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The most important currency

The French circus performer and choreographer Yoann Bourgeois at the opening of the Kultursymposium Weimar with a physical story about failure, hope and rediscovery of trust (in oneself).
Goethe-Institut / Victoria Tomaschko

Why Germany needs relationships of trust in the world – especially in difficult times. Secretary General Johannes Ebert on foreign cultural and educational policy.

Rain in Weimar. Under the white tent roofs on the site of the electricity plant, over 400 festival participants from 50 countries sit huddled together on benches and keep themselves warm with fresh ratatouille. The atmosphere is dazzling. The fourthKultursymposium Weimar is taking place in May. The topic: “A Matter of Trust”. Three days are devoted to discussions, performances, installations and readings about the crucial importance of trust for people to co-exist in uncertain times. The guests include the German philosopher Martin Hartmann, the Brazilian social entrepreneur
Flavia Macedo, the former Latvian interior minister Marija Golubeva and the Egyptian media activist Dina Aboughazala. It was impressive that so many people from so many different disciplines found a common language to discuss this topic, says Yu Nija, who researches into interpersonal relationships in Japan, during the concluding panel discussion. She would be returning home from Weimar feeling strong and confident. Claire Yorke from the UK, who is working on the topic of empathy and international security in Denmark, is certain of one thing as the Kultursymposium Weimar 2023 draws to a close: “We have to trust one another to overcome the challenges of the future.”

“Communicating with the world. For diversity, understanding and trust.” Along with the phrase “Language, Culture, Germany”, this slogan defines the coordinate system of the Goethe-Institut. The vision underpinning our work throughout the world is to establish trust between people and societies worldwide and Germany and the people who live there. Trust is particularly important in Germany’s relationship with the outside world: “The trust of our partners in our country is one – perhaps even the most important – currency in German foreign policy,” said Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock in February at the Annual Foreign Policy Conference of the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

The sociologist Niklas Luhmann sees the complexity of the world as a continuous overload for human beings. Trust is a central mechanism for reducing social complexity and thus making co-existence manageable. “By reducing complexity,” trust “opens up opportunities for actions which are improbable and unattractive without trust and would not therefore be taken up,” wrote Luhmann in 2014 in his book “Vertrauen. Ein Mechanismus der Reduktion sozialer Komplexität” (Trust. A Mechanism for Reduction of Social Complexity). The same applies to international relations. In this area in particular, complexity has increased enormously in recent years: the competition from new global stakeholders on the world stage is growing with their own interests and values. The climate crisis is becoming ever more threatening. Democratic systems and stakeholders are coming under pressure. Disinformation is taking the place of serious reporting. Violent conflicts, as shown recently in Sudan, are increasing and moving closer to home. Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in particular, is perceived as a turning point that creates uncertainty and has a significant impact on international cooperation.

Under these global circumstances, it is important to establish a willingness to defend oneself and protect energy security. At the same time, the increasing complexity of international relations also requires greater commitment to strengthen trust in Germany throughout the world. It is a matter of consolidating the network of relationships between people and societies, which in turn has an effect at the political level. This is precisely where foreign cultural and educational policy and the organisations that promote it are required. “Their commitment is required as never before, because cultural policy is very evidently the same thing as security policy. When we support the freedom of culture, academia and the media, we also strengthen people’s freedom,” said Annalena Baerbock in the German parliament in the debate on the federal government’s report on foreign cultural and educational policy. The coalition agreement, which was signed before the Russia crisis, stipulates strengthening the stakeholders in this area. This has now become even more important, even if the question of priorities has to be re-addressed in view of tighter financial constraints, and a cut in the budget in the reporting year compared to the previous year has restricted the scope for action of the Goethe-Instituts.

So we need to build trust, but how? “Trust and credibility cannot simply be created by waving a magic wand whenever they are needed. They are not that kind to us, we have to breathe life into them through our practices,” writes the philosopher Martin Hartmann in 2022 in his book “Vertrauen – Die unsichtbare Macht” (Trust – The Invisible Force). At the international level, however, that has nothing to do with “nation branding” or other marketing techniques. Trust in international social relations develops slowly and is repeatedly challenged. Credibility and reliability must be present at all times and be demonstrated time and again. At the same time, we are not starting from scratch in building international trust. Quite the opposite: precisely because of its foreign cultural and educational policy, German society has had ties to people throughout the world for many years. The organisations
that promote it have built up extensive networks of trust in culture, academia and society in recent years. They are respected throughout the world and enjoy a high level of credibility through their independent work within the framework of German foreign policy. Germany can rely on them, especially in times of crisis.

Their networks – such as that of the Goethe-Institut with 158 branches in almost 100 countries – have been reliable partners for local cultural and educational institutions for decades – through thick and thin. Last year, the Goethe-Institut in Athens celebrated its 70th anniversary; the Goethe-Institut in Lisbon turned 60. In both countries, the Goethe-Instituts are still thought of today in the context of their significance as safe havens in the dictatorial phases of the 60s and 70s. There are plenty of similar examples Whenever the scope for free expression of opinion and creativity becomes narrower, the importance of the Goethe-Instituts grows. Because they are places where you can have an open discussion, where you can broaden your horizons. This is more topical now than ever and is an important factor in building trust for people all over the world who are standing up for their freedoms. The global presence of this network in itself is a valuable resource for the responsiveness of German foreign policy, in view of the increasing number of crises that are breaking out in unexpected places.

Equally important is showing yourself to be a reliable partner in life-threatening situations: the aid for Ukraine is a good example: the Goethe-Institut has provided 17,000 language course places virtually free of charge. Emergency aid grants, which were allocated with the federal government’s cultural foundation, are supporting Ukrainian artists. A solidarity fund allows cultural institutions to continue their work, even in these times of war. The “Goethe-Institut in Exile” programme in Berlin began with a focus on Ukraine. More than 600 German libraries were given a box of Ukrainian books for children who have had to leave their country. The Federal Foreign Office has provided additional funding for this and other programmes for Ukraine. The European Union has also provided support. Now it is important to continue with these programmes and extend them for the reconstruction to come. The Ukrainian cultural and educational scene is extremely important for the future because, with its close network extending throughout Ukrainian society, it can drive the country’s modernisation and commit the country to Europe. Our Ukrainian partners put a great deal of trust in Germany.

When trust is needed, it is not a matter of pursuing your own interests at all costs, but of finding a common solution and providing mutual support. The basis for this is respect for your counterpart and active listening, of the sort we always try to achieve as we work on building dialogue. It is a question of assessing what cultural and educational partners require of Germany in the current situation, which issues are relevant to them and what contribution foreign cultural and educational policy can make to them. Countless bilateral and multilateral cultural cooperation agreements with German participation testify to the success of this approach of building dialogue. You can find out about some of them in this Annual Report.

Trust is created between people and radiates out into societies. It is therefore not only a matter of the quality of relationships but also of their quantity. The more people come into contact with our country, the better the chance of developing a relationship – hopefully, a relationship of trust. 15 million people learning German throughout the world, 170,000 German teachers, thousands of potential skilled workers who prepare themselves for life in Germany with our pre-integration courses and language courses, over five million visitors to our cultural events – these are important target groups in this context. The aim should therefore be to increase the number of these contacts even further in future. An important part in this is the “Culture Moves Europe” programme, which is being run by the Goethe-Institut on behalf of the EU: 6000 European artists are to be given the opportunity to travel in Europe and carry out research. This is an important programme for establishing a network for the European cultural scene across borders and for European cohesion, which also has a high political priority for Germany.

The big issues of our age are particularly appropriate subjects for cooperation and projects with a wide range: an ecological pop-up lounge which is raising awareness of environmental questions in Bangkok, the conference “Frequencies. Global feminisms” which last year brought around 80 stakeholders from worldwide initiatives together in Berlin to discuss the topic of equal opportunities, “Diverse As We Are”, the first international festival of inclusive culture in China – we are discovering on the ground that there is a big demand for cooperation with Germany in these areas in particular. They are in line with the foreign climate policy and the feminist foreign policy of the federal government. There is a large potential here to extend cooperation and interaction at an international level.

The relationships of trust which the organisations promoting foreign cultural and educational policy have built up throughout the world are an important foundation for German foreign policy. Even when it comes to cooperation with partners who are problematic for Germany yet indispensable in the global structure, they are strong and resilient. Countless meetings and close interaction have woven and consolidated these delicate networks of trust over decades. Particularly in times of crisis, they require care, great commitment and adequate resources to achieve their full effect. According to Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Baerbock in her speech to the Heinrich Böll Foundation: “This trust can never be taken for granted. We have to keep rebuilding it all the time.”