Article by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the MunichSecurity Conference. Published in the news magazine Focus (27 January 2014). Abridged version of an article for the book commemorating the 50th anniversary of the MunichSecurity Conference in 2014.
At the beginning, in the 1960s and 1970s, it was a very small circle of politicians, military officials and civilian security experts who met under the Chairmanship of the legendary Mr von Kleist. The Munich Security Conference has tried to maintain a certain degree of exclusivity up to now – even if the circle of participants has gradually extended and expanded from year to year.
I myself was a keen observer for many years before I first came to Munich as a speaker and participant in 2006, as the then newly appointed Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany. My main theory back then was that the European Union, the United States and Russia are indispensable strategic partners to one another. Indispensable because they can only solve global problems together. In my view this was as true for Iran as it was for the Middle East and Afghanistan and – top of the agenda at the time – for the resolution of the Kosovo question.
Up to now all of this seems to remain very current – unfortunately so, one feels inclined to say in light of still unresolved conflicts. And one can effortlessly continue to list the crises awaiting solutions, as new flashpoints did not wait for old ones to die down before flaring up. The developments in Egypt and the tragedy in Syria have further ramped up the degree of complexity and confusion in the international security situation – and have made the need to cooperate, including beyond the constraints of ideologies, more urgent than ever.
For all those who were and remain convinced that we are doomed to cooperate and that the crises and conflicts of today and tomorrow cannot be resolved with yesterday’s political labels and default perceptions – for all of these people, Barack Obama’s election victory in November 2008 was a sign of hope. Indeed the stalemate in Russian‑US relations came to an end unexpectedly quickly when the new President took office. When, in March 2009, Hillary Clinton and Sergey Lavrov jointly pressed the reset button – attracting great media attention – they ushered in a new phase of productive cooperation which achieved lasting results. Here everyone thinks above all of the significant progress in the field of disarmament and arms control. Obama indeed deserved and still deserves credit for putting this topic back on the security policy agenda.
It is difficult to decipher the underlying causes of the creeping estrangement which has set in since the success of the “reset” during the second half of President Obama’s first term in office, which somewhat overshadowed the beginning of his second term and that has lately prompted murmurings of a new ice age, a new cold war.
The harshening of domestic policy in Russia has caused a certain degree of concern not only in the United States but also in Europe and Germany. The restrictive, in part violent action taken against opposition movements in Russia, the laws limiting the ability of foreign non‑governmental organisations to function, the irregularities, confirmed by independent observers, linked to the presidential elections of 2012, a series of judicial proceedings and verdicts which are dubious when judged by our standards of the rule of law, the discriminatory legislation against homosexuals which attracted a great deal of international criticism, the debate over the so‑called Magnizki Act – all of this weighs heavily on Russian‑US relations, as does the pointed granting of asylum to Edward Snowden following the request that he made in Moscow, whom the United States wants to prosecute for disclosure of official secrets. No one who has to deal with the Russia of today will be able to turn a blind eye to the political shortcomings or to fundamentally different ideas regarding the rule of law, democracy and civil liberties.
Russia visibly oscillates between modernising its economy and suffering setbacks in modernising politics and opening up the country. The former superpower is clearly searching for its place in an evolving world order. It remains to be seen which path it will ultimately choose, as much in terms of strategy as of domestic policy. There is, however, one certain and undeniable fact which applies to the foreseeable future: we will continue to be reliant on cooperation with Russia. This cooperation serves our own security and is thus in Germany’s best interest, as well as that of the EU and the United States. A European security architecture geared to the long term is inconceivable without Russia. We need Russia to solve nearly all security policy crises and conflicts of our time, from the “frozen conflicts” on Europe’s periphery to the Middle East, to Iran as well as to Syria and Afghanistan.
It cannot be done without Russia. Yet how can this irrefutable need for cooperation be combined with the maintenance of principles and policies which defend democracy, the social market economy, the application of international law as well as the recognition and implementation of universal human rights on an international level. My firm belief is that at the end of the day we must assert our interests in such a way as to open up room for manoeuvre and opportunities and which supports and bolsters the modernisation of Russian society. There remains a fine line between accusations and refusal to engage in dialogue on the one hand and self‑serving policies which abandon all principles on the other. Those who do not wish to walk this fine line will ultimately have to answer the question of how policy makers can retain their ability to act. In any case mere outrage does not constitute foreign policy and is all too often ineffectual, sometimes it can even cause severe damage. Those who want to live up to the responsibilities inherent to foreign and security policy will not be able to limit themselves to interacting with partners and like‑minded players. Dealing with difficult partners is inevitable. We must be responsible and not let our principles fall by the wayside.