Interview with Ronald Grätz from ifa

Mr. Grätz, you were born in São Paolo, where you have also spent years of your work life, so you are very naturally moving between different cultures. Brazil is being considered one of the rising powers, but for this forum, China was chosen as a partner country. This must have been a different experience for you. What do you feel has been very Chinese about this cooperation? And why did the ifa pick China as the focal region for this project?

ifa collaborates little with Brazil. On the one hand, it is a pity, because with our existing networks, we could easily find partners there. On the other hand, we have to state that, in view of our research focus and interests in discourse, the current Chinese concepts regarding different aspects of public diplomacy are much more up to date, because they are considered politically crucial and are vigorously conceptualized with much expertise.

In this concrete cooperation project, how did you experience levels of trust and understanding? How did this evolve during the years of cooperation and what differences do you think has this project made so far? How did it change your perspective on China and working with Chinese colleagues?

The partnership with the Charhar Institute, Beijing, unfolded just naturally. Our initial meeting in Beijing, the development of the idea for a multiannual conference series together with the Clingendael Institute, the personal contact with Prof. Wang Yiwei, who had already been our guest speaker at the ifa event “Stuttgarter Schlossgespräch” before, the Charhar Institute’s genuin interest in a long-term cooperation – all these components pieced together like a puzzle. And thanks to the most generous support by Robert Bosch Stiftung – which also has a China focus – now, the third joint conference of this series will take place; and we want to continue this project. My perception of China? I highly respect their 5000 years of high civilization and I’m curious about all the surprises I will be able to learn from. Are there any special characteristics with regard to cooperating with China compared to cooperating with other countries? Yes, of course. Just the way they would occur with Brazil, the USA, India or Portugal. What kind of characteristics are theses with regards to China?- Reliability, high level of expertise and probably sometimes a slightly unfamiliar formalism.

Somehow, we have now reached the highest level of economic interdependence between China and Europe in history, but scholars say levels of mistrust are rather growing than shrinking. This is alerting and seems to contradict the thesis of some trade liberalists that economic cooperation strengthens peace and mutual trust. Getting to know the „other“ better seems not to have been a priority in Sino-European relations and, cynically speaking, it might even be easier to exploit trade opportunities without really knowing the people you exploit. Both sides in this relationship seem to have focused rather on instrumental interests. In this perspective, public diplomacy and intercultural exchange can also play an important role in furthering human rights and dignity vis-á-vis the „other“. Have we invested too much in trade relations and too few in people-to-people exchange and public diplomacy activities that help build bridges for understanding and exchange of ideas between the Chinese and the Europeans?

It is an ancient insight from communication theory, that the misunderstanding constitutes the standard situation in communication. It is reduced bit by bit in the light of experience, every time that one’s own assumptions about the counterpart prove to be true. This is what we have mutually experienced throughout this project. And there is a second assumption on which we always proceed: People always assume truthfulness and veridicality. Confidence and understanding grow, if they are accredited in advance. This has also worked out in this project. We trust each other both professionally and personally.

What are the advantages of such a non-governmental forum and the advantages of low-level idea exchanges in Sino-European relations? How can such fora pave the way for higher-level political conflict resolution?

The world is driven to varying degrees by the effects of globalization such as the economization and acceleration of the lifeworld, an inflation of communication and particular ideologizations. At the same time – however this is not taken seriously – water shortage, environmental destruction, starvation and poverty and the depletion of natural resources are menacing our survival on our planet. In day-to-day politics, the ruthless enforcement of interests often justifies a neglect of our common sense, an ignorance of human rights and the exploitation of nature and living creatures. Being responsible for a cultural mediator organization with decades of experience, I never get tired to make people aware of the fact that culture can contribute key-insights on the causes of and solutions to problems, that culture enables comprehension und understanding and finally, that it has an extraordinary ability: it can transform the nature of human beings. All human cohabitation is based on culture.

A lot of the discussions around misunderstandings between China and Europe focus on very abstract and – so it seems – politically constructed discourses on, for example, a „great responsible power China“, a „normative power Europe“, a „peaceful rise“, „neocolonialism“ etc. Some people can abstractly relate to fears of neocolonialism and a China threat just as some feel uneasy about asylum seekers that they have never met. So here, public diplomacy forums are important to help discuss fears and getting to know the other better to build trust. Still, much of the élite and scholarly debate about cultural misunderstandings focuses in my view on rather political misunderstandings and democracy-non-democracy mistrust. So the political and the cultural dimension are often intertwined and issues of identity and politics get conflated, which can add heat and even nationalist fervor to debates. How do you deal with this in your work? Can this be analytically separated to solve underlying tensions? And how do you personally view the political dimension of cultural conflict debates in Sino-European relations?

I do not see that it contradicts economics and politics, but both should finally start to learn more from culture. Good procedures cannot replace dignity and respect. The new Sustainable Development Goals 2030 of the UNO proclaim many good and ambitious goals. However, where have they fixed the fact that culture needs to be integrated as a driving force to achieve these goals?

Mr. Grätz is Secretary General of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen – ifa, this year’s organising institution of the Public Diplomacy Forum. 

Interview: Ines Sieckmann

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