Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the Polish Ambassadors Conference

23.07.2014 - Speech

My dear Radosław Sikorski,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Radek Sikorski and I have just returned from a difficult and intensive Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Brussels. Of course, my return trip would have been shorter if I had flown only as far as Berlin.

But there is a charming Polish proverb which says:

“Kto drogi skraca, ten do domu nie wraca.”

And in Germany it is commonly said that you should never pass up a good opportunity. So I was very happy to accept Radosław Sikorski’s invitation. Radek, it is a great honour for me to speak at a Polish Ambassadors Conference in my role as German Foreign Minister, and I would like to thank you personally and all of you here for this opportunity. I am looking forward to our discussions!


This is the first time that a German Foreign Minister has attended your conference. And it is happening in a rather special year.

Yes, 2014 is a special year – and not only because of the World Cup.

But I do admit that the World Cup is one of the reasons for it being special.

Two individuals played a major role in the recent joy and celebrations seen in my country. One comes from Opole, the other from Gliwice. I know that very many Poles were rooting for Miro Klose and Lukas Podolski – and for that reason maybe even to a certain extent for the whole German team.


But that’s enough about football.

I say that 2014 is a special year because we – Poland and Germany – have the chance to look back on milestones that have shaped our common history in good and in bad.

- Exactly 100 years ago: two gunshots are fired in Sarajevo.

Within weeks Europe descends into the seminal catastrophe of the First World War.

- Seventy-five years ago: Germany invades Poland. Germany starts the Second World War and with it sparks crimes against humanity whose worst excesses were perpetrated here, on Polish soil.

- Twenty-five years ago: there is democratic transition in Poland and

the Wall falls in Germany.

- And lastly, ten years ago: the EU’s eastward enlargement. Europe finally overcomes its decades of division. And Poland, through its impressive social and economic transformation, is blossoming into the heart of Europe – at almost breathtaking speed.


I know very well that many speeches with a historical slant are being given in 2014.

But even though it initially seemed as if I would do so, I don’t intend to give a history-based speech today. At least, not a speech that stems from the conviction that the past should, as it were, paralyse us. On the contrary, I believe that looking at history should both encourage and challenge us!

Looking at history tells us two things:

Firstly – even if our views do not always coincide, German-Polish relations have never been as good as they are today.


This is a good thing! However, we should not content ourselves with this piece of good news. I want us to go a step further. That is the second thing our history is telling us!

We are now entering a new phase. After all the renewal on the inside, it is now time to put our joint strength to good use on the outside!

All the positive things that have developed between Poland and Germany over the past decades: peace, friendship and growing prosperity –

to achieve all this, the people in our countries have made huge efforts.

The strengths that these efforts have spawned in us we can now rechannel on to the outside.

It is time for us to jointly shoulder responsibility in the world. It is time for us to join forces to drive forward the Europe to which both of us, Germany and Poland, owe so much.


As far as my country is concerned, I can say: People want Poland and Germany to cooperate more closely.

At the beginning of my term of office, I launched a review of German foreign policy – a broad based debate on Germany’s role in the world. In this context our Policy Planning Staff conducted a large-scale opinion poll. One of the questions was: “With which countries should Germany be cooperating more closely on foreign policy?” The two countries most cited by the German people, way ahead of all the others, were France and Poland!

I also launched this review of German foreign policy because I see a contradiction between what people outside Germany expect of us and Germans’ willingness to get more involved. At the beginning of my term of office, my reaction to this discrepancy was to say that Germany is a bit too big merely to comment on world affairs from the sidelines.

And I think the same is true of Poland. A few weeks ago The Economist used a striking image in this context, writing that Poland was a “playground turned player” – meaning that Poland has been transformed from a historical playground for world powers to a key player on the international stage.


So when I speak of responsibility for international affairs, I do not merely mean responsibility on the part of Poland and on the part of Germany, but rather joint responsibility. What exactly do I mean by this?

Let’s get one thing clear: I’m not putting the case for throwing our weight around. I don’t want us – neither we Germans, nor you Poles – to overestimate our own ability to exert influence. As experienced diplomats you are well aware of the dangers this harbours.

What I am talking about is a wise common foreign policy:

- a foreign policy that is wise also because it has learned from its past

- a foreign policy that does not hide in a world where ever fewer countries look beyond their own interests

- a foreign policy that is based on international cooperation for precisely this reason

Today that is more necessary than ever. For exactly 100 years after the July Crisis, we are having to witness a return to geopolitical thinking, a sphere-of-influence mentality on the eastern fringes of Europe.

By annexing Crimea, Russia violated international law and called the European security order into question. This is completely unacceptable and deserves the harshest criticism.

At yesterday’s meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council, we noted that Russia is still not doing anything to de-escalate the situation in eastern Ukraine in a serious way, but rather that – on the contrary – weapons and fighters are continuing to flow across the border. This is why we will have to exert significantly more pressure. And yesterday we created the prerequisites for doing this.

The message a united Europe is sending to Russia is clear and unambiguous: Europe’s peaceful order is our greatest achievement since the dark chapters of the 20th century, and we will defend it along with the borders that have been drawn.

This was the reason why I was one of the first politicians to travel to the Baltic and to the Visegrad group following the outbreak of the crisis. I made it quite clear that Germany stands by its partners. We are protected by a security architecture that requires unwavering internal solidarity in order to remain stable.

All the nations in our NATO Alliance can be sure of one thing: you will never stand alone! And let me say one thing very clearly: Poland and Germany’s security is inextricably linked.

That is why we suggested reinforcing the Multinational Corps in Szczecin, in which Germany and Poland work closely together.

That is why we will participate in increased NATO activities, for instance in air policing in the Baltic region, naval exercises in the Baltic Sea and a number of NATO land exercises. And there could also be further scope for German-Polish initiatives to strengthen defence capability.

In my view, all this shows that we have the ability to act and to express our solidarity in very concrete ways, also when we take the NATO-Russia Founding Act into account.

But allow me to add that the joint position of the German Government – the Chancellor and I agree on this – is that we should not undermine this NATO-Russia Founding Act by playing around with words in any way at the forthcoming NATO summit in Wales.


The appalling shooting down of the MH17 aircraft with the loss of hundreds of innocent lives must finally be a wake up call to Russia to

change its course! Use all the influence you have to stop the cynical activities of the separatists. Ultimately it is in Russia’s own best interests not to cut itself off now or to refuse to stand up and be counted, but rather to recognise its own responsibility and to do everything in its power to put an end to this madness.

I know that our partners in Central and Eastern Europe view the crisis in Ukraine with particular concern. But the horrific shooting down of the plane shows that

all of us, whether close at hand or far away, are affected by this disaster.

We are united in profound sorrow and solidarity with the countries who lost innocent lives, especially with our neighbour, the Netherlands. And along with our Dutch colleague, yesterday we sent the message that if Russia is not willing to finally cooperate in responding to this crime, the course for even harsher measures has been set.


But, dear friends, our look at the past, and particularly at the July Crisis 100 years ago, also teaches us something else.

Diplomacy must never again be allowed to descend into speechlessness!

One hundred years ago to the day, Austria-Hungary gave Serbia its harsh ultimatum. Diplomacy in Europe then had nowhere to turn. Soon after, weapons were the only voices that could be heard.

And if we look back at how the last 100 years unfolded, an honest analysis reveals that isolation, separation – all those approaches that some would term the “hard line” – have rarely been successful during the past 70 years!

This does not mean that the opposite is true. I am not in favour of simply giving up or of naively calling for dialogue. There are situations where that looks like helplessness. Situations where we need to set boundaries and where there is no more “business as usual”! This is the case with Russia’s conduct towards Ukraine.

But pressure, sanctions and ultimatums are not an end in themselves. Instead, they must be incorporated into a higher goal. Simply exerting pressure, without incorporating it into policies that take the future into account, is not a guarantee of success! It makes sense to exert pressure when offers of talks and negotiations still hold, when there are incentives to return to the path of responsible politics – a path that Russia is certainly not on at the moment. That is the logic behind the decisions we took yesterday in Brussels.


However, in all the upheaval of the crisis, we must keep focusing on the future – keep thinking the conflict through to the end.

I remember that at the start of this crisis, a Canadian Foreign Minister said that we need to decide now whether Russia should be a friend, foe or neighbour. I say that we can decide who is our friend or foe – but we can’t choose our neighbours.

- This is why we need long term perspectives for some form of cooperation with Russia.

- We have to sort out what position Russia will occupy in the European security order in the wake of this crisis – although this is certainly more up to Russia than it is to us at the moment,

- We need viable concepts for economic cooperation in the EU, other parts of eastern Europe, and Russia.


What does this mean for Poland and Germany? When I advocate a common European foreign policy, I am not ignoring the fact that there are internal differences.

Poland’s and Germany’s experiences with one another, with Europe, with Russia, have affected us differently. Large parts of my country were spared from having to live under the yoke of the Soviet Union – Poland was not. It is natural that this causes our perspective on things to differ, time and again – not only in this crisis.

But what unites us is our absolute determination to ultimately stand together and take joint action. It is precisely this desire for unity that provides the inner logic, the heartbeat of the European Union.

We can place our trust in this logic. We Germans have confidence in this logic, together with our other partners in the Union, France, for instance. Germany and France: That, too, is of course a relationship with a dark past, involving friction and conflicts of interest. Yet the logic of the Union – that determination, branded onto us by history, to stand together – has enabled this Franco German relationship to become a cornerstone in Europe. I am certain that Germany and Poland are on the same path!


Another thought on what I understand by “joint engagement” – a much more pragmatic thought: European foreign policy means division of labour.

It means engagement whenever and wherever we can achieve something, always with the partners and resources that can help us to do this and well aware of when and where we are not in a position to do so.

This kind of policy always involves interplay between various initiatives. The crisis in Ukraine is full of examples. The Weimar Triangle Foreign Ministers travelled to Kyiv on 20 February. Within 36 hours the Agreement sported Ukrainian and Russian initials. Even though a week later the crisis had spiralled further into conflict, the Weimar Triangle undeniably achieved one thing: the cessation of bloodshed on the Maidan.

Later, in June, Radek and I travelled together to St Petersburg. This was not “business as usual”, but rather a way for both of us to test the waters and find out where Russia stood. Doing this in St Petersburg was not a matter of course for me or for Radek.

In all these cases I want to ask you: Would a German or a Polish Foreign Minister have been able to make these trips alone? Hardly. Would he have had the same impact had he acted alone, without the backing of partners? No way.

The Ukraine conflict will be with us for many more years, and every puzzle piece of our work is important. When, for example, the time comes for social and economic reconstruction in Ukraine, many eyes will be on Poland. Not only because Poland is providing active support, for instance, when it comes to what is perhaps the most important issue for Ukraine, namely decentralisation, but also because Ukrainians view Poland as an outstanding role model of transformation following the removal of the Iron Curtain – because it gives them hope.

Poland can and should embrace these high expectations – Poland can lead the way down this path! Not only for Ukraine, but also within the Visegrad group and as a partner for the Baltic states.


The division of labour on the ground is also reflected in the players. All of you can see that Radek and I are not twins. We don't even have the same hair colour!

But the fact that we are not the same, and perhaps have different strengths, does not have to be a disadvantage. Dear Radek, for example I still remember how, when we were in Kyiv on 20 February and had just agreed on the wording with Yanukovych, we had a call from Klitschko, who had returned to the Maidan. He said, “I can’t push this agreement through. I need your help.” So we hurried from the presidential palace to the Maidan Council.

Perhaps you have some inkling of how we divided the work between us: Radek gave a very emotional speech, declaring: “A window of opportunity is now opening to save your revolution!” I took a more down-to-earth approach and said, “I know that we can’t meet all of your demands. But believe me, you won’t get a better deal than this.”

I think our division of labour works, because we are united by a common goal: an active European foreign policy.

Dear Radek, in your Berlin Address in 2011 you said, “If we get our act together we can become a proper superpower.”

I want to build on that and ask the following question:

What sort of power does Europe want to be in this complex and multipolar world? In today’s world, I don’t think that “strong” and “weak” are the right categories in foreign policy.

Instead we need a foreign policy

- that is wise in its analysis

- decisive in its positions

- cooperative in its approaches

- flexible in the tools it uses

- and attractive in the social model behind us.

In other words, it is not a matter of being “weak” or “strong”. What we should be is a “smart power”.


Friends, I want to advocate a wise, common diplomatic approach for our countries. And now, coming to the end of my speech, I want to recall some wise words from Ryszard Kapuściński, whose later works I was leafing through recently.

He returned to Poland as an aged journalist. From the little town of Nałęczów one December morning in 1998, he wrote:

“A dull day. The cawing of the crows and jackdaws, sharp and penetrating. A walk along a dark, narrow path.”

On his walks Kapuściński reflects on the decades and long journeys that lie behind him, saying: “The world in the aftermath of the Cold War is a world of diffuse dangers. Fear of the atomic bomb has given way to fear of the person who approaches us in a dark alley.”


German-Polish history has been full of dark alleys. We have learned from them and together we have shone some light onto those dark, narrow paths. Let us work together. That is how we will find solutions for our “world of diffuse dangers”. This world, which has more crises than solutions, is waiting for our help.

I believe that is where our particular responsibility lies.

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