Speech by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier at the Tiergarten Conference of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation

11.09.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Fellow Members of the Bundestag,

It is great to be back here at the Friedrich Ebert Foundation once again!

And not only because the Tiergarten Conference is increasingly becoming a hub for foreign policy debates in this city. I recall how we wondered, just a few years ago, whether this kind of conference would work at all. As I look around this room and consider the number of registrations, it is clear to me that it has worked. Allow me to offer you my warmest congratulations.

But I am pleased to be here especially now – at a time when one crisis follows hot on the heels of another and there is hardly a moment to pause and reflect, to take a step back and ask what it is we are actually doing – and why.


There are so many crises out there.

Which one will I talk about first, you might wonder.

None of them. I want to start by talking about a little object that I came across recently: it was made of stainless steel, just under 10 cm long, pointed like a cone. I showed it to my ambassadors recently and they didn’t know what it was. Perhaps you’ve also seen spikes like this?

If you want to know what they are for, then you can find out more on the manufacturer’s website.

On the website, we read that the Spike Stud is intended “to deter people from sitting on accessible surfaces”. They have become widely known as “anti‑homeless spikes”.

Installed in front of luxury apartment blocks and fancy boutiques, also in Europe’s capitals, the purpose of these spikes is to shield the wealthy from the harsh realities of everyday life.

This little object has stayed in my mind, not only because I regard it as a fairly outrageous aspect of urban planning.

It’s about more than that. To my mind, it says two things about the state of western societies:

Firstly, it symbolises a feeling of permanent threat posed by what the Dutch author Maarten ’t Hart called “The Fury of the Whole World”.

Secondly, it calls to mind the inadequacy of the remedies we have to offer and – to an even greater extent – the lack of confidence in them.


What do I mean with this symbol for foreign policy?

Firstly, that Germany is a rich country. Germany is doing well.

That’s right!

However, a deceptive image for our foreign policy emerges:

In 2014, Germany is an economic powerhouse, has been reunited for 25 years, is firmly anchored in Europe, enjoys considerable prosperity and social harmony – and has now even won the World Cup!

To sum up, a happy island surrounded by the stormy seas of international affairs.

Foreign policy – we could surmise – must preserve our peace and prosperity, and therefore the best thing to do is to erect stainless steel spikes all around us.

Preserve us from the fury of the whole world!

I understand this worry that people have – but I’m afraid foreign policy threats are more complex than that.

They penetrate our society more deeply, and stainless steel is powerless to stop them.


The most acute expression of this are the current crises.

In the case of the Ukraine crisis, the question of war and peace has returned to the European continent – who even thought that this could happen just a few months ago?

In northern Iraq, ISIS continues its murderous advance with unimaginable brutality – a hair’s breadth away from the external borders of NATO – and with the participation of fighters flocking to the ISIS banner from Europe and Germany.

We will talk about these crises in more depth later on. For now, I just want to say that, in a world that is more interconnected that ever before, the dangers are closer to home than ever before – even if they appear to be far off in geographical terms.

Anyone who believed 25 years ago after the fall of the Berlin Wall that the unstoppable triumphant progress of liberal democracy had begun is completely mistaken.

It’s true to say that the old bipolar world order has disappeared. Some say that we are now living in a multipolar order. But I believe that the world is neither bipolar nor multipolar – it is non‑polar. A new order hasn’t been established yet. This is a world still in search of such an order.

Our own system, liberal democracy, faces tough competition.

During the coming decade, China will become the world’s largest economy. And, as Kevin Rudd recently pointed out during his visit to Berlin, it will be the first non‑Western, non‑English speaking, non‑democratic state to occupy that position since Frederick the Great was on the Prussian throne.

Even within the European Union, there are forces out to win votes by evoking the demise of our democracy, which they claim to be extremely cumbersome and weak. This is, unfortunately, also part of any frank analysis.

And if we look a little further beyond Europe, not only is our specific system of government, liberal democracy, being tested in this world, but the very idea of statehood is on a slippery slope.

Fragility and states on the brink of failure are a phenomenon not only in the Middle East, in the region between Syria and Iraq, but also a widespread threat in Africa, and thus a breeding ground for tomorrow’s crises.


That is why I think that defensive spikes are not the right answer. Instead, we must roll up our sleeves and try to find solutions that make the world that little bit more peaceful.

An intelligent and active foreign policy is no longer merely the best option – it is an obligation. We need this sort of foreign policy if we want to continue living how we are now. And we also need it in view of our more important role on the world stage and out of responsibility for our partners.

I would like to flesh out what I mean in four hypotheses.


Firstly, when I say ‘more responsibility’, I’m not talking about throwing our weight around – a position that Germany is not entitled to.

I also don’t mean ‘military adventures’ – I stress this point wherever and whenever I can.

‘More responsibility’ is also not just a buzzword for soap‑box speeches.

Responsibility is something we need to take in the real world.

If diplomacy has a purpose, then it is about solving problems.

Despite all the threats to peace that I mentioned earlier, we are well advised not to simply lament the decline of the world and preach our western values.

Instead, we should roll up our sleeves and start looking for solutions. Diplomats are not missionaries – they fix things. And hopefully they’re sensitive and intelligent while we’re at it.

The toolbox of diplomacy contains a wider range of instruments than many people might think. From civil conflict prevention to cultural relations and education policy, the toolbox is there to help influence developments and to prevent this last and most extreme resort – military escalation – from occurring in the first place.

Let’s take the case study that is Ukraine. Germany has always said that this conflict must be resolved politically and not militarily.

And we had different perceptions in the European Union, of course. European countries have very different historical relations with Russia after all: for some in the West, Russia is a fairly distant trading partner, but for many in the East, it remains in their memory as the country which oppressed them for decades. And for Germany – with its divided history – it’s a bit of both. But despite these different perspectives, we have said as a body that there can be no military solution, which is why we have taken political action as a body.

These policies have always been about striking a balance.

On the one hand, we strongly condemned the unlawful annexation of Crimea by Russia as well as Russia’s conduct in eastern Ukraine and reacted accordingly. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War in Europe, we cannot start redrawing Europe’s borders again. Which is why we stepped up political – and later also economic – pressure on Russia.

But pressure can never be an end in itself. The purpose of pressure is to encourage movement – back to the negotiating table. However, in order to negotiate, you must demonstrate a willingness to negotiate yourself. This is why we made efforts to reach out to the parties to the conflict time and again and set up forums for negotiations between all sides: Meetings in Kyiv, Brussels, Berlin and Geneva. OSCE observers. Round tables. And finally, it also included our position at the NATO summit: yes, we have to react, we said, and this reaction must include enhanced protection measures by NATO – however, we don’t want to turn our backs on agreements made in the past. That was why we voted to uphold the NATO‑Russia Founding Act.

Talks were held by presidents Putin and Poroshenko in Minsk and a first agreement was reached – which, while halting and not particularly conclusive to start with, is now part of a 12‑point plan. We finally established signs of movement in two of the points at least: the exchange of prisoners and withdrawal of Russian troops. This is progress. No political solutions come from rifle fire!

It is only when the guns fall silent that there is scope for sustainable political agreements to be made.


Secondly, as I said earlier, competition between the systems is in full swing. Growing, self‑confident states – from Asia and Latin America – who are surely not all in line with the ideal of Westminster democracy are joining the fray.

All fine and well – but our western democracy is ahead of them all in one way:

The ability to question and renew itself.

It may seem almost paradoxical: self‑criticism instead of a sense of mission. But that is precisely our strength in this world, which is changing at a dramatic pace and where the ability to learn and adapt is increasingly important.

And it is precisely for this reason that people in the world are still looking to us in Europe.

If I may make just one remark about domestic policy at this foreign policy conference:

Germany has achieved this process of self-renewal domestically.

We have undertaken economic reforms and made our society more open, even though it was an uphill struggle. Germany now has a strong economy and is more open as a society – not because we were complacent, but because we were open to criticism.

We also need to achieve the same thing in our foreign policy. This is the idea behind the review process that I launched at the beginning of my second term of office.

We are holding discussions in the Federal Foreign Office, with experts from home and abroad, but above all with the public – asking ourselves quite candidly:

What is right and what is wrong about what we are doing?

What do we need to do differently? What can Germany do? And what can’t it do?

A self‑critical analysis begins with the realisation that there is a wide gap in expectations of German foreign policy.

There are experts, especially from abroad, who say that Germany must do more.

I would like to quote an expert from our review process: Germany should, I quote, “revitalise the European Union”; it should be a “bridge between the north and the south”; it should “Europeanise Russia” and “multilateralise America”...

Do you know who said that? Not a Frenchman, Pole or American – but an Indian professor!

By contrast, in an opinion poll conducted on our behalf by the Körber Foundation in Germany, 37% of those questioned thought that Germany should play a more active role while 60% said no, it should not.

That is the divide that we are trying to bridge.

This is why the review process is so important.

It is for this reason that I am grateful that many of you are taking part in this process, or are yet to take part – in your organisations, but also among the wider public, beyond those who otherwise dominate the foreign policy debate.


My third hypothesis is that anyone who wants to solve problems must be able to cope with contradictions.

Of course we are guided by the principles of our foreign policy. But the realities on the ground constantly confront us with situations in which there are no black and white options. And in these situations where our principles come into conflict with each other, foreign policy is about weighing up the available options.

For example, in the case of northern Iraq: on the one hand, we have the principle of not supplying weapons to crisis regions. Yes, weapons can get into the wrong hands. And the Kurds are pursuing their own interests, which we don’t all share.

On the other hand, we have the principle of protecting human life. The Kurds are the most important bastion in the region against gangs of ISIS killers. If they are overrun by ISIS, then not only thousands of lives, but also the stability of the entire region, will be in acute danger – with immense risks for us in Europe too.

Anyone whose knee‑jerk reaction is to refrain from making such decisions is not championing principles, but rather hiding behind them.

Which is why we, the Federal Government, have said that we will not stop the further advance of ISIS by sending the Peshmerga fighters food parcels when the going gets tough.

Instead, we will supply them with the equipment they need to halt terrorism in its tracks.

Of course, this will only work – and President Obama underscored this in his speech yesterday – as part of an international strategy to stop ISIS in the long term. This requires, in the first instance, an inclusive government in Iraq representing all of the country’s regions and religions. Secondly, ISIS must be unseated and delegitimised by the Muslim world. And, thirdly, international cooperation is essential to stop the flow of financial aid, weapons and fighters to ISIS.


My fourth and final point is a fundamental requirement for everything I have said about active diplomacy so far: we can only have active German foreign policy in and through Europe.

Anyone who believes that Germany can solve even a single problem on its own in today’s world is mistaken. We can only have an impact along with our partners and in our alliances – this is unanimously confirmed in the contributions to our review.

We must not lose sight of this multilateral view in the maelstrom of crises facing the world – especially with regard to the United Nations.

The world’s crises require the engagement of the international community, in Syria, the Middle East, Mali, Central Africa, Sudan.

The list is long, alas. As a result of the Ukraine conflict, however, the Security Council of the United Nations has virtually no room for manoeuvre. We therefore urgently need tensions to become eased, hopefully in time for the commencement of the UN General Assembly at the end of the month.


So those are my four hypotheses, which have hopefully made one thing clear: yes, the threats are real. But we have the diplomatic tools, and above all we have the partners to develop solutions – even if there are setbacks; even if they require strong nerves and sound judgement.

On that note, a last word from me about these spikes: I would melt them down and turn them into bolts and rivets – in other words, into what you need to build bridges in today’s world.

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