[Translate to english:] Eröffnung der Tourneeausstellung "Fragile" von Wolfgang Tillmans in Lagos: in einem hellen Raum stehen Menschen verteilt und blicken auf Tische vor sich. Die Menschen sind schwarz. Auf den Tischen liegen verschiedene Objekte aus der Fotografie-Ausstellung von Wolfgang Tillmans, man erkennt nicht genau was. An der Wand ist eine große Fotografie einer blauen Welle. © Goethe-Institut Nigeria

What does foreign cultural policy mean? More answers (2)

Does "foreign cultural policy" automatically mean exporting culture and cultural colonialism? In this article, Joachim Staron explains how foreign cultural policy came about and addresses the key issues that arise again and again in connection with it. He also takes a look at the future development of foreign cultural policy.

"Ultimately, it's about instrumentalising culture for the purpose of exporting it"

Indeed, at the beginning, it was about nothing else. When countries such as Great Britain and France made culture into an instrument of foreign policy in the  19th century, their most important aim was "to soften their hegemony, particularly in the colonies, and to communicate the superiority of their own culture", as foreign cultural policy expert Kurt-Jürgen Maaß put it. Germany, too, launched its foreign and cultural policy enterprise after the turn of the century in a political climate that was strongly characterised by nationalism and a sense of mission.

After 1945, foreign cultural policy in the Federal Republic of Germany was conceived anew, in conscious contrast with the "Third Reich". Diversity and pluralism took the place of the state abuse of culture and education by the Nazis. Henceforth, it was decided that foreign cultural work should no longer be done directly by the government, but by state-financed, institutionally independent organisations, the so-called intermediary organisations.

Intermediary organisations established after World War II

While initially, the aim was to rebuild lost trust, the idea of competition gained the upper hand in the wake of the Cold War: the intention was to demonstrate superiority in matters of culture and education over the class enemy from the GDR.

The debate picked up considerable momentum from the 1970s. In the wake of an extended concept of culture and calls for general social participation in art and culture, the foreign cultural policy of the Federal Republic of Germany was completely remoulded. Civil society dialogue "on equal terms" on political, social and ideological questions was added to the export of German highbrow culture.

Broad range of subjects develops

When Joschka Fischer was Foreign Minister, he coined the term "two-way street", and the "Konzeption 2000" developed under his aegis extended the portfolio of foreign cultural work to include topics such as peacekeeping and conflict resolution.

Today, Germany's international cultural activities cover a very broad spectrum, ranging from language courses, art exhibitions, dialogue and exchange programmes and media contributions to crisis prevention, development cooperation, humanitarian aid and initiatives for politically persecuted artists.

Is this wide range a trump card, or should there be a refocus on core competences? Is the primary aim to present an attractive picture of Germany or to engage in cultural exchange and dialogue? Is culture a foreign policy instrument like many others or does it require special protection?

Different foreign ministers set their own priorities

The answers given to these questions are related to the political persuasion of the respective government, the circumstances at the time and the actors themselves. For liberal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, for example, the focus was on foreign cultural policy’s function as a "door-opener" for economic interests, whereas Frank-Walter Steinmeier followed on conceptually from Joschka Fischer's ideas.

Overall, however, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the Social Democrat of cultural policy, attached much greater value to culture than Joschka Fischer, the Green. As Rüdiger Schaper once commented in the Tagesspiegel on Fischer's term of office: "Culture did not mean much to him."

Today, Joschka Fischer's fellow party member Annalena Baerbock faces the task of formulating peace policy in unpeaceful times. "Our foreign cultural and education policy", she declared at the beginning of the year, "does not take place in a vacuum: it, too, faces the global challenges of systemic competition between autocracies and democracies."

"Dialogue on equal terms is wishful thinking"

That's not the way things should stay, however. Of course, dialogue on equal terms between partners who are very different, materially and culturally, always comes up against its limits. The outward "two-way street of publicly-funded cultural exchange with the world" said Johannes Ebert, former Secretary General of the Goethe-Institut, always "aspires to be an autobahn", while in the opposite direction, it has become "a country road, at least". "What does 'equal terms' mean now in Afghanistan, Egypt, Mexico?" asks Helmut K. Anheier, former President of the Hertie School in Berlin rhetorically: In an understanding of culture based on dialogue, you simply cannot overcome such power differences.

Creating credibility is a challenge

However right a comment on structural barriers may be, some problems in cultural dialogue are home-made. How can the necessary trust be built, for example, when, time and again, people in the Global South  have reason to doubt the credibility of their partners in the North? It is too much to expect foreign cultural work to act as a corrective for policies that are not over-particular when it comes to values.

After the disaster in Iraq twenty years ago, the USA, long the epitome of a soft power nation, was forced to realise that even the best cultural diplomacy "cannot turn lead into gold" as the American journalist Ramesh Ponnuru noted at the time.

When political measures do not match commitments

And Europe? People in the Global South are irritated to see that the North considers a lack of values among its partners to be entirely tolerable provided it goes hand in hand with an abundance of natural resources. And people well remember how, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the industrialised countries hoarded vaccines for a long time instead of sharing them in solidarity with people in developing and emerging countries.

The same applies to Europe's isolationist policy, which signals anything but the wish to engage in dialogue. The success of nationalist and racist movements in Europe do the rest to weaken the credibility of European discourses on democracy and human rights.

Main barrier: orientation to short-term projects

Cultural studies expert Annika Hampel examined how the aspiration of engaging in cooperative partnerships can be achieved in India, at least in work on specific projects. She found that the main barrier to cooperation on equal terms was the short-term nature of projects.

Project managers from Germany had hardly any time between arriving and leaving to get to know their counterparts, let alone to engage in any kind of real exchange. And when an artist such as Pina Bausch is flown in with her dance theatre for just one performance, that comes pretty close to old-style cultural export.

Thus, one of Hampel's central takeaways is this: Let's get away from short-term project orientation and move towards process financing, even if that comes at the price of limiting oneself to fewer projects.

From individual project to development process

That the principle of the one-way street may turn out to be a cul de sac, also in purely economic terms, is something the Chinese are currently experiencing in the Global South. Their Belt and Road Initiative projects are developed primarily by Chinese companies and workers, lack transparent tenders and involve very little transfer of know-how.

That worked well for a long time. Meanwhile, however, there is growing dissatisfaction, particularly in Africa and Latin America. And that has much to do with the lack of involvement of civil society as well as environmental degradation, corruption and high financing interest.

Building long-term trust: the key to success

Who could benefit if China's Belt and Road Initiative were to weaken? "The Europeans", is the answer often heard (usually from Europe), "the Europeans! With their economic power, their soft power and their trademark, civil society dialogue!"

But be warned against complacency. Unless soft power manages to build long-term trust, it has little other value. That is not a rule that applies exclusively to autocracies. Decisively developing the two-way street towards the South is something even European will not be able to avoid.

There are even more answers in the second part of this article:

What does foreign cultural policy mean? More answers (2)

Published on 28 August 2023 under the title Gegen den Strich: Auswärtige Kulturpolitik (Against the Grain: Foreign Cultural Policy) in Internationale Politik 5, September/October 2023, pp. 100 -105

Über den Autor
A man with light brown hair and a slightly greyish short beard. He is wearing a dark blue jacket and a white shirt. His arms are crossed and he is smiling at the camera.
Dr. Joachim Staron

Joachim Staron is an editor of Internationale Politik. He has previously held positions including Press Officer at ifa – Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen in Stuttgart.