Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Goethe-Institut conference, Dialogue and the Experience of the Other, on 23 February 2015 in Berlin

23.02.2015 - Speech

Professor Lehmann,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Just two days ago, Professor Lehmann and I stood beside the remains of people who were not merely killed during the genocide in Rwanda, but were downright slaughtered. The memorial we visited is on the edge of a mass grave where 250,000 people are buried. Eight hundred thousand people were butchered in a murderous frenzy over the course of 11 weeks.

I am saying this because I also want to highlight the fact that we encountered a society in Rwanda, of all places, that is seeking reconciliation after the genocide, after this unimaginable national trauma.

Naturally, the wounds have not healed – not even 20 years later. Those affected – our interlocutors – know that this process may take longer than a single generation. But we were impressed by the courage, strength and wide range of ways with which people in Rwanda are striving for reconciliation after these unspeakable atrocities.

I was particularly impressed because I had had a very similar experience in Colombia just one week earlier.

A similar vital process of reconciliation is underway there. Following decades of conflict between the state and criminal terrorist groups that paralysed the country and cost tens of thousands of lives – while the whereabouts of many of those who were abducted remain unknown – Colombia is also endeavouring to come to terms with the past and to achieve reconciliation. One reason for my trip to Colombia was that its people know that we in Germany also had to come to terms with our own history and to strive for reconciliation in our own country.

I am not telling you this with the aim of moving or touching you in some way. I am telling you this very sincerely because it shows – perhaps more clearly than the actual terms do – that when we speak about dialogue and reconciliation processes, we are not talking about an abstract intellectual exercise. In fact, the path from dialogue to understanding and reconciliation can be essential for the life and even the survival of entire societies.

And if this is the case for societies, then it also applies to how we get along in the world – something we shape and influence through foreign policy.

This is why dialogue, the desire to understand, is one of the cornerstones of foreign policy – the cornerstone for what Willy Brandt described as the aim of and the benchmark for foreign policy, particularly cultural relations and education policy, namely to work on world reason.

When we look around us in the world today, we see that this work is more important than ever.

Whether we look at the violence in Ukraine or the rampaging of the ISIS terror hordes in the Middle East or of Boko Haram in Africa, these crises and the large number of these crises may create doubt in our minds about whether we are truly on the path to creating world reason.

These crises demand that we act quickly and tangibly. Sometimes the aim is to alleviate refugees’ suffering or to put a stop to terror and violence, as in the case of ISIS and Boko Haram at the moment.

In these cases, simply talking about openness to dialogue will not suffice. In certain situations, defusing a conflict does not depend on an offer of dialogue. In some conflict situations, we have to take a different approach and also use military force, not because we believe we can resolve the conflict this way, but at least to protect the victims – to protect those whose lives are at risk from ISIS’ advance, as we saw in Iraq.

I believe that such situations exist. But I also believe that although they exist, foreign policymakers must be aware that this approach is not enough. They also need to be aware that these new conflicts demand more of us.

These conflicts do not only demand answers to the most pressing problems, but also long-term solutions for peace and security in a changing world order.

If we look closer to home than the Middle East or Africa, then the crisis in Ukraine in particular makes one thing very clear to us – that the peaceful order of the 20th century with which my generation grew up no longer seems to apply. Or perhaps it does still apply, but is no longer accepted by many people.

But not only that. If we take this notion even further, then we can also ask whether the large number of crises at the moment is really a coincidence or if we are not perhaps experiencing a showdown between systems in a world that currently lacks an overarching order. One type of order, that of the Cold War and the confrontation between large blocs, ceased to exist with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 – and it has not been replaced by a new order.

Our world is in search of an order. But at the same time, our world is also growing ever more intertwined and its contrasts are colliding with ever more speed, unchecked by structures of international order.

If this is the case, it must have consequences for our foreign policy activities.

Because I see it this way, I launched a review process at the start of my second term in office. And I got the ball rolling by posing a somewhat provocative question: where does German foreign policy come up short? My aim was to obtain answers that help to shape German foreign policy and its structures in a way better suited to our times than was perhaps possible in the past. And despite the large number of crises, I also wanted to ensure that we do not just stop at day-to-day crisis management in our foreign policy work.

Instead, I want us at the heart of Europe in particular to think about how new elements of order can develop in the world’s shifting tectonics.

So what does this work on a new international order look like? And what – as I am sure you are asking yourselves – does it have to do with cultural relations and education policy?

When I talk about a new global order, I am not being naive. I’m not talking about us politicians standing at a drawing board, as if we were architects, and designing a huge global building with our compasses and rulers. That’s not what I mean. Staying with this metaphor, it would already be a major achievement if we could reach agreement internationally on the fundamental ideas, such as on what function a shared building should have in the first place. There is no doubt in my mind about what this function should be, namely to safeguard peace and a system based on rules.

We will not achieve this at a drawing board, but rather through dialogue, exchange, debate and understanding. And of course it is up to diplomats and foreign policymakers to work on new rules in the first instance. However, I am certain that cultural relations and education policy has a role to play.

Jean Monnet, one of the political architects of European integration, once said: “Nothing is possible without people, but nothing lasts without institutions.”

This means that we need to return to the root of Monnet’s idea. We need dialogue and understanding between people, between those who are active in civil societies, in order to create institutions and a more stable order.

And it is our cultural relations and education policy that makes this very dialogue possible. We must strengthen this policy.

Professor Lehmann, you also joined me on my visit to India last year. And we were both somewhat surprised when we talked with one of our guests during the return flight, the poet Rajvinder Singh, who suggested a relatively plausible formula for the role of cultural relations and education policy, that is, the principle of six eyes.

He said we should always look at each other through our own eyes, the eyes of the other and from a joint perspective. I think this is a useful image for the process of comprehension, insight and understanding.

Our own perspective means that we need to be able to explain our own views openly and self-confidently.

The perspective of the other is the attempt to see the world through their eyes.

And the joint perspective involves taking these two perspectives to establish a view that reflects both sides as much as possible.

This is the prerequisite for us to be able to work on new elements of a joint order in the first place.

In terms of our cultural relations and education policy, it means that this policy needs to strengthen all of these perspectives – our own perspective, the perspective of the other, and the joint perspective. In my opinion, five aspects are crucial here.


Firstly, cultural identities are particularly at risk in times of violent conflict and forced displacement. Protecting cultural identities is essential for understanding. People who are unsure of themselves will have difficulties in understanding others.

I would like to mention two examples of how cultural relations policy instruments can and should be used in such situations. On my last visit to Lebanon, my delegation included the writer Albert Ostermeier, with whom I visited a refugee camp. This visit resulted in a project that is particularly close to my heart, a project that is also supported by the Goethe-Institut. It involves cultural work with refugees in the refugee camps, host countries and here in Germany.

Albert Ostermeier wrote: “Our aim is to mobilise the social power of culture, as art and culture are simply humanity put – and to be put – into practice and experienced.”

This gets to the heart of the matter.

I would like to mention a second example. After the arms and drug trade, trade in stolen cultural property represents the third largest business for terrorists in countries such as Syria. We want to block off this source of revenue by improving legislation. We are working on this with the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media. People in Latin America and Africa have asked us about this work. German policymakers also need to get involved here.

Cultural objects must not be allowed to become stolen property or merchandise, as culture is a means of ensuring one’s own identity.

This is why the German Archaeological Institute is working with the Museum of Islamic Art and using Federal Foreign Office funding to support the process of recording Syrian cultural property in a digital registry.

We are safeguarding Islamic manuscripts in Timbuktu and helping to preserve historic buildings in Erbil, which was once a wealthy centre of trade.


However, we cannot simply stop there – and nor do we want to. There is no doubt in my mind that we need to improve our understanding of the tectonic shifts of the 21st century. This is also a cultural task. Only when we know and acknowledge the dreams – and above all, the traumas! – that determine how others think and feel, when we know which historic narratives influence today’s answers, only then do we learn how to see through the eyes of the other. And often it is only then that we are able see more clearly through our own eyes.

Secondly, this is why we should develop what one might call “cultural intelligence”, the ability to understand mindsets, conceptions of history and hopes for the future. This perception includes the perspective of the other and thus goes further.

To this end, we do not only need greater dialogue between academia and the cultural sphere – we also need hubs such as artists’ residencies and programmes.

We have started a pilot project on this topic with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. And I am also pleased that the Goethe-Institut is working with my ministry on a strategy on how we can make greater and better use of tools such as artists’ residencies. The Goethe-Institut sends over 140 artists abroad each year. But we hardly ever ask them what we can learn from their time abroad. We aim to change this by making it possible for our fellows to give feedback in Germany. And at the same time, I hope that these programmes will also be opened up to scientists so that dialogue and productive joint scientific and cultural activities can develop.

This brings me to my third point: how we can make the joint perspective even stronger than it has been so far in and through cultural relations and education policy.

This involves drawing up a cultural policy that goes beyond presenting and representing our country, a policy that facilitates cooperation and makes working together on world reason, that is, the co‑production of education, knowledge and culture, its priority, thus helping to overcome the separation between inside and outside.

I would like to outline a few elements here. We facilitate shared learning experiences through the Goethe-Institut’s language courses, our work with German schools abroad, the German Academic Exchange Service and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. We should continue working hard to further these elements through better networking, education programmes and alumni activities.

Projects such as Music in Africa, Tom Tykwer’s film school, and the work of theatre director Christoph Nix from Constance, who worked with his theatre in Uganda and Burundi, are all excellent examples of joint cultural work. And we need more such examples!

This is also why I hope that the Humboldt-Forum, which is being built a few hundred metres from here on Schlossplatz, will be a forum for this co-production of knowledge and culture for Berlin and Germany.

We had dinner with African and German partners in Nairobi last night and talked in detail about how we want to make the Humboldt-Forum a marketplace for the ideas of the 21st century through joint activities in the fields of art, culture, science and the media. We want to make it a marketplace in the European sense, an agora.

I firmly believe that each and every joint activity in science and culture is a building block for this forum where people can think together. This is why I would like to work with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and other partner organisations, such as perhaps the Wissenschaftskolleg here in Berlin, on establishing a special programme that will allow scientists to stay and work together in the Humboldt Forum.


Many years ago, Ralf Dahrendorf engraved the following notion in all our minds: “We need to move from a foreign policy of nations to a foreign policy of societies.” Particularly in a world shaken by crises, dialogue in societies and among individuals is all the more important alongside and in addition to the classical diplomacy of the state.

That is why – and this is the fourth aspect I wish to highlight – we are making better cooperation with civil society a priority.

With the help of the German Bundestag, we have launched a programme aimed at strengthening cooperation with civil society in the Eastern Partnership. Thousands of young people from Batumi to Lviv have already been given the opportunity to discuss the democratic resolution of conflicts in society in international forums – and many more will have this opportunity again this year. Other young people have played music together or undertaken joint research or will do so in the future. This also involves the social power of culture, something we should foster.

We also want these activities to point the way forward as regards structures. Thanks to the Goethe-Institut, we have a global network of cultural hubs. Combined with the knowledge and experience of the Federal Agency for Civic Education, this network could provide the foundation for a joint international strategy. And I am pleased that the president of the Goethe-Institut and the president of the Federal Agency for Civic Education see this in exactly the same way and are keen to work together on this topic. I am sure they will come up with good suggestions. They can certainly count on my support!

I would like to mention a fifth – and final – point, one that brings me back to Monnet. Nothing lasts without institutions! Or to put it another way, all dialogue needs a home, a space where there is freedom, creativity and understanding. There is a name for these dialogue spaces in the Federal Republic of Germany. Moreover, they enjoy a reputation that reverberates. They are called Goethe‑Institute.

Professor Lehmann,

I was particularly glad that we had the chance to open the new Goethe-Institut in Kinshasa together during our trip. And it is good that the German Bundestag has supported us once again in putting the Goethe-Institut back on a solid financial footing. We will do our best to ensure things stay this way in the future!

Our own perspective, the perspective of the other, and the joint perspective. Allow me to conclude by mentioning an example and drawing your attention to three superb novels that stand exactly for this.

Ms Haratischwili,

Your novel, and the novels by Katja Petrowskaja and Olga Grjasnowa, opened my eyes to how closely we are interwoven in Europe; to how much the area from Tbilisi to Berlin via Lviv and Saint Petersburg is a space of shared remembrance; to how mindsets and feelings have been shaped throughout generations; and to how carefully we need to deal with these connecting lines because consciously or unconsciously, through what we have heard or imagined, they form part of how we think today and because centuries of history lie beneath the surface of our actions today. More than ever, I am certain that only through and in culture, education and science will we be able to develop the understanding that we so urgently need to be able to make sound judgements. And only in this way will responsible policymakers remain capable of making sound judgements in the long term in the face of media exaggerations and the internet’s dramatisations of conflicts.

Ms Haratischwili, I am particularly happy that you can be here with us this evening!

I look forward to the discussion.

Thank you very much.

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