Speech by Karsten D. Voigt at Danzig University, 9 March 2007

09.03.2007 - Speech

Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be with you in Gdansk today. But since 1970, I have visited your country often in a private capacity with my family, as chairman of the Social Democratic Youth Organization, and later as a member of the German Parliament and as President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

But I have not visited your city since your country joined the European Union on May 1st, 2004. For me, this date has a historic and an emotional dimension. Since my first visit to Poland in 1970, it has always been my hope that Poles and Germans would one day overcome their centuries-old antagonism, and that the partnership between our two countries would become as strong and as cordial as was the case between France and Germany as early as 1970. But only after the rise of Solidarność in Poland and the fall of the Wall in Berlin did it become a realistic goal for Poland and Germany to be partners on equal footing and full members of NATO and the EU. I have supported this vision since the early 90s, before many Germans, but also before many Poles, and long before it became the official policy of the Clinton Administration in Washington and the European Commission in Brussels.

On the train on my way from Berlin yesterday, one of your countrymen shared with me a moving little story that had happened to him the day after Poland became an EU Member State. He said: “I was driving along somewhere between Frankfurt and Berlin when I heard the car behind me hooting. I looked into the rear-view mirror and saw that it was a German car. The people in the other car were waving at me. I was confused and thought they maybe had noticed a problem with my car and wanted to tell me. So I stopped the car to check. I saw that the Germans had pulled in as well and expected them to tell me what the problem was. Instead they came over to me, shook my hand and said 'welcome to the European Union'.” Your compatriot added that it was only at that moment that he finally understood what the fall of the Iron Curtain had really meant.

But I was asked to speak about our relations to the United States of America and will do so without further ado. I can say with confidence that for both our countries the US had a special role and deserves our eternal gratitude as one of the leading nations in the fight against Nazism and as a champion of Western Europe's freedom and democracy. Given that, on the one hand, the US was the dominant political power in the international arena and, on the other, Europe was basically the theatre of the Cold War, one can say that the second half of the 20th century was clearly defined as a quintessentially European-American or transatlantic century. The Atlantic Ocean served as the connecting point of reference between the US and Europe. Divided Germany – in the eye of the storm of the Cold War – and the Berlin Wall – the brutal and bitter incarnation of division – both helped to crystallize the idea of freedom. As a symbol of such freedom, Berlin glued the West together and prompted not only leaders but also ordinary people to stand up for freedom.

In the 1930s and 40s when Nazi Germany tried to gain world dominance, German and European politicians, philosophers, writers, and scientists found refuge, among other places, in the United States. Some of them went back to Europe during World War II to fight Nazism. After the War, some of them helped prevent the US Administration from adopting the Morgenthau Plan which aimed to reduce Germany to a country of cattle farmers and peasants. Some of the former refugees helped establish a free press and other prerequisites for democratic renewal in Germany and other European countries. Some of them like philosopher Theodor W. Adorno even went back to reintroduce the old cultural and philosophical and democratic traditions predating National Socialist Germany to post-War Europe. Some went back to Europe of their own free will, for instance Nobel Prize winning novelist Thomas Mann, and retained fond memories of their time in the US. Others, such as Bertold Brecht, felt pushed out of the US by growing resentment against socialist and communist ideas and thus looked back to their American years in anger, and did not go back to the Federal Republic of Germany but to the East German Democratic Republic.

This shows how close German-American ties were even during and especially after World War II. At any rate, it is fair to say that in many ways America served as Europe's cultural repository: some of the best and brightest were able to survive in the US and bring their talents and inspiration back to Europe.

Germany and German heritage in America – like Polish heritage in the US – have always been a special and important point of reference for Americans. This is true for the past through Bach and Beethoven or the builders of steel empires like Carnegie or steel bridges like Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius who left his mark on the skylines of modern US cities. Even today, Germany is a reference point in the US as some types of modern music like hip-hop have been influenced by German youngsters, movie aficionados and fashion victims flock to Berlin to attend the truly avant-garde cinema and fashion weeks.

Recently, I have often been asked to what extent transatlantic relations have changed. Let me share some ideas on that with you.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and the peaceful reunification of Germany were not only the culmination of a longer development in which the decline of the Warsaw Pact became apparent. 1989 and 1990 were also the beginning of an era of change that ultimately led to a renewed and modernized American-European epoch.

Some 15 years have passed, that is to say half a generation, since the night the first East Germans poured into West Berlin. Or to put it more clearly: the kids born that night are now learning to drive and they will soon be the ones in the political driver's seat who decide the future of our transatlantic relations. We need to pass on our transatlantic legacy and make sure that they are aware of our historic European-American ties.

I see it as my role to discuss the positive but also those aspects of our relationship, that could cause us to drift apart.

Shared values are rightly a favorite topic in transatlantic discussions, however, we must not forget that from the beginning of its immigration history the US has also defined itself as a counterweight to Europe. The balance between mutual admiration and concurrent aversion on some points, that is to say the desire for closeness while, at the same time, maintaining a measure of intellectual detachment, best captures the contradiction of the close, unique, yet sometimes also ambivalent, nature of transatlantic relations.

The reason why some Europeans regard the Americans as not only similar but also different is largely due to the fact that the US has developed its own school of thought and intellectual tradition. American pluralism and diversity, dynamism and creativity have always been admired in Europe, as have the scope of personal freedom and fundamental rights.

If there is one lesson we learned following September 11, 2001, and during the Iraq War then it is that we cannot simply take good and stable transatlantic relations for granted. This has to do with changes in the geopolitical situation as well as cultural differences which are not immediately apparent but which do indeed have an impact on relations at a subconscious level.

On September 11, 2001, the entire Western world felt closer to the US than ever before. The attacks in New York and Washington were regarded as attacks against Western civilization as a whole. People on this side of the Atlantic identified both emotionally and politically with the Americans, particularly in the light of the knowledge that bloody new attacks could be carried out in their own countries at any time.

There are many reasons why Europe showed solidarity with the US. First of all, we have long-standing ties. We Europeans have no closer links than those with North America. We have shared basic values and similar ideas on representative democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and the market economy. We can look back on a long common cultural and intellectual history. We have common interests. We owe much to the US. The experience of Germany as well as Poland with the US is, on the whole, very positive.

The transatlantic relationship is changing. I would urge everyone not to regard changes as negative from the outset, or as a sign of crisis. For example, the shift in Germany's and Poland's geostrategic location after 1989 has given rise to unavoidable changes. If, despite these geostrategic changes, we were to hold on to the modes of conduct and ideas which reflected Germany's geostrategic location during the Cold War, we would undermine rather than strengthen the partnership between our two nations and across the Atlantic. We should first of all rationally identify common ground and differences, for not only clarity about our own interests but also detailed knowledge of the other side are essential if we are to strengthen and renew transatlantic relations.

But back to the changing transatlantic relations: what has changed strategically? Let me mention just a few points and then draw some conclusions. Firstly, pre-1989, Germany had been at the heart of a global conflict for fifty years. It was therefore only logical for J.F. Kennedy, as the representative of a global power which was also a local protecting power in Berlin, to say that he was proud to be a citizen of Berlin. Now that the Cold War is over, Germany is fortunately no longer at the center of a global conflict. The legendary German angst, a term which has also entered American English, of waking up one day and hearing on the radio that Russian tanks had crossed the border is a thing of the past. The expression “the Fulda gap”, a term you are probably not familiar with, which – in the plains around the city of Fulda – described the geographical gap in the east and supposed route of attack for Warsaw Pact troops, was part of the standard vocabulary of the strategic training of American recruits.

The centuries-old German question has been resolved by united Germany's membership of the EU and NATO in a stable European peaceful order. It is an order in which Germany's borders are recognized by all its neighbors and Germany likewise also recognizes the borders of all its neighbors. Americans in general, most Europeans, and hopefully also most Poles see that Germany is no longer a source and cause of crisis but a contributor to international peace and stability.

The key locations for conflicts have shifted focusing the US consciousness on other problems and, in geographical terms, away from Europe to the Middle East and parts of Asia. For many Americans, the Pacific is as important now as the Atlantic. Germany no longer has a strategic importance for the US because it is no longer located at the heart of a global conflict. Germany's main relevance today is due to its willingness and ability to help resolve problems in future crisis regions on the fringes of Europe or far away from Europe's borders. German politicians must now examine whether they want to reorient either to be relevant to the US or because they, just like the US, believe their security and interests are at risk. Mind you, what we are talking about here is the strategic orientation of the US away from a global conflict with Europe at its epicenter – which we Germans for 50 years after World War II perceived as a European or local German crisis – towards other regions and towards other issues (for example, the fight against international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction). At the same time, we must seek a new consensus in security policy on whether, where and under what conditions, we are prepared to use military means to protect our security, interests, and values.

For other Europeans like the British and French, America's strategic reorientation does not require the same fundamental change in thinking and actions as it does for us Germans. From the end of World War II until the end of the Cold War, German soldiers were not deployed in military missions outside German territory. I believe that Germany has learned to think increasingly in global terms when it comes to foreign and security policy and that it should also on a selective basis act globally in the field of security. We must decide when we want to act and when not. Given our limited resources, we will have to consider this very carefully and will only be able to take military action very selectively. Unfortunately, we will also often have to weigh up interests and the moral aspect whenever our limited resources and influence prevent us from combining the two in an ideal fashion.

The change in our strategic situation and US reorientation has presented German policymakers, as well as the political thinking of most Germans, with new challenges. These new challenges and Germany's new situation will influence and change our foreign and security policy culture, as well as the decisions our country makes.

However, it also has to be said that Germany was completely dependent on the US during the Cold War. Berlin could not be protected by Germany at all but only by the Allies and in particular by the US. We are still dependent on the US when it comes to combating the dangers of international terrorism or the many other threats of this world. But unlike in the past, Germany is no longer any more dependent than other European countries. In this sense, Germany's special dependence during the Cold War disappeared after 1989. German governments will continue to strive to achieve the greatest possible degree of common ground with the US. But in future they will also express any disagreement with a measure of self-confidence. This is the self-confidence of a stable democracy which can be convinced by arguments but whose tendency to be influenced by a show of power has decreased.

There is another factor. Unlike the situation during the Cold War in Europe, the US itself is no longer dependent on Germany in order to prevail in purely military terms in regional conflicts such as the one in Iraq. This drop in military dependency in wars has not only military but also political consequences. A country which believes it is no longer dependent on military support but seeks support for political reasons will begin to weigh up the pros and cons of partnerships. That will influence the extent to which a country is prepared to show consideration for potential partners. During the Cold War, certain political and military decisions in the US would not have been made against the express wishes of key European partners in NATO. Although we Germans were completely dependent on the US for our security at that time, we nonetheless had considerable influence on it. Prior to the Iraq War, there was a debate in Washington on whether the US should still show consideration on political grounds to those who doubted not only the tactics but also the goals and strategy of US policy. Or whether, for the sake of protecting the autonomy of US military action and the clarity of its own objective, it would not be better, if need be, to pursue the US course alone and accept that it would have to do without critical and extremely self-confident partners. After all, there were other partners who, although they did not support every tactical detail of Washington's decisions, did support the strategic direction. One result of the difficult situation in post-war Iraq is that those in the US who favor partners and alliances have once more gained ground.

The US rightly regards itself as an indispensable nation but Europe should, just as rightly, see itself as an indispensable partner. None of the major problems facing the world would be easier to resolve with Europe and the US in opposition. Incidentally, that goes not only for military and economic issues but ultimately also for those related to our democratic culture and even environmental protection. If Europe and the US were to oppose each other, this would jeopardize the chance of achieving security and democracy in many parts of the world.

I foresee neither an end to the West nor an end to the transatlantic alliance. Those who, like Oswald Spengler, predict the “decline and fall of the West”, will be proved wrong. However, we are in the midst of a phase of adjustment and reorientation. After all, whenever facts and thinking changed in the past, the West was then, too, forced to redefine itself time and again.

Even more than during the Cold War, we, the West, pose a challenge to other parts of the world. Indeed, the West prompts them to question how they think and act. The impact of Western ideas and our way of life has never been limited in geographical terms but rather has always been global in scale. Democracy, human rights, and the Enlightenment are ideas with a global impact and immense appeal.

I support these ideas and their influence. I am thus opposed to cultural and value relativism. And dictators, those who commit genocide, as well as religious and political fundamentalists, rightly feel that our Western ideas and policies cast doubt on the legitimacy of their actions.

Given the development Europe has undergone in recent years and decades, it is understandable that there is growing concern, particularly in the US, that this stronger Europe is becoming a second rival pole within the West. In the final analysis, I do not believe there is any real danger that Europe will endeavor to define itself in opposition to the US. Defining Europe in opposition to the US would simply not be in the European interest, especially that of Germany or Poland.

Some European leaders doubt from time to time whether there can be solidarity with the US without infringing upon EU solidarity. I am convinced that Germany's example shows that the two can be effectively combined: our foreign policy has a European and a transatlantic leg – we need both of them to walk.

However, I would also like to contradict those in the US and in some parts of Europe who believe that Europe's increased strength in the sphere of foreign and security policy is a negative development. The opposite is true! A Europe incapable of taking effective action would have little global influence and would be of little interest to the US as a partner. The US would lose interest in a weak Europe. A weak Europe would in turn weaken transatlantic ties. A Europe which, as a result of its weakness, sees no hope of exerting influence on the US would, out of a sense of frustration, turn either away from or even against the US.

In keeping with the sentiment expressed by Joe Nye of Harvard University, I would like to add: the US is the only true global power in the military sphere. In the economic field, it is one power among many. In economic terms, the European Union is almost equal in weight, while in terms of population and its share in world trade it is even more important. At the level of societal and non-state players, the US used to be more attractive than any other country in the world. Not military power but rather its attractiveness was its strongest advantage. After all, “soft power” is also a form of power. Joe Nye has warned America that it must not lose its social and political appeal by flexing its military muscle too much, thus objectively also losing power, which is more than just military might. I share this concern.

Like American realists and unlike many Europeans, I am convinced that the deployment of military power is sometimes unavoidable. However, unlike these American realists, I am also convinced that, with the prospect of a new reality in line with post-war developments in Europe, we can change our world. Indeed, we should not abandon hope of being able to change the world. Otherwise, politics would be reduced to action without the goal of creating a better world. It will take generations until fundamental changes can be brought about in other parts of the world. However, acceptance of the reality of power and the pursuit of the rule of law, realism and teleological action are not mutually exclusive.

So we can see, therefore, that serious questions have arisen in the transatlantic debate. We must try and answer them: many together with the Americans, almost all together with our European neighbors and some of them on our own. Ultimately, this is about what Germany and Poland should be in the European and global context, what risks we are prepared to take, what influence and power we are striving to gain, what financial means and instruments we are prepared to employ for our priorities. The conclusions drawn from this German and Polish debate will be influenced not only by the discussion among Germans and Poles but to a large extent by the arguments put forward by our European and transatlantic partners. Even today it is clear that we Germans are more and more ready to engage in international conflict resolution. We are doing so for example in Afghanistan, in the DRC, and now in the Middle East where the international community successfully agreed a UN mandate to monitor the Lebanese border.

The US is a mixed society par excellence and at the core of a new global community which is increasingly leaving its European and Atlantic traditions behind and expanding culturally and politically along the Pacific Rim.

What keeps the West together? How can the West be reoriented?

What constitutes modern society and modern individuals in a globalized world? We have to ask intellectuals, international educators, think-tank experts and political decision-makers in America these questions from a European-American perspective. They will probably not be able to say yet what constitutes the sum of human knowledge in this new era of mobility given the increase in communications, travel, and international experience of more and more young people. However, these challenges need to be identified and will be addressed. They should join hands with German and Polish intellectuals, diplomats and entrepreneurs who represent the modern Europe and the new generation that is about to emerge.

I would be proud to see a group of people from very different parts of our world who feel they should be part of this huge task: to educate and create a new global generation ready to take on the challenges of our era.

Thank you.

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