Cultural Diplomacy News (CDN)
Dr. Gunter Pleuger (Former German Ambassador to the UN)

27.07.2009 - Interview conducted by Gráinne Toomey

Dr. Pleuger, former German Ambassador to the United Nations, spoke on the first day of the International Symposium. His lecture was entitled 'Soft Power in German Foreign Policy'. Fittingly, the lecture and discussion took place in the German Foreign Office, where Dr. Pleuger worked for more than thirty years. He entered the German Foreign Service in 1969 after studying law and politics in Cologne, Bonn, and Paris.  The numerous positions he has held in his career with the German Foreign Office include Head of the Division for the UN, Human Rights, Human Aid and Global Problems (1995-1998) and State Secretary and Deputy Foreign Minister (1999-2002).

Furthermore, Pleuger was Germany’s Permanent Representative in the UN from 2002- 2006 and as he was a member of the Security Council during 2003/2004, he is credited with being representative of Germany’s position against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In 2008, Dr. Pleuger took up the position of President of the University of Viadrina, Frankfurt (Oder).

In the interview conducted after his lecture, Dr. Pleuger spoke about multi-lateral relations, his experiences working as a diplomat and how he employs these with the governance of his university, his respect for the Obama administration and the revived interest in politics he sees in the younger generation.

In a recent interview, you said of your university: “we are multilateralists …we try to serve global problems in an interdisciplinary manner”.  As the President of the Viadrina European University, what elements of your diplomatic expertise are you using at the university?

First of all, the university is a foundation, which means that it is largely independent from local government. As a rector, you are a professor and you handle the management of the university with your left hand. As the president of a university, you are responsible for everything, so it is more of a management task. There, of course, I can draw on the experience of 38 years in the Foreign Office, which is a big bureaucracy of more than 8,000 people. As the Secretary, I had to organize that.

The second point is that from the time I spent at the Foreign Office, I have an international network of acquaintances that I made in the different embassies in which I have worked, and especially in my last posts where I had to go to many conferences as Political Director, as State Secretary, and then as Permanent Representative at the United Nations. This kind of network, of course, can be used for the benefit of the university. For example, I have gotten people such as former Foreign Minister Fischer to come and give a lecture and have a discussion with students, or the Commissioner from the Commission in Brussels, Mr. Verheugen, who will also come and teach at my university. So that is an opportunity to enlarge and broaden the view of students who are interested in politics and international affairs. And that is how I can use my network from my time in the Foreign Service.

In discussions following your lecture, you spoke of making more contact with Eastern European countries. The geographical location of your university must be great for that.

Yes. We are on the border between Germany and Poland. The university was originally founded in 1506 and existed until 1811. From then until 1991, there was no university in Frankfurt. When it was re-founded, it was made possible by the reunification of Germany. The reason for the re-foundation of the university was the political bridging function to Poland and Eastern Europe, and also its orientation towards the West, meaning that my university deals with European studies and European problems. We are also interested in watching and developing what is called the Weimar triangle. This political vocation of the university is, in a way, unique.

We also have a joint venture with Humboldt University here in Berlin - an institute called The Humboldt-Viadrina School of Governance. It has already started as a meeting place for the political community and civil society, with interesting lectures, discussions, and so on. That is how we are connected in the area of Brandenburg-Berlin-Poland, and we are now trying to extend our relations more towards Eastern Europe. That’s more or less the framework within which I’m working.

As a student you benefited from the DAAD years ago, before your career in diplomacy, and studied at the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) in Paris. How important do you think cultural exchange programs such as ERASMUS, Goethe Institute, and DAAD are for young people?

I think that they’re extremely important because of my own experience. When I was a young man and just finished my university studies and was studying law, I won a scholarship for ENA. That is one of the most fascinating things I have ever done. This is not a school where they transmit knowledge, but where you learn to apply knowledge.
 Once you study abroad for more than a year, you learn the language, you learn a lot of the society, the culture, and the history, and you just understand better. The French are very different from the Germans, and the Germans are different from the French, and the point is that we need to make an effort to understand each other. Once we have done that, it’s fantastic. When somebody learns a language in the country where it is spoken, you most probably will win him or her over for the rest of his or her life.

I can give you a wonderful example for that too. When I was State Secretary here in the Ministry, I once went with Dr. Bode, the Secretary General of the DAAD, to Hanoi. In Hanoi, we opened the German house of the Technical University. The government was there, the university rector was there, and all of these important speakers. In the evening there was a social event and about 1,000 Vietnamese came to celebrate the opening. Every one of them had studied in Germany, in East Germany, because the communist system had to take care of the technical education of the Vietnamese and the Mongols. So people in both of these countries speak German. Can you imagine, in Hanoi, on each of these tables there was a sign for German universities where these students had studied. It’s not a cultural thing - it goes far beyond that. You create a connection that the person retains for the rest of his life.

You’re in a unique position to comment on this because, as you said in your lecture, one-third of your students are international. Many people say that with Obama’s election a lot of young people have a renewed interest in politics. Do you find this to be the case?

Yes. First of all, the important thing is that Obama has the kind of personality that fascinates people, especially young people. He is straight-forward and honest and he says things that people think are the right things. I remember when he was here in Berlin before having won the Democratic nomination, and he gave a speech under the Siegessäule. That was fantastic, because he said things that we hadn’t heard for eight years from an American President. These were: multilateralism, to listen to the allies, and pleading for nuclear disarmament.

The second point is: he is also perceived as a person who represents the values of America that we, as young people, have admired the Americans for. I grew up in the 50’s and went to high school there, in the US, and got interested in politics. What we were all fascinated by, was the political system, a very direct democracy, civil liberties, due process, and it was extremely economically successful. All of these things in the 50’s made everybody envious of the United States, and as a result they wished to go there. Now I think that this feeling is being revived by Obama. People are thinking, “that’s the America we dreamt about when we were young,” and all the young ones are saying, “well that’s amazing, that after the total mess Bush caused, here comes a young, ambitious, charismatic personality that promises to turn everything around.” I feel that at the university too.

ICD: Thank you very much for your time.