Talking to the World

In this age of globalisation, new and different ways of relating to one another are required if we are to develop the skills and understanding needed in our modern world. In his essay, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, president of the Goethe Institute, takes a look at what lies ahead for foreign cultural policy in the coming decade

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann (photo: Goethe Institute)
Klaus-Dieter Lehmann is convinced that without a cultural dialogue that truly seeks to understand the culture of the other, humankind will not get anywhere: "Although the dialogue itself brings no guarantee of success, without it we have no chance at all."

​​ Globalisation and modernisation have not brought about a unified world. On the contrary, the world is once again strongly segmented, a situation that has been further exacerbated by the financial and economic crisis.

This development is no temporary phenomenon. Global competition has brought about a change in the world's spheres of power and influence. Emerging economies such as China, India and other Asian countries are going to make their presence felt in the coming decade and that will have consequences for the West.

Asia will become increasingly important in the hierarchy of financial centres, with Hong Kong or Shanghai taking over from London.

The consequences of social change

The economic dynamism of these countries, which is comparable with the Industrial Revolution in Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century, has also brought social dynamism. Top-down control is becoming less and less possible; political pressure is growing; friction and turbulence and migration flows are the result.

Many of these countries have young populations who are increasingly claiming the right to choose their careers and partners for themselves. Many are familiar with the Internet. Family and clan ties are dissolving due to the increasing mobility of the young.

It is Utopian to believe that global control systems could produce a solution when the necessary trust is lacking even in the respective societies themselves. The climate conference in Copenhagen provided a striking example of this. Our opportunities have less to do with global models of explanation and much more with local or regional links and analogue translations.

When one considers the reasons for the successful development of Europe over the past 500 years, one quickly arrives at the following elements. One reason is, of course, the economy, which is reflected in the capitalist entrepreneurial spirit and the consumer society and is based on the relevant scientific knowledge.

Then there is Europe's legal and political system, which is based on private property rights and individual freedom as well as a specific cultural and artistic identity.

The emerging economies have now adopted the West's entrepreneurialism and the necessary scientific and technical know-how. The necessary process of social change that is a direct consequence of the economic transformation, on the other hand, is not happening, or only very slowly.

It takes the form of prohibitions rather than reforms, silence rather than public discourse. The coexistence of the human community is, however, first and foremost, a cultural achievement.

Questioning rigid clichés

This brings us to the most exciting question of the new decade. Will we engage with cultural developments, be open or cooperate? Will the Western concept of the Enlightenment have a chance with individual freedom and separation of powers, or will it result in a radicalisation brought about by one-sided modernisation and orthodox torpidity?

UN Climate Conference in Copenhagen 2009 (photo: AP)
"It is Utopian to believe that global control systems might produce a solution when the necessary trust is lacking even within the respective societies themselves. The climate conference in Copenhagen provided a striking example of this," says Lehmann.

​​ We have to find a way of engaging in a critical and imaginative discussion with and in the world, one which pays homage neither to universalism nor cultural relativism, which challenges our rigid stereotypes and endeavours to gain an understanding of the culture of the other. Without this kind of cultural dialogue we will not get anywhere. Although the dialogue itself brings no guarantee of success, without it we have no chance at all.

It allows alternatives to be sought rather than encouraging a fixation with conflict; it allows for process rather than stagnation; and it makes us sufficiently self-critical by providing us with knowledge of the other.

Cultural dialogue is not like sport. Sport has fixed rules that apply to all participants and a referee who ensures fair play. Cultural dialogue is more complex. It combines individualism and independence; it sees in the diversity of cultures a multiplicity of forms of expression that can be of mutual benefit through the exchange of knowledge and experience.

It is, therefore, not suited to competition between the systems. Nor is it a suitable instrument of hegemony. The accomplishment of the human rights conventions is binding and not negotiable.

In 1970, Ralf Dahrendorf drew up guidelines for foreign cultural policy – guidelines that Germany should also take to heart for the decade 2010 to 2020. "What we give," he said, "is only as good as our willingness to take. Openness for differences is, therefore, one of the principles of our foreign cultural and educational policy."

This describes exactly how the Goethe Institute fulfils its role today. It does not stand for cultural export and "nation branding", but rather for a contemporary, multifaceted view of Germany, for public debate, for reflection, for fundamental values, in other words. It is not the knowledge society but the learning society that provides the pattern for Germany's foreign cultural policy.

It is not globalised cultural power that will create opportunities for the future, but rather cultural encounters and appropriate networks. This is not going to be easy, the devil is in the detail and a great deal of stamina will be required, but it is precisely this that constitutes a credible foreign cultural policy for the new decade.

Innovation, interaction, inspiration

In response to the impact of altered global conditions, the Goethe Institute has undergone a major structural reform that can be summed up in three words: innovation, interaction, inspiration.

The innovation comes from the various Goethe Institutes scattered throughout the world – around 140 of them in all – and the distinctiveness and effectiveness they gain from drawing on local knowledge and experience. The interaction is down to the regions, which – through the transfer of responsibility for finance and content – are in a position to network independently, thereby ensuring the visibility and sustainability of the programme.

Church crucifix and a minaret in Malaysia (photo: AP)
Complex cultural dialogue: Lehmann sees in the diversity of cultures the multiplicity of forms of expression and feels that these different forms of expression can be of mutual benefit to both sides through the exchange of knowledge and experience

​​ The network takes on a quality of its own. Inspiration comes from the head office, which through service, evaluation and identification feeds back into the cycle the best, most creative developments on the German cultural scene and provides for creative partnerships.

A solidly grounded foreign cultural policy, however, requires the acceptance of the country in which it originates. Germans need to understand that there is no longer any clear distinction between the domestic and the foreign; they are no longer separate worlds. New and different ways of relating to one another are required if we are to develop the necessary skills and understanding needed for the world.

An export nation such as Germany does not just sell machines, it also projects an image of itself, its lifestyle and environment.

Moreover, Germany has become a country of immigration. In this regard, our ability to integrate still needs to be improved. Starting in 2010, the Goethe Institute will increase its socio-political involvement in the language field, in pre-integrative initiatives, in early childhood education, in certified integration courses and in the training of teachers of German as a foreign language.

German as the key to integration

The German language is the key to integration. There are now writers, musicians, filmmakers and artists of non-German origin who consider themselves quite naturally part of German culture. This year the Goethe Institute and other cultural organisations will be working together with the German Federal Foreign Office to turn 2010 into the Year of the German Language.

In spring 2010, the Goethe Institute's new European strategic guidelines will be made public. A key theme will be "Neighbourhoods", introduced by means of a conference this year and dealing with opportunities and possible courses of action in relation to both the immediate neighbourhood and the European neighbourhood.

Only where a skilled handling of the immediate environment is demonstrated can credibility be given to dealings further afield. The Treaty of Lisbon has given new significance to European foreign policy.

Class in a school in Bremen (photo: AP)
Impetus for a new European policy of culture and education: Lehmann would like to see a clear commitment to the teaching of two foreign languages in European schools

​​ This must also apply to European cultural and educational policy. Moreover, the coming decade needs to see a clear commitment to the teaching of two foreign languages in European schools.

English is the lingua franca in most of Europe. The obligation to learn a second foreign language is therefore important not only for the survival of German, but also as an important prerequisite for Europe's ability to engage in dialogue. Europe is a continent of translation and the Goethe Institute is an important player in European language policy.

Over the past two years, the success of the Federal Foreign Office's priority programme, "PASCH" (Schools, Partners for the Future), has put the German language back on the road to success at global level. As part of this campaign, the Goethe Institute is setting up language departments in 500 school systems abroad where German can be taught up to university entrance level.

New language dynamism

In collaboration with German schools abroad, over 1,500 schools throughout the world will be offering German language courses to this level in 2010. In addition, the Goethe Institute is setting up its own language learning centres, particularly in China, India and Africa. The new decade will then usher in a new era of vitality for the language. A successful German language policy is the most effective economic stimulus package Germany could wish for.

The infrastructure programme "Culture and Development" will be an important component of foreign cultural policy for the future. Its objective is the creation of a cultural infrastructure, particularly in developing and emerging countries, by means of which existing creative potential can be developed in a sustainable way.

The Goethe Institute provides the expertise, devises the planning projects and assists the partners with their implementation. This can involve the construction of theatre, museum or library complexes and the training of filmmakers, cultural managers, publishers or journalists.

Such a professional approach creates stable partnerships and allows for the establishment of long-term relationships for programme work.

The Goethe Institute has also taken on a major task with the development and project management of the "Germany Years". As an equal partner of the Federal Foreign Office it has the task of coordinating the joint venture's work in the areas of culture, science and business in the respective countries. Vietnam is the venue in 2010; India in 2011/2012. By focussing on the issue of "urban spaces", this "Germany Year" will be addressing a topic of crucial importance to India.

The range of activities shows that the different strategies and approaches depend on the structure of the countries and regions as well as on existing potential and expectations. At times it may well seem as if it is easier to create visions and define goals than to actually reach these goals and realise these visions, but it is the getting there that counts – that is our task.

Klaus-Dieter Lehmann

© Der Tagesspiegel 2010

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

Edited by Aingeal Flanagan/

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