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“The cold wind of renationalisation”

Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on the social power of education and culture – and leeway for a peaceful world. Published in the Tagesspiegel Newspaper on 6 May 2017

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Foreign Minister, your predecessors assessed and promoted culture in different ways. What is your position in this regard?

We are currently witnessing a recalibration of the world in which old patterns of order no longer apply and new lines of conflict keep on emerging – even where we least expect them. Cultural relations and education policy are indispensable in terms of promoting the liberalisation of society and offering people prospects for a better future, particularly when politics and traditional diplomacy reach their limits. This is precisely where the social power of culture lies. And this is why we are working resolutely to achieve a strategic realignment of cultural relations and education policy. This is about a cultural policy that facilitates the necessary leeway for culture, education and academia, about a foreign policy of civil societies.

Many people consider the state of the world to be threatening and peace to be in jeopardy. Does cultural work stand a realistic chance at all here? Shouldn’t cultural work abroad seek to realign itself under these circumstances?

We must improve access to culture and education in order to better understand what preoccupies other societies and what constitutes the new world disorder. That is to say what Willy Brandt once described as “compassion” – the capacity to see and feel life through the eyes of others. Only then can we work on solutions together. This is why we are deliberately creating and working to maintain spheres outside the political realm – such as with difficult partners like Iran or Turkey or with the package of measures of the Eastern Partnership as a response to the Ukraine conflict. We are flanking this by expanding our cultural infrastructure abroad. Seen in this way, cultural policy no longer has a purely aesthetic, but, above all, a social function. Strengthening the social power of culture and education is indispensable for a more peaceful world.

There aren’t many countries that are as intensively committed to culture and dialogue. Is Germany’s integrative role in the world expanding? Are expectations of us rising?

Thanks to the Members of the German Bundestag, we were able to reverse the negative trend in the current legislative term and to increase funding for cultural relations policy considerably. This shows that cultural and educational work is considered to be a key task across the parliament. The signal that this sends shouldn’t be underestimated. Many culture professionals and academics around the world have got in touch with us via our model and bring their findings to bear in their own societies back at home. Nevertheless, we mustn’t overestimate our capacities, but must cooperate with our European partners more intensively. This is why the Goethe-Institut’s closer collaboration with other European partners, especially France, is so important. We must take even greater steps towards achieving genuine cooperation and the formation of cultural teams in Europe. An example of this is Turkey, where the Goethe-Institut is working together with the Institut Français and Swedish, Dutch and Turkish partners to set up cultural centres in Diyarbakir, Gaziantep and Izmir with the aim of strengthening civil society in Turkey.

Let’s stick to the example of Turkey. How can culture and dialogue strengthen the country’s civil society that is under threat? The Federal Republic opened the Kulturakademie Tarabya, a wonderful place for creative individuals on the Bosphorus, just a few years ago.

I’m greatly concerned by developments in Turkey. Turkish society has been deeply polarised since the referendum and the room for manoeuvre enjoyed by the press has become vastly diminished; Deniz Yücel’s case unfortunately remains unresolved. It is therefore all the more important to maintain this dialogue, even though this is so laborious at the present time. This is why we are, with our cultural and educational work, doing what we can to keep the channels of communication open and to support the forces of civil society – from greatly expanding youth exchanges in the course of this year to promoting independent reporting in Turkey to scholarships for persecuted Turkish academics. Moreover, with the Kulturakademie in Tarabya and the Turkish-German University, we have inestimably important places and platforms for the social dialogue between our two countries, especially in difficult times such as these. Civil society actors in Germany are also working to enable Turkish culture professionals and journalists at risk to continue their work.

Let’s take a look at Hungary and Poland. Values that the Goethe-Institut stands for and conveys are being attacked by the governments in these neighbouring countries. What can we do to combat strident nationalism and populism?

The cold wind of renationalisation that is currently howling through Europe is shaking the very foundations of the European house. This trend is highly dangerous. Slogans such as “roll things back and batten down the hatches” that are being peddled as the solution by populists everywhere on Twitter lead nowhere as the complex issues of our time, from climate change to fair world trade and migration flows, can only be addressed at the European level. Europe is a community of shared values, also culturally speaking. This is why we take a strong stand when European principles are undermined, such as the recent case of the Central European University in Budapest. And this is why we have set up formats such as the Dialogue on Europe in order to connect across Europe and as a rebuttal to populist answers.

There are also anti‑cultural trends in the US. If he had it his way, President Donald Trump would dispense with the promotion of culture entirely. What do you hope the planned German Academy in New York will achieve?

Recent months in particular have shown most clearly that the transatlantic partnership is no longer a matter of course. Foreign policy, particularly cultural relations policy, isn’t something you can bash into shape with a sledgehammer, nor can it be boiled down to 140 characters. It is therefore all the more important that we expand the close dialogue with the US on the topics that concern us, and especially with the tools of cultural relations policy. With Thomas Mann’s house, we will, in the future, have an ideal place to sharpen our focus for one another in the spirit of the great German author. Another important element is the planned German Academy at the heart of Manhattan. This will be an open, transparent building that will bring together innovative minds on both sides of the Atlantic in order to collaborate on relevant topics of the present and future and make them tangible – also with a view to the year of Germany in the USA, which is scheduled for 2018.

Are there limits, such as who you talk to and do cultural exchanges with and what you put up with – for example in Arab countries that engage in mass violations of human rights and which finance terrorism?

We are not holding back in our criticism of the infringement of human rights. In my experience, however, more is often achieved for the victims in confidential talks than by statements shouted through megaphones. Moreover, we are looking to cooperate with difficult partners in order to create, using the tools of cultural policy, spheres outside the realm of politics where culture can develop in a protected way. This is, admittedly, often somewhat more challenging than calling for others to gear their actions to our values from the comfort of our armchairs in Berlin. Spheres outside the realm of politics is not a description of a state, but is a normative aspiration that we constantly have to renegotiate. One example was our involvement in the Janadriya Festival in Saudi Arabia as a partner country. We came in for a great deal of criticism over this, but this is the only way to promote the liberalisation of society.

Islamic State and the Taliban are attacking our civil and cultural values. Culture is certainly a polemic concept here. What can be done about this?

We are currently witnessing a pseudo-religious escalation of conflicts in many parts of the world. Anyone who, like ISIS, destroys religious sites and cultural property, wants to rob people of their identity and stand in the way of an open, humane and diverse society. We must take decisive steps to combat this, and also make it clear through our cultural work that education and differentiation are the only remedy against ideology. We must not give free rein to preachers of hate waging conflicts under the mantle of cultural or religious struggles.

One last question. What area of culture do you yourself like best: film, literature or music?

Quality cinema, good books and excellent music all move me in equal measure. But, deep down, I still pledge allegiance to rock music. My passion for rock and blues, from the Stones to BAP to Lindenberg and Maffay, is quite compatible with my current office at any rate. It’s about the sound you create.

Interview conducted by Rüdiger Schaper.

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