Last week I was in the Baltic, where I learnt a lot. Not only about the acute threat emanating from Russia, or about how the people right on Europe’s external borders with Russia feel. Rather, I took away with me one very potent sentence: “We keep talking when it’s hard to talk.”
It was said to me by one of three women I met, representatives of civil society in Riga. One of them organises a democracy festival there, the second is active in local politics, and the third draws up information for Russian-speaking minorities in their country. They told me how difficult it is in Latvia – in a society where about a third of the population is Russian-speaking or of Russian origin – not to lapse into silence at such a time of threat, fear, guilt and shame, but instead to talk about these fears and concerns – because otherwise everyone withdraws into their own safe havens – and to make dialogue possible. “To talk when it’s hard to talk”: the job on the ground is to create spaces for such dialogue.
And the women stressed why they feel this is so important: because it is not just about the ethnic identity of the Russian-speaking Latvians, but about their civil identity. One of the women described it like this: she said she herself had Russian origins. She has grandparents there, with whom she can no longer really talk, because they deny that Russia is waging a war of aggression. Her husband, though, whose ethnic identity would actually also be counted as Russian, because he grew up speaking Russian, has absolutely no ties to Russia, and it’s been that way for generations, for centuries. These three women gave such a clear insight into what identity really means in the 21st century – above all else, civil society engagement, being involved in society.
And that is also my ambition for foreign policy for the 21st century. Namely the question of how we can strengthen democracies and democrats in an interconnected world. That means that we need to pursue foreign policy not just between capitals, between heads of government and foreign ministers. Rather, if a modern foreign policy wants to be successful, then it needs to be connected with civil society – with grassroots movements, with scientists and academics, with trade unions and with school pupils; it needs to listen, it needs to nurture dialogue. This is our ambition for the Federal Foreign Office and for Germany’s G7 Presidency this year. And so I am delighted that we are all coming together to talk at this joint event today. We want to hear what you experts have to say, and on this basis to shape the deliberations of the G7 foreign ministers.
Scientists and researchers working on the climate crisis or the pandemic. Activists bringing together human rights activists and defenders of democracy and supporting others worldwide. Aid organisation staff saving lives every day in humanitarian crises. In these functions you are all gathered here today. And my colleagues from the Federal Foreign Office have one goal above all else today: to listen to you, to learn from your experience and to take up your suggestions.
You all know that the G7 Foreign Ministers meeting in two weeks is taking place at a time of extreme geopolitical tension. This means that we will need to take a fresh look at our definition of a modern foreign policy, of a security strategy for the 21st century, against this background. Not since the end of the Cold War have democracies, have we G7 partners with our shared values, faced such challenges as we do today in Europe and throughout the world. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is an attack on all that our open societies stand for: human rights, freedom and the rules-based international order. We have responded resolutely to Russia’s aggression, with unprecedented sanctions against Moscow and huge support for Ukraine.
At the same time – and this is important to me – we must continue to show as a strong economy that we can provide answers to the global challenges of our age. Because they will not simply disappear just because we now have this dreadful war of aggression by Russia. On the contrary, the most pressing current issues, such as the food crisis, are getting worse as a result of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. And in the global South especially, the food crisis is coming up against the climate crisis. When I was in the Sahel region recently, I was reminded once again so sharply of what that means: not abstract figures relating to global warming or climate change mitigation, but exactly what happens when the climate crisis and the food crisis coincide, if the same thing happens with the next harvest as happened last year. If there is once again a failed harvest in the Sahel, then unimaginable famine looms. During our visit, the World Food Programme showed us an amount of food that would normally suffice for a four-person family (although the families there are not usually four-person). Now, though, this food ration has been halved – and we are still facing this threat of famine.
This means that it is crucial, more crucial than ever, that we industrialised countries work together to counter this and support the countries affected. This will be a central focus of our G7 Presidency and of the G7 Foreign Ministers’ discussions. One positive realisation in this ever so complex and difficult time is this: over the past few years we have repeatedly seen that if we, as global players, as a community of shared values, as states, assume responsibility and work together, then we can achieve something. Even if at the outset of the pandemic there were more than a few hiccups (and some of you have kept on pointing out to the heads of state and government that we as industrialised countries have a greater responsibility to act quickly), the last few months have in fact shown that if states work together, we really can achieve something. COVAX, for example, now has so many donated vaccine doses that unfortunately they cannot all be used immediately. The challenge now is to really take vaccinations forward on this “last mile”.
And this shared effort shows that we can do it if we want – and a value-based foreign policy needs to do that right now: when it comes to food security, tackling the climate crisis, and global cooperation for development prospects. Otherwise, as we are also seeing in this storm of crises, others will fill the gap. We already saw that during the pandemic. And we had seen it for years before in Europe. China deliberately heads into those countries where we as democracies, as partners with shared values, are not active. This means that forward-looking crisis policy and prevention are also about security policy for the coming years.
Those who want to exploit the current food crisis to create new dependencies are not providing security. Security comes rather from those who understand exactly what international responsibility and solidarity are: not only a moral duty, but also proof of our ability to act as open, free societies. They need to pool their efforts now.
I regard this as a guideline and standard for our G7 Presidency. And that is precisely the message the women in Riga gave me. Democracy is more than just a political system or a theoretical concept. It is a way of life, in freedom and diversity. And we have to defend it every day – be it against Russian propaganda in the Baltic region, or elsewhere in Europe, be it with food, with support in the Sahel and elsewhere in the world.
I firmly believe that freedom and diversity give our democracies, our values-led societies, a creativity and dynamism that authoritarian states do not have. That is our advantage. And this dynamism comes not least from you, representatives of a free civil society. That is why today’s event is such an important launch point for our G7 Presidency. I would like to thank you all for taking part, for your good ideas, suggestions and of course also your critical comments. I look forward to the discussions my colleagues there will have with you and wish all of us the very best.