“Ifa promotes cultural exchange worldwide”

13.01.2017 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the 100th anniversary of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) – Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations
Published in the Stuttgarter Zeitung on 13 January 2017

Interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the 100th anniversary of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen (ifa) – Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations Published in the Stuttgarter Zeitung on 13 January 2017


Minister, when did you first have any contact with the ifa? Were you already Foreign Minister?

I’ve known about the ifa for a long time. Even if Stuttgart isn’t exactly just down the road from Berlin, I have always been keen to maintain a regular exchange with our oldest intermediary organisation.

What role does the ifa play in the Federal Foreign Office’s activities in your eyes?

Given the many crises and conflicts in the world today, cultural relations and education policy is more important than ever as a bridge between people. And so the work of the ifa, which is committed to cultural exchange worldwide, is indispensable. I am keen to promote access to culture and education across boundaries. Looking beyond the current crises, this will be the crucial issue for cultural relations policy in the coming years. With its wealth of experience and its international network, the ifa has a central role to play.

The ifa is active worldwide and is anchored in Europe. How do you view the ifa’s role in communicating German and European values?

The ifa makes it possible to access culture from and with Germany and promotes cultural exchange and dialogue worldwide. In addition, it makes a cultural contribution to the European integration process and to Europe’s external relations. I see this as an indispensable asset, particularly when it comes to developing new, shared knowledge structures in Europe. Consolidating the crumbling foundations of European integration is a task worth every conceivable effort. The ifa plays a major role in this regard with all its programmes and projects.

What is it that cultural exchange on a personal level between countries and peoples, undoubtedly one of the ifa’s strengths, can do better than diplomacy?

It was the Swabian Theodor Heuss who said that one cannot make culture with politics, but perhaps one can make politics with culture. Theodor Heuss showed great far-sightedness all those decades ago, because today culture is an intrinsic element of foreign policy. Culture stands for the space outside the realm of politics in which traditional stories, images and narrative patterns are reflected – the dreams and traumas that make up society.

What do you mean by that?

In some instances, the diplomacy of culture and science can go further than diplomacy itself. The job of cultural policy is to protect precisely these spaces outside the realm of politics. Even more so in cooperation with difficult partner countries. So to that extent, cultural exchange and diplomacy are interdependent. The cultural intelligence that cultural intermediaries such as the ifa bring to cross‑border relations is a huge help for us diplomats and foreign policy‑makers.

The ifa Mission Statement says “Cultural exchange means commitment to peace.” It seems as if the world is growing less and less peaceful. Against this background, how necessary is the work of institutions like the ifa?

The world has come loose from its moorings; traditional orders no longer seem to hold. It is therefore even more important to use cultural relations and education policy to create and protect spaces which facilitate a peaceful exchange on societies’ dreams and traumas. It would be a mistake, though, to believe that culture and education automatically lead to greater peace and security. But precisely because there is no such direct causality, we should make the very best possible use of the special qualities of culture, science and education, because culture opens up prospects for people. This is especially true of the ifa’s work in the field of international conflict prevention.

Dialogue is an elementary part of mutual understanding. What do you think the ifa should be doing in this area?

With funding from the Federal Foreign Office, the ifa implements dialogue and crisis management programmes all around the world. It thus prepares the ground for good diplomacy in the service of the people, for example via the newly-established “ifa‑Akademie”, which trains individuals and institutions in intercultural work. But the German public also forms part of the dialogue. For years the ifa has been running successful grassroots dialogues on foreign-policy issues with its programme “Foreign policy live – Diplomats in dialogue”, reaching a huge number of interested citizens all across Germany.

What was your favourite ifa project in recent years?

I have two favourites: the management of the German contribution at the Biennale, and especially the wonderful cooperation with the curator of the official German contribution to the Venice Art Biennale 2017, Ms Susanne Pfeffer, and the Federal Foreign Office. Because the Art Biennale is the art event and the place to present contemporary art.

My other favourite project is from a completely different sphere: the CrossCulture Programme. Here, young professionals are working on the global network of cultures in the truest possible sense. And through their practical work they are creating a common culture. That is exactly what we need between the continents and nations, and I am pleased that I can continue to work on this along with the President, Ursula Seiler-Albring, and from the summer Martin Roth, and Secretary General Roland Grätz.

What personal links do you have with Stuttgart, home of the ifa?

I was often here back when I was active in politics in Lower Saxony, and I grew to appreciate the city and its people. Stuttgart lies at the heart of one of the strongest industrial regions in Germany and is home to self‑confident citizens. I have experienced its inhabitants’ love of debate myself a few times at various public events here.

One of my less happy memories of the city is that it was here on the afternoon of 11 September, during a private holiday when I was Head of the Federal Chancellery, that I was informed of the terrorist attack on New York. I saw the first pictures of the disaster at the home of friends here.

Interview conducted by Reimund Abel

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