Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the opening of the conference “Review 2014 – A Fresh Look at German Foreign Policy” in Berlin on 20 May 2014

20.05.2014 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,
Christoph Bertram,
Fellow members of the German Bundestag,
Members of the Diplomatic Corps,
Representatives of the media,

Guests of the Federal Foreign Office
and colleagues from the Federal Foreign Office,

And, looking at Deutsche Welle’s cameras broadcasting live: what was it showmaster Kulenkampff always said at the start of his programme? “Welcome to all of you watching on your screens at home!”

I’d like to welcome you all to this the opening conference of Review 2014!

I am happy that we are joined here today not only by so many eminent figures in foreign policy, but also by several young diplomats. So a special “Bienvenue!” to the attachés from the French Republic and a very warm welcome to the students from the International Relations Department at the Technische Universität Dresden.

I can imagine how you’re feeling: at last, you’ve done it! After all those books and terrible exams on foreign policy, now at last you’re getting a trip to the very heart of the matter, a visit to the pulsing centre of German foreign policy, the building at Werderscher Markt.

Diplomats, politicians and professors from Germany and around the world are gathered here in the Weltsaal, a room which has seen a great deal of history.

And this venerable event focuses on one deliberately rather provocative question: “What is wrong with German foreign policy?”

I beg your pardon? Did I hear that right?

Yes, you did. The question we asked a whole series of experts from Germany and abroad in this first phase of our Review was: “What is wrong with German foreign policy and what, if anything, needs to be changed?”

If some of you here find that a little odd, well, I can understand it. After all, no one asks “What is wrong with cell division and what, if anything, needs to be changed?”

But perhaps that’s exactly where the problem starts. Maybe the certainties in foreign policy are far fewer than in biology. Despite the fixtures and continuity in German foreign policy:

In a world which, 25 years on from the end of the Cold War, from the collapse of a black and white order that had persisted for decades, has not yet found a new order –

In a world like that, German foreign policy cannot do anything else except question itself, and question precisely those certainties which seem to be even more built-in than the old paternoster out there in the foyer.

I would go so far as to say that a question mark should always be part of foreign policy.

These current weeks are very special weeks in foreign policy. Spirits we believed dead are

re-emerging on the edge of the European Union. 25 years on from the end of the Cold War, we have to fear a new division of Europe, a division we believed had been overcome once and for all.

So perhaps that’s why you’re wondering – as, to be honest, I myself have done – whether foreign policy can actually afford to be questioning itself in the midst of this crisis. Oughtn’t it rather to be a tower of strength, ignoring critical and self-critical questions?

I don’t want to give a real answer to this question, rather a reflection. I want to contrast two impressions.

The first impression comes from the essays by international and German experts whom I asked to give their view of Germany’s foreign policy as part of this first phase of Review 2014.

Their responses were very interesting indeed. I don’t want to anticipate the panel discussion and give you a 90-minute summary now, but let me give you a bit of an impression with a collection of quotations: One expert said Germany’s role was “to lead Europe to lead the world”. Germany should “revitalise the European Union”; it should be an “intercultural mediator” and a “bridge” between the rich North and the “emerging South”; it should “Europeanise Russia” and “multilateralise America”.

I think you can already guess what I’m getting at. Expectations of German foreign policy are – in a word – high.

The second reflection is of the German public. Together with the Körber Foundation, the Policy Planning Staff here at the Federal Foreign Office organised a survey to find out what Germans think about their foreign policy. The results of the study will be presented in detail during the course of the conference, but let me give you a brief taster.

Question: Should Germany step up its international engagement in future?

Yes: 37 percent.

No: 60 percent.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the balancing act German foreign policy has to perform. In this current crisis as well!

There is such a wide gap between expectations at home and abroad, between the expectations of the foreign policy elite and those of the broad public. An engineer might say that he couldn’t, in all conscience, build a bridge over the gap.

But politics has no choice. It has to operate across such divides if it is to be at all capable of action.

That is why this Review is not only permissible, but to our mind necessary.

When I took office for the second time here in the Weltsaal six months ago, I formulated a theory: Germany is a bit too big and has too strong an economy to merely observe world events from the sidelines and make comments.

I said that not because I want to claim a position for Germany it’s not entitled to, and certainly not because I want to parade new “strength” or “resolve”, but rather – and the strong public reaction confirms my impression – because I believe Germany hasn’t yet really found its bearings in this new world without the old order.

As you know, before I came back to the Federal Foreign Office, I spent four years as chairman of the SPD parliamentary group in the German Bundestag. Over that time, as you can imagine, I sat through quite a few party conferences, editing sessions, committee meetings and pub gatherings.

And what I often found was that people were insecure in the face of foreign policy.

The majority of citizens I meet have a healthy opinion on pension insurance, inheritance tax and the minimum wage. But when it comes to foreign policy, many of them clam up: “It’s too complicated – what can you do anyway?”

It’s almost logical that the vast majority of people on social media are always of the same opinion. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Middle East, Mali, Afghanistan or Ukraine, they say the same thing: “Stay out of it! What’s it to do with us?”

But that doesn’t stop us giving everyone else marks for what they do or don’t do.

My feeling is that there is no debate on whether all this really does affect us, on whether we are an island hoping to remain untouched by the tide of global change. But it is a debate we ought to have.

What is lacking in foreign policy is direction, a compass telling us what responsibility is, what’s fair and what’s not, what’s decent, what politics can afford to do and what not – this DNA exists at national level, but we need it if we are going to take a normative approach to solving difficult issues at international level.

We are going to tackle this question – here, and at events throughout the country with the public.

Even if this wasn’t my main motivation for launching this initiative, it is an important question of our day. Because, in 2014,

100 years after the outbreak of World War I,
75 years after Germany started World War II
and 25 years after it overcame decades of division

to become

a peaceful country,
firmly anchored in Europe,
with a strong economy and global ties,
a country which is respected at the very least, and sometimes loved,

we need to ask ourselves anew: what is actually Germany’s role in the world?

That’s how deep Review 2014 has to dig. Because the reasons for the divide opening up lie deep.

Review 2014 is going to dig from three angles.

What we are calling Phase 1 consists of talks with German and international experts, academics, think tanks, diplomats and civil society groups – what’s known as the “foreign policy elite”, in other words.

Phase 2 will carry the debate to the general public: what are the goals and instruments of German foreign policy? What can and should German foreign policy do? Where are its limits? Should Germany engage, and, if so, how?

Today’s conference is the crossover between these two phases. We deliberately want to hear from inside and outside, from the broad public as well as from experts ranging from a Turkish university professor, Fuat Keyman, to a German local politician, Michael Elbling.

Finally, Phase 3 will be when we, the Federal Foreign Office, ask ourselves questions. What can and should the Federal Foreign Office – which means over 10,000 members of staff all over the world – be able to do?

No single one of these phases is more important than the others.

This Review is not an intellectual playground for the “usual suspects” in foreign policy.

Neither is it intended as a lecture for the public, or as entertainment.

Nor is it camouflaging internal structural reforms which have long been decided and are just waiting to be rolled out.

No, this Review is nothing like that. Rather, it is the sum of three parts, the product of talks and exchanges at and among the three levels.

For one thing is clear: “diplomacy is perception”. Foreign policy, Henry Kissinger says, starts with seeing the world though the eyes of others. Often our own reality – even that of diplomats – is not the right one, and you can guarantee it’s not the only possible one.

And the conflict in Ukraine teaches us yet again that one and the same reality has space for very different, entirely contradictory perceptions of reality.

Foreign policy needs to work particularly hard on its perception. Because foreign policy means acting, often with heavy equipment and long-term consequences. So the danger is all the greater if the action starts from false premises.

There’s a wonderful story from Mozambique which I heard a few weeks ago when I was in Africa and which illustrates all this perfectly.

A monkey, the fable has it, was walking along the side of a river when it saw a fish in the water. The monkey said to itself, “The poor thing’s underwater. It will drown. I must rescue it!”

The monkey snatched the fish out of the water and the fish began to flap around in its hands. To which the monkey said, “Look how happy it is now!”

But of course the fish died out of water. Then the monkey said, “Oh, how sad. If only I’d got here a bit sooner, I’d have been able to save it.”

A perfect example of someone starting from completely false premises.

I think this African tale holds a piece of wisdom that we should aim for with the goal of correct foreign policy. So let’s get talking! Welcome to Review 2014!

Related content

Top of page