What is cultural diplomacy

dis: orient

Some praise the unifying power of cultural diplomacy, others see it as the spearhead of tangible economic interests. What is German “soft diplomacy” doing today - and what is there to criticize?

In the glaring light of the oversubscription, you can see things more clearly: That is the hidden claim of the comedy series “The Institute - Oasis of Failure”, whose second season will take place in spring 2020 in BR televisionwas broadcast. The fictitious German cultural institute in an equally fictional “Kisbekistan” reveals a lot that is assumed to be part of cultural diplomacy: At first sight, everyone is cosmopolitan and committed, but behind the facade, German arrogance and latent racism keep coming to light. Little happens here at eye level. This is very often very funny - but how much truth is there?

This text is part of the dossier "German Foreign Policy in WANA". All the texts in the dossier can be found here. The project was funded by the Grow grant from Netzwerk Recherche e.V. and the Schöpflin Foundation.

The fictitious organization is unmistakably modeled on the Goethe-Institut. The Munich headquarters of the official German cultural institute will be a proud 70 years old in 2021, and for just as long it has been accused of being the hidden spearhead of tangible economic interests.

From a historical perspective, this is absolutely true: “At the beginning of the 20th century, the urge to influence other peoples culturally, which accumulated in the propaganda campaigns of the fascist-ruled countries,” writes Horst Harnischfeger in 2018 in “From Politics and Culture”, a series of German publications Cultural Council. No wonder that the federal government is trying to find a different framing today. In fact, politicians have been doing this for decades. Cultural diplomacy serves the partnership-based dialogue and opens up channels of communication that remain closed to politics, it was said in 1975 in a report by the German Bundestag's "Foreign Cultural Policy" commission.

In the WANA region in particular, “soft diplomacy” should have a stabilizing effect today. “Soft diplomacy” has long been a pillar of German foreign policy, but has come more into focus since the 2011 uprisings. Under the then German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (FDP), the “Transformation Partnership with the Arab World” was developed in the Foreign Office. Numerous projects are still running under this roof, primarily in Egypt and Tunisia, but also in Morocco, Libya, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.

German cultural diplomacy also strengthens dictatorships

Even if the Federal Foreign Office divides the programs into two categories - on the one hand for culture and education, on the other hand for stabilization: the ideas come from the same minds, the money comes from the same pots. However, “stabilization” always also means: control over migration movements, to put it more brutally: defense against escape, especially by the North African states. So dictators are indirectly strengthened by German cultural diplomacy, for example Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt. This is of course not always the case. It would be unfair to lump the diverse projects and committed people who implement them together. But: Diplomacy is not that “soft” either.

The so-called “cultural mediators” include the Goethe Institute, the Institute for Foreign Relations (ifa), the German Academic Foreign Service (DAAD), the Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), the Central Office for Schools Abroad and Deutsche Welle. Viewed from abroad, for example from the WANA countries, the differences are often difficult to see. As part of the transformation partnership, there have been various journalist programs since 2011, some of which were organized by the Goethe-Institut, but elsewhere by GIZ or Deutsche Welle.

However: “In the region”, a phrase widespread among diplomats, many people know very well how to make good use of the projects and programs. Hardly anyone has any illusions. “Of course there is always a touch of the colonial,” says the Tunisian Azza Chaabouni, who works as a lecturer, curator and editor in the film sector. “But we are not victims.” The Goethe people were always respectful of her, but at the French equivalent of the Goethe Institute, the Institut français, they experienced quite different things: “Maybe it's because of our shared colonial history, at least they said there often: We'll show you how this and that works. "

"Soft diplomacy is a defense mechanism"

One often hears that German organizations are generally respectful and seek eye-level. Nevertheless, the structural inequality is high: here the German state as a generous donor of money, expertise and other support, there the recipients. What does that bring for the state? "Soft diplomacy is a defense mechanism," believes Nada Sabet. The Egyptian cultural manager and director has participated in several Goethe-Institut programs over the past few years. A certain sense of guilt also plays a role: “The better someone is doing, the more they want to act altruistically. At least in part, this also applies to the political level. "

One word in particular plays a major role - in the political guidelines as well as in the individual programs: sustainability. Ifa, GIZ and DAAD do not want to distribute money with a watering can, they want to give impetus, set impulses. Helping people to help themselves is the much-invoked mantra of German international cooperation. Undoubtedly, it often works well: The library bus at the Goethe Institute in Cairo, for example, was designed to make children want to read outside of the big cities. According to their own statements, the two Egyptian project workers have reached several thousand children over the years. The institute took a back seat and finally handed over the bus imported from Germany in 2013 to an Egyptian foundation.

But how sustainably can relationships develop if the heads of the German institutes move on every few years, just like the management level below? "Then the projects change too, depending on what their interests are, what fits their goals or what is currently trending," says Nada Sabet. “There can be no talk of sustainability in this system.” Perhaps the German belief in office as the personification of a professional role is reaching its limits here. Many people do not want to communicate seamlessly with “the new IL” - the abbreviation for the institute management - but with a Katharina, a Stefan, a person.

It is above all the small, less state-sponsored projects that show what a curious, not purely interest-based cultural dialogue can achieve. Before the Corona crisis, the photographer Sebastian Backhaus took photos mainly in Iraq and Syria. His photos are published internationally. In late 2019, he bought a batch of single-use cameras, distributed them to children in a community in northern Iraq, and taught them how to take photos. The pictures should soon also be shown in Germany.

"We want to make people in this country aware of the realities on the ground in Iraq," says Backhaus. “So we're finally turning the whole thing around, now the Iraqi children are going to explain something to the Germans.” The project commissioned by GIZ had great results, but he asks himself: “Why am I actually the photographer who is flown in from Germany , and why doesn't one of the excellent photojournalists born in Iraq who speak the language do it? "

Brain drain and solid economic interests

Speaking of language: the core task of the Goethe Institute is teaching German. Learners from all over the world sit in the courses to - yes, why actually? So that Egyptian women in call centers look after German mobile customers cheaply? Of course, language skills are a key to the world, and it is always better to work in a call center than to live on the street. But the costs for the courses are steep despite partial financing by German tax money. Because many people want to go to Germany, the Goethe-Institut sees the language courses as an upstream integration measure. Critics counter: It is more of a selection measure.

Some contradictions are difficult to resolve. It becomes particularly complicated when German and European domestic politics are affected by what is happening abroad. For example, when a prospective doctor from Amman learns German at the Goethe-Institut and establishes networks, finally graduates in Germany and works in Hamburg, the Jordanian healthcare system will lack her.

It is a classic example of the “brain drain” that at least some of the cultural diplomatic projects additionally fuel. This argument is, of course, misused by German right-wing populists when they tell Syrian scientists to please “go back” and “rebuild their country”. In view of the persecution and threats to be expected there, this is more than cynical - but it catches on.

If you want, you can hear in the title song of the series “Oasis of Failure” that the “Oasis of Shaitan” is being sung about here - the devil in Arabic. This is clumsy and subtle at the same time, and therefore apt for cultural diplomacy as such: during the Janadriyah cultural festival in Riyadh in 2016, for example, the companies also had Lürssen and airbus a stand in the German pavilion. Both also manufacture military technology, the stands were the most popular.

Hard business interests under the guise of "soft diplomacy"? Fulfilled prejudice. And yet the strength of cultural politics was only a few meters away, when a Saudi woman, perhaps in her mid-twenties, moved to the sounds of a band, lost in thought. The musicians came at the invitation of the Goethe Institute. At the end of the little concert, the woman said she had just danced for the first time in public and among strangers. That might have been possible on vacation in Dubai, but it was still forbidden in Saudi Arabia itself at the time.

Transparency notice: The author worked for the Goethe-Institut in Egypt and Saudi Arabia in 2012/13 and 2015/16.