Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the 51st Munich Security Conference

08.02.2015 - Speech

--Translation of advance text--

Wolfgang Ischinger,
Ladies and gentlemen,

If foreign policy is in high demand it is seldom a good sign for the state of the world. The state of affairs – as we can see from the debates here in the plenary and discussions on the margins – is concerning. Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Islamist terrorism, hybrid warfare – these are the key words we are dealing with here. The question of war and peace has returned to the European continent, too. Under such circumstances, states which have the capacity to help cannot hold back or watch from the sidelines when solutions are urgently sought after. That is why in this very place last year I said that Germany was willing to engage more substantially in the foreign policy sphere. This was put to the test sooner and more rigorously than we ourselves anticipated a year ago. However, we did not shy away from taking on more responsibility. We did not shy away at a time when, partly triggered by last year’s Munich Security Conference, Germany was also engaged in an in-depth and very heated public debate on Germany’s role in the world. The fact that 70 percent of Germans are sceptical as to whether more responsibility is good for our country makes this debate all the more necessary. Possibly, many people hope that a policy of abstention will protect us from the strife raging in the world around us.

I imagine that I’m not the only Foreign Minister who encounters this scepticism at home, but I’m firmly convinced that we must accept and pro-actively lead this discussion. For nowadays we seldom see far-flung conflicts which have nothing to do with us. Therefore, the crucial question is not whether we should engage but in fact “Where” and “How”. My answer is: Yes to shouldering more responsibility, but not arbitrarily– rather in a manner which is forward-looking and persistent; pro-active without being over-confident of our possibilities and always embedded in Europe and the international community. Above all we must renounce simple black-and-white depictions and catchphrase responses, which sometimes make public declarations easier but make it harder to achieve solutions. Be it state failure, civil war, conflicts with religious overtones or conflicts arising from the consequences of the era of bloc confrontation, the array is not only very extensive but extremely diverse, and each matter demands a bespoke approach to finding a solution. It makes me sceptical if we only ever come up with simple or the same answers to very diverse and highly complex conflicts. It sometimes reminds me of what Paul Watzlawick warned us about years ago: “If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” However, in the sphere of foreign policy we are not only dealing with nails and thus we require more and at times different tools.

In any case we can ask whether there are reasons behind the current pell-mell of conflicts around the globe: is our time characterised by a coincidental accumulation of crises? Or, is it a logical consequence for forces and tensions to erupt in a world in which structures of order are increasingly losing influence, a world which is growing ever more intertwined but whose contrasts are colliding with ever more force at the same time?

We must recognise that this paradoxical interplay of forces is taking place not despite but because of globalisation.

And we must note that economic, social and digital globalisation alone does not yet guarantee political and social rapprochement, and certainly not a sound order – that is a sobering assessment but a necessary one if we are to be realistic in evaluating the scale of the challenges and our options to address them.

The conflict in Ukraine is an example of this. From the outset, two crucial elements of the international order have been at stake. Firstly, there was the confrontation between the peaceful order which has been painstakingly developed by Europe, based on international law and states’ right to self-determination on the one hand, and on the other hand, the logic of power politics and spheres of influence which is prepared to flout the rules, including through the use of force. In the EU and NATO we provided a resolute and united response to the dangerous trajectory of the annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine, militarily underpinned by Russia. Here it’s important to limit the conflict, and as a next step, to de-escalate it to create the scope for a political settlement at a later stage. The Federal Chancellor discussed all of this in her speech.

Secondly, however, this crisis has once again – and not just in the neighbouring countries – brought up the question of whether and how Russia can be involved in the international order in the long term. In spite of the conflict, for geographical and historical reasons we Europeans still attach key importance to our experience that there can only ever be lasting security in Europe with and not against Russia. Yet that cannot remain a one-sided recognition. Equally, Moscow must be aware that Russia can only have a positive future if it works with, rather than against Europe. In this very place last year, I clearly stated: “It’s also up to Moscow to define common interests”. As yet we have seen little – too little – of this, and the speech given by Mr Lavrov yesterday made no contribution either.

We’re far from reaching a political settlement to the conflict in Ukraine, even after this weekend of intensive negotiations. It is thus right for us to consider and carefully weigh up a broad range of courses of action. Some view supplying weapons to Ukraine – a form of targeted counter-escalation – as a feasible, or even necessary path. To me, it not only involves great risk but is counterproductive. As is so often the case in foreign policy, no course of action offers a guarantee of success. But I’m not taking the easy way out, as those who speculate that our scepticism veils cowardice or historical amnesia, may suggest. Those who are so sure of themselves here must also turn the question on its head: Do the alternatives which are currently being discussed and which take the conflict to the next level of escalation really bring us closer to our common goal of avoiding thousands of further victims and finding a way out of this spiral of escalation? Are we not already close to the point of no return, when the option of finding a solution at the negotiating table will disappear once and for all? What will become of the unity of Ukraine then? We’re not making the answer easy for ourselves. I’m convinced that it would be irresponsible to discount what are perhaps the last chances of de-escalating the conflict. The bitter consequence would be the expansion and escalation of the conflict. That is why, indeed because we have a certain knowledge of the region, we do not relent in our efforts, despite a certain disappointment which I don’t hide. In contrast to real life, in diplomacy persistence can be a virtue!

In the concluding chapter of his latest book “World Order” Henry Kissinger states that if we insist on achieving the end result immediately, we risk crises or setbacks – this has particularly stuck in my mind. What we need – unfortunately much more often than we’d like – is staying power and a broad horizon, not purportedly simple answers and quick fixes.

Ladies and gentlemen, whilst we’re on the subject of world order: My country, Germany, is more interconnected in and with the world than almost any other. We rely on a rule-based international order and adherence to the regulations more than any other state.

Our security and prosperity depend on predictable circumstances far beyond our borders. That is why we take part in crisis management, actively raise our voice and bring our influence to bear to ensure respect for and the renewal of the world order.

I would like to note just three concrete priorities:

Firstly, Germany will help to strengthen multilateral institutions. First and foremost within the framework of the European Union, and then within the transatlantic Alliance – at the NATO summit in Wales we demonstrated that we can respond in a united manner. It’s no coincidence that Germany’s two most important partners – France and the United States – are sitting on stage with me today.

Investing in international order also entails shouldering more responsibility within and for the United Nations, which for all its imperfections remains a valuable and indispensable organisation.

Secondly, Germany will further develop its engagement and toolbox for overcoming crises and conflicts. This applies to the entire crisis cycle – from prevention to mediation and crisis management to post-conflict recovery. We’re also reviewing how we can expand our engagement for peacekeeping within the framework of the United Nations.

Thirdly, Germany has a particular responsibility for Europe’s security. That means that we must think beyond the current conflict in eastern Ukraine. I don’t mean that in the sense of going back to how things were – that won’t happen and it would be an illusion, a dangerous one at that. What I mean is that if we’re able to de-escalate and resolve the critical conflict, how do we then want to re-incorporate Russia into a European security architecture after trust has undoubtedly been lost. I’m convinced that only a de-escalation of the Ukraine conflict and the avoidance of fresh antagonism between East and West will help strengthen the international order. It’s only by overcoming this conflict that the United Nations will once again be bolstered and fully capable of carrying out its key task of securing peace in all parts of the world, as well as of restoring the Security Council’s ability to act and take decisions. That is the wider context behind why we must neither resign ourselves to, nor willingly accept, the logic of confrontation and opposition.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Munich Security Conference is a place of open exchange. This is where ideas are shared and their viability assessed. However, Munich is also a workshop in which we can strive to resolve conflicts, in a very tangible manner. Naturally we do not always agree on everything. But we are united in our conviction that it is through exchange of opinions and ideas that we’ll find the best solutions.

Shouldering foreign policy responsibility does not mean taking the same action everywhere. I’m under no illusion. My view of foreign policy remains firmly focused on reality. What is right when dealing with conflicts in the Middle East can be wrong elsewhere. Thus yes, in dealing with ISIS diplomacy is of no use, we must fight back against them. I myself am one of the few in Germany who, even in the face of public criticism, advocated providing military equipment and weapons to support the Peshmerga in northern Iraq. We are currently deciding whether to continue this form of support, and we want to expand it to include training which could also benefit members of the Iraqi army. We will continue to tackle issues like this face on should they arise in the future. However, we will also continue to assess what the effects of the answers will be on concrete conflicts: whether they bring us closer to, or take us further from, solutions. Indeed, a one size fits all approach does not work within foreign policy.

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