Crowd, Standing, People, and Raise; Photo: Edwin Andrade via Unsplash
Crowd, Standing, People, and Raise; Photo: Edwin Andrade via Unsplash

German civil society international - A conversation on the new foreign policy

In times of increasing political disillusionment and scepticism towards the state, reference is often made to civil society as an important contributor to shaping democracy. Civil society no longer assembles along national organisational structures - whether the issue at hand is the promotion of the European idea or advancing transnational networks of campaign groups. Many actors target neighbouring countries, regions or international politics with their activities. In their study "Zivilgesellschaftliche Akteure in der Außenpolitik [Civil Society Actors in Foreign Policy]" Prof. Dr. Daniel Göler and Robert Lohmann discuss the foreign policy of civil society. What is the meaning of 'civil society' in this context? How does this new form of foreign policy influence state actors?
An interview with Robert Lohmann and Daniel Göler
The interview was conducted by Isabell Scheidt.

ifa: Which differences do you see in the interpretation of the meaning of 'civil society'? What does this mean in practice?

Lohmann: Our study, as well as our experience in this area, shows a mixed picture with regard to what constitutes the core of civil society, and who actually belongs to it. In our survey, we delineated civil society against state actors in particular, but also against the private realm and the economy. By no means is this done by everyone: in Germany, for example, civil society and state actors are intertwined to a significant extent. This is not only evident in specific cooperation, but also in a complex model of mixed funding, into which civil society actors are integrated. 

: However, these differences in the way civil society is understood pose challenges, in particular, to international cooperation. The Russian "agent laws" are an example of this. Civil society actors, presumably directed or funded by external sources, are their primary targets. Presumably, in all areas of European and international cooperation, civil society actors are met with caution if their intention or background of funding is not clear. Our work has shown that the different ways in which civil society is understood do not necessarily need to constitute an impediment to cooperation across borders, but that they must at least be approached with sensitivity and caution. 

ifa: Civil society actors primarily see themselves as stakeholders and are active where they can assert their concerns most effectively. Is this an apt summary of the stance of German civil society?

Göler: Not quite. Civil society actors are important stakeholders in pluralist societies such as Germany, contributing to the aggregation and articulation of interests, and addressing them at important interfaces in German and European politics. In particular, this applies to associations of civil society actors. However, when we were conducting surveys, we got to know many actors who precisely do not want to assert any direct, targeted influence. For example, in Germany many civil society actors work in the field of knowledge transfer or education. In doing so, they place great emphasis on neutral work, aiming to enable participants to self-reliantly arrive at informed views. 

ifa: What could a foreign policy strategy which considers civil society as active in foreign policy look like?

Lohmann: The added value that the inclusion of a wide range of actors in the joint formulation and implementation of foreign policy targets can grant is yet to be fully recognised by state actors. In their field of activity, civil society actors can do valuable work in German foreign policy, which they also put into practice on a daily basis. Civil society work extends far beyond organising European or international youth exchanges. Civil society plays a significant role in the way Germany is viewed abroad as it equally exerts influence on state actors and also contributes to shaping foreign policy. Here, the view seems to prevail that civil society actors could help with the implementation of previously formulated aims. Nevertheless, currently there seems to be a process of reconsideration, which becomes evident with Review 2014 Prozess or the follow-up project of the dialogue with private foundations. However, this process can be intensified. We would thus recommend establishing a strategic dialogue with civil society in order to integrate it in policy formulation and to use its high degree of expertise. 

ifa: How do you assess the transnational activities of civil society? With regard to German actors in Europe, could this be seen as a contribution to European integration?

Lohmann: Absolutely! The previously mentioned youth exchanges make an important contribution to the European integration of societies. But encounters on other levels, such as joint political simulations as offered by the European Youth Parliament, are also important. In other areas, such as creating or strengthening democracy and the rule of law in EU member states, or as part of a joint neighbourhood policy, civil society actors contribute to European integration with their daily work. Another case example in our study is the German-Moldovan Forum, which organises events and consultation programmes on location. 

ifa: Is Germany's foreign policy unable to keep up with reality?

Göler: That would be taking it too far, but, in practice, Germany's foreign policy could be more effective and could be designed more broadly if civil society actors were more strongly integrated. There is a multitude of competences and international programmes that can be used jointly.

ifa: Which project do you view as exemplary for the foreign policy of civil societies? 

Lohmann: With its events, the European Youth Parliament not only contributes to the creation of intercultural networks of young people in over 40 countries, it also promotes an understanding for democracy and the rule of law. In Belarus, Turkey, Russia and many other states, this can be of high significance. This is also a way of shaping foreign policy. But also seemingly non-political associations, such as sport clubs, make an important contribution by offering sponsorship programmes for the development of structures and charters for associations. Associations as "study rooms" for democracy and participation have often played an important role in history. Göler: The efforts of the Europäische Bewegung Deutschlands [European Movement of Germany], which is working hard to make the procedure of the trialogue in the European Union more transparent, are another example. On the one hand, they formulate this aim towards German and European actors, and, on the other hand, via their European association towards state actors of other member states. Thus, a form of public diplomacy comes into existence that extends beyond the traditional understanding of foreign policy. 

About Göler

[Translate to English:] Daniel Goeler; Foto: ifa

Prof Dr Daniel Göler studied politics, history and catholic theology at the University of the Saarland and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne from 1996-2001. In 2005 he received a PhD from the University of Cologne in political science. His PhD thesis analysed deliberative decision-making processes in the European constitutional convention. Before joining the University of Passau in 2008 he was research fellow at the Institute for European Politics in Berlin (2001-2007) and senior research fellow at the Institute for Social Science of the German Bundeswehr (2007-2008). Research focus: European Foreign and security policy, Governance in the EU multi-level system,  European energy policy, public participation in political decision-making processes.

About Lohmann

[Translate to English:] Robert Lohmann; Foto: ifa

Robert Lohmann is a research and teaching assistant in the team associated with the Jean Monnet Chair under the direction of Prof  Dr Daniel Göler at the University of Passau. He previously taught and did research at the University of Regensburg, where he also received his Master's degree in Democracy Studies. In addition to his main topics of research, European and International Relations, he focuses in his work on the effects of political education. The latter interest stems from his work as a guest lecturer at the "Akademie für Politische Bildung (Scholarship – Education – Public Services)" in Tutzing.