"Dialogue is never unconditional"

Interview with Thomas Paulsen, member of the executive board of Körber-Stiftung

Körber-Stiftung: Parties on the right of the political spectrum emerged stronger from the European Parliament elections on 9 June. What lesson do you draw from the election result?

Thomas Paulsen: Liberal democracy cannot be taken for granted. Everyone must make a contribution to the defence of our values and the functioning of our community. Successful democracy requires one thing above all: convinced democrats who stand up for their position.

The US politician Tip O’Neill once said: “All politics is local”. That is why one of the Körber-Stiftung’s central concerns is to strengthen elected representatives in their commitment to democracy, especially at local level. The fact that these committed people are increasingly becoming the target of hostility, even physical violence, fills me with great concern.

Körber-Stifung: There is a great deal of uncertainty in our society at the moment. How much of this is due to the foreign and security policy crises we are facing?

Thomas Paulsen: The current global situation is indeed threatening – I often hear the term “polycrisis”. Many people in this country would like to see Germany stay out of international crises and conflicts. This is also confirmed by the surveys we regularly conduct for our annual foreign policy publication “The Berlin Pulse”. I disagree: we need to strengthen our liberal democracy at home, but also protect it from external attacks. That is why an attitude of ducking away and keepinga low profile is not an option for a country as economically strong and politically influential as Germany.

In addition, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but also the massacre of Israeli civilians by Hamas terrorists on 7 October 2023 and the resulting war show that we as a society are affected by these wars and conflicts in many ways. Domestic and foreign policy are becoming increasingly inseparable.

Körber-Stiftung: 7 October triggered a wave of anti-Semitic incidents – also in Germany. Jews often no longer feel safe in public spaces.

Thomas Paulsen: That is intolerable. One of our goals as a foundation is to convey a deeper understanding of historical events and their significance for present-day political contexts. For this reason, too, we see ourselves as particularly committed to the historical and moral responsibility that Germany has as a result of the Holocaust. This includes a clear commitment against anti-Semitism and any form of group-related misanthropy as well as for Israel’s right to exist and its security.

Körber-Stiftung: What does Körber-Stiftung do in concrete terms?

Thomas Paulsen: We follow our founding idea: “Talking to each other, not about each other.” This means that we create platforms that educate and raise awareness. This is particularly important in an increasingly diverse society in which people with very different biographical backgrounds live together. A good example is our “History is Present!” podcast, in which we discuss the difference between criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism with Israeli historian David Ranan, among others. Or our event with Michel Friedman, who talks about his experiences with the hatred of Jews, racism and exclusion in Germany in the nineteen-sixties.

Especially with regard to the Middle East, historical narratives and contemporary conflicts are closely interwoven. This is what makes the situation so multi-layered and complex. Our aim is to create spaces for a differentiated exchange beyond the headlines, where different perspectives can be heard. At the beginning of the year, our guests at the KörberForum were able to discuss the impact of 7 October and the Israeli war against Hamas with Israel expert Richard Chaim Schneider, German-Palestinian writer Joana Osman and German diplomat Andreas Reinicke. I think it is important that we as a society remain in conversation with each other about such controversial topics.

An interview with Udi Dekel, a former general in the Israeli Defence Forces and analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, will soon be published in our series “The Berlin Pulse Express Edition”. It will deal with Israel’s goals in the war against Hamas and the question of whether the way the war is currently being waged will contribute to Israel’s security in the long term.

Körber-Stiftung: In this series, Körber-Stiftung also interviewed Hossein Mousavian, a former Iranian diplomat who is now a visiting scholar at Princeton University. As a diplomat, Hossein Mousavian was a representative of a regime that is not only accused of massive human rights violations, but also repeatedly calls for the destruction of Israel. How does that fit together?

Thomas Paulsen: The late bishop and human rights activist Desmond Tutu once said: “If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies”. With its direct and indirect attacks and its nuclear programme, Iran threatens not only the security of Israel, but also the stability of the entire region. The human rights situation in Iran is devastating. If we want to counter Tehran’s destructive policies, we need to understand how it “ticks”, and how decisions are made in the Iranian power structure. Hossein Mousavian, who held important positions in the Iranian government for many years, was later imprisoned himself in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison and has now been working at Princeton for 15 years, can provide important insights into how this system works.

Körber-Stiftung: Are there also limits to the dialogue for Körber-Stiftung?

Thomas Paulsen: Dialogue is never unconditional. On the one hand, it is important to decide with whom the dialogue is conducted. Very different positions, but also attitudes and values, often clash, particularly in debates about conflict situations. However, movement in deadlocked debates often only arises when such positions are exchanged, even if they are based on attitudes or values that we do not share in our society. This is where active moderation is crucial. On the one hand, it helps to overcome blockages and, on the other, it intervenes when positions that contradict our canon of values are expressed. Of course, there are limits to what is tolerable. In my view, for example, dialogue with a regime that wages a brutal war of aggression against a neighbouring sovereign state and openly threatens to use weapons of mass destruction is out of the question. For this reason, we suspended our dialogue activities with official Russia after the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Despite all the adversities and setbacks, I am convinced that the “dialogue method” remains indispensable for international relations.

Körber-Stiftung: Thank you very much for the interview!