Speech by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier at the Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum in Bonn on 1 July 2014

01.07.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Ladies and gentlemen,
honoured guests from around the world,

It’s great to be back in the former capital. I haven’t been here for a long time, not even in this wonderful building that housed the old German Bundestag.

The last time I was here in this chamber was with Bill Clinton for a conference on disaster management ... but I hope that won’t be a bad omen for this time ... I would have liked to share some breaking news here with you at this media conference, in a room full of journalists, preferably something that provided grounds for optimism. But I’m afraid I cannot.

Yesterday, we spent the whole day and evening negotiating with Ukraine, Russia and France in the hope of reaching an agreement that would allow steps to be taken towards de‑escalating the situation in eastern Ukraine. At around 10 o’clock last night we were really close to reaching a joint agreement, but it didn’t stick.

The agreement would not of course have provided a lasting political settlement to the Ukraine crisis, but it would have given us something more than just a short breathing space. I am disappointed that it didn’t work out. As a result, President Poroshenko has now abandoned the unilateral ceasefire. What can you do in such a situation? You can be annoyed, but you must not be discouraged!

The agreement we didn’t reach yesterday has not become superfluous. It still needs to be reached soon, in the next few days. It is only through these political negotiations that a solution will ultimately be found. Only so can we put an end to the bloodshed in Ukraine. And that is why, as soon as I leave this event, we will go back to the forge for the next few days, to hammer something out of the cast that wouldn’t quite fit last night.

It would be good if we could take the limited contact between Ukraine and Russia that has now emerged and further intensify it – and if this were to lead to joint border controls to stop more fighters and weapons from infiltrating eastern Ukraine. But that will certainly require a lot more work – we’re not there yet.

I would like to express my heartfelt thanks to Deutsche Welle, which has again invited media professionals from around the world to Germany to consider, from their various perspectives, the major trends that plague you in the media just as they do us politicians.

Digitisation is, of course, one of these trends, and it is at the heart of this year’s Global Media Forum. When I got your invitation and thought about what I, as a foreign policy person, could say to media people about the Internet and the changes it has brought, I thought to myself: if you want to seem up‑to‑date, then your speech has got to be called something like “15 Facts About Foreign Policy That Will Blow Your Mind.” And it should be followed by a really eye‑catching photo gallery...

But don’t worry, I haven’t got to the stage where I talk BuzzFeed style ... But I do wish to make a serious point here. Politics and the media are both equally under pressure from click statistics. And to score highly in terms of clicks, what you really need is lots of new, flashy pictures! And I fear this is going to put foreign policy at a disadvantage. What do I mean by that?

The crises around the globe supply an endless torrent of images. It only takes a moment for a photo to be taken on a mobile phone, uploaded onto the social networks, and viewed in living rooms around the world.

Do you recall the pictures from South Sudan, for example? And the images from the terrible civil war in Syria, which have followed us for over three years? Most recently the world has been forced to watch the brutal advance of ISIS in Iraq. Such pictures not only open our eyes to what is going on – they also have an impact themselves. Regardless of whether they were genuine or not, we know that the brutality of these images was one factor that spread fear of ISIS and caused many members of the Iraqi army to lay down their arms.

Another effect of these images bothers me as a foreign politician. They raise people’s expectations that the cause of the atrocities documented by these images, which rightly shock and outrage them, can be eliminated somehow, anyhow, as long as it is done as quickly as possible.

In contrast to the flood of images from the world’s trouble spots, the methods of foreign policy seem remarkably slow. And indeed they are slow! Foreign policy possesses no means of coercion, and no right of command. Its core business involves diplomatic negotiations, drawn out discussions in Swiss hotels, and – like last night – scrambling to reach compromises. And none of that makes for exciting photos!

There’s another gulf that is also opening up. On the one hand the world is growing more complex. I don’t want to give a whole lecture on that – but let me say that 1990 was a turning point. We Germans were fortunate enough to be reunited, but an old order disappeared, and has not yet been replaced by a new one.

New players in Latin America and Asia have emerged onto the world stage. They are economically strong and want to have their say in international politics. In this multipolar world, it has become much, much harder to reach diplomatic agreements.

The nature of conflicts is also changing. Wars used to be fought between states, but now we have entered an era of asymmetrical conflicts, where non‑state groups fight state authority – for religious, ethnic or other reasons.

To sum up, none of the old templates fits in any of the trouble spots – not in Iraq or Syria, Ukraine or Mali.

On the other hand, the trend in the online media is to abbreviate and polarise – as it were in reaction to a growing need to categorise everything in the more complex world of today as black or white, good or bad. But it simply doesn’t work!

This is brought home to me every day, under the spotlight of the Ukraine crisis. I am regularly on the receiving end of what we Germans have come to refer to as a double “shitstorm” in the comments on my Facebook page. On the one side are those for whom the sabre rattling can never be loud enough, on the other those who accuse us of warmongering. On the one side those who accuse me of being a Russian apologist, and on the other those who say I’m a Kyiv fascist sympathiser. And the one time I lose my cool in the face of such accusations – that becomes the one real YouTube hit of my long political career. That has to say something...

But don’t get me wrong. I’m not bemoaning the new trends. On the contrary. The Web has created great new opportunities, and not just as a one-way street – it’s not just the megaphone of today – but as a two‑way street, as a forum for exchange between politicians and private citizens. I enjoy making good and frequent use of these new opportunities. Members of my staff have already complained that I spend more time reading the comments on my Facebook page than on the editorials in the daily newspapers.

But I do want to make one point. We – meaning politicians like myself and media professionals like you – have a responsibility to address the complexities of this world. We mustn’t give in to the temptation to paint things black and white when they are predominantly grey, or when rival narratives can be drawn from the same facts.

The Internet is not only changing how we communicate foreign policy. It is changing foreign policy itself. As its name suggests, the Internet is international, it crosses borders. The Internet is a global asset. And if it is to remain so, foreign policy too must play its role. Today the Internet has around 2.5 billion users worldwide. In only five years’ time, it will be double that number. Such a rapidly growing network needs regulations and standards – a highway code, as it were, and it needs institutions that can agree on and implement accepted rules. That is why the idea of a free, open and secure Internet – for the billions of people, too, who are yet to access it – is one of the central tasks for global governance in the 21st century.

The situation today reminds me a little of the time of the first climate conference in Rio over twenty years ago. Back then we could hardly believe that we would be able to lay down common rules in our increasingly complex world.

In my opinion, we’re at a similar stage now, at the start of the digital age. Now, too, international rules seem a distant prospect, but the process has to start today!

In a first step towards this goal, Germany and Brazil have tabled a resolution on the protection of privacy in the UN General Assembly. For it wouldn’t be right if, on the one hand, the Internet were to be regarded as a global space and, on the other, online privacy were not considered a global right, a right which everyone has, regardless of their country of origin.

The vision of a free, open and secure Internet is by no means shared by everyone in the world. Authoritarian governments see a free and open Internet as a threat to their power. But we see a free and open Internet as bringing new opportunities! Opportunities for participation, knowledge, progress and democracy. I am convinced that this view is also shared by the United States of America, and that’s why I believe that – whatever differences of opinion we may have – there is more that unites us than divides us.

Late last week, I launched the Transatlantic Cyber Dialogue at the Federal Foreign Office together with John Podesta, whom President Obama has tasked with working on the issue of big data. The aim of this dialogue is not, as some commentators have said, to distract from Edward Snowden’s revelations, but to engage in a constructive debate on what, in my opinion, is at the root of all the outrage about the NSA’s activities – namely the difficult question of finding the right balance between freedom, privacy and security in the digital age.

Let’s get one thing clear. We will not agree with the Americans on everything. Our backgrounds and outlooks are too different. And Americans are greatly influenced by the terrible events of 9/11, the like of which we in Germany have fortunately never experienced.

But still it’s worth entering into this debate with the Americans – for three reasons:

First, because our two countries, the US and Germany, are the most interconnected countries in the world.

Second, because the US and Europe can together bring the necessary weight to bear in international fora.

And third, because our two countries – America, too, even if we in Germany seldom realise it – are in the middle of intensive public debates on what form a free and open Internet should take in the 21st century.

At any rate, I firmly feel that this key goal of the 21st century – a free, open and secure Internet – is better served if we can establish some kind of transatlantic link between our public debates, and keep them open and honest, and if we agree on common rules wherever we can.

We have to realise that we are at the beginning of something new, not at the end. And so outrage about abuse of these new technologies isn’t just understandable, it’s necessary. But outrage isn’t the right political stance if we are to lay down rules for the future, and if we are to win allies for that endeavour.

Will we manage to create a rule‑based order in the digital age which safeguards unrestricted freedom of information and at the same time protects the right to privacy?

Will we manage to develop international law so as to achieve the right balance between freedom and security – notwithstanding the temptations that access to huge amounts of data may bring?

This will depend in part on our willingness to look beyond the headlines, to look beyond the potential scandals of the day and to consider the long‑term underlying factors. This requires of politics not just a firm stance, but also the willingness to engage in a debate about the objectives and boundaries of governments’ thirst for information. And it requires of the media attention to the profound social changes we are experiencing, and to the fact that it is now private companies rather than the state which control the bulk of the data.

These changes affect traditional ideas about the relationship between government and society. The constitutional and cultural dimension of big data will exercise us for much longer, and far more intensively, than any scandal today. Of that I am sure. I’m looking forward to engaging in this debate with you.

Thank you.

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