Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the opening of the Conference of the Heads of German Missions

04.09.2023 - Speech

I am especially pleased that you, dear Ngozi, are here today. And to be honest I can hardly imagine a better guest for a conference in which we are focusing above all on our global partners.

For the questions we are asking ourselves are also questions that run through your impressive curriculum vitae. In your role as one of the leading politicians in Nigeria, as a high-profile expert at the World Bank, and now as Director-General of the World Trade Organization.

How can we strengthen our partnerships in a world in which an increasing number of players are fighting for influence? How, amid a host of crises, can we manage not to opt for isolation, nationalism and populism, but for openness, for cooperation which reflects the interests of all partners and which benefits above all those people who need it most?

You, Ngozi, summed up these questions recently in an essay:

“Globalisation is not over, nor should anyone wish for it to be. But it needs to be improved and reimagined for the age ahead.”

I quite agree. And in my view that doesn’t only mean reimagining our cooperation on trade issues, but on all the major issues that you, our heads of mission, are concerned with globally on a day-to-day basis in an interconnected world.

Our networked security, international climate policy, the global containment of crises and conflicts, the fight against poverty, starvation and suffering. And I am convinced that if we want to reimagine these issues, we need first and foremost to start with ourselves. And for me that means specifically the question of how we want to shape Germany’s role in a united Europe, in the world, in future.

As we all, know, this role has changed dramatically in the last one and a half years with Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, with this watershed.

If we look back, it feels like two decades ago, but it is only two years ago that billions of cubic metres of natural gas flowed from Russia to Germany through Nord Stream 1 and other pipelines. Fossil fuels from Russia met a large proportion of our energy requirements. Today, that is no longer the case, and Germany is now completely independent of them.

Just two years ago, the idea that Germany could supply tanks and air defence systems to a war zone would have seemed frankly absurd. Today, Germany is one of those leading the way in supplying weapons for Ukraine’s self-defence.

This change, this watershed, is not something we have simply whipped out of our sleeve. It has cost effort, it has required discussions which were often painful. Above all, it has required self-reflection on our part. Yet we have negotiated this about-turn together.

And in doing so, we have, as I see it, ushered in a new phase of German foreign policy in the last one and a half years. And we can see how radical that is when we look back on the different phases of German foreign policy and the crossroads at which we then stood. Crossroads where we repeatedly had to decide whether to stand still, go forward, turn right or turn left. As my time here today is limited, I’m just touching on key points.

Since the Shoah and the horrors of the Second World War, unleashed by Germany, our country’s foreign policy has been anchored on the principle that no war must ever again emanate from German soil. That remains the basis of our foreign policy activities. After 1945, Germany strove to win the trust of former enemies. And to this day we are grateful – in my case at the age of 42 – that my generation had the good fortune to be able to grow up in peace, that our neighbours and friends, indeed the whole world extended their hands to us and accepted us back into the fold of the international community. That was by no means a matter of course.

This year we are celebrating 50 years of United Nations membership. That underscores how little that could be taken for granted, particularly after 1945. It shows how long it took for Germany, then the FRG and GDR, to be accepted back into the international community, the United Nations in 1973, quite some time after the founding of the organisation.

In those days, the Federal Republic made clear contributions to the Western alliance. At the same time, German governments quite rightly exercised restraint in foreign policy and practised what we would now term chequebook diplomacy. The conviction that our money rather than our soldiers should be deployed to resolve conflicts. That was right and important in those days. And at the same time, during this phase of German foreign policy we made clear that, through this chequebook diplomacy, we wanted to give something back.

At the start of my term of office, when I spoke of value-led foreign policy, I was often asked how I felt about chequebook diplomacy. I’m not entirely new to politics, and it was clear that the aim wasn’t to provide an analysis of German foreign policy but to generate what sadly also shapes foreign policy these days: snappy headlines. It would have made a nice headline: “Baerbock criticises Genscher.” But what kind of a question is that? As if we could compare the 1970s or the 1980s with 2023. Who would even think of saying that what was right in 1970 automatically applies decades later to a potential blueprint of German foreign policy? As if five years in the United Nations were the same as fifty years of United Nations membership today. It was therefore important for me to make clear from the outset that every period has its responsibilities. That is why you can’t simply copy foreign policy, and politics in general, from the past but, as you also stated in the context of international trade policy, you have to keep reimagining it. After all, to put it bluntly, it would be slightly crazy if we were to approach ECOWAS or Ukraine with chequebook diplomacy alone.

In 1989, a third phase began for German foreign policy when, even before the brave people in East Germany, our Eastern neighbours toppled the dictatorships on the other side of the Iron Curtain and then stretched out their hands to the reunified Germany. In a common European Union, in our common European Union. It is clear to us today that we stand with our neighbours in these new times in the same way that they extended their hands to us after 1945 and made German reunification possible in 1989.

Simultaneously, in this third phase our country became increasingly involved in the United Nations and NATO-led missions. Driven by the unbearable images of the Balkan wars, the question of participation in robust mandates also grew more urgent. That led to active German engagement within the context of the NATO-led forces in Kosovo. And this decision, once again a decision that actively had to be taken, was significant. Not in spite of but because of the history of our country, as then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said. Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust not only means an obligation in the sense of “never again should there be a war” but also “there should never be another Auschwitz, there should never be another genocide”.

In recent years, German has supported its partners in UN, EU and NATO missions all over the world. And this phase was also intensively characterised by efforts to actively shape the United Nations and further develop international law. We are still engaged in this task today, and we want to continue to be so in future.

However, what has fundamentally changed as a result of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine and what we were brutally made to understand is that our own security is not a foregone conclusion. This insight will shape our politics for years to come. And that is what this new, fourth phase of our foreign policy is all about. About the way in which we deal with threats to our own security at the heart of Europe. And above all, about how we can actively assume responsibility ourselves – just as others took responsibility for our security.

In my mind, two conclusions are crucial here.

Firstly, we need to regroup, and consolidate our position – from a political, economic, military, civil and mental perspective. We need to invest in our own resilience.

And secondly, we need to invest in our European and transatlantic alliances abroad, as well as in new global partnerships.

This is precisely what we as the Federal Government have set out in our first National Security Strategy.

Yet the question of how we do this is in my view at least as important as the question of what we do.

I believe that if we want to be a reliable team player who doesn’t just stand on the sidelines but is willing to be a game changer, we need to keep on having the courage to initiate things. To keep going, even when success is not assured. Or if at the beginning it is not yet clear who is on the team. The courage to be optimistic particularly in times like these. Not to be cowed when confronted with headwinds but to stand up – for our values and interests. Not naively and guilelessly, not acting merely on principle, but with optimism and farsightedness. Because we cannot afford to just sit back and give up at the first sign of resistance. Because then others will step in to fill this gap. Possibly even in contravention of our values and our interests.

And here I believe the new phase of German foreign policy comes fully into its own. Not as a clean break with everything that went before, but as a logical consequence.

When I was sitting with my new State Secretary Thomas Bagger recently – and at this point I would like to give him a warm welcome to Berlin again following his inauguration last week – we spoke about how, in times gone by, instructions to our multilateral representations in New York and Geneva frequently featured one particular standard phrase. It read: “We will not stand in the way of an emerging consensus.”

Evidently some of you are familiar with this, going by the murmuring.

In those days, that statement was more than logical because we were an outsider which only joined international institutions, in particular the United Nations, in 1973. We became part of the international community. We didn’t want to stand alone. But now I believe it would be taking the easy way out if we were to adopt this stance: if it came to the crunch, we might end up on our own. Or were to ask so many questions that ultimately we would not have to formulate our own position.

In the past 558 days, the time that Russia’s terrible war has now been raging, we have seen how strong we are in our unity, in the European Union particularly, but also beyond it. But we have also seen that at the start of these 558 days there was no blueprint that we could just fall back on by lifting standardised sentences from old instructions. Rather, this unity is not something that just sprung up out of nowhere. How important it was, time and again, when making new decisions to first ask ourselves: what are we aiming for? How can we achieve that together with our partners? And time and again to subject ourselves to scrutiny.

Otherwise we would never have launched these sanctions packages, this strong support to enable Ukraine to defend itself. In NATO and the G7, and above all in the European Union. We have launched military aid, sanctions packages, humanitarian assistance and political support, because we have repeatedly been willing to contribute our own ideas, to make compromises and above all have made clear that we are committed to our European unity with everything we have. We have made clear that Ukraine, Moldova, the countries of the Western Balkans, and in the longer term also Georgia, will become EU members. I don’t know if anyone would have been willing to place bets on that five years ago.

But it also means that we now need to take bold steps to ensure that this EU of the future with more than 30 members is a strong union with the ability to act. Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, that will require internal reform. We have therefore initiated a process with some partners in order to allow more qualified majority decision-making in our common foreign and security policy. And even in this area we are far from reaching a consensus. But here, too, it was clear that Germany cannot simply sit on the sidelines and wait. And it is also clear that that in itself will not be enough. Reform of the European institutions and the cohesion policy will also be necessary, and we will need to consider how we can strengthen the EU as a geopolitical player.

We are aware that it will be difficult. Will these processes, which we are convinced we need, ultimately be truly successful? No, we can never be sure of it. But that cannot be a reason not to lead the way when it comes to formulating proposals. For if we want enlargement, we also have to work to ensure that the EU implements the necessary reforms. After all, we are asking the same of the states wanting to join.

We intend to issue an invitation to a conference on Europe in Berlin before the European Council in December to discuss precisely that – the necessary steps for us in the European Union in view of the enlargement and the reforms on which it needs to be based. For I believe that, as the largest economy in the European Union, and also as a country that was able to become one again thanks to its European partners, we have a special responsibility for the further development of our community.

However, that also applies to our global partnerships. I firmly believe that if we want to strengthen our partnerships in Africa, Latin America and Asia, then we have to be prepared to listen, to question our own reasoning or actions and to allow others to question them. It’s not always pleasant to be told: “You think we should support you on Ukraine? And you? Where were you when we needed you? Where was West Germany when we were fighting against apartheid in South Africa?”. We have to take it on the chin. We don’t have to accept all the criticism but nor are we above it. And it’s only honest if we say where and when we were wrong. That is very clear especially with regard to apartheid.

That is precisely why it is so important that we address our colonial history. I’m saying this to my home audience here. It’s part of an active foreign policy. It’s part of a foreign policy which shows respect for others. Shows that we have learned the right lessons from the dark chapters of our history. We have just spoken again in the corridor about what it means to Nigeria to get back the Benin Bronzes. Some of them. That was only a small proportion of the objects that are to be returned. Because if we address our past honestly, we can speak much more openly with our partners about the future.

And for that we have to take their security concerns more seriously. I’m thinking in particular of the climate crisis here. This crisis is fuelling conflicts and, first and foremost, it is affecting small and especially vulnerable countries with full force. As we all know, entire island states may sink under rising sea levels. For that reason, our new embassy in Fiji, for example, is not just any old new embassy. Rather, it will be one of our most important embassies in the world because it demonstrates the value we attach to an entire region. It demonstrates not just the significance we attach to Fiji, one island state, but to a whole host of island states. It symbolises our new partnership in responsibility-sharing in this new geopolitical age.

The task, colleagues, is to first of all listen and work with our partners on concrete solutions, particularly in those regions where we were not formerly present, either because we didn’t have an embassy there or it was not a focus of our foreign policy. That is precisely why we decided to bring climate diplomacy to the Federal Foreign Office. Not only to engage with partners on climate policy but to emphasise that we see this not just as a climate-policy but as a security-policy task. And many countries around the world have already adopted this stand.

That is why we will have the most vulnerable states in mind when we press for greater ambition at the next COP in Dubai when it comes to expanding renewable energies and the new loss and damage mechanisms. Here, too, we don’t know whether we will succeed; whether the new loss and damage instrument will have an immediate impact. Of course, that partly depends, if climate policy is so much a part of geopolitics, to what extent we again see old or new blocs emerging at climate change conferences. Whether it will again be the G77 against industrialised nations, or whether we manage to achieve what we have gradually succeeded in doing over the last year and a half, at least to a small extent: forming new and stronger climate alliances which break down these old bulwarks.

What we are building on time and again in this new age, in all the new formats, are our foreign-policy actions, which in all their phases have been marked by our values, our rules and interests anchored in our Basic Law. On the basis of which the international community accepted our country back into the fold. Based on the United Nations Charter, international law and human rights. Our actions are guided by our desire to strengthen this order. That is value-led foreign policy. This may sound abstract, but this order stands for something quite concrete, for rules and institutions in which small and large nations feel they are treated fairly and as equals. Because they respect and protect the rights of all.

However, we realise when we listen carefully that our small and medium-sized partners in particular are concerned when there is talk of order in a “multipolar world”. For when multipolarity means that even more large nations negotiate this order among themselves in back rooms, it’s a nightmare scenario for the small and medium-sized countries which make up the vast majority of the 193 member states of the United Nations. That is why our goal is to shape our reality in 2023 in such a way that it serves everyone and is fairer.

We don’t want to be a status quo power. We want to further develop the international order – by listening carefully to the concerns of our partners.

Just think of the UN Security Council. The last time it was reformed was 60 years ago. Since then, not only has a reunited Germany been formed but around 60 states have gained their independence. In Africa, in Latin America, in Asia. These states are rightly demanding to have their say and an appropriate seat at the table.

The same applies to international financial institutions, health organisations and formats such as the G20, of which the African Union ought to be a permanent member.

But we also have to improve our joint instruments if we want to master today’s challenges. Many vulnerable countries are barely able to invest in measures to protect them from climate damage because they are almost collapsing under an immensely increased debt burden. Here, too, we need solutions.

And these are also incredibly difficult challenges. But let me stress once more that if we fail to address these questions then others will be there to provide answers. And if people had lacked courage and opted for the easiest option at other crossroads in foreign policy, then we today would have neither a European Union, nor an OSCE or an International Criminal Court – of which, as we all know, not all states are parties.

Making a start, developing things further. That, too, has always been a hallmark of German foreign policy. And it is for that very reason that we are also working on the further development of international law. That, too, sounds very abstract. But I believe that we have reached a crucial point in this endeavour, too. A point where we can achieve what was not possible in the past. Reforming the Statute of Rome so that the crime of aggression can be subject to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. As we are all aware, the current gap in international law makes it impossible to hold those in power in Russia to account before the International Criminal Court for breach of peace. Here, too, we hear from so many sides: “Reform the Statute of Rome? Why? That’ll take ages.” However, when we think about how thankful we can be that others had the courage to reach out to us, then I believe we have a special responsibility when it comes to international law. And with regard to the crime of aggression, I believe it is so crucial now not only to focus on the European perspective but to see the larger picture and our global responsibility. And yes, German foreign policy can make a real difference here. For, of course, this is about Ukraine. But it is about so much more. It is about every country in the world which fears the aggression of a neighbour. And that is precisely why we are already working with those states, particularly in Africa, which attempted to do this 13 years ago as a small group.

And our task is to take on board those very countries. I believe that what makes our role so special here is that, knowing what we have to offer, we not only have every reason to be courageous and optimistic. But also because we have earned much trust during earlier chapters of our foreign policy. And we have not made the mistakes some others have made but have helped to launch key initiatives such as the International Criminal Court.

What is more, and we should not underestimate this either, we have something to offer because the confidence placed in us is due to our long-standing efforts to further a fair international order, the fight against environmental and climate destruction, sustainable development and the struggle for peace and security, also in other regions. That is one of the reasons we are again standing for election to the Security Council for 2027 and 2028.

At the same time, it goes without saying that we know how hard these times are. Being optimistic doesn’t mean failing to see all the pitfalls and obstacles.

We know that not everyone sees it that way. That is why I ask those who reject our vision of an international order as “Western ideology” the same question time and again, quite simply and quite openly: what is your vision of an international order if it’s not the United Nations Charter, if it’s not the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, on which we all agreed? Is it about other interests, about another order?

Of course, we cannot force anyone to stand with us and against others. Nor do we want to. For we Germans experienced first-hand over the course of four decades of division what the formation of blocs means. We know that genuine partnership can never only be a means to an end. It must benefit both sides.

That is one of the key challenges facing us when it comes to dealing with China. The fact that many countries are pivoting ever more towards China, for example at climate change conferences where you say to yourself: “You have nothing in common in terms of climate policy”, is often due to their belief that there is no alternative. China has a particular advantage in those spheres where we have too little to offer or don’t do enough to promote what we have to offer. Our China Strategy is therefore directed first and foremost at ourselves. It is up to us to show our commitment by providing concrete solutions. And something else is important, Heads of Mission: it is up to us to communicate what we have to offer in a clear manner.

And, dear Ngozi, this readiness to further develop the status quo and shape a new globalisation together also applies to trade policy. You have underscored that the number of people living in extreme poverty has been drastically reduced during the last few decades, partly thanks to a huge increase in international trade. But fair and sustainable international trade requires clear and fair rules that apply to everyone. Rules which are made for everyone and not just for certain countries. Rules which are respected and enforceable.

However, we see that the work of the WTO is hampered by geopolitical tensions, by differences between developing and industrialised countries or between the United States and China. And these tensions and differences concern key questions which are sometimes hovering in the background: when is a country no longer a developing country? How many protective measures are permissible to foster key business sectors, for instance in the spheres of climate action or semi-conductors? And how do we prevent a subsidies race which ultimately harms everyone?

The WTO also needs reform if we are to resolve these issues, if it is once more to be the forum for re-imagining globalisation which you, dear Ngozi have called for. So that its dispute resolution mechanism is again fit for purpose in the age of digitalisation and AI. As quickly as today’s world turns.

You, indeed we, are doing everything possible to bring this about. We cannot do it by being intransigent. We are going to need compromises. As always in life, as always in politics. We will also keep exploring new avenues with difficult partners, even if we don’t share the same views on all issues. That requires us to also look at ourselves critically. After all, we know we are not perfect.

That we are often faced with dilemmas where no answer is 100% right or 100% wrong. Because our politics, the hopes we place in processes and cooperation, can fail. Failure is a possibility in any action. We are currently seeing that in a very dramatic fashion in the Sahel, in Mali and now in particular and quite tragically in the Niger. I see acknowledging problems and revealing our thought processes as a sign of strength. And it lies at the heart of feminist foreign policy. A policy which involves listening, naming dilemmas and facing up to them. I firmly believe that taking a critical look at our own actions, particularly in the field of international trade, makes us stronger rather than weaker.

Dear Ngozi, ladies and gentlemen, colleagues,

Re-imagining our global cooperation and globalisation, thinking them more effectively. That is how you put it. We want to do that together. As a partner aware of its responsibility towards its friends and neighbours and other partners. A partner that doesn’t shy away when the going gets tough. As a team player that knows its own strengths and allows partners to show their strengths. Because together we are better.

Courageous and optimistic. Because this is about our shared security. This is about a fair future.


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