“The Road towards a Foreign Policy of Societies” - the Strategic Dialogue between Foundations and the Federal Foreign Office. A speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

30.11.2015 - Speech

Fellow Members of the Bundestag,
Esteemed representatives of German foundations,
Honoured guests,

Many thanks to Joachim Rogall for those warm words of welcome. I am very pleased to open this symposium today together with you and the many other foundations involved.

We all have an intensive day-long programme of discussions ahead of us, bringing together representatives of the foundations, the Federal Foreign Office and the German Government. Now, we may only have one day – but we have no less than three objectives to achieve.

- Firstly, we want to use this conference to look at the current state of cooperation between the Federal Foreign Office and private, non-profit foundations and gauge the amount of as yet untapped potential in that cooperation.

- Secondly, we want to examine examples of public-private partnerships from around the world and talk about what we can learn from successful examples to guide our future cooperation.

- And thirdly, we want to discuss the actual next steps in our cooperation and make this conference the launchpad for a strategic dialogue between the Federal Foreign Office and Germany’s foundations.

We set ourselves these three objectives after initial talks in spring – and I am delighted to see the idea of a joint conference that was sparked back then become a reality today. My thanks go to everyone who helped make this conference happen.


For me, there was a second source that fed into the idea for today’s conference. I’m talking about Review 2014, the ambitious review process we have been putting a lot of work and passion into at the Federal Foreign Office. Many of you will have heard about it; some of you even took part.

Why did we conduct that review? Because we said to ourselves, at a time when the world seemed to be slipping out of joint and Germany was having to shoulder greater international responsibility, we had to rethink the conditions and priorities of Germany’s foreign policy. I formulated those considerations when I took office, talking about Germany’s growing responsibility not as something that we wanted – out of a wish to throw our weight around – but as something we simply had, particularly in the eyes of our international partners.


It was clear right from the start that rethinking foreign policy would first of all mean self-reflection – the German people, 25 years after reunification, rethinking their country’s role and responsibilities in the world. To see how difficult that is for us, one need only look at the current debate on how to deal with refugees.

Be that as it may, I for one am convinced that such self-reflection must not be left to the elite; it requires a broad-based debate across German society that goes beyond the “usual suspects” of the foreign-policy scene.

And it’s in that broad society-wide debate about Germany’s international role where the foundations really have a crucial part to play. As a result of the review process, we at the Federal Foreign Office have at any rate committed ourselves to making the FFO more open to dialogue with society, one of seven core tasks intended to ensure an effective foreign service. I’m sure this will also allow us to define shared objectives in collaboration with the foundations, and I know that our joint endeavours have often been successful in the past. However, I believe most of us in this room agree with the findings of the Bundestag Study Commission on the Future of Civic Activities, which reminded us that we can enhance our cooperation yet further. And what I mean by that is first defining shared objectives and then – by various routes and with our various strengths – achieving them together. That, at any rate, is what we have in mind when we say “strategic dialogue”.


Ladies and gentlemen,

The lovely title of our symposium, “The Road towards a Foreign Policy of Societies”, is not one I came up with myself, I regret to say, nor did my staff coin the phrase. Instead, as some of you may have spotted, it is a link to another period of reform in the Federal Republic’s foreign policy. When Willy Brandt was speaking in the Bundestag about “taking a chance on more democracy”, a young Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office called Ralf Dahrendorf talked about moving “from a foreign policy of nations to a foreign policy of societies”. Dahrendorf was already sensing something back then that has become part of everyday life for us in this globalised world, namely the permeability of boundaries – those between states and those between social groups. Dahrendorf described this as “social policy among nations”. That was the birth, back in 1969, of the idea of expanding foreign policy to include elements of civil society. The initiative drew a lot of attention on the international stage and in the United States. As a result, Dahrendorf was shortly thereafter made a trustee of what was then the largest foundation in the world, the Ford Foundation, where he served for many years.

Here in Germany, too, players from civil society are now included in foreign policy almost as a matter of course. But that’s not all. Fortunately, our attitude as policy-makers has changed as well, and we no longer see cooperation with civil society as an optional extra, a nice-to-have feature, but as a constructive component of foreign policy. In this interconnected and interwoven world, foreign policy is simply unthinkable without civil society!


At the same time, however, looking at our immediate neighbourhood and beyond, we are witnessing movement in the opposite direction. In a regrettably growing number of countries, governments view organised civil society with suspicion. They curtail the scope of foreign and domestic NGOs, including public and party-political foundations as well as private ones. There may be various reasons behind this counter-development, from fear of diminished control in an ever-more complex world to authoritarian ideological fervour. It is certainly clear that not everyone in the world shares our belief that diversity of opinions and ideas are the real key to a society’s strength and creativity. Even now, four decades after Brandt and Dahrendorf, a foreign policy of societies is not going to come about automatically.


And then there’s the second counter-development, which is making enhanced cooperation between politics and civil society simultaneously more important and more difficult – namely a loss of order. It is no coincidence that we are living through a constant reel of crises: Syria, Iraq, refugees, terrorism. These are the earthquakes of a world where the tectonic plates of geopolitics have come unstuck – a world which has not yet found a new, not to mention peaceful order to replace the old bi-polar certainties of the Cold War.

Plus, there are completely new areas now which no order governed in the past. If we take a look at our own modern world, we’ll soon identify a whole list of such areas.

- The climate and the environment is one, of course; the climate change summit is starting in Paris today.

- The question of utilising outer space is another.

- Then there’s making use of the world’s oceans.

- Above all, though, there’s the digital sphere. What balance should be struck between freedom, privacy and security online? It’s not secret, I think, that even close partners like the US and Europe still have pretty different ideas about what that order should look like – and we need to talk about them!

Looking at these new questions of order, one thing stands out straight away: they all transcend boundaries. They transcend national borders, and they transcend the sectoral boundaries. The debate about the future of the international order is therefore a debate in which foundations, particularly those operating internationally, play a major role.

When my international friends hear us Germans talking about ‘order’, they are quick to assume that, “Oh yeah, the Germans – they’re the ones that won’t cross the road if there’s no green man. Even if there’s not a car for miles around... That’s what they mean by ‘order’.” So I’m always telling them, no – we don’t mean ‘order’ as in some rigid global edifice that drafts theoretical policies and then sets them in stone. An order needs room to breathe so that it can keep developing, and that necessary fresh air is supplied by lively debate between societies. I feel and hope you are at my side to provide it.


Honoured guests,

That was a bird’s eye view of our topics for today from the Foreign Minister. It may sound abstract first off, but we do also want to talk about specific examples and the next concrete steps in our collaboration. We don’t want this conference to end like the two social scientists. They’re discussing a difficult political problem, and one of them proposes a solution that he’s spent a long time thinking about and researching. The other one looks at him a bit suspiciously and says, “Hm, that sounds as if it works in practice – but does it work in theory?”

To avoid that, let me follow the abstract talk with a few examples that give me hope.

- Firstly, we wouldn’t be where we are today in Franco-German relations if the reconciliation between our governments had not, from the start, been reconciliation between people. That inter-personal reconciliation was fostered by the many exchange programmes run by foundations – with the Robert Bosch Stiftung leading the way.

- Secondly, without our cooperative partners, we would be lagging far behind in many areas of international cultural exchange and knowledge sharing. To name but one example, after the severe earthquake in Nepal, the Gerda Henkel Foundation sat down with experts and us from the FFO to develop emergency conservation measures to protect cultural property – reconstructing and securing temples, with local craftsmen but also with exchanges and further training for junior scientists. Thus, a cultural preservation project became a step towards that ‘foreign policy of societies’ I was talking about. On a related note, I would like us, together, to re-examine the way we collaborate with Africa and many African countries. We were able, Mr Rogall, to discuss a few ideas for that last week, on a trip to Zambia, Mozambique, Uganda and Tanzania.

- I’m also thinking of the Körber Foundation, as it has been engaged for decades in arranging channels of communication, including confidential channels and particularly with difficult partners. I also have good memories of my last appearance, two weeks ago, at the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum – the flagship of our collaboration with Körber.

- I’m thinking, too, of the many events and discussions attended and organised by the Berghof Foundation. And particularly in light of current events, I sometimes wonder whether things might not have turned out differently in the case of Syria if we, alongside Richard von Weizsäcker and others, had managed to get Syria involved in such discussions and debates 10 years ago. Sadly, though Germany’s foundations were on side in that push for dialogue, not all of our international partners were.

- For many years, the Bertelsmann Stiftung has been engaged in regional dialogue, lending important impetus, for example, to learning processes in Tunisia – a country whose transformation merits our respect and highest recognition even without the Nobel Peace Prize it has received.

- Stiftung Mercator is doing exemplary work for German-Chinese relations, running exchange projects, founding the Mercator Institute for China Studies and also demonstrating its own and museums’ courage by seeking dialogue with China and placing Enlightenment on the agenda in the face of stiff public opposition.

- Stiftung Mercator also works in close cooperation with us on the matter I mentioned right at the start – namely the debate about making foreign policy in this country a genuine two-way street between the government and the public. I mention this particularly for any of you who have not yet taken part in one of its Open Situation Room events.

- What also comes to mind at this point are bilateral political relations of acute current relevance, such as with Turkey. It was major German foundations who advocated leaving a European door open for Turkey when many other voices, in Germany and in Turkey, were demanding the opposite. A year ago, we launched the German-Turkish Youth Bridge in collaboration with Mercator. And today – in light of the refugee issue if not before – those other voices are also reminded how significant our connection with Turkey is and how much we depend on sensible political and social cooperation with that country.

- Another example I am of course thinking about is Ukraine. It was clear to us from the start that this conflict could not be resolved by military means. It ultimately also concerned the establishment of a modern civil society. We approached the foundations and found a new way of working together. With the help of the German Bundestag, we launched a programme aimed at strengthening cooperation with civil society. That has involved us collaborating with several foundations, including the Schwarzkopf Foundation, to conduct around 85 projects. Thousands of young people from Batumi to Lviv explored democratic conflict resolution in international forums. Others made music, did theatre or engaged in research together. Additionally, in a move I find particularly important, we intend to open the same opportunities to Russia in the coming year. It is my wish that, in the year where Germany assumes the OSCE Chairmanship, the spirit of dialogue and collaboration awoken by the CSCE and later the OSCE since Helsinki and Brandt and Bahr’s new Ostpolitik may be revived at the level of civil society as elsewhere. That will be one of the priorities of our Chairmanship.


Ladies and gentlemen,

For all my enthusiasm about the potential of our cooperation, I do know that foundations in an open society are strong when they are free – when they enjoy the appropriate level of freedom from the state and the markets.

They can do things that the state can’t do – and vice versa. We don’t have to agree with everything they do – and vice versa.

Berthold Beitz, who convinced the Krupp family to create a foundation, always emphasised the visionary courage it took. I would wish for the state to have courageous foundations as partners, with their own ideas about themselves and their own strength.

That strength may sometimes be difficult or uncomfortable for us politicians. But – though this may sound paradoxical – it is in precisely those situations that democracy proves its flexibility and ability to learn. The two social scientists I mentioned earlier might call it ‘resilience’. So, if there is such a thing as competition over order and concepts of order in the world, we should point out that strength to those who would curtail the vibrancy of civil society and retreat into the apparent security of autocracy. At any rate, I believe that liberal democracy in the end proves its superiority not by its sense of mission but by its capacity for self-criticism.

Thank you very much.

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