The Power of “Soft Power”: The Hon. Dagmar Freitag MdB

Chair of the Bundestag’s German-US Parliamentary Friendship Group, sports enthusiast, amateur photographer (don’t miss her stunning images at the end)

Photo courtesy of the Office of Dagmar Freitag MdB

In a previous interview, you said that sport runs like a thread through much of your life. It certainly looks that way, given that you studied sport science, chair the Bundestag’s Committee on Sport, and are Vice President of the German Athletics Association, among numerous other roles. What sports did you do while growing up? What sports are you still engaged in?

At the age of six, I became a member of a sports club. When I was growing up, my favorite sports were track and field and volleyball. Nowadays I still do a bit of jogging and cycling.

While “hard power” policy issues — security, trade, energy — tend to receive the most attention in official meetings, what have you seen in your own experience as the role of cultural and sports diplomacy in building, maintaining, and strengthening ties with countries abroad?

In my opinion, cultural and sports diplomacy are integral parts of international relations, even though they tend to receive too little attention on the political stage. Nevertheless, people-to-people contact — and this is what much of cultural and sports diplomacy is about — plays a crucial role in building and sustaining strong and resilient relations between societies.

This is all the more important in politically difficult times when relations in the field of “hard power” become tense. We witnessed this during the Cold War, for example, when the West tried to maintain cultural exchange programs and sporting encounters even when political relations were strained. The lesson we can draw from this is that today we should once again intensify our efforts in the “soft power” realm of cultural and sports diplomacy, given the uncertainties about the evolving international order.

One good example is the German Foreign Office’s significant investments into sports projects in developing countries. I am actively involved in the Foreign Office’s activities through my engagement in the Parliament’s sub-committee on foreign cultural and educational policy.

In addition to sport, you have also cultivated a strong portfolio in foreign relations, albeit much more recently. How did this second specialization get added to your legislative priorities?

I have had a longstanding personal interest in foreign affairs, especially in the United States and in Southern Africa. In my career, international relations started to play a more prominent role when I became a co-rapporteur of the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange Program (CBYX), a post that I have held since 1998. My involvement in the field deepened when I became a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the German Parliament in 2009.

During the current electoral term, I have furthermore served as the Deputy Foreign Policy Spokesperson for the Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag. I also became more active in the field of the parliamentary friendship groups — first as the Chair of the Friendship Group for Relations with the States of Southern Africa, and, since November 2016, as the Chair of the German-US Parliamentary Friendship Group, which is the counterpart to The Congressional Study Group on Germany.

How did you first encounter the United States?

Maybe it makes sense because of my background with sports, but interestingly my first “on the ground” encounter with the US was a visit to the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996.

But as a kid, I heard about the civil rights movement in the United States, which I found very fascinating. A vivid memory I recollect is certainly the picture of Martin Luther King in front of the Lincoln Memorial, giving his famous “I have a dream” speech. Since then, the US to me — as to many other Germans — has figured as a symbol of freedom and hope. There have although also been developments which I found very worrisome such as the Iraq War, Guantanamo, or, more recently, the various cases of police violence against ethnic minorities in the US.

What is your favorite part about the US — culturally, geographically, politically, socially, or otherwise? What do you miss most from Germany when you are visiting the US?

Politically, it is certainly very interesting to be on the east coast, but also California seems to be quite a political hub to me. In terms of natural beauty, I think the national parks are definitely extremely attractive. But I do miss watching German TV.

What is something that most people do not know about you but might be surprised to find out?

If I tell you, it will no longer be a secret! :)

But what might be somewhat surprising is the fact that I enjoy living in a small village “in the middle of nowhere.” Also, on my travels, I take the opportunity to practice my photography skills.

Dagmar Freitag’s impressive photography skills on display: Everglades (top-middle); Sambesi River, Zambia (top right); Sambesi River, Zambia (middle left); Vietnam (middle right); Dubai Desert (bottom left); Hermanus, South Africa (bottom right).