The Power of Science

Ebola, Ukraine crisis, terror in Syria and Iraq – threats and conflicts are keeping Germany’s Federal Foreign Minister busy. With all that on his plate, does he even have time to think about academic exchange? Frank-Walter Steinmeier on soft power, the Humboldt Network and why he views foreign research policy as anything but a luxury.

Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visits the Gandhi Smriti Memorial in New Delhi in September 2014
Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visits the Gandhi Smriti Memorial in New Delhi in September 2014 (Photo: Maja Hitij)

Kosmos: Minister Steinmeier, this is the second time you’ve been responsible for academic foreign policy in the Federal Government. What is different today compared to your first period in office ten years ago?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: A quick look around shows us that the world has changed. We’re dealing with several foreign trouble spots at once. In our neighbourhood, a conflict is raging in Ukraine that has brought the issue of war and peace back to our continent. In the Middle East the ISIS terrorist militia is threatening not only the Iraqi state but the region as whole, and even us here in Europe. And the people of West Africa are battling an invisible enemy with the potential to throw entire states into chaos. Obviously no state alone can cope with crises and conflicts of such magnitude.

Kosmos: What does that mean for German foreign policy?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: What it means for us is that we have to focus our attention and our resources, determine our priorities and thoroughly review the instruments in our foreign policy toolkit.

Kosmos: Isn’t academic foreign policy a luxury compared to these challenges?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Quite the opposite. Academic foreign policy is not a luxury; it proves its worth particularly in times of crisis. It contributes to a foreign policy that works towards greater understanding and a peaceful balance. Syria for example is in danger of losing an entire generation of academics, experts and future leaders as a result of the current conflict.

Kosmos: What do you intend to do about that?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Among other things, the Federal Foreign Office has put together a multi-year package of measures for Syrian students that also includes fellowships. We must not allow the conflict in Syria to create a lost generation. Younger Syrians are the very people who will be crucial in rebuilding and managing their country’s future; we want to help ensure that there are prospects for them – and for their country.

“I enjoy meeting Humboldtians. They are ambassadors to both worlds.”

Kosmos: Through its intermediary organisations the Federal Foreign Office funds not only young researchers from crisis regions but also experienced researchers from established science nations. How do excellence schemes fit into your strategy?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Here too the parameters have changed. The competition for the brightest minds has become tougher. The Humboldt Foundation contributes significantly to bringing researchers from abroad to Germany, thereby helping Germany maintain its status as a well-respected player in this field on the global stage. Germany is already the third most important host country for foreign students after the USA and the UK. Many foreign institutes are entering into collaborations with German research institutions, and more and more international researchers are coming to Germany for research stays.

Kosmos: Within the Humboldt Family these stays often create life-long connections. What part does this global network play in German foreign policy?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: The many members of the globally networked Humboldt Family are great ambassadors for excellence. And if that’s something people in the respective home country associate with Germany, that contributes significantly to maintaining and strengthening our soft power.

Kosmos: You mean the kind of power that is based on culture and diplomacy, as opposed to hard power that uses economic and military means.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Exactly. That Germany’s academic and research landscape has an excellent reputation around the world contributes significantly to a positive image of Germany. In recent years we have seen impressive results from surveys on Germany’s image, as demonstrated by for example the Anholt Nation Brands Index and various BBC surveys. A study by the McKinsey Global Institute has identified Germany as the world’s best networked country.

Kosmos: That sounds like an easy win for Germany’s brand advertising.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: There’s no reason to rest on our laurels. Our goal must remain to support people interested in Germany along the individual’s path: starting with German school and then a DAAD Fellowship and following up with a Humboldt Fellowship and subsequent support from our alumni networks.

Kosmos: Many Humboldtians hold important positions in their home countries, not only in research but often also in politics and society ...
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: ... and that’s precisely what makes them such important points of contact for us. Their great advantage is that they are strongly anchored in their countries and thus able to identify and articulate national and regional contexts and relationships, both regarding academic matters and in terms of political and societal issues.

Kosmos: How do you specifically use the Humboldt Network?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: First of all, the Humboldt Foundation is itself an important interface through which we receive valuable information from within the network. And then our diplomatic missions abroad maintain excellent contacts to local Humboldtians. Humboldtians can provide valuable input in both directions: they convey the mood of their country of origin and of Germany as their host country. They are ambassadors to both worlds, so to speak. On my journeys abroad I like to take the opportunity to meet with Humboldtians. We appreciate this dialogue very highly. Their opinions are important to us, not least because we can sometimes incorporate them directly into our work.

Kosmos: Do you sometimes wish you could do away with the Foundation’s principle of “no quotas for subjects or countries” in order to focus on certain regions according to foreign policy interests, for example to offer more fellowships for regions marked by political crisis?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: The principle of excellence is at the very heart of the Humboldt Foundation. It should not be abandoned, as it is one of the Foundation’s most significant features. The Transformation Partnerships special programme established by the Federal Foreign Office to intensify academic collaboration with Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries for example takes this into consideration and has accordingly allocated funding to the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation for special research fellowships.

“Syria is in danger of losing an entire generation of academics.”

Kosmos: A strategy paper issued by your department in 2011 states that fellowships should in future be partly funded by the fellows themselves and/or their countries of origin, and through support from businesses. Are you still considering this approach?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: The paper you mention is aimed at seeking greater financial contributions from partners to fund various measures, including fellowships. The point is not to require the fellows themselves to contribute to their funding, but to convince partner governments and internationally operating companies interested in Germany’s academic knowhow to co-fund fellowship programmes.

Kosmos: Were you able to find suitable partners?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: Absolutely. The Brazilian government has for example set up a programme that provides funding for fellowships abroad; collaborations with German intermediary organisations were initiated as part of that programme. And as you know, the Humboldt Foundation conducts a very successful programme in cooperation with the Brazilian funding institution CAPES.

Kosmos: As a field that has been repeatedly threatened with funding cuts in recent years, how do you see the future of academic foreign policy?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: I consider foreign cultural and education policy a major pillar of German foreign policy. When I began my first period in office as Federal Foreign Minister in 2005, foreign cultural and education policy was woefully underfunded: it had a budget of just €546 million. When I left the Federal Foreign Office, its funding had increased to €726 million.

Kosmos: Will that budget continue to grow?
Frank-Walter Steinmeier: At over €780 million, the amount foreseen in the draft bill we have submitted to parliament for 2015 is the highest ever proposed for this field. In the 2016 and 2017 budgets academic foreign policy will hopefully benefit significantly from the research package negotiated in the coalition agreement. Particularly in an increasingly networked world with no clear order we must use all available tools of diplomacy. That Germany has a good global reputation as a reliable, attractive and strong partner is due also to the work of our intermediary organisations, not least in academia. Our aim must be to further strengthen and build on this excellent foundation.

Interview: Georg Scholl

published in Humboldt Kosmos 103/2014
Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Frank-Walter Steinmeier  
Photo: Dirk Bleicker

Frank-Walter Steinmeier (58) was appointed Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany in 2013. A member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), he has held this office once before, from 2005 to 2009. Steinmeier also served as Vice- Chancellor in the first grand coalition under Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) from 2007 to 2009. A doctor of law, he was already accustomed to dealing with international political crises before his appointment to the Federal Foreign Office: Steinmeier was Head of the Federal Chancellery under Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schroder from 1999 to 2005 – a period that included the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the deployment of Germany’s Federal Armed Forces to Afghanistan and the 2003 Iraq War.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Humboldt Foundation.

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