Opening speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the 2014 Ambassadors Conference

25.08.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Claus Kleber,
Distinguished guests,

There has been one crisis after another in the last few weeks and I don’t know which one to address first in this speech. I therefore want to start from a different angle.

Sometimes, the objects we surround ourselves with say more about our world than any lengthy analysis. One object recently fell into my hands and I bet you don’t know what it was: it was made of stainless steel, just under 10 cm long, pointed like a cone and with a tip as sharp as a knife’s point.

If you want to know what it is, then you’ll have to read all about it on the manufacturer’s website. It advertises the Kent Spike Stud, intended to deter people from sitting on accessible surfaces.

This object is now generally known as an “anti-homeless spike”. In Europe’s capitals, too, such spikes have been installed in front of luxury apartment blocks and fancy boutiques in order to shield the wealthy from the harsh realities of everyday life.

This little object has stayed in my mind, not only because I regard it as an extremely unfortunate, indeed outrageous aspect of urban planning. For it stands for more than that.

In my eyes, it says two important things about the state of Western societies around the world:

- Firstly, the feeling of permanent threat posed by what the Dutch author Maarten ’t Hart called “The Fury of the Whole World” out there.

- Secondly, the inadequacy of the remedies we have to offer and – to an even greater extent – the lack of confidence in them.

I want to talk about both these impressions today.


I said a few moments ago that everyday objects say more than lengthy analyses. However, I don’t want to spare you completely from analysis ...

It begins with ourselves here in Germany. You know the hypothesis I have been putting forward since taking up office: Germany must dare to shoulder greater responsibility internationally!

Today, after nine months of implementing policies aimed at dealing with crises, I first of all want to emphasise the urgency of this hypothesis. An active German foreign policy isn’t simply something which is nice to have but, rather, an absolute necessity.

It’s often said or written that Germany is doing well. That’s not only true but also gratifying.

However, it creates a deceptive image for our foreign policy, namely that Germany has recovered following dark chapters in its history. Today we are reunited, firmly anchored in Europe, an economic powerhouse, we enjoy considerable prosperity and social harmony, and have now even won the World Cup! To sum up, a happy island buffeted by – but well protected from – the stormy international seas.

Many may see things that way. But I fear it‘s an illusion. It’s therefore a pity that the discussions about Germany’s responsibility in the world are sometimes tinged with a hint of panic.

A recent survey carried out by the Körber Foundation on behalf of the Federal Foreign Office showed that around 30 per cent of Germans are amenable to our country assuming greater responsibility, while 70 per cent regard such a move with scepticism or even great scepticism. There’s a huge gap here between our readiness to shoulder responsibility and the expectations placed in us by the outside world. We cannot stand back idly and accept that; this gap has to be bridged. That’s the idea behind the Federal Foreign Office Review Process in which many of you will be involved in the coming months.


Yes, we’re faced with many dangerous crises at present. These crises bring home to us in an emphatic manner the fundamental changes the world has undergone as well as the new threats that have arisen. But it’s also true to say that the crises are closer to us than ever before and that Germany is more connected to the world, including crisis regions, than ever before.

In the case of the Ukraine crisis, the question of war and peace has returned to the European continent with the full force of realpolitik – a kind of situation, some argue, which Europe has forgotten how to deal with. Indeed, it’s absurd that 70 years after the end of the Second World War and 25 years after the end of the Cold War, Russia is calling into question existing borders on our continent.

We have to face up to this kind of power politics once more. It won’t be any easier to redefine our long-term relations with Russia. However, it’s still necessary, for whether as a partner or as an adversary: Russia will remain our largest neighbour after the crisis.

In northern Iraq, Kurdish troops are fighting the ISIS terror – as the last bastion and only a hair’s breadth away from the external borders of NATO and Europe.

Anyone who finds these geopolitical descriptions too abstract should remember how directly Germany and Germans are affected by these conflicts: there were Germans among the hundreds of victims on board Malaysia Airlines flight 17. And seven Germans have died as a result of the fighting in the Gaza Strip.

Conversely, some of the foreigners fighting for the murderous ISIS groups came from Germany, and our – well-founded – fear now is that they’ll return to Germany. To name just one concrete example: the perpetrator who murdered four people in the Jewish Museum in Brussels earlier this summer had previously been involved in the atrocities committed in the Syria conflict and then moved on to Brussels via Germany.


These many individual images make up an unsettling whole – a world where old structures are breaking down, with a host of non-state players in the political arena, full of new and diffuse dangers. Anyone who believed 25 years ago after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the unstoppable triumphant progress of liberal democracy had begun – some fantasised of the “end of history” – was clearly completely mistaken.

It’s true to say that the old bipolar world order has disappeared. However, a new order hasn’t been established yet.

Our world is still in search of such an order. Our system, liberal democracy, therefore has tough and growing competition.

During the coming decade, China will become the world’s largest economy. And as Kevin Rudd recently pointed out at one of our events marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War at the German Historical Museum: it will be the first non-Western, non-English speaking, non-democratic state to occupy that position since Frederick the Great was on the Prussian throne.

And even within the European Union, there are forces out to win votes by evoking the demise of our so cumbersome, so weak democracy. Unfortunately, this is now also part of any frank analysis.

Not only is our specific system of government, liberal democracy, being tested in this world, but the very idea of statehood is on a slippery slope in some regions. Fragility, states on the brink of failure, are a phenomenon not only in the Middle East, in the region between Syria and Iraq – which is at risk of collapsing into violence – but also a widespread threat in Africa, and thus a breeding ground for tomorrow’s crises.


If, in this situation, many partners look to Germany with high expectations, it’s not out of enthusiasm for the German model but, rather, because they’re simply demanding the level of engagement commensurate with our expanded status – and because they are demanding engagement where others have fallen by the wayside!

Our partners in Europe are preoccupied with the economic crisis and its consequences. The United States continues to be the only superpower but it, too, is currently experiencing that even governments in the Middle East are not prepared to simply follow its lead and that it has limited influence on the crises in that region.

Germany – as some have said – has grown up in the warm nest of the West and indeed had to grow up. Until 1990, as a nation divided by the Iron Curtain, we weren’t expected to get too involved in the efforts to resolve major international crises. Since reunification, we’ve learned that we’re regarded internationally as having the same rights, as well as the same obligations, as other countries. The Balkans conflict in the 1990s, Afghanistan and Iraq were stages in this learning process. Germany’s decision on the Iraq war showed that we know how to say “no”. However, it’s become ever clearer over the years that simply staying out of the “fury of the world” just isn’t possible any more.

Today, an intelligent and active foreign policy is no longer merely an option but an obligation. It’s a must in the light of the responsibility we share with our partners and, what’s more, it‘s in our own interest in this dangerous world.


Colleagues, distinguished guests, some may say that this is hard to digest on a Monday morning ... However, I can’t describe the current situation any other way and you, in particular, colleagues, who have to deal with conflicts out in the world know: yes, the erosion of statehood, the return and revival of geostrategic fantasies we thought we’d left behind us, the destabilisation of further parts of the world and the resulting uncertainties and threats are real!

But it’s important to remember that giving up and isolating ourselves, wallowing in tearful sentimentality and impotence, is no alternative!

Nor is there any reason for it. What we need is the courage and willingness to play an active part – in the certainty that we can achieve more than we sometimes believe we can.

A month ago, I was invited to break the fast with a Muslim family in Berlin. I was offered rice, beans, chicken and date juice. My hosts, the Abdallah family, had fled the war and violence in their home country Syria just a few months previously. The father, Yusuf, said to me: “We lost everything but four suitcases. But simply giving up and doing nothing would destroy me!”

So Mr Abdallah, who was a cabinetmaker in Damascus, now makes clothes hangers within a 15 m² space in Berlin. “I focus on what I’m good at!”, he told me.

I was very impressed by that. For when I look at our ministry, I’m convinced that there is so much we are good at!

As heads of missions abroad and as members of divisions within our headquarters, you have the very best resources at the disposal of the Federal Foreign Office: your staff! Using their minds, their skills and their creativity, we have to create new tools for diplomacy.

Mr Bertram, that’s the idea behind Review 2014 – A Fresh Look at German Foreign Policy, which I launched with you and with the entire ministry.

The toolbox of diplomacy contains a wider range of instruments than many members of the public think. With this Review, we want to explain this toolbox and the full spectrum of its instruments and – where possible – renew and expand it, as well as put it to good use. Many of you, and I myself, have now been working on the Review for more than six months and have been discussing our foreign policy with experts and the public, with Germans and non-Germans. I’d now like to sum up my tentative thoughts in several points which illustrate what I’ve learned from these first six months for our strategic orientation and for taking stock of our toolbox.


Firstly, if we diplomats follow Mr Abdallah’s lead and concentrate on doing what we’re good at, then this involves doing one thing in particular – solving problems.

Building bridges, forging tools, looking for allies among other ministries and international partners, getting actively involved – we do all this to provide solutions for a more peaceful world.

“More responsibility” is neither a call for military adventures nor a phrase for a soap‑box speech. Instead, responsibility always means something real.

This is what I call on myself to keep in mind every day, but I also call on you, the heads of mission, to do the same.

You can rest assured that I am happy to receive any telegram that analyses a problem intelligently. However, I am much happier to receive a telegram that provides a suggestion or lists possible courses of action. A telegram that takes the initiative and looks for tools which involve more than merely recommending that the foreign minister should pick up the phone. I’m not a fan of making phone calls simply to prove to the public that something is being done. If we speak on the phone, then we should have a suggestion to make, one that can get things moving and foster political settlements.

Of course, in practice diplomacy always involves risks and often has to deal with setbacks. In the Ukraine conflict, for example, we are using negotiations, observer missions, mediation, and where necessary, pressure and sanctions. But particularly when there are setbacks, I say that no measure – and this also applies expressly to sanctions – is an end in itself. No measure involves a showdown. Instead, the focus is on the end result, on devising political solutions to the conflict, on taking steps – sometimes of just a few millimetres – primarily towards preventing a war.

So I would like to remind you that despite all the threats to peace, democracy and statehood, we are well advised not to simply lament the decline of the world and preach our western values.

Instead, we should roll up our sleeves because we diplomats are not missionaries – we fix things! And hopefully we’re sensitive and intelligent while we’re at it!


Secondly, competition between the systems is in full swing, and new, self‑confident players are emerging, players whose political systems often do not reflect the Westminster ideal of a European democracy.

That’s all true.

But our western democracy is ahead of them all in one way – the ability to question and renew itself.

That is precisely our strength in today’s world, which is changing at a dramatic pace and where the ability to learn and adapt is thus increasingly important. I think this is the reason why many people in the world continue to look to us with great expectations. Democracy is strong when it does not get caught up in ideology, but instead looks problems realistically in the eye and provides space to think freely.

This is exactly what Germany has achieved internally. We have undertaken economic reforms and made our society more open, even though it was difficult. Germany now has a strong economy and is more open as a society precisely because we were not complacent, but instead were able to take criticism.

We also need to achieve the same thing in our foreign policy. This is the idea behind the review process – to question ourselves, to be honest with one another, to inspire creativity.

We need to ask ourselves –

- What is important and what is less important in our work?

- What can Germany do? And what can’t it do?

- How can we react faster to crises?

- How can we use effective methods to prevent crises in places where statehood is at risk of failing?

- How can we dovetail new foreign policy fields – digitisation is one example – with foreign policy resources, such as culture and education?

- And how do we reflect these things in our budget? That is also not an insignificant question.

We will ask ourselves these specific questions during this Ambassadors Conference and in phase 3 of the review process.

My hypothesis may seem almost paradoxical, but I firmly believe that in the end, the superiority of our liberal democracy will not be proved by its sense of mission, but rather by its willingness to criticise and renew itself.


My third hypothesis is that anyone who wants to solve problems must be able to cope with contradictions.

Of course we are guided by the principles of our foreign policy. But when principles come into conflict with each other and reality presents us with tough choices, then foreign policy is effective when it weighs things up.

Northern Iraq presents us with this type of situation. On the one hand, we have the principle of not supplying weapons to trouble spots. Yes, more weapons can lead to more violence. And the Kurds are pursuing interests that do not always coincide with ours. On the other hand, we have the principle of protecting human life. The Kurds are the most important bastion in the region against ISIS’ gangs of killers. If they are overrun by ISIS, then not only thousands of lives, but also the stability of the entire region, will be in acute danger.

Anyone whose knee‑jerk reaction is to refrain from making such decisions is not championing principles, but rather hiding behind them to a certain extent. In the end, we are just as responsible for what we don’t do as we are for what we do.

This is why, despite the risks involved, we in the German Government have said that further advances by ISIS must be prevented and this means we cannot simply give the Peshmerga a pat on the back and tell them they’re doing a great job. Instead, we are willing, alongside our European partners, to supply the equipment that is needed for the Kurds to put a stop to ISIS’ gangs of killers.


My fourth and final point is a fundamental requirement for everything I have said about active diplomacy so far: we can only have active German foreign policy in and through Europe.

Anyone who believes that Germany can solve even a single problem on its own in today’s world is mistaken. We can only have an impact along with our partners and in our alliances – this is unanimously confirmed in the contributions to our review.

But this principle is also proved in specific cases. Despite all the discussions and all the different starting points, there has been broad consensus in Europe as regards its reactions to the current trouble spots, particularly the Ukraine crisis. Naturally, European countries have extremely different historical relations with Russia. For some people in the West, Russia is a fairly distant trade partner, but for many people in the East, it remains in their memory as a country that oppressed them for decades. And for Germany – with its divided history – it is a bit of both. But despite these different perspectives, we managed to establish a common European position. With our partner country France in particular, we frequently make headway in this area. If we continue to follow this path, then the large number of crises at the moment could also provide impetus for integration on Europe’s foreign policy one day.

But you too, our ambassadors in the world, must put European foreign policy into practice. I call on you to be the best Europeans in your host countries! When you are tackling a problem there and looking for allies, then the first phone call you make should be to colleagues from Europe – as well as to our transatlantic partners. We need the United States – and for this reason, we should both work all the more assiduously and honestly on the problems between us.

But I want to go a step further, as I believe that if we foreign policy makers demand a greater role for Europe in the world, then we must also look inside Europe itself.

Then we have to say that Europe needs an internal structure that allows it to take action externally.

And this means that Europe’s internal structure needs to preserve what makes the “European model” strong and attractive in the eyes of the world, namely the specific combination of freedom and cohesion, the market economy and the welfare state, and competition and social inclusion. These are the two sides of the coin that Europe comprises. Defending this balance will be one of the key challenges for the next Commission.


This is certainly not a normal summer. It’s a summer without a silly season. And anyone who hasn’t noticed that yet will realise it because we haven’t had the usual silly season debates this year.

There have been no discussions on civil servants’ pensions or on making it compulsory for cyclists to wear a helmet. There hasn’t even been much talk about the motorway toll.

Instead, foreign policy has been everywhere you look.

You may recall that one reason we started Review 2014 nine months ago was because we said that Germany needs to talk more about foreign policy. We certainly can’t complain about a lack of talk on this topic at the moment.

I am well aware that these weeks are extremely challenging for us. Many of you are working flat out, far beyond the usual levels.

But precisely because we are needed, we should also see all this as a huge opportunity for ourselves. That is why I ask all of you to grasp this opportunity, roll up your sleeves, put responsibility into practice, and use our diplomatic tools wherever we can.

At any rate, I would melt down the spikes that I spoke about at the start of my speech and turn them into bolts and rivets – in other words, into what you need to build bridges in today’s world.

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