Breaches and bridges – German foreign policy in turbulent times: Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier

27.06.2016 - Speech


Prof. Narlikar,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have just come from the beautiful Speicherstadt, which has been listed as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site. I would once again like to convey to you, Olaf, and all the people of Hamburg here today, my sincere congratulations on this achievement! However, the title of my speech – breaches and bridges – has nothing to do with the Speicherstadt ... The Speicherstadt is a brick‑built reminder of why Hamburg is the gateway to the world for Germans. The history of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg’s port and the famous civic spirit of Hamburg’s citizens have a reputation that extends far beyond the city’s boundaries.

A lesser‑known fact, and wrongly so, is that here in Hamburg there is a concentration of academic expertise on central foreign and security policy issues that can be found hardly anywhere else in Germany. I am referring to the GIGA German Institute of Global and Area Studies, which celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago. And I am also thinking of the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, the Institute for Theology and Peace, the Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker Centre for Science and Peace Research, the Max Planck Institute, the Körber Foundation, the Helmut Schmidt University and the Federal Armed Forces Command and Staff College – you get the idea. International expertise in Hamburg is considerable. Through research, teaching and advisory services, all these institutions help open doors to a world that seems increasingly complex and unpredictable.

“The world around us is changing more quickly than ever before. Those who want to understand it can’t just sit back and accept the certainties from yesterday.” Wise words – and they aren’t mine, or even from Helmut Schmidt. They come from the GIGA and were written for its anniversary. Professor Narlikar, I was very happy to accept your invitation to speak here today on German foreign policy in turbulent and uncertain times. And thank you, Olaf, for allowing us to use this wonderful hall for this purpose.


We live in turbulent times. After the end of the Cold War, we thought that the triumphant progress of peace, freedom and democracy would begin throughout the world. Some even wrote books about “the end of history”. Today we are realising that that wasn’t actually the case ... On the contrary, crises and conflicts are coming thick and fast, and liberal democracy seems to be on the wane in many places. That is no coincidence.

In 1989/1990, the old, cynical order of the Cold War collapsed – fortunately, in particular from our perspective as Germans. Yet since then, the world has failed to find a new order to replace it. Today we are witnessing the wrestling for a new order, the power struggles between old and new powers, between state and non‑state players with a host of interests, ambitions, ideologies. Much of what has become familiar to us over the past years and decades is breaking up – and so far we have not managed to put a stop to this process:

  • Through its annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine, Russia broke with the post‑war order in Europe with which my generation grew up.
  • Syria, Iraq, Libya – not only are the conflicts moving closer to Europe, they have arrived in our midst – in the form of refugees and many thousands of people seeking protection from the trouble spots in the Middle East.
  • And there is more: the European Union is now also in the grip of crisis. On Thursday we had to witness something that hardly anyone had considered possible, or wanted to consider possible – I, too, hoped right up until the end that the outcome would be different. The United Kingdom, a major and decisive partner, will leave the European Union. The forces trying to pull Europe apart are huge.
  • And in the Brexit referendum – alongside its consequences for European policy – we must also recognise another dimension: the more complex the situation is, the louder the populist voices become. Whether we’re talking about Trump or right‑wing populists here in Europe, these are people who respond to the problems of an increasingly complex world with ready‑made, simplistic, black and white slogans claiming that “Cutting ourselves off is the best solution. Leave the world and its problems outside!” And as much as responsible policymakers know how wrong these answers are, we have to embrace the sad fact that these populists exert a strong pull on voters in our democracies, too.

What we are witnessing, at the end of the day, is a contradictory and confusing world. A world that on the one hand is growing ever more intertwined, but whose contrasts are colliding, unchecked, with ever more speed, on the other. We are witnessing a world in search of a new order, and I suspect this search will continue for a long time yet.


If this is the case, it must have consequences for our foreign policy activities. Germany, as a country which maintains close economic, political and social ties with the global community – some studies even describe it as the most highly connected country in the world – is particularly reliant on a functioning, peaceful and rules‑based international order. And since that is the case, we have to do all the more to preserve and develop this order.

The phrase, “Order must prevail” is often attributed to the Germans.

In itself it is a pretty meaningless statement – at least in foreign policy. Order is not an end in itself. Anyone who calls for order must define what kind of order and what goals we are working for. In our case the desired goals are peace – justice – innovation – partnership. Perhaps you have already noticed these key words on the banners in the foyer. I’ll explain towards the end of my speech what that means in the context of the United Nations.


These key words reflect our values. Yet at the same time those of us engaged in foreign policy need to recognise the values other players on the international stage are seeking in their concepts of order. Where are the regional, cultural and societal differences? What are the stories and narrative patterns, the dreams and traumas of societies, which define the political and social structures over and above the existing order?

After a long day at the last UN General Assembly, I was standing one evening with a foreign minister colleague outside our delegations’ hotel in Manhattan, and we watched a few members of my delegation who were just leaving the hotel, and my colleague said to me: “Frank‑Walter, I like you Germans really. Football, cars, beer ... But there’s one thing I don’t understand and I’ve always wanted to ask you about it: You Germans won’t cross the road when the light’s on red, even if there’s not a car in sight. I could never get my people to do that. And why should they?”

This might be a trivial little story, but the question behind it isn’t trivial: from where do orders, regulations, institutions derive their legitimacy and acceptance? In view of the upheaval and the calling into question of orders in this world – I only need to mention the dispute surrounding the South China Sea – awareness and debate of these kinds of fundamental and deep‑seated cultural differences will become increasingly important.

And whoever is willing to engage in this debate will soon realise that an order that seems good to us – and now I’m not just talking about pedestrian crossings – will often not be perceived as such by others.

Speaking in Berlin recently, Achille Mbembe, a renowned political scientist from Cameroon, put it like this: “Your order is our disorder.”

An openness for other perspectives, the willingness to understand and promote understanding is a crucial factor in foreign policy. This willingness to understand and promote understanding is, after all, one of the qualities that has given Germany an excellent reputation as a mediator in many conflicts.

Sometimes we are criticised for “understanding Russia”, “understanding Iran” – whatever fits at the time. I then have to ask myself what foreign policy is coming to if the desire to understand is perceived as an insult. Understanding doesn’t automatically mean agreeing with someone. But without understanding we cannot promote understanding!

As I see it, this means that greater attention needs to be paid to regional studies, such as those conducted by the GIGA on Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, in science, research and practice. That is why we are in the process of launching the Centre for East European and International Studies in Berlin to expand and deepen knowledge of this important region.

Professor Narlika, what you recently formulated as a tenet for the social sciences – a move away from western centricism to a true pluralism of methods and perspectives – applies in a similar way to foreign policy if our goal is to work towards reaching truly shared concepts of order.


Anyway, enough social science – what does that mean specifically for German foreign policy? It almost makes me think of that old joke: Two social scientists get together. One of them has developed a political theory and outlines it. The other one listens, has a think and then says: “Hm, that sounds as if it works in practice – but does it work in theory?”

In practical foreign policy, work on tomorrow’s order cannot be separated from today’s acute conflict resolution. For it is in conflict resolution and crisis prevention that we can put what we like to call “effective multilateralism” into practice and prove its worth. Look at the range of partners:

  • whether in the E3 plus 3 context on Iran,
  • the Normandy format with France on Ukraine,
  • in our current role as Chair of the OSCE, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe,
  • or in the International Contact Group on Syria, that brutal conflict that has been going on for far too long. I don’t need to explain to you how crucial it is to have Iran and Saudi Arabia around the negotiating table as proxy powers wrestling for hegemony.
  • And last but not least, consider the many facets of our engagement in the United Nations system: not only as one of the largest donors but also as a contributor to the United Nations peace missions. I have just been to Mali with my French colleague, where we are currently engaged in arduous work to stabilise the country and implement the inter‑Malian peace agreement under the auspices of the MINUSMA peace mission together with the Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia and the Czech Republic.


Effective multilateralism is thus proving its worth in very concrete terms in current crises. Yet crisis management is not intended to be the focus of my address today, and believe you me: I’m quite happy to take a break from all the conflicts ... I would like to look further afield: to the long‑term challenges in a changing global order. I don’t primarily wish to talk about NATO or Russia. Rather, the upcoming powers in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the Arab world, which are also the focus of the GIGA’s research, are moving into our field of view.

Perhaps it is appropriate that today we are sitting in this wonderful hall, which automatically draws our gaze outwards into the wider world. Just take a look at the walls, where you can see the impressive paintings of Hugo Vogel – depicting Hamburg’s proud history from Christianisation to industrialisation. But there is one constant that runs through all the pictures: the blue thread of the Elbe river. This river draws our eyes away from the square outside the City Hall overseas to the emerging economies.

For it is they, first and foremost China,

  • who are increasingly calling into question regional balances of power and established rules – in the tensions surrounding the South China Sea this issue is becoming ominously clear, an issue in which the validity of international law and its institutions are painfully put to the test,
  • players who challenge international organisations and decision‑making mechanisms,
  • who demand reforms,
  • and who establish new organisations based on their own concepts of order.

Germany is perceived as an “honest broker” in foreign policy, and we are therefore a desirable partner for these players, not only with regard to business and culture, but also in the creation of new elements of the global order.

I see this wherever I travel. Whether in China, India, Brazil or recently in Mexico and Argentina. If from time to time it seems as if we are in a global competition where one country’s gain is another’s loss, that is too simplistic. There are many areas in which we can find joint solutions to conflicts and cooperate on building new structural elements.

Here are a few examples:

  • Digital technology: In 2014, together with Brazil, we tabled a resolution in the United Nations on Internet privacy – an important basis for the ongoing search for order in this largely unregulated space.
  • Migration: Together with Morocco we will assume the Chairmanship of the Global Forum on Migration and Development next year. Here the focus will be on exchange between countries of origin, transit and destination. We intend to discuss how migration can be organised fairly in a way that benefits all stakeholders. For one thing is clear: this topic is going to become even more relevant. Development of sustainable solutions is therefore also the focus of the Berlin Dialogue, which I have launched with heads of international organisations.
  • Climate protection: One driving force behind the adoption of the climate protection agreement last year were the numerous small island states, which are literally in deep water in light of rising sea levels. Germany is a key partner for them, for we play a pioneering role in climate diplomacy. This also applies to states that are rather more problematic in this area, such as China, India and the Gulf States, and for whom we are a popular discussion partner with regard to the shift to green energy and renewables.


However, it is also clear – and here we share the view of many partners from the South – that we will only be able to successfully tackle these questions and other major issues if the United Nations institutions do indeed reflect the world of the 21st century and not that of 1945. For this reason we are working with Brazil, India and Japan to bring about progress leading to a reform of the UN Security Council. And so we’re back to the legitimacy of an order: the global acceptance and future viability of the United Nations depends on how representative the international community considers its institutions to be.


You will have noticed that I am speaking at length about the significance and role of the United Nations as a global regulatory framework. That is no coincidence. Tomorrow a decision will be made in New York on which of our European partners will obtain a seat as non‑permanent members of the UN Security Council for the next two years. Italy, the Netherlands and Sweden are standing for the two seats available.

I would like to take this as an opportunity to announce officially that Germany, too, will be campaigning again for a seat in this organ. To be precise, as a non‑permanent member for 2019/2020. That means that in two years we, too, will stand for election by the UN General Assembly in New York. That still seems a good way off. But our campaign starts today and will get into full swing this autumn. So now you know what the posh banners in the foyer are about.

Peace – justice – innovation – partnership, they read. Those are the key words of our campaign for a seat on the Security Council.

We firmly believe that we need the United Nations and the Security Council more than ever in our efforts to promote peace in these troubled times.

And although the UN Security Council has increasingly been on the receiving end of criticism and is, unfortunately, blocked on occasions, it nonetheless remains the only body capable of adopting conflict prevention and peacekeeping measures that are binding in international law. Despite all scepticism, in the last year the Council has unanimously adopted 60 out of 63 resolutions. The Security Council is the central global crisis manager! In Africa particularly, UN peace missions are fostering stability, promoting reconciliation and protecting civilians. They are also doing an irreplaceable job in Israel and Lebanon. And the Security Council is the central forum for maintaining dialogue between the West and Russia and ensuring they retain their capacity to act, for example in the struggle to find a solution for Syria.

Yet even the Security Council is no longer merely concerned with traditional foreign and security policy. The Security Council now also debates the subjects of climate change, health, human rights, the rule of law and access to education – for they, too, are at the end of the day prerequisites for peace and security throughout the world. We want the Security Council to focus on the entire conflict cycle in its crisis management, from prevention and mediation to stabilisation and post‑conflict peacebuilding. This philosophy of pursuing a forward‑looking foreign policy is also behind the changes in German foreign policy in recent years. Some of you have followed the steps we have taken to establish a Directorate‑General for Crisis Prevention and Stabilisation at the Federal Foreign Office. Germany is contributing more civilian personnel, police officers and military forces to peace missions. And we are in the process of expanding the Center for International Peace Operations (ZIF) to make it a fully fledged sending organisation.


The next step in our approach is: long‑term peace is not possible without justice. Last year, with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the international community adopted what could be described as a global company agreement. It is intended to prepare what Willy Brandt called for as early as 1979 in the visionary report of the so‑called North‑South Commission: an order for peace and justice. For in a globalised world, there can be no justice without peace, and no sustainable peace without justice.

  • That is why we support the goals of the 2030 Agenda.
  • That is why we work to promote the rule of law. Justice comes before power. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, which is situated here in Hamburg, also, of course, pursues this goal.
  • And that is why international promotion of human rights is a key pillar of our foreign policy. And an integral part of our engagement in the United Nations! The violation of human rights is often an early warning of an imminent conflict. For this reason we are striving to foster closer cooperation between the Security Council in New York and the Human Rights Council in Geneva.

And if I can come back to Brandt, if peace and security on the one hand and sustainability, justice and distribution of resources on the other are globally interconnected, then I think we should focus our attention on the issue of justice and sustainability also in the context of our Chairmanship of the G20 in the coming year. That leads me to the third key word in our campaign: innovation. The highly developed G20 states in particular need to address the question of how we can use technological progress, digitisation, the quantum leap in renewable energies and environmental technologies that we have made through Germany’s shift to green energy – how we can use all that to drive economic and political ownership much further forward throughout the world, also in the global south. This is in our own interests in creating a more stable and secure world, but it is also a question of justice.


Finally, ladies and gentlemen, the fourth key word of our candidacy spans all these other aspects: partnership.

Willy Brandt said: “We want to be a people of good neighbours.” At that time, when he assumed office as Federal Chancellor, this statement applied primarily to our European neighbours – France, Poland, and all those who had experienced terrible suffering at the hands of Nazi Germany. Today, when men, women and children from Aleppo, Damascus and Erbil are seeking refuge with us and when the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development has formulated the goal of a “global partnership” between 190 member states, we can still say: “We Germans want to be a people of good neighbours”, but we ought now to add: “to those both near and far.” In this spirit I am campaigning for Germany’s candidacy for a seat on the Security Council for the 2019/2020 period and would be delighted if you were all to back us in this endeavour.

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