School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


Public Diplomacy - the German View by Albert Spiegel

Auswärtiges Amt
Friday 18.03.05 / 16:00

"Public Diplomacy - the German View" - Speech by Dr Albert Spiegel, Head of the Federal Foreign Office Directorate-General for Cultural Relations and Education Policy, at the British Council Staff Conference on 18/19 March 2002

Excellency (Sir Paul Lever),
Mr Andrews,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

As far as Anglicisms in the German language are concerned, the Atlantic crossing often seems to have been shorter than the hop across the Channel. This is true not least for the term "public diplomacy". So I hope you will not be too surprised if I proceed to contrast the German understanding of this term with US American usage.

The major difference between our interpretations of "public diplomacy" is that we Germans distinguish between press and public relations work (PPR in short) and cultural relations and education policy (CRE). Of course these areas overlap to a certain extent, but not enough to explain away our distinction with reference to the German fondness for terminological diversity.

It is significant that the way in which we understand PPR and CRE today is very much based on history, and more precisely on the painful experiences of the twentieth century. The destruction of a civilization through Nazi barbarism in the name of the German "Kulturnation" meant that a new beginning was urgently needed after the end of the Second World War. "Rebuilding trust ", an expression coined by Hilmar Hoffmann as the leitmotif for the work of the Goethe Institute, is the dictate on which our understanding of both cultural relations and education policy and press and public relations work is based.

I will now take a closer look at press and public relations work, and will thereafter examine cultural relations and education policy.

When one speaks of public diplomacy this side of the Atlantic, as a rule one is not solely referring to the general public and to the pragmatic issue of how one can win their support and sympathy. The choice of words is not determined by the search for a suitable PR strategy but by a desire to reform diplomats' view of their function. After all, "going public" was for centuries not a determining characteristic of continental diplomacy. Diplomats rather viewed their to-ings and fro-ings in the background, in Cabinet lobbies, and their upright and secretive deals in the corridors of power as constituting the principal element of their work. Diplomacy was cabinet diplomacy on the model of the ancien régime.

There is a verse from Ludwig Marcuse which reflects the stereotypical, somewhat sceptical view of the relationship between diplomacy and the public:

"Diplomacy and the public
like fire and water:
diplomacy sizzles
and is reduced to water".

Much has changed since then. That is not to say that backdoor diplomacy has entirely disappeared. But politics is now subject to democratic rules. Diplomacy can thus no longer survive without public legitimation.

Another point that plays an important role in the Anglo-Saxon debate is also of relevance: the breathtaking spread of information around the world is robbing diplomacy of much of its informational advantage as regards events abroad. Many fear that the flood of information in modern societies could also lead to the marginalization of at least some diplomatic functions.

Transparency and the fight for attention are thus important features of public diplomacy. A concept of public diplomacy may thus include not just eye-catching official cars and, to take an example, Sir Paul Lever's office in the British Embassy, which people can look into from the inner courtyard, but also the facade of the building, which attracts the attention of passers-by and casts its spell on the urban public.

German diplomacy has in the recent past chosen to take a rather less conspicuous form. But things are changing with the move to Berlin. We welcome the visibility of the new diplomatic missions here. The architecture of German foreign policy now also follows this concept of transparency, albeit somewhat less spectacularly. Take the new atrium of the Federal Foreign Office, for example, which opens towards the city and is intended to show visitors and passers-by that there is nothing unapproachable about it at all.

Shaping policies in a democracy is always a question of finding majorities. In order to meet with interest and approval, policies must be actively brought to the people. This is also true of foreign policy. Diplomats are thus called upon to view their function less as exclusively targeting political functionaries and elected members, bigwigs and multiplicators, but also proclaiming the policies of their home countries to the general public abroad and presenting them in a favourable light.

This is particularly true for the partner countries within the EU, since we know that the policies of our partner governments have a direct influence and effect in our countries - even in areas that have traditionally been part of domestic politics. We are forging policy for our country when we influence political thinking and policy-forming in partner countries, and this is at least as legitimate as in the business sphere. For the public diplomacy of one country can become lobbying in another. I think that this field in particular needs to be developed in a far more enduring way.

Germany lies far behind when it comes to implementing public diplomacy - at least in comparison with the US. This is particularly true as regards responding to the specific needs and characteristics of a media society. While we in this country are still trying to explain the "why" of it all, for those in the US, who are for the most part well trained in PR, public diplomacy is now only a question of the optimal "how". At a guess, I would say that British diplomacy lies somewhere between these two extremes.

This typically German, less media-oriented style of political communication is not based simply on ignorance or inability. A certain reserve, explained by our not-too-distant past, also has a role to play. The following example should help explain what I mean. If one puts effective publicity strategies at the centre of one's considerations of public diplomacy, it is but a short step from "marketing", "image-building" and "advertising" to the term "propaganda campaign". Anyone who were to use this term in Germany would only do a disservice to himself and his cause - the memories of the treacherous machinations of the Reich Ministry of Propaganda are still too fresh.

The US can approach the issue more freely. With the appointment of Charlotte Beers, a most prominent representative of the American advertising industry, as Under Secretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs following 11 September, the US Administration showed that it attaches great importance to bringing its foreign policy to the man and woman in the street - using the best marketing techniques and state-of-the-art methods. While it is hard not to admire this professional approach to political communication, it makes me feel somewhat uneasy. An American public diplomacy expert expressed this disquiet, referring to the former professional activities of the post-holder:

"I just find the notion that you can sell Uncle Sam like Uncle Ben's highly problematic."

The controversy surrounding the creation and rapid disbanding of the Defence Department's Office of Strategic Influence also highlights the difficulties encountered.

Public diplomacy, ladies and gentlemen, is of course not conceivable today without the Internet. The US address "" offers a wealth of information from the US Information Agency, which became part of the Department of State a few years ago.

Now, if you think that the website "" is owned by the Federal Foreign Office, you are much mistaken. We do put useful information on the Foreign Office website - a site well worth visiting, I would like to tell you! However, the public diplomacy site is maintained by an agency (in cooperation with some of the foreign embassies in Germany), which self-avowedly puts the emphasis on "image-building". Here too you can see Germany's tendency to view offensive publicity campaigns with caution. I would like to add one extra comment: there is a difference between public diplomacy and "diplo-publicity". It may be slight and shifting, but it is nonetheless discernible.

So much to the PR side of public diplomacy. Now on to cultural relations and education policy (CRE). Let me repeat that when a German speaker talks about public diplomacy, as a rule he does not mean CRE. But if you were to ask an American about cultural relations and education policy abroad, he would probably scratch his head, and for lack of a better solution, classify it as public diplomacy. Head-scratching is required however, because government agencies in the US pay this area far less attention than is the norm here.

There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, in America the concept of state-promoted culture is fundamentally different at the domestic level. Secondly, internationally, American culture does not on the whole need promotion by the state, due to its great popularity worldwide. This is not only true in the field of consumerism, but also to a great degree as regards academic education. American universities attract the best brains around the globe as if by magic. Thirdly, English is the lingua franca of international business. This provides an added attraction, which is not entirely unknown in the United Kingdom either.

Germany, on the other hand, does not just have to fight against clichés old and new that seem to be endlessly perpetuated, but also against the image of having a rather cumbersome focus on organization and a language that is more than usually difficult to get your tongue round.

It is precisely for countries such as Germany which are particularly dependent on international relations that cultural relations and education policy has such a crucial function. It creates and maintains a favourable environment for German cooperation in all fields abroad and ensures that the German contribution to intercultural dialogue finds an audience. Cultural relations and education policy is an integral part of our foreign policy. Its goal lies beyond the immediate sphere of cultural relations activities and in the comprehensive consolidating and strengthening of our relations with other states and institutions. The French too pursue a policy with a similar aim (albeit a different self-perception), and I have the impression that the British approach the whole business with less philosophy and more pragmatism.

If this is the case, you will ask, then why doesn't the German Government exert more direct influence on the programmes drawn up in the field of cultural relations?

The answer is to be found in Germany's history and federal structure. The disastrous hijacking of German culture for political purposes was an experience never to be repeated. If Germany wanted to make a convincing new start after World War II - I mentioned earlier the dictum of "rebuilding trust" - then it had no option but to organize its cultural relations work as far removed from government as possible. In addition, according to the domestic division of competence between the federation and the Länder, the latter are responsible for 90% of cultural relations and education policy work. For them our intermediary organizations, removed from the federal government, are therefore more attractive partners.

In the course of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Goethe Institute in July 2001, the philosophy of its founding years was cited: the Goethe Institute was to represent a country which wanted a decentralized cultural relations policy, not one which is controlled by government, and one which conveys not just its cultural values but also its inner turmoil and its reservations about itself. Federal Minister Fischer went on to say: "In the ensuing years the Goethe Institute became, more than any other German institution abroad, the standard-bearer for a new Germany, a society that was outward-looking, highly differentiated and pluralistic in spirit. Its role was not, the Institute believed, to project a "representative culture" - straightforward cultural propaganda, in effect - but to represent the ongoing dialogue within German society, the spectrum of opinion, including critical and definitely also self-critical voices." This is true for our CRE as a whole.

Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the international landscape and Germany's role in the world have altered considerably, as have perceptions and expectations of and relating to Germany. After the change of government in 1998, new focuses were set in CRE, such as enhancing intercultural dialogue and human rights, and the promotion of democracy. The guidelines on which cultural relations and education policy is pursued were rewritten in "Concept 2000", which Federal Foreign Minister Fischer presented to the public in July 2000. While many basic principles have not been changed at all, the instruments have been re-examined. Cost and organizational structures are being adapted to the requirements of tomorrow, cultural relations programmes checked to see if they reach the target groups in the way intended.

The Federal Foreign Office is the principal but not sole player in the field of cultural relations and education policy. A considerable proportion of the nation's cultural relations are fostered by the Länder, other Federal Ministries as well as local authorities and private institutions. Of the 1.13 billion euro earmarked for cultural relations and education policy in the federal budget for 2002, only 589 million euro is at the disposal of the Federal Foreign Office.

A further German structural feature is the classification of foreign relations as a federal matter, while the Länder are responsible for culture and education. This division means that smooth cooperation with the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder is vital for the success of our cultural relations and education policy abroad.

The traditional, pluralistic communication of "what Germany is" has, however, now been joined by the targeted and active search for old and new partners for intercultural dialogue, exchange and cooperation. This requires better-coordinated instruments, and on this we are working. The terms "influencing", "marketing" and also "public diplomacy" are coming to bear ever more on our CRE. The advertising of our universities, such as our "hi-potential" campaign, and our targeted language activities abroad are examples of this trend. The closer interaction between our CRE and PR work, as can be seen in the fusion of the Goethe Institute and Inter Nationes, is a step into the realms of public diplomacy. But we are not going to be the pioneer of these developments.

I would like to conclude by commenting that our cultural relations and education policy emphasizes that it is a "two-way street". It is not a PR event with the slogan "Germany first", rather it advocates international dialogue and cultural diversity. It is international public diplomacy in that it also wishes to spread the ideals and principles of liberty and the rule of law around the world. It may sound pompous, but nothing less than the globalized society's ability or inability to live in peace will be determined by whether or not these principles are followed.

published: Monday 18.03.02

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