwhile, hopes to take her idea for a more diplomatically diverse San Diego to the next level. She has named the annual conference Excelsior San Diego (excelsior, she said, means “upward” in Latin).
“It’s a cool title for us,” she said. “We’re moving upward. We’re going to be on the map. I’m enthusiastic about it — it’s very close to my heart, and I’m determined to make it work.”
For more information on the Ambassadorial Roundtable, visit ambassadorialroundtable.org.