Article by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the Aspen Institute in Germany. Published in the German weekly newspaper 'Die Zeit' on 9 October 2014 .
On a 40th anniversary, we tend to pat each other on the back and look back fondly at the past together, often with a hint of melancholy. We could certainly do so too on this occasion.
When the Aspen Institute Germany was founded 40 years ago, the Cold War was at a crucial turning point. Thanks to the prudence of leading politicians in the United States and the Soviet Union, but also thanks to Willy Brandt’s far‑sighted “Ostpolitik”, both sides had become open to dialogue. The past four decades have brought historical achievements. The Iron Curtain is gone, Germany is reunited, Europe is no longer divided, and our societies on both sides of the Atlantic are now freer than ever before. And all of this would have remained a mere dream without the United States and the close partnership between our two countries.
For 40 years, the Aspen Institute in Berlin has accompanied this process and included civil society in it. The Aspen Institute, which was still based at Wannsee at the time, was a place where government officials, intellectuals and scientists from both sides of the Iron Curtain could exchange views and establish the trust needed for a political process of this dimension.
“Trust” is a word that often comes up these days when people talk about German‑US relations. Surveys of recent months show that Germans are critical of the US. Their viewpoint seems to be defined by scepticism and mistrust.
We do not need to look so far to realise that the transatlantic relations that were a certainty for my generation – the generation born in post‑war Germany – can no longer be taken for granted today. Any of us with teenage children will long since have noticed that something is changing. In a multipolar, globalised and digitised world, the discussion on the 2003 Iraq War and the debate on the NSA are more relevant to many young people in particular than the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift. For the younger generations, the land of opportunity seems to be just one option among many in a world of unlimited possibilities.
At the same time, it would be wrong to simply accept these developments as the result of a changed world. After all, we need each other more than ever in a world where there are so many complex and concurrent crises and so many unpredictable players. In hindsight, the “end of history” predicted after the end of the Cold War was more the start of the search for a new order – a search that does not seem to be over yet.
With the conflict over eastern Ukraine, the question of war and peace has returned to the European continent. Not far from where we live, the terrorist barbarity of ISIS is not only endangering Iraqi statehood, but also poses a grave threat to the entire Middle East and to us here in Europe. Meanwhile, people in West Africa are battling an invisible enemy, which does not only have the potential to bring turmoil to the entire continent, but is also threatening to become a global danger.
No country can overcome such crises and conflicts alone. Many people are now looking to Germany. As the largest country in Europe, a country with a stable political system and a strong economy, there are great expectations of us. Right from the start of my second term of office as foreign minister, I have campaigned for German foreign policy to be more active. In this context, the use of military means must always be the last resort – but it must be an option.
I believe that German foreign policy has matured by taking on greater responsibility. It may come as a surprise, but the same surveys that reveal an increasingly critical stance towards the US among Germans also show that Germans and Americans want the other country to play an important role on the international stage.
The joint fight against ISIS shows how we complement each other in a meaningful way and how, in cooperation with European countries, we can also persuade nations in other regions to act in concert with us. After giving the matter careful consideration, Germany decided that it would not only provide Iraq with humanitarian assistance, but that it would also support the country by supplying arms to the Kurdish security forces. This decision, which did not come easily to us, has been particularly well received in the United States.
From the start, Germany has endeavoured to foster dialogue between Moscow and Kyiv in the Ukraine crisis. Such dialogue is essential in the search for peaceful solutions. The fact that Berlin can play a different role to Washington, and is also actively taking on this role, is a further sign of how we work together as equals.
We should tackle the difficult questions in our bilateral relations with the same determination that we use to address major global issues together. We need to meet each other as equals in our exchange and discussions on shared values, mutual trust, a balance between security and freedom, and the future that we want for ourselves on both sides of the Atlantic. Otherwise, the danger will be that in the long term, a partnership of convenience will be all that remains of the transatlantic friendship that developed over decades. Transatlantic relations will need to be firmly established at the heart of our societies in order to continue supporting the bridge across the big pond in the coming decades.
We face a huge task. The Aspen Institute Germany has accompanied the transformation of Germany closely in the past four decades, not only forging close ties between Washington and Berlin, but above all making a name for itself as a builder of bridges between East and West. Creating trust is at the heart of what the Aspen Institute does. And this is precisely what we will continue to need so urgently in the next 40 years.
Dr Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Member of the German Bundestag
Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany