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

Robert Lohmann and Daniel Göler examined the foreign policy activities of civil society for ifa’s Culture and Foreign Policy research programme. Nowadays the term "civil society" is on everyone’s lips and is often linked with calls for more democracy in Europe. In this interview, the programme’s alumni talk about the transnational activities of civil society.

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?

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.

Full interview:

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. In addition to his main topics of research, European and International Relations, he focuses in his work on the effects of political education. Prof Dr Daniel Göler 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) before joining the University of Passau in 2008. His research focuses on European Foreign and security policy, Governance in the EU multi-level system,  European energy policy, public participation in political decision-making processes. Within the framework of ifa’s research programme “Culture and Foreign Policy”, Lohmann and Göler wrote the study “Zivilgesellschaftliche Akteure in der Außenpolitik. Chancen und Perspektiven von Public Diplomacy“.