“Responsible foreign policy is precautionary foreign policy.” By Foreign Minister Steinmeier.

22.11.2014 - Interview

Foreign Minister Steinmeier discusses the priorities of Germany’s foreign policy. The article was published on huffingtonpost.de and spd.de.

Foreign Minister Steinmeier discusses the priorities of Germany’s foreign policy. The article was published on huffingtonpost.de and spd.de.


“What is wrong with German foreign policy?” That is the question addressed by the “Review 2014 – A Fresh Look at German Foreign Policy” process which I launched. The aim of Review 2014 is to spark a broad and self-critical debate on the goals, interests and prospects of Germany’s foreign policy.

We have asked experts from all around the globe what role they expect Germany to take on in the world. The opinions are diverse and sometimes contradictory, but there is a common denominator amongst them – the expectations of our country are extremely high. For example, comments from the over 50 contributions include: Germany should “revitalise the European Union”, we should once again take on the “role of being exemplary Europeans”, whilst at the same time, Germany should promote a “preventative policy of stabilisation in Europe’s periphery”.

When I initiated this process just after taking office for the second time, I had no idea that the question of foreign policy responsibility would be asked so quickly and in such concrete terms. That such a potentially explosive conflict would rage in our neighbourhood, in Ukraine, a conflict which poses a risk to the peace on the European continent which we thought was so stable, is something no one saw coming.

Geographically further afield, yet no less dangerous, is the situation in the Middle East. On a daily basis, utterly sickening images and reports of pillaging, enslavement, beheadings by the terrorist militia ISIS appear on our screens and show that ISIS poses a threat not only to Iraq and Syria, but to the entire region as well as to us in Europe, too. In Israel and Palestine, the situation is escalating dramatically day by day. The religious overtones bring a new, dangerous, dimension to the conflict.

In recent months I have travelled all over Germany to talk to many people about German foreign policy and about the responsibility that our country has. What became clear was that people are sceptical, they are unsure. All too often, responsibility is perceived as meaning military engagement.

It is vital that we correct this misperception and that we make clear what we mean when we talk about responsibility in foreign policy. This is all the more important as, unfortunately, it seems that crises such as those we are currently experiencing will become part of normality in the coming years. This places high demands on foreign policy. Especially as we talk a lot about overt conflicts and wars but we often overlook the many crises that have been prevented. A lot of work goes into these, too. For conflicts are above all avoided by good preventative work, or in other words, precautionary foreign policy.

10 years ago, the red-green Federal Government paved the way for a plan for precautionary foreign policy with its action plan “Civilian Crisis Prevention, Conflict Resolution and Post-Conflict Peace-Building”. Since then we have increased funding for civilian crisis prevention tenfold – in the current year, the Federal Foreign Office budget alone allocates over 150 million euros to this field. We want to maintain this direction.

What do I mean when I speak of precautionary foreign policy? To me, precautionary foreign policy means investing in a more targeted and flexible manner in stability and peace, rather than having to intervene later on – often too late.

To me the description 'precautionary foreign policy' is fitting – for example for the brave service of hundreds of civilian experts from Germany in peace missions all around the world. It also stands for the work of institutions which carry out research to identify crises at an early stage and to find civilian solutions.

In this regard there is no need to downplay what we’ve achieved. And in particular we social democrats would do well to declare this loud and clear. This would help avoid German foreign policy constantly being reduced to two extremes: either military engagement or nothing but talk. There are many good examples of our precautionary foreign policy.

One focus of precautionary foreign policy is strengthening state structures. In Tunisia, Niger or Chad we do this by providing police training. In Kenya we support state structures through the establishment of the International Crimes Division of the High Court of Kenya. The Syrian Refugee Conference, which I hosted at the Federal Foreign Office a few days ago, expressly focused on Syria’s neighbouring countries. Our aim was to bolster public infrastructures in the face of the influx of millions of refugees.

Another element of foreign policy is supporting regional and multilateral peacekeeping structures. A good example here is our long-standing cooperation with the African Union. Amongst other things, we are helping to ensure that, by 2017, agreements which are binding under international law are reached on all national borders in Africa and that these are demarcated.

A further focus of precautionary foreign policy is peace mediation and peaceful conflict resolution. Here I am thinking of the national dialogue in Ukraine which we helped to launch, of our Nile Initiative with which we want to use new ideas to help Egypt, the Sudan and Ethiopia organise shared water use. My trip to Korea, where people are extremely interested in our experience of reunification, made particularly clear to me how far Germany and Europe’s history is a powerful example of how war and conflict can transform into peace and cooperation in a short space of time.

In order to raise public awareness about the significance of this topic, the Federal Foreign Office is hosting a conference entitled “Germany as a mediator – peace mediation and mediation support within Germany’s foreign policy”, on 25 November. Gernot Erler and Edelgard Bulmahn are taking part in the conference. All of these examples show that the array of foreign policy instruments available to us is much more varied and multi-faceted than some blinkered debates portray it to be. Yet the examples also show that we are not doing badly with our precautionary foreign policy and we are shouldering responsibility. The success of precautionary foreign policy is not always visible straight away, but when we look at what is going on around us, when we look at the many crises and conflicts which are threatening the world, we see that in the long term, its added value cannot be overestimated.

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