Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier on the Centenary of the German Foreign Press Association in Berlin, 24 October 2006

24.10.2006 - Speech

Mr Chairman – Mr Verbeek,
Members of the German Foreign Press Association,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

100 years is a proud achievement and a good reason to celebrate – not least for the German Foreign Press Association, the VAP. So let me begin by congratulating you most sincerely on this special occasion! The fact that we are not attired quite as formally as the participants in the photos from the 20th anniversary celebrations in the Hotel Adlon does not have to be to anybody's detriment!

This centenary is however also a good opportunity to look back at the work of the VAP, and to look forward. German history over the past 100 years has included some very dark chapters, as well as some bright ones. Germany was responsible for two world wars and the Holocaust. Thereafter followed a long phase of confidence-building and reconciliation, and the success story of European unification. In the course of this long probationary period, our country regained a respected place in the international community – and its national unity.

Today we consider ourselves a medium-sized, civilian power at the heart of Europe – nothing less than that, but what is more important, certainly nothing more. We are shouldering our responsibility and the duties it entails, even if some external observers found our initial progress in this direction somewhat slow. We Germans have very much taken to heart our self-imposed doctrine of “never again war”. And that is why it was, and still is, hard for some of us to get used to the idea that our soldiers are suddenly stationed in the Balkans, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.

I am very glad that we have a strong cross-party consensus with respect to these missions. No democrat in Germany now considers the military a tool for territorial adventures; it has rather become an element of a responsible policy of peace, understanding and democracy. Germany's politicians, regardless of which democratic party they belong to, have been shaped by our common European experience. We have seen how hatred and distrust can be overcome when enemy nations discover their shared interests, bundle them, and begin to work and live together.

This is the lesson we have learned from history, and the message we want to bring to other parts of the world – in international fora, as part of NATO, the European Union and the United Nations.

As observers and recorders of life in Germany, you play a crucial role in defining our country in the eyes of the world. When you travel around this country, you yourselves witness the diversity of cultures that are labelled “German”: the taciturn East Friesians, the gruff Westphalians, the merry Rhinelanders, the industrious Saxons, the folkloristic Bavarians and people from the Upper Palatinate – or at least these are the types of descriptions found in many guidebooks.

This brings us to clichés, an issue we will talk about in the panel discussion in just a moment. Germany is still weighted down and divided up by stereotypes that have little to do with real life – notwithstanding everything you have written and broadcast to counter this trend over the past 100 years.

Heidelberg and Rothenburg are not the capitals of Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, and Edmund Stoiber does not rule from Schloss Neuschwanstein, at least not as far as I know. In the country of bratwurst and sauerkraut, you are now just as likely to find doner kebab, falafel and sushi shops. And connoisseurs from around the globe have discovered that Germany does not only brew good beer – it also produces the best Riesling in the world.

You yourselves will have your own stories to tell about German clichés. Those of you who have come in good time to press appointments, relying on the fabled German punctuality, will often have found yourselves with plenty time to chat to your colleagues. And by the way, we also laugh more than we are reputed to – at least since we seriously studied the concept and proved that laughter helps you live longer. And as regards Germany as the “cradle of bureaucracy” – I sometimes have the feeling that a number of countries and international organizations are doing their very best to deprive us of this title.

But I have to concede that there are some idiosyncrasies that are truly German. We are the only people in the world to clean their rubbish before carefully separating out plastics, metals, glass and paper, etc. If we have something to organize, we don't go in for half measures, and we are thorough and meticulous.

And yet nobody is more surprised than us when all the organization pays off, and the end result even appears easy and spontaneous – as was the case with the World Cup this summer, an event that led the world to unanimously certify that we were cheerful, amicably patriotic hosts, and in the end good losers, too.

This World Cup also illustrated how small the world has become. Never before have so many people from all over the world come together for a football championship, partied together, made friends and swapped good stories. Such events highlight the positive side of globalization, a phenomenon that is dramatically changing all areas of life – including politics and journalism.

Technological progress and the digitalization of the media have fundamentally changed our understanding of time and space. Thanks to the Internet, people all over the world can contact each other simply and cheaply. People who go abroad nowadays are not undertaking an expedition into uncharted territory. Almost everywhere you go, you will find people from your culture, TV channels from home and shops selling the food you grew up with.

This globalized coexistence of the most diverse of cultures will be a feature of the twenty-first century. But a response is needed to this de facto juxtaposition. Without curiosity, without a willingness to talk meaningfully to each other, without the ability to critically reappraise our own culture, it will be impossible for any amount of juxtaposition to lead to genuine interaction. In fact, you could conclude that it has the opposite effect if you look back at some of this year's clashes, such as the controversy sparked by the Danish cartoons and the outrage caused by the Pope's remarks. For this reason, to avert or defuse potential conflicts, we need to know more about each other and about other cultures. The more open and curious we are about others, the easier we will find it to effectively discourage knee-jerk rejections.

Identifying, describing and explaining the idiosyncrasies of our culture and society here in Germany is your task as journalists. It is an exciting and interesting job. But it is more than that. I believe that your task is now more important than ever – and will become even more so in the future.

Many of you perhaps find your work less exclusive and autonomous than it used to be. In an era of agency news flashes and CNN, your editor in headquarters in Ankara or Madrid sometimes knows about events in Berlin as quickly as you do, although it is you who are at that moment asking questions in the halls of the Reichstag or in the Federal Press Association.

But speed is only one of many journalistic criteria. In many respects your role and significance are increasing in our small, interconnected world.

The topics you choose to report about Germany and its political processes, and how you report and commentate them, do not only have an influence on politics in your countries, but also on politics in our country. From my personal experience I can tell you that there is a significant “feedback effect” between the media and politics. Sometimes it is not long before I again encounter the profound analysis or criticisms that I have seen in the media – but this time straight from the mouth of another Foreign Minister in my office in Berlin or at the EU in Brussels.

I therefore have to admit that our desire to be perceived fairly – and if possible positively – by the world is not based only on a desire to be liked. We rather also wish to advertise our system of values, gain understanding for our interests, and of course we are also competing for markets and investment, for our future as a leading location for business and research.

When people with capital and ideas look for a suitable location for their businesses, I wish they did not only know that Germany offers them attractive economic conditions. They should also be aware that our infrastructure is good, that we are a functioning state based on the rule of law, and furthermore that we can offer a high standard of living, an attractive culture, safe streets and good schools. And we also want to be an attractive, hospitable country to students, researchers and tourists alike.

But I don't want to paint an unduly rosy picture. “Promoting Germany” does not in my view mean distorting the facts, exaggerating our successes or making undue comparisons. What I would like to see is reporting that is critical, independent and therefore credible. Journalism that doesn't sugar-coat anything, but that recognizes strengths and advantages, that surprises us with unknown facts and broadens our horizons.

The Federal Government, the Federal Foreign Office and I will serve as reliable partners in this endeavour. Let us continue to conduct a fair and responsible dialogue with each other, so that we never stop learning from one another! In this way we will – each in his own way, of course – live up to a great aim, the aim of greater understanding between nations and peoples, so that they can perhaps also learn from one another.

For that, ladies and gentlemen, is by no means the smallest contribution to greater understanding and greater reason in the world.

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