Citizen Dialogue, Freiburg 2017. Photo: © Thomas Kunz

Foreign policy live

Diplomats close up: A conclusion

Which subjects do diplomats deal with? What does their working environment look like? Which questions and problems do they face? How do they make important decisions in conflict situations? Diplomats are often confronted with sensitive issues. They have to develop solution strategies that are in harmony with the interests and values of their country. In a functioning democracy they cannot proceed without the trust of the citizens. Citizen dialogues can be a valuable instrument and provide inspirational impulses.

By Mirjam Karrer

ifa has created the event series "Foreign Policy Live - Diplomats in Dialogue" as a forum of exchange. It has organised 77 events in Germany on behalf of the Federal Foreign Office since 2011. Interested citizens had the opportunity to meet closely with diplomats from a very broad range of areas. The concept worked, enabling lively discussions. Frequently, the exciting debates extended beyond the actual parameters of the debate. "Very often people continued discussing until the caretaker wanted to lock up. Democracy thrives on this kind of passion", said Odila Triebel, ifa event organiser.  

Using topical subjects, diplomats of the Federal Foreign Office from many different areas explained to the audience how foreign policy works. The diversity of the regional topics reflected the individual areas of work accordingly. For example, ambassadors who have worked in Singapore, Katar or Russia addressed the issue of economic relations. The work of the UN-Human Rights Council was a topic just as was migration and its causes. As the Head of the Culture and Communication Department of the Federal Foreign Office, Andreas Görgen spoke on endangered cultural goods in Palmyra, Nepal and Timbuktu. 

Burak Copur, Haznain Kazim and Martin Erdmann in Cologne 2016. Photo:© ifa/ Hochstaetter

Transparency and its limits

Working as a diplomat requires absolute discretion and caution with regard to handling sensitive information. It is particularly sensitive when political negotiations are ongoing, as the protection of third parties and the trust of the negotiating partner are involved. In some cases, the exclusion of the public can be decisive for the success or failure of the endeavour. Do such cases justify the side-lining of the public? Is non-transparent political action compatible with democratic principles? A complicated issue.

Last year's event on German-Turkish relations exemplified the balancing act between transparency and discretion at the heart of the diplomat's role. Martin Erdmann, Germany's ambassador in Ankara, engaged with a full auditorium at Cologne University. On several occasions he gave the floor to the former Turkey correspondent Haznain Kazim. In particular with regard to sensitive topics such as the presidential system or the freedom of the press Erdmann could not express criticism due to his function as a diplomat.

A complex and diverse area

Andreas Kindl, ambassador of the representation in Yemen, illustrated what crisis diplomacy looks like when viewed from outside. Due to the increased intensity of the conflicts he worked from the Jordanian capital Amman. He has never personally visited Yemen.  
Particularly in 2014, the Arab spring and its consequences was a dominant topic at "Foreign Policy Live". Post-election developments in Tunisia and the effects on the relations with Germany were at the centre of attention on several occasions this year. 

The topic Europe has moved more into the centre during the last three years. Debates concerning populism, euro-scepticism and the role of Germany in the European context arose. ifa addressed the question "Which Europe do we want?" with an additional national citizen dialogue on issues revolving around Europe.

An interested audience, Duisburg 2017. Photo: © ifa/ Hochstaetter

Taking a different perspective

Depending on the cooperating partner and the thematic focus, the audiences attending individual dialogue events differed greatly. In addition to politically minded citizens many ex-pats and exiled persons used the opportunity to inform themselves about the diplomatic relations of their countries of origin to Germany. "Iran after the Nuclear Treaty: Between Change and Challenges?" was the name of an event in 2016, which many Iranians residing in Germany took part in.

But not only guests took new impressions and information home. It was very refreshing for the speakers to gain new perspectives on their work. However, the citizen dialogue cannot be regarded as a form of participatory democracy. But goal-oriented discussions can help in reflecting the work of the Federal Foreign Office. Thus, the diplomats were able to add important impulses from the civilian population to the domain of foreign policy.

Citizens and foreign policy

In particular, it was Frank Walter Steinmeier who recognised that civil society plays a role in foreign policy which is not to be underestimated. He placed great importance on the exchange between the population and politics. After the Review Process in the Federal Foreign Office in 2014, he increasingly focused on dialogue with citizens. Using the newly founded department "Network Foreign Policy in Germany", the Federal Foreign Office will continue the discussion series in the future. 

The future work of the focus will also shift attention to the role of civil society. What exactly does civil society mean? Are there cultural differences regarding the comprehension of the term? Which role does it play in the German and European foreign policy? How can it be strengthened?

The study "Civil Society Actors in Foreign Policy" recently published by ifa addresses such questions and provides a theoretical framework to the term civil society.  But ifa also supports civil society networks in practice. 

Diplomats in Dialogue in Erfurt, 2017. Photo: © ifa/ Hochstaetter

Dialogue and exchange

The  CrossCulture Programm (CCP) is a good example for the exchange between persons working in the media, culture or for NGOs. Young persons receive the opportunity to work in a different cultural environment and to experience the transfer of know-how and the exchange of knowledge. With success: the feedback given by former scholarship recipients are very positive. Many relations are maintained after returning, and new networks developed.


Dialogue and exchange create trust. In Europe, the accusation that policy is carried out without consent of the population is made repeatedly. In particular, civil society will play a central role for an integrated Europe. Formats such as "Foreign Policy Live - Diplomats in Dialogue" can help to debunk central arguments of populists. On the national level, Germany has taken an exemplary initiative.


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