Speech by Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs, at the handover ceremony on 17 December 2013

17.12.2013 - Speech

--Translation of advance text--

Mr Westerwelle,
Ms Pieper,
Mr Link,
Ms Haber,
Mr Braun,
Ms Böhmer,
Michael Roth,
Ladies and gentlemen,

A little more than four years have passed since I last spoke in this hall. I remember the great warmth of the send-off you gave me as if it were yesterday. The closing words of my farewell speech were, “I am going, but I won’t be a million miles away.”

Well, I wasn’t a million miles away! As Chairman of the SPD parliamentary group I still had plenty to do with Europe and foreign policy. I have seen one or the other of you again during the intervening years. Here in Berlin, in Kabul, in Cairo, in Tel Aviv, in Abu Dhabi and in many other places in the world. Nonetheless, throughout my entire political and professional career, which spans quite some time, I have never before gone back to where I came from. This policy was a good one, and it made sense. So if today I am breaking with my principles and returning after four years, it is because it is an honour and a privilege to take up the position of German Foreign Minister once again. It is not just a case of representing the country, but also about having the opportunity to forge ahead with issues one has already had a hand in shaping. I am looking forward to the next four years! I am looking forward to working with you!

Mr Westerwelle,

I would like to thank you for your kind words and your warm reception. But I would like to thank you much more for what you have done for our country over the last few years!

Through the responsibility you have held here you have contributed to Germany staying on track in European policy in the midst of the crisis of the last few years. We both know that is not something we should take for granted. The words of Hans‑Dietrich Genscher still ring true: “Europe is our future, we have no other.” That is a position we share in a climate in which an attitude of condescension and flippancy towards the role of Europe has become par for the course.

You have held fast to the “culture of military restraint”. That has not always earned you praise – even in Germany there are now again some who are of the opinion that the threat and the use of military force can alone serve as the litmus test for credibility in the area of foreign policy. This not only shows disdain for the role that wise diplomacy plays in resolving and defusing crises. It also neglects the fact that we Germans – in light of our history – have a particular responsibility to strive to find alternatives to military solutions, even if we have not ruled these out entirely in the past and will not always be able to rule them out in the future.

So thank you, Mr Westerwelle, and thank you all for your warm welcome. Of course, you will all shake your heads at the question that several people have asked me over the last few days: “Why do you actually want to go back to the Federal Foreign Office?” Yet the answer is so simple for those in the know! “Because this ministry is not like any other. And because a country like Germany needs good foreign policy!”

And that cannot exist without men and women like you. Without professionalism, creative thinking and courage, the hallmarks of a good diplomat. As long as these three qualities can be found here in these premises, the future of the Federal Foreign Office is anything but bleak.

Nevertheless, some things are changing! Of course, these days the other ministries are also more active on the international stage than they used to be. And we would have something to complain about if this were not the case! It goes without saying that there is now a stronger media focus on heads of state and government.

Summits are important. But we are also all aware that the hard graft of foreign policy does not take place at summits, but in between them and beforehand. The efforts made at summits are doomed to failure if they are not preceded by serious preparation. Libraries are full of the evidence of this! For this reason we need foreign policy professionals more, not less, than ever before. The higher profile political summits now have is not a replacement for foreign policy. On the contrary, foreign policy is a prerequisite for them! In this context people often mistake form for content. You are the producers of that content, and you will remain so for the foreseeable future. Even the European External Action Service is some way away from rendering foreign policy theory and practice superfluous in Europe’s capital cities!

Good German foreign policy will continue to require a good Federal Foreign Office in future – with courage, with creativity and with professionalism! I know that I can rely on you in this respect.

Professionalism comprises more than proficiency in foreign languages and confidence in the international arena. Professionalism also constitutes the ability to make far-reaching historical connections. You are all aware of the blackest depths of our German history, and you also know how much of an issue this history still is almost everywhere in the world.

The anniversary year 2014 will be dominated by commemoration of the “great seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century, as George Kennan described the First World War. And I hope that this commemoration will stand as a warning to us! A warning of what can happen when politicians and diplomats stumble around like “sleepwalkers” with absolutely no inkling that they are standing on the brink of an abyss. One hundred years after the outbreak of the First World War, our world is still a dangerous place. Let us not be sleepwalkers – to use Clark’s turn of phrase – but instead act as enlightened patriots acknowledging the responsibility our history brings with it, following in the footsteps of people like Willy Brandt and Hans-Dietrich Genscher! We ought to examine whether this aspect of our history still receives the attention it deserves in the training given to diplomats.

One of the common clichés in inaugural speeches by German Foreign Ministers is to pledge continuity. But since this is my second time here, allow me to question a few things.

Yes, the basis of German foreign policy stands firm and has proven itself – European integration, the transatlantic partnership, an active role in shaping a peaceful global order in the United Nations and other international organisations.

You are well aware of this, and these basic principles also run through the chapter on foreign and security policy in the coalition agreement. However, I am firmly convinced that in future it will not be sufficient simply to keep repeating familiar and tried‑and‑tested mantras! In a world undergoing sweeping change we have to ask ourselves the critical question as to whether the pillars on which these fundamental principles rest can still be relied upon to bear this weight.

I have already mentioned the spreading scepticism towards Europe. The transatlantic relationship is currently under considerable strain – Iraq war, Guantánamo, Snowden, NSA are the words that come to mind in that context. And although eventually the successful conclusion of the WTO talks in Bali once again sent a message of hope, it is clear that the major world organisations and the multilateral approach are in crisis. The universally perceptible trend towards bilateralism and the formation of “coalitions of the willing” are just one manifestation of this development.

And now we come to the second maxim that I mentioned earlier: “creative thinking”. And it is common knowledge that the first step in this process is to pose the right questions. I expressly welcome the fact that in recent years a debate on the fundamental focus of German foreign policy has been launched under the heading “Values and interests”.

In an article I can highly recommend, entitled “The Limits of German Power”, Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff and Hanns Maull recently wrote: “The established guidelines of German foreign policy will only be preserved if they are reinvented politically and adapted to the times.” That is precisely the task that lies ahead of us. And that has nothing to do with the juvenile talk of growing German influence and new German power. Anyone familiar with the figures knows that in the coming decades our proportion of the world population and our share of global trade will be in constant decline. That leaves little scope for delusions of grandeur from a middle-ranking power along the lines of “We are a force to be reckoned with again”!

My concern is something much more fundamental: We now need a mature, enlightened discussion on the institutional framework within which our foreign policy activities should take place, on the degree of responsibility we can shoulder in the next ten to twenty years, and also on where the limits of our capabilities lie. The answers to these questions are not simply going to pop up by themselves in our day‑to‑day activity.

Many countries that we are close to, the US, France, Norway to name but a few, have subjected their foreign and security policy to a critical self-assessment in recent years. I consider examining the status quo and future prospects in key fields and making comparisons with other foreign policy players in Europe to be necessary and beneficial to us. Therefore, as I enter office for the second time I want to launch a similar process of internal reflection on German foreign policy’s future prospects. And I specifically do not want to run the classic internal procedure but rather I want to open a dialogue between the Federal Foreign Office and the most important foreign and security policy stakeholders, one which brings in civil society. I have thus asked Christoph Bertram, the former head of the “Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik” to help organise such a process in the Federal Foreign Office and I am pleased that he has agreed. One of you will take charge of this and present the results within the next year. I hope that I will have your support in this!

European and German foreign policy is faced with turbulent times. We live in a restless neighbourhood, and there is not much sign of this changing any time soon. Neither in Ukraine nor in North Africa in particular can we count on others – the US ultimately – providing the necessary stability, be it through political, financial or military engagement. As in the Balkans in the 90s, it is above all Europe that these countries are calling for now. A Europe that is still largely preoccupied with itself and its own crisis! And one that is approaching its role as a player in foreign policy only tentatively and hesitantly.

How Russia has taken advantage of Ukraine’s desperate economic situation to block the EU association agreement is an outrage. Equally outrageous was the violence perpetrated by the Ukrainian security forces again the peaceful demonstrators on Maidan Square. Yet amid our indignation, Polish politicians, such as President Komorowski in his interview with the FAZ newspaper two weeks ago, have pointed out that when it comes to our policy on Ukraine, as Europeans we should perhaps catch ourselves before berating. We should ask ourselves if we have underestimated how torn and weak the country is, whether we have overlooked the fact that it is too much for this country to have to choose between Europe and Russia, whether we have underestimated Russia’s determination in light of its close economic, but also historically emotional ties to Ukraine. I do not have answers to all of this! These are questions which we must answer as Europeans. I am sure of only one thing, namely that the financial and economic help that we offered fell long short of what is necessary to protect Ukraine from economic collapse and bind it to Europe in the long-term. I am going to travel to Poland this Thursday to hold discussions with our Polish neighbours on what we can do together to overcome the political impasse in Kyiv, as they understand Ukraine better than nearly all other Europeans do.

Similar challenges await us in our southern neighbourhood. The situation in Egypt is not calming down. Libya is on the way to becoming a failed state. Tunisia is fighting for its future. And all that is left from the enthusiasm with which many in Germany watched the Arab Spring is disillusion.

Yet even though the cameras on Tahrir Square have been packed away, we must and want to support all the brave women and men who have embarked on the long and arduous road to human dignity, democracy and the rule of law. The journey will be longer than we and they had hoped, and beset by obstacles at that. Yet it is precisely because it is long and difficult that we must help along the way, and not only with words and good advice. Mr Westerwelle, I imagine that you views things as I do. In their day‑to‑day lives, democracy must not always leave the ordinary people in Cairo with an after taste of hunger and chaos, otherwise the appeal of democracy itself will become jaded. Europe must support the process of reconciliation within society and ensure that economic ties do not completely disintegrate.

Concrete help must nonetheless be accompanied by a better understanding of what is currently happening in the Arab world. Confucius once said, “if names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success”. Today, we know that the portrayal of a simple confrontation between autocratic regimes and democratic opposition does not always do justice to the complex nature of conflicts in the Arab world. This analysis was already wrong in Libya, and it fails spectacularly to describe the conflict in Syria. There, the longing for a democratic opposition, for freedom predominated at the beginning and it is still alive now. Yet alongside this another side of the opposition is growing, one which is no different from the regime in terms of brutality and ruthlessness. In my opinion we have overlooked the fact that from the outset, the conflict in Syria has also been a proxy war for supremacy in the Islamic world and is a struggle over the expansion of Sunni and Shiite spheres of influence. If that is correct then the debate which took place a few weeks ago on a military solution to the conflict was simply absurd!

The greatest threat to the Assad regime – in my view in any case – lies not in Damascus being bombed but rather in the US and Russia overcoming their differences over their policies on Syria. And this is exactly what has been achieved with the initiative to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons. But this is no more than an interim step! Next, humanitarian corridors must be opened in order to provide assistance to the civilian population which is desperately suffering. Then the parties in the civil war, together with the neighbouring countries who are supporting them, must be brought to the negotiating table. If that does not succeed, it will be near on impossible to prevent Syria from disintegrating and any kind of order in the Middle East from breaking down.

There are signs of hope however. The interim agreement with Iran and John Kerry’s admirable and persistent negotiation efforts in the Middle East Peace Process have opened up a unique window of opportunity for the whole region in the next year. As Europeans we must draw on all our energy to flank and support American efforts. I very much hope that all stakeholders: Israel, Palestine, Iran as well as the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia will seize this unique opportunity presented by current US policy. If President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry fail with their policy, it will not only be another missed chance for the history books on the Middle East. I fear that what many have long prophesied will come true, namely that America will make a slow, strategic withdrawal from the region, with unforeseeable consequences for Israel and the whole region, as well as for us.

The Transatlantic Alliance is and remains the backbone of our security. A perfectly innocuous statement to make in this Ministry, until recently that is. Now you only need to prick up your ears in this country or read the relevant blogs to see that this assertion is no longer a matter of course for everyone. At the very least in our heads, the Atlantic has become wider, more so perhaps, than it was during the difficult Bush years. Despite all placations citing the Western community of shared values, trust has been lost and it will require a great deal of joint effort to restore it. Today we are confronted with the question of how we can reconcile freedom and security in a digitally connected world and in light of new threats that have indeed arisen. We must make it clear to our American friends that not everything that is technically possible is politically wise. And this goes far beyond the question of whether spying among friends is permissible or not. It also begs the question of how can we ensure that our citizens’ fundamental right to privacy remains intact in the 21st century, against a fully transformed communications backdrop. How can we prevent the technical and legal fragmentation of the world wide web, on which a large part of our increasing prosperity is based?

This trust will not be regained over night, but we will work hard to restore it. Heinrich August Winkler gave us the wonderful phrase, “The West, so this answer goes, is a community of values, but one in which the political consequences of those values remain – indeed, must remain – in dispute”.

Ladies and Gentlemen, as long as we do this, I am not worried by our shared future.

The essence of the West lies in its openness and willingness to debate. And this is why I do not believe in dividing the world into friends of the West and its enemies. In this new order, geared to globalisation, we have no need to start thinking in terms of “them” and “us” again. The order of the day is not isolation, but openness founded on self-confidence.

I firmly believe that the future belongs to that kind of West. Wherever you go people everywhere dream of freedom, of democracy, of a society based on solidarity which protects the resources on which humanity depends. As you know, I have always advocated strengthening cultural relations and education policy and I will continue to do so with the same emphasis in my second term in office. In tomorrow’s world we need to make ourselves understood in a different way, we need to translate our values into other languages, into other cultural codes. Soft power is of course no replacement for hard power, but without it hard power will not get you very far!

Our relationship with difficult partners like Russia and China should be based on composure and self-confidence. Neither country is a new, emerging power but rather both are nations with a long, proud past, troubled present and – let’s not forget, open future!

Five years ago, thinking of Russia I proposed a “partnership for modernisation”, the development of which I am observing with level head and without rose‑tinted glasses. It is an idea that demands investment from both sides, for which the courage, creativity and willingness has been lacking to date. This is what we need however, if our efforts are to bear fruit. I do not mind what the idea is called, because what is important is whether we will develop types of cooperation which will prevent us from falling back into old habits of not communicating, but whether we will build a future in which Russia and the West are not only bound by economic ties but by common fundamental beliefs. That is also a long road, but we must travel it together, even if it remains riddled with obstacles and pitfalls. And also because further east interests are making themselves felt more strongly. At the latest ASEAN summit in Vladivostok, three countries all declared themselves to be a Pacific power. China of course, and the self-assured competition from the US with its “we are an Atlantic and a Pacific power” is not something Putin wanted to let himself be outshone by. I fear that we are only at the beginning of conflicts over spheres of influence and combatants, which will inevitably have ramifications for Europe.

In the next few years we will have to newly spell out what this means for our policies on Russia, on Central Asia as well as for the vast continent that is Asia. The world will not do us the favour of remaining the one which we knew years ago. We must replace “tried and tested mantras” with curiosity and the drive to redefine our role in Asia.

Courage is also needed for that. We will need it in many different places! We are faced with difficult times. What I always most admired in Willy Brandt, whose one hundredth birthday we are celebrating this year, is the courage he had to explore new and uncharted waters. To recognise constraints, remain unquestioningly loyal to alliances whilst protecting the independence of his thinking. And where his own conviction demanded it, to swim against the tide of the political and journalistic mainstream. This has become harder in times of better foreign policy awareness, yet we must take this liberty if we do not want to call the quality of our work into question ourselves.

I have nothing against frank language and bold statements, quite the opposite, but they must be based on intelligent analysis. This is exactly what we cannot give up with such pressure coming from the media – observing closely, monitoring causes and development of conflicts, distinguishing between culprits and defendants, stemming conflict momentum and developing foundations for long‑term solutions. This is exactly what the substance of foreign policy and diplomacy is!

Against blindness and ignorance, Willy Brandt once said, “diplomacy is strategic planning for peace.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, we should spare no effort in carrying out this work. You will all be part of undertaking this task for our country, and I am pleased that we can do so together again in the coming years.

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