Seizing the Transatlantic Moment: Our Common Responsibility in a New World - Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at The New School in New York

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at The New School

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at The New School, © Janine Schmitz/photothek.de

02.08.2022 - Speech

It’s great to be here at The New School.

Since its creation, The New School has done outstanding work in bringing together American, European, and particularly German thinkers and academics.

In the 1930s, when the Nazis sought to extinguish free scholarship in Europe, it was here, at The New School, where persecuted scholars found refuge – at the University in Exile.

And today just as back then, the New School is a unique institution in its free and critical thinking, in the way its scholars and students tackle the major issues of our day: across disciplines and intellectual boundaries.

I think you are doing exactly what Hannah Arendt – who, as you all know, was a member of this faculty – meant when she spoke about “thinking without a banister,” or in German “Denken ohne Geländer”.

An approach in which we are brave enough to leave biases and preconceptions behind and open ourselves up to new ideas. And I would like to say very frankly: that’s an approach not necessarily in the DNA of politicians. But what The New School stands for is what we need today, as we face tremendous challenges in this world. We have to come up with fresh ideas. We have to be willing to also look at the world from the perspective of people who do not share our opinions.

I’ve been German Foreign Minister for less than a year. Of course, when I took on this position, I knew that trying times lay ahead. But I did not expect my first few months in office to usher in a new geopolitical reality on the European continent.

February 24th changed our world, it has changed Europe. It marked the moment that Russia launched its ruthless war against Ukraine.

  • A war aimed at eliminating an independent neighboring country and suppressing its identity. President Putin called this a war of liberation but Russia’s tanks and missiles are not bringing peace and freedom, but death and destruction to cities, homes and maternity hospitals in Ukraine.
  • Russia’s war also breaks with the European peace order that we built after the fall of the Iron Curtain, it scorns international law and the UN Charter. President Putin seeks a world where might and not the law makes right, a world in which great powers can just swallow up smaller states if they like.

We all thought war on the European continent would never return, especially for my generation. I am 40 years old, born in Western Germany and luckily I have never experienced war or dictatorship. But we saw the brutal reality when we were sitting together at the NATO Foreign Ministers in March. All the Foreign Ministers were sitting in one room while our Ukrainian colleague Dimytro Kuleba was on screen explaining for the tenth time how horrible the situation in Ukraine was. And in between, he was showing pictures. Pictures of the destruction of cities, of homes, and also of lives. One of the pictures was a father crying over the body of his dead child. And I think nobody at this moment, nobody in the room in the NATO building, was thinking in theory about foreign policy or NATO defense capabilities. Everybody was just thinking: What if this was me, a father or a mother, crying over their dead child? This underlined to many of us: This could be us.

President Putin is not attacking the European peace order, the international order in theory – he is attacking us in brutal reality. By plane, Kyiv is just two or three hours away from my hometown.

My hometown, Potsdam, is a small city close to Berlin. It is what Bucha is to Kyiv. I realized when I went to Bucha and Irpin: This could be us. This is so important in the digital age, in the social media age, when you sometimes cannot differentiate between reality and virtual reality, that you realize: This is the brutal life of everybody living in Ukraine. This is why we have made crystal clear that we stand side by side in solidarity – not only with Ukraine but with this international peace order, of which my generation thought: this is just a given. But we see now, that this is not a given. We have to fight for peace and freedom and security every day.

  • And what is important for me is that this fight for freedom, security and also democracy is a fight we owe also to the democratic forces in Russia. Because Russia’s President is also changing and challenging democracy within his own country. Even before, the Kremlin was targeting our open societies with hybrid attacks. Since February 24th there is hardly any democracy left: Russian activists who have been demonstrating since the 24th in the streets – and there have been many people in the streets – have been jailed. Journalists have been repressed and opposition forces have been imprisoned. Young people and businesspeople are leaving the country. Because it is not a free country anymore.

This new reality marks a stark turning Point. But I also believe – and that’s what I want to talk about today – that it marks something else: It marks a truly transatlantic moment!

Over the past few months, Germany, Europe, and the United States have stood resolutely side by side – maybe closer than ever since the end of the Cold War.

We stood firm in supporting our Ukrainian partners, in imposing sanctions on Russia, and in providing a resolute response through NATO. It’s good to see your country living up its responsibility for the international rules-based order. And I would like to add: I believe something may have changed in our societies during the last months as well. In Germany, among our citizens, I perceive a real and renewed appreciation for the transatlantic partnership. And I have been told that here too in the United States, many have come to realize again that Europe matters.

We have experienced key moments in our transatlantic partnership before. The Westintegration of the Federal Republic of Germany after World War Two, when the Marshall Plan helped rebuild a destroyed Germany, after the darkest chapter in our history. The end of the Cold War, when thanks to our American and European partners, my country was reunited in a united Europe. In these moments, Americans, Europeans, Germans, mastered fundamental geopolitical shifts by closing transatlantic ranks. Today, as our security and freedom are threatened in ways not seen in decades, closing the transatlantic ranks is again the task ahead of us.

We have to seize this transatlantic moment. We have to use it to build a stronger, irreversible transatlantic partnership for the 21st century.

In 1989, U.S. President George Bush famously offered Germany a “partnership in leadership”. Back then, it did not materialize. The idea went too far for the situation at the time. In the early nineties, my country was so busy making reunification a reality for all its citizens. Working on anchoring a reunited Germany in the EU.

But today, in a world of a new era, this has fundamentally changed. We are seeing clearly:

Now is the moment when we have to engage in partnership in leadership.

Not just we as Germans and Americans – as we thought thirty years ago. But we as Europeans and Americans. And it is for my country within the European Union to help lead the way. Needless to say, such a partnership in leadership is no romantic project to bring back the good old transatlantic times. I grew up in a reunified Germany; I have no real memory of the Cold War.

For 18 or 25-year-old Germans, President Kennedy’s “I am a Berliner” or President Reagan’s “Tear down this wall” are events in history books; they have not been defining how we personally look at America. And maybe that’s also true for both sides of the Atlantic today. This is true for many people, not only those who study at this school but who are living in the US today, whose origins often lie in other parts of the world – in Latin America, Asia, Africa, the Middle East – and not in Europe.

As much as Europeans and Americans may differ in their personal history, and in their individual backgrounds: We share common values, how we live and how we want to live in the future. What defines us is freedom and democracy.

These are just words, but today we can see what this actually means. Every 8-year-old, 29-year-old, 79-year-old can freely decide what they want eat, who they want to love, what they want to think, what they want to speak about and what they’re dreaming of. Freedom and democracy determine the way we live each and every day. We believe that “human dignity shall be inviolable”. We believe that every person has the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

Russia’s brutal war has made clear: It’s not theory, it’s a reality – these values are under attack. Freedom, democracy and human rights are under attack.

This is why we must stand strong. And this is what our partnership in leadership is about.

Three pillars will be crucial for this partnership.

First, security. For a long time after 1989, security was not an issue of concern for many Europeans and particularly Germans – after the end of the Cold War, my country considered itself finally “surrounded only by friends”. But that perception has definitely changed. Children are asking their parents now at breakfast: Mom, what exactly is a nuclear weapon? Others are saying: I really like NATO. In the mid-1980s, when I was born, millions of Germans who are the grandparents of these children took to the streets to protest against armament. Now, these grandparents, mothers, fathers and their children are sitting at the kitchen table debating about armament, or they are marching in the streets in support of Ukraine’s freedom.

And the same holds true for other European countries: Sweden and Finland are leaving behind long traditions of neutrality to join NATO.

In Berlin, Russia’s war has prompted us in the new German Government to re-examine some long-held views on security – and to fundamentally change track in many fields. Thinking without a banister means for us:

Germany has set up a special fund of 100 billion euro to strengthen our military. We have reversed a decades-old arms export paradigm, with Germany now being one of Ukraine’s strongest military and financial backers. And we have expanded our contributions to NATO: We are leading the NATO battle group in Lithuania and are assigning a brigade with up to 800 troops which can be deployed there if required. We are helping to secure the airspace over the Baltic States with our fighter jets – and to protect Slovakia with Patriot air defense.

But we know that we cannot stop here: Our aim is to further strengthen the European pillar of NATO, because we want to have a leadership in European and US partnership. Europe matters – also security-wise, that’s what we saw after February 24th. If that premise is to hold, we have to prove it and see it through in the long term. That means building a more strategic European Union – a Union able to approach the United States at eye level: in a partnership in leadership.

European Union member states are spending dozens of billions every year on their militaries – but we get too little for that money. Because, for example, we Europeans are using more than a dozen types of tanks. The EU needs to become a stronger security provider with more integrated defense industries, with military missions able to stabilize regions in its neighborhood.

With the European Peace Facility, which has mobilized billions of euros to provide Ukraine with weapons to defend itself, we have proven that the EU can act decisively at a time of paramount need.

But security in the 21st century is about more than jets and tanks. In Germany’s first-ever National Security Strategy, that we are currently drafting at the Foreign Ministry, we are taking a comprehensive view of security:

We are looking at disinformation in our social media, at the supply chains of our companies, and at how the climate crisis is exacerbating conflicts in our European neighborhood. And I know that many of our European partners and the United States are doing just the same. So let us deepen our cooperation on developing and regulating critical technologies – and our joint work on reducing our economic dependencies.

The EU-US Trade and Technology Council established last year has already expanded our conversations on AI, 6G, or quantum computing in important ways. In reaction to Russia’s war, we have further coordinated our export controls. And together, we are seeing clearly: It serves both our interests and our values when our companies do not compete in our markets with products made using forced Labor.

In Germany, we have stepped away from a long-held German belief in “Wandel durch Handel” – the idea that trade and economic partnerships with autocratic regimes would sway them toward Democracy. As a result, we are ending our dependency on Russian gas and oil. This is hard, and it will be costly. But it is more than needed. And in just a few months we have already reduced the share of gas imports from Russia from 55% to 26%. Thinking comprehensively about security is key in our times.

All these investments in our security have one central goal – and that brings me to the second pillar of the future transatlantic partnership in leadership:

The defense of our rules-based international order. Let me be very clear from the start: This order is not a Western order. It’s an order that allows all states to cooperate, prosper, and live peacefully side by side – where no state has to fear being attacked by a more powerful neighbor. It’s the order upheld by the 141 states that voted with us in the UN General Assembly in March condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine. And it’s the order upheld by all states who believe that we need to tackle global challenges such as the pandemic, nuclear non-proliferation, or the climate crisis together. But as Europeans and Americans, simply insisting on defending this order is not enough.

We have to invest in the international peace order – as we do in the G7 with the Partnership for Global Infrastructure where the EU and the U.S. are jointly mobilizing more than 500 billion U.S. dollars, responding to urgent infrastructure needs in countries of the Global South. But in this, we have to be better coordinated: This is not about deals, this is about investment in a common future. And we should also do a better job of underscoring that it is the United States and Europe who remain the largest contributors to global humanitarian funding and development cooperation. Last year, the EU and its member states invested 70 billion euro in development cooperation. But at the same time, we have to be frank and clear: We have to listen to partners in earnest – instead of lecturing them. This is about owning our past, for instance colonialism. And it is about acknowledging that we ourselves have not always done everything right.

Over the past months, when I was discussing Russia’s war with colleagues from Africa, Asia, or Latin America, I heard very often: I understand, you expect our support for this crisis in your neighborhood. But where were you when we needed you? And this question is not always answered by all of us. I recently visited the island state of Palau, which supports us in the UN in speaking out against Russia’s invasion. However, when I was standing there, at the beautiful beaches of Palau, the war in Ukraine was not their biggest concern. I was there with a fisherman standing in front of his house. And when I came, I thought: We’re talking about these homes being endangered by rising sea levels within the next 20 or 30 years. But when I was standing there, I could literally see, that it is not about 20 or 30 years, it’s about ten years.

The climate crisis is the biggest security threat for many, many countries. This is why we have to put this security threat, the climate crisis, at the top of the international agenda. As strong industrialized countries sharing a major responsibility for the climate emergency, we must show leadership in partnership in this regard:

By pushing for more ambitious mitigation efforts – but also by underlining that some countries cannot adapt anymore to this climate crisis. They are already suffering from climate losses and damages. That’s why it is so crucial, especially in these times and especially ahead of the upcoming COP27 in November, that we do everything to come back to a 1.5-degree path. And we want it make this clear: We will deliver on our 100 billion dollar promise. It’s also a question of credibility and global responsibility. And we can only fight the climate crisis with all states on this planet.

For this we need China, one of the biggest emitters, even if they are our competitors and systemic rivals in other fields. We can only fight the climate crisis together.

The rules-based international order is about cooperation – and that is exactly why we must take challenges to this order seriously – in Europe and beyond. However, we share American concerns. We have painfully learned over the past months, with February 24th, that aggressive rhetoric can turn into dangerous action. China’s comments with regard to Taiwan raise serious questions. It cannot be in our interest if China is creating excessive economic dependencies in its region.

We are currently looking at this, and we are drafting, for the first time in my ministry, our own China strategy, which will be published next year, and which is very much in line with strategic thinking here in the U.S. In my view, one objective of this strategy should be to further align transatlantic positions on the challenges China poses to our rules‑based international order.

But we will only be able to stand up to such challenges if we are strong at home. And that’s the third pillar of the transatlantic partnership in leadership. Strengthening our democracies and their resilience. Europe and the United States are so important to each other – they must care about how the other is doing domestically. This is not interfering, this is about caring for friends. We see that we are both facing similar challenges at home – issues that also dominate your debates here at The New School: inequality, social justice, racism, populism, political polarization, weakened democratic institutions. Of course, the images of January 6th are still fresh in our minds. And in Europe, democracy is challenged as well: In some places, we see LGBTI rights, the rule of law and the independence of journalists questioned. And in my country, a right-wing populist party is up at 20% in some of our regions. As friends, we should discuss these challenges together and openly.

Not for the sake of repeating the old slogan of the transatlantic community of values. But because ultimately, our security depends on it. Our democracies unite us, even if we live many values differently:

That’s certainly true for the abortion debate which is a passionate one here in the U.S., with hundreds of thousands of women and men in the streets speaking up for women’s rights. As a woman and a mother of two daughters, I wholeheartedly share their feelings:

Every woman has the right to decide over her own body.

This debate also shows: Democracies are complicated. It’s way easier to say: Here I am, the strong man, and just hit the table and then everybody does what you want. But democracy is tough. Democracy is complicated. Because it allows for openness and because it values debate and it values thinking without a banister and it values dispute. That makes democracies vulnerable to attack – from the inside and the outside. That’s why I think both Americans and Europeans have a double task ahead of them:

To make room for creative disputes in our societies so that our democracies can develop, advance and modernize. Democracy never finishes, it keeps developing. Because it is never complete, they need to adapt to new times. Otherwise, they stand still and die. But we also need to be sure to protect our democracies against attempts to destroy their very core – the values and institutions without which they cannot live. We should help each other to succeed in this double task: Because we are close friends, because it’s in our interest. And I am glad that we are creating a new forum to nourish this debate:

The German American Futures Forum, which will meet for the first time in November in Germany:

We are bringing together young experts and decision-makers from both our countries to explore new ideas for our societies and the transatlantic partnership – in short: “to think without a banister”.

Ladies and gentlemen,

February 24th has taught us many brutal lessons. We now live in a world in which we need to prepare for all eventualities. At such a time, I think we can take inspiration from The New School’s founders and those who set up the University in Exile. At a time of doubt and difficulty, they flew the flag of free thinking and democracy. They did not give up – they looked to the future and wanted to build a better world. If we can mobilize just a small share of their courage and confidence we have everything we need to seize this transatlantic moment. And to build the transatlantic partnership for the 21st century: a partnership in leadership between Europe and the United States. And I think the New School is the best place to remember that everything is possible if we are ready to take up the challenge.

Thank you.


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