A Dialogue Between Diplomats
Dialogue between citizens and foreign policy: expectations and reality
Pegida and TTIP are symptoms of society’s loss of confidence in the government. Civil-society actors are becoming increasingly more significant when it comes to shaping Germany’s foreign policy. What is the importance of participation here? Can dialogue formats break down distrust and create transparency? On 21 June 2017, Dieter Reinl and Valentin Naumescu discussed these topics in the German city of Passau. The discussion was moderated by Sophie Haring.
By Dr. Odila Triebel and Daniela Hochstätter, translation: Vera Draack
Why is a dialogue between citizens necessary?
New communication technologies and easier mobility enable civil-society actors to play a significant role in shaping foreign policy. Where do civil society’s expectations and participation in initiatives come from? How can the complex relationships in foreign policy be conveyed against such a background? How can we make their ability to compromise clear? How can we explain the function and perception of individual areas? Does the analogue dialogue carried out between citizens represent an important legitimizing tool within the environment of post-truth policy strategies?
With his expertise as a diplomat and politician, Romanian Professor Naumescu introduced a European perspective into the discussion. According to him, it is important to obtain a second opinion apart from the official government line. In addition to dialogues between citizens, he referred in particular to experts from academic fields, think tanks or non-governmental organisations. Their recommendations for action are an important contribution to the balance of power. Furthermore, dialogues between citizens ensure that there is more transparency. This also gives governments the opportunity to communicate complex foreign policy processes in comprehensible terms. And finally, dialogues between citizens legitimize long-term projects such as the EU in a democratic manner. They are, therefore, a form of bottom-up policy from the citizens’ point of view.
From a review in 2014 to a European dialogue
The changes in mobility and communication are internationalizing individuals’ social lives more and more. Thus, these changes make new communication strategies between the state and civil society a necessity. Dieter Reinl stated that, since the review process in 2014, the Federal German Foreign Office has been dedicating itself more actively to the dialogue with civil society. Using different formats, the heads of the Federal Foreign Office and diplomatic missions explained complex foreign policy issues in a comprehensible manner. They gathered impulses and discussed proposals for solutions. In this pre-political sphere, civil society was to be given the opportunity to critically examine different topics and introduce its own point of view. This concept worked. It was continued in the 2017 series of events, “Which Europe do we want?”
Is analogue "out"?
While a twittering president is attempting to reach the masses directly via social media, the Federal Foreign Office is concentrating on analogue formats. Reinl emphasized that direct contact continues to be of extreme importance, because this makes emotions visible and promotes trust. Naumescu stated that democracy was a constant process of dialogue that should never be taken for granted. Values and norms should always be redefined from one generation to the next; nothing should simply be presumed, and there should be no taboos.
The danger of referendums
As an export nation, Germany is strongly dependent on foreign policy developments in times of globalisation. For Reinl, the significance of civil society’s involvement in trade policy decisions was clearly visible in the case of the TTIP free trade agreement. Civil society criticized the lack of transparency during negotiations and demonstrated to put pressure on governments. A growing number of people called for a referendum. But can such referendums generally create greater democratic legitimacy? Do people then fail to recognize that, in the end, only elected politicians can be made responsible for the consequences? Both discussants expressed their scepticism, also because the status quo had become a matter of course. Critical viewpoints always received more attention during elections or polls, because they promised changes.
The challenge: dialogues between citizens with a broad spectrum
The Federal Foreign Office is presently developing formats that will be able to reach many sectors of society. Democracy must not have any gaps: neither the regulars’ table in the pub nor the supermarket may be left out. Naumescu explained that it was, however, also an important challenge to win the support of the middle and upper classes for politics. Their sense of political action was growing weaker; in some societies, a withdrawal to private life could be detected. Participation should be at just the minimum level.
The significance of civil society
Daniel Göler from the University of Passau emphasized that civil society does not just act as an advisor and legitimizing democratic base. Increasingly, it also has an international impact on foreign policy. Thus, participation is of crucial importance. ifa’s white paper on “Civil-society Actors in Foreign Policy” by Göler, Lohmann and Vollmer emphasized that state institutions should involve civil-society actors who conduct foreign policy far more strongly. Naumescu is of the opinion that, although dialogue forums are important, arguments are even better. An open society and long-term projects such as the European Union require not just advocates and policy makers in governments. They must also be supported by respected public figures from such sectors as religion, culture and the media.
Dialogues between citizens are important, both as a place for exchanging knowledge as well as forming opinions. They are essential in making politics transparent and demanding governments’ accountability for their politics. To achieve this, however, forums are required in which policies can be developed, especially for projects such as an integrated Europe. The assignment for the future is, therefore, to explore further the possibilities for participation.