Dr. Arpad A. Sölter (Head of Strategy and Evaluation, Goethe Institute)

31.07.2009 - Interview conducted by Gráinne Toomey & Jordan Kynes

Dr. Sölter works to position and forward the Goethe Institute’s strategic international goals in areas such as partnership development, recruitment, student and staff mobility and alumni relations. Having held several senior positions with the Goethe Institute in Toronto, London and Munich, Dr. Sölter brings a wealth of experience to his position. He is widely recognised as an expert on cultural diplomacy and policy and has also published on these subjects.

On July 31st, the final day of the International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy, Dr. Sölter gave a lecture entitled “The Renaissance of Soft Power in Transatlantic Cooperation—A Goethe Institute Perspective”. He shared his secrets for success in cultural diplomacy, spoke about the long-reaching positive effects of the soft power approach and urged the Symposium audience to “trust in the power of the arts”.

In an interview with ICD News on the final evening of the Symposium, Dr. Sölter spoke about personally benefiting from being, what he termed, a “child of soft power”. He also elaborated on some specific examples of the Goethe Institute’s initiatives abroad, and talked about the trajectory of cultural diplomacy for the future.

Do educational initiatives play a significant role in what the Goethe Institute does across the world?

We basically do three things: our work is about cultural programmes and cultural programming; it’s about language acquisition, which includes facilitating teachers and providing teacher training materials for the school; and it’s about information libraries and information services of all kinds. So if you wrap it all up it’s about three things: culture, language and information. It’s a lot of fun.

For a lot of people out there the concept of soft power is still quite vague. How can information about soft power be made more available to the public?

It takes a translation process. The best way is probably to let people discuss positive experiences they have had themselves in relation to soft power. For example, the reason I am speaking here today in Berlin at the ICD is because I am a child of soft power myself. At school my history teacher asked me if I would like to go to Israel and participate in a youth exchange programme. It was my first time outside Germany, and outside Europe. The programme was an exchange between cities and I met young Israelis of my own age—it was a life-changing experience. I learned Hebrew afterwards, I went to live in Israel and have returned there many times since then. So once you participate in one tiny little exchange, it changes your life forever. That’s why I’m so bent on underlining, and putting in gold letters, that there are so many positive consequences [of cultural exchange]; if you reach out to people who are willing to be inspired, it’s a beautiful thing. So let’s spread the good news out there, together.

Let’s go back to your talk. How optimistic are you for the successful application of soft power outside of the transatlantic relationship, especially in areas where the transatlantic community is unpopular?

Well, the soft power approach works everywhere. It’s a global approach. It’s not at all limited to transatlantic relationships. I just picked it [as a topic today] because I spent almost the last seven years of my life in Canada, I know how things work there and I like it so much, so I like to talk about it! But in essence, soft power works globally, although of course we do different things in different places. If we work in Kabul in Afghanistan, we have other projects than we have in New York, obviously. In Kabul we are rebuilding the Kabul Theatre, so it’s about providing infrastructure; it’s giving the Afghans something that the Taliban destroyed. So you have to adapt. You have to find out what really matters to people—how you can help them, or be a “fellow traveller” with them.

Did you coin this phrase, “fellow traveller”?

You know what, I went to China, and during a lunch with representatives of the Ministry of Culture in Beijing, I was looking for the right words to express myself on this topic, and I came up with it. Of course, China is making this huge jump right now, and it’s becoming one of the superpowers as we speak. And you can’t “help” a country that big and powerful, one which has such a huge market, with 1.3 billion people. So the word “developing” China doesn’t really convey it and “helping” China doesn’t convey it either. The Chinese don’t like that at all because they’ve been humiliated for the last 150 years by Western powers. The metaphor of “travelling” together is so much nicer, because you have a common destination and you want to arrive safely and enjoy the trip.

Can you tell me about collaborations between the Goethe Institute and other institutes with a view to coordinating cultural diplomacy initiatives?

Especially in a time of financial crisis, what is really needed for people who believe in the value and power of culture and who believe that it has a sublime essence, is to stand together. To rephrase: what we need is strategic partnerships in that field on a global level; we need European collaborations and associations. We don’t necessarily need more contracts or institutional bodies, but we do need free associations and strategic partnerships, like EUNIC for example, the European Association of Cultural Institutions. But also outside the field of cultural institutes as such, everybody who’s interested in cultural initiatives should join forces, get together, and form think tanks. You don’t need to have an infrastructure to do that: you need liquid associations. Zygmunt Bauman coined the phrase “liquid modernity”, so “liquid strategic partnerships” might sound even better.

Do you think such partnerships and initiatives could come from the International Symposium?

I hope so. I’m very optimistic. This was a fantastic event and the audience was great. It’s great to see participants here having discussions on different perspectives of cultural diplomacy and what the challenges are. I’m really impressed. Congratulations to everyone at the ICD. You’ve done something so valuable.

Thank you so much for your time.