“It’s too much!” This was the desperate outcry printed on the title page of a German weekly magazine some time ago. Below it was a picture of a smartphone from which the crises of our time appeared veritably to explode. Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the appalling terror committed by Hamas against Israel, fear and terror in Gaza, the climate crisis. People everywhere in unspeakable distress.
Indeed, I believe that for all of us here in this room, sometimes especially at night when watching videos, the crises surrounding us must feel almost unbearable. And it is perhaps this feeling that is causing many people to seek seemingly simple slogans. To take an unequivocal stand, to dismiss the suffering of others, to close their eyes to the universal view of the distress of others in particular.
We are witnessing how conflicts fought thousands of kilometres away from us are finding their way into our society. On the one hand this is positive as it means that foreign affairs are not ignored. At the same time, however, we are also witnessing how particularly through social media the anger and grief caused by this are transformed into hate on our streets and in our schools.
We see social media bubbles that seem like echo chambers in which even Osama Bin Laden is drawn on as the crown witness of a supposedly anti-colonial ideology. TikTok and Instagram are becoming coils of self-affirmation and parallel universes of one-sidedness. This is convenient, and it is perhaps also to some extent understandable if in view of the horrific images particularly in the Middle East and this incredible dilemma some people – and I think if we are honest this sometimes includes ourselves – simply wish to be able to isolate themselves in moral purity rather than addressing the other perspective.
However, the danger of such simplification is polarisation and a further deepening of the divisions in our society. It goes without saying, particularly in democracies, that everyone has the right to voice their opinion. But anti-Semitic hatred and anti-Israeli agitation are not an opinion. Anyone who lives in Germany and questions Israel’s right to exist or even downplays the Holocaust will meet with our fierce opposition and all its consequences. Because on this issue there is no “yes, but”, but only a “never again”.
And I wish to issue just as strong a warning against placing all people of Muslim faith or roots under general suspicion or even agitating against them. Two weeks ago, I was at a Jewish daycare centre here in Berlin. And when we sat there in the morning circle with the small children and the staff told me that they were no longer able to go outside these days, no longer able to take the S-Bahn with the children because the risk was too great that others would see that theirs is a Jewish daycare centre, I was lost for words. And on the other hand, there was a newspaper report a few days ago about a schoolgirl beaten up in the toilets because she was wearing a chain around her neck with Allah on it.
This is the reality in Berlin and we cannot and may not deny any of it. That is why it is so important for me particularly at this time to make clear not only that we must stand up against anti-Muslim racism, but also that in doing so we will strengthen our democracy.
And what applies to our society – I believe this is also something that my colleague Landsbergis and our former colleague Di Maio from Italy, indeed something we feel in all our European democracies right now – also applies to our international relations. Here too we need to make every effort to prevent polarisation and a further deepening of the divisions as I believe that we will only be able to tackle the “too much” of the crises if we do the opposite of what we are initially tempted to do. And that can sometimes be really hard – above all in a world that is strongly driven by social media and clicks. If, instead of simplifying, we adopt the universal view, confront the complexity, spell out the dilemmas – it is only then that we will succeed in overcoming the divisions. And I believe that this is the most important job not only of foreign policy, but especially at a time when foreign policy is readily dismissed at home, it is the most important job of all politicians these days. It goes without saying that this applies above all when we find ourselves dealing with difficult partners, when the fronts appear so hardened that the initial impulse is simply no longer to talk to one another.
This unfortunately also applies, and indeed increasingly as each week passes by, with a view to the Middle East. The ceasefire, the release of hostages now for the first time offers a glimmer of hope that we must jointly exploit. As the Executive Director of UNICEF said last week, Gaza is the most dangerous place in the world for children. This is the reality. That is why we are now doing everything we can to help children in particular. And it is supposedly simple things that cost days of negotiations, such as enabling more water to come in, millet, powdered milk, bandaging material.
We need to use the present situation, this ceasefire, to talk about what could be. In other words, to talk about concrete steps for a safe future, a tomorrow, however far away it may seem. Because Israel will never be able to live in security unless the terror of Hamas is tackled. And at the same time there can only be security for Israel if the Palestinians also have future prospects.
And it is precisely for this reason that I am concerned about how both internationally and here in Germany it is so often not the people who are given priority, but what people believe in. Either Israel’s right of self-defence or the humanitarian suffering in Gaza. But both are reality. There can only be peace if we address both. And it is precisely for this reason that I have found it so important to enter into these discussions repeatedly and also to make the case yesterday in Barcelona that we need to see the suffering on the other side in order to be able to alleviate and hopefully at some point end our own suffering.
As foreign minister of a country for which Israel’s security is part of its raison d’état, I have therefore repeatedly made clear not only yesterday, but on all my visits to the Middle East, that Israel has not just the right, but also the obligation towards its people to defend itself within the framework of international humanitarian law against the horrific terror attack by Hamas, just like any other country in the world.
And at the same time we are constantly reminding Israel that civilian casualties must be consistently avoided at all times, that it cannot be in Israel’s interests for even more victims – men, women and children – to fuel even more grief and anger in the Arab world and for this conflict to escalate and affect the next generation.
It is precisely for this reason that I also call on Israel to do more to prevent extremist settlers in the West Bank from exploiting the situation to drive Palestinians out of their home country. It goes without saying that these discussions are anything but straightforward. They are an incredible dilemma, and yet we have to face up to this as we will otherwise lapse into speechlessness. And speechlessness is at present the most dangerous thing there can be. Because we cannot allow the universal view to be lost through speechlessness and the terror of Hamas to drive a wedge between us as the international community. And the good thing is that many people see it this way when the microphones are turned off. This is something I have heard in many discussions, particularly also in the region itself. We must now build on this and think in concrete terms about how to achieve a two-state solution. Not just publicly, maybe even not publicly, but in small groups. It is about creating trust and being prepared to see the plight of the other party.
Precisely because our country, Germany, stands clearly at the side of Israel and enjoys trust among Arab countries, we can and, I believe, must act as a bridge builder. This is one of the reasons for me to study the figures (of surveys) carefully. I believe that we are undergoing a decisive phase of German foreign policy in which we can actively assume responsibility for our role in the world. I wish to be absolutely explicit here: clearly standing up for our principles and at the same time exploring where even the smallest steps can bring us forward are for me two sides of the same coin. This is what responsible, value-led foreign policy means for me. A policy that addresses and withstands the complexities and does all it can to take even the smallest steps, however far away the solution may seem to be.
Because we know that if we do not fill this space together with our partners, others will step into the gap with other methods. Players, as we are also witnessing at this time, who not only scorn the universal view, but actively oppose it, who are not interested in peace, but in their own influence, in a different international community.
What concerns me about this is how precisely in these times a culture of nefariousness appears to be spreading from these players that is tolerated by others. A willingness to break the fundamental rules of our coexistence. With barbaric terror as in the case of Hamas. With a nefarious attack on a neighbouring country as in the case of Russia.
These players appear to have a common denominator – the expectation that there is no global governance in which nefariousness and rule-breaking are sanctioned. And if nefariousness becomes an advantage, what will this mean for the readiness of other players to break fundamental rules? This too is in my view the job of international and therefore European and German foreign policy: to wish to tackle this. Not to know how much success can be achieved immediately but consistently to make the case for what binds us together as a global community and for our universal view. The basic understanding that our world is governed by law, the principles of the UN Charter and human rights. That these apply to everyone and everywhere.
However, if we are absolutely honest we must also acknowledge that if we wish to combat nefariousness and drive forward concrete solutions to our shared challenges, we will not achieve this by only cooperating with partners who fully share our world view at all times. We cannot draw a line on the ground and say “Decide where you wish to stand, in the blue or the red field. Otherwise we won’t talk to you.”
This too might be our first impulse. The supposedly easy, convenient way. And I’d also like to add very clearly that it would be just as convenient with difficult partners to ignore our differences and not talk about human rights, for example. This as well is sometimes our first impulse. But it likewise doesn’t get us any further. I am also able to witness personally in this situation how trust and honesty are what helps to build bridges. When other players don’t have the feeling that something different is being said before public cameras than in closed rooms. In other words, we also need to face up to the complex situation of collaborating with different partners. And not because we have to, but because we want to, because otherwise we would be unable to do anything about the nefariousness in this world.
There are numerous examples showing that we are doing this, not all of which I can list here. Let me therefore cite just one: the Climate Change Conference in Dubai. COP 28 will be starting in a few days and there too we will come up against countries with which we have fundamental differences. We will not pretend these differences do not exist. But we will equally seek ways enabling us to work on joint solutions, now more than ever in these times of deep divisions. On concrete solutions that many dismiss as technical but which can serve as a sign of how strong international cooperation actually is. For example, by committing all major emitters to save more CO2. Or by the Gulf States and China also jointly providing financial resources with us to enable vulnerable countries to cope better with the damage and losses caused by the climate crisis. Here too there are no simple answers due to different perspectives, including geopolitical interests, fiercely opposing each other. This is also something we need to state clearly. But it is also precisely because of this that we will attempt every single step, struggle and move forward, for the climate crisis is and remains the greatest threat to the security of all of us in the world in this century.
And even if we might be tempted at present to think “Let’s not talk about the climate crisis as well” in view of the violence in the Middle East, in view of the violence in Ukraine that is again focused on the civilian infrastructure as winter approaches, in view of the situation in the Sahel, in view of the fact that we sometimes wake up in the morning and want to cry out “It’s just too much”...
We cannot afford and will not allow ourselves to do so. Because we will only make progress with these crises by not losing ourselves in ‘belief bubbles’, but instead when we get up in the morning by upholding our universal view and constantly turning the little adjusting screws, however tiny they may be. For this is something else we are witnessing these days: sometimes it’s enough to drive one to despair, but then we see these pictures of a boy running into the arms of his father and can sense that it’s about everyone. Every single person released from captivity counts. Every single truck entering Gaza with humanitarian aid is important, because every single oxygen device counts. Every single missile fewer hitting Kharkiv or Tel Aviv is important because each one intercepted saves human lives. It’s about every human life. It’s about the security of us all. And there can never be too big a price on that.