Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the closing event of 'Review 2014 – A Fresh Look at German Foreign Policy'

25.02.2015 - Speech

Mr Oetker,
Mr Kindermann,
Fellow members of the German Bundestag,
Excellencies, honoured guests!

It gives me great pleasure to welcome you to the Weltsaal of the Federal Foreign Office for the closing event of Review 2014. The year‑long process that we have completed bore the title “A Fresh Look at German Foreign Policy”. I can think of no better context for discussing the outcome of this review than the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), which has been doing precisely that for over 60 years: taking a fresh look at German foreign policy – and in so doing has helped to shape German foreign policy for over six decades. I would like also to welcome the members of the Young DGAP who are with us this evening and I'm delighted – and sure that many of you here today will share this sentiment – to be able to start this evening by offering you my congratulations: on behalf of the entire foreign policy community, I would like to wish the German Council on Foreign Relations many happy returns on its 60th birthday – we will be needing you in the coming 60 years too!


At the beginning of my speech, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to share with you an extract from a letter that I received at the end of last year. The letter reads: “Dear Dr Steinmeier, [...] Our children have a right to a future! They should attend a school that is warm. We will not stop teaching them under any circumstances. Our children have three hours of lessons each day as it is not yet warm enough in the school building. The teaching staff have decided to celebrate the Christmas party at the school in spite of everything, because our children also want to laugh, dance and sing.

The letter ends with the following sentence: ”We hope that the new year will be peaceful [...] for everyone. Yours sincerely, Tetyana Prystuba, head teacher of secondary school no. 19, Donetsk, 12 December 2014.“

I met Ms Prystuba just a few months previously here at the Federal Foreign Office for a meeting of head teachers of German partner schools in Ukraine. She told me that her school building in Donetsk had been hit several times and been damaged in the fighting between the separatists and the Ukrainian military. Despite this, she said, the children, teachers and their families wanted to get out of their shelters – they wanted to live their lives and their children wanted to carry on learning! But when winter approached, it became increasingly impossible to carry on teaching as almost all of the windows and doors were destroyed. Together with the schools division here at the Head Office, our consulate‑general in Donetsk therefore got hold of the necessary means, funds and workers, and by the end of January 2015, 125 windows and 21 doors at the secondary school no. 19 were repaired. The Christmas party was saved!

Many aspects of the turbulent crisis year and the intensive review year that was 2014 are summed up by this story, as are many of the things that we learned about our own work in the past year.

The story from Donetsk goes to show that a review of our foreign policy is far from being some abstract concept. It’s not about moves on the geo‑political chessboard – it’s a about the lives and suffering of people, about the future of children.

And it’s not somewhere far away, but here on our European continent. For a quarter of a century, we lived in the hope that peace and stability were, at long last, guaranteed in our part of the world. But it was an illusion. The question of war and peace has returned to the European continent.


The school windows not only tell us something about the object, but also the instruments of our foreign policy. The toolbox of foreign policy contains a wider range of instruments than many people think. We need creativity and vigilance in order to use it wisely in all its diversity. This is precisely why we took stock of our actions with the Review 2014 process!

I believe that we achieved many things in the past year. We have shown the German public that foreign policy is about more than just two extremes: either just talking or shooting; either futile diplomacy or Bundeswehr deployments abroad.

And we at the Federal Foreign Office, too, have reminded ourselves anew what our work is actually about. Our work is not about dossiers for the Minister or reporting obligations or our daily diplomatic routine, but about using all the tools we can, however small, to help ease people’s fears and worries in this increasingly dangerous world – to make their lives that little bit more peaceful. Indeed, ladies and gentlemen, sometimes foreign policy is nothing more and nothing less than a question of repairing school windows destroyed by gunfire!


But that is not all. The story continues. Just a few days ago, I received another letter from Ms Prystuba. In her letter, she writes that the school was hit again on 9 February, shortly after we had finished putting in the last of the 125 windows. There is now a large gaping hole in doctor’s room roof. Dozens of windows were destroyed again.

And what do you think we intend to do now, ladies and gentlemen. Exactly – we are putting the windows back in for a second time! Of course! This is also symbolic of foreign policy. In contrast perhaps to real life, persistence is a virtue in foreign policy. Foreign policy is a laborious business, but not a pointless one. Its paths are full of contradictions and setbacks – as well as disappointments. But they are vitally important! This is what Ms Prystuba wrote in her last letter at any rate, and I for my part derive a great deal of confidence from letters such as these – and advocate what a journalist recently termed the ”tenacity of diplomacy“.


When I look back at the review year of 2014, one feature stands out particularly clearly: the fact that the strategic review was conducted during a time of acute crises.

The Review was certainly not a theory seminar in the park, but a place where theory and reality were at close quarters. While German foreign policy makers were taking stock of their work in Review 2014, they were being put to a very tough test by events around the world. Country hotels and casual clothing were not the backdrop for our Review, but rather the Ukraine crisis, Gaza conflict, Syria, the Ebola epidemic, Iraq and the advance of ISIS. On several occasions in the course of our review work, I had to think of that British Prime Minister who, in response to the question by a journalist about the biggest difficulty in politics in general, was said to have uttered:

”Events, dear boy, events...“

We have been happy to take on this challenge! We have assumed more responsibility – not just arbitrarily, but rather in a forward-looking and persevering manner; proactively, but without being over‑confident, and always working in a European and international context. And, above all, without crude black and white views of the world that, while sometimes helpful as they make our public statements easier, make solutions more difficult. I am well aware of the fact that, as these crises and our Review coincided, the Federal Foreign Office was put under an enormous amount of strain. Reality sometimes got ahead of the Review – but, overall, it injected important impetus into the debate. We have used the demand for foreign policy caused by these crises to take systematic stock of our foreign policy. We have given the public debate about the value and means of diplomacy the attention it deserves, also beyond the wave of crises. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved in this Review for making this possible. I am most grateful to the experts, scientists and practitioners, from Germany and throughout the world – many of whom are here today; the employees of the Federal Foreign Office, who have examined their own work in a critical light and taken part in the public debate; and one person in particular who made an especially great contribution to this process: Christoph Bertram, who coordinated and shaped the Review together with his team from the Policy Planning Staff from day one. We will have an opportunity to talk in a minute on the podium, but I would like now to offer him my most sincere thanks.


As I have already presented the specific results of the Review to the German Bundestag and here at the Federal Foreign Office today, I will refrain tonight from offering you a blow-by-blow account of the list of individual measures. What I want to do now is to draw political conclusions from these results, which all have one important thing in common: they're about taking action! This is a question of strategic capability – or, more simply put, not about just doing something, but about doing the right thing!

The world is changing dramatically, and the Federal Foreign Office must change accordingly. It cannot be enough for a country such as Germany to analyse and make intelligent statements about world events. This is why I mentioned the story from Donetsk at the beginning of my speech. I hope that a ”school windows test“ will always be in my mind as well as in the minds of each and every Federal Foreign Office employee and that we will ask ourselves: What can I do? What can German foreign policy do? What can we and our partners do? How can we exert influence on the world out there? The motto of the review process was ‘a fresh look at German foreign policy’. Now we have moved on to the next stage, where the motto is ‘doing German foreign policy better’.”

I believe that the turbulent reality of 2014 injected momentum into this debate. During the Ebola epidemic, for example, we saw that while we react swiftly and professionally when it comes to saving Germans, the transition from a consular to a foreign policy crisis took too much time. We want to change this. Our crisis response capability must improve as I fear that crises will, for the foreseeable future, no longer be an exception, but increasingly the norm. This is why we will be setting up a new Directorate‑General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilisation and Post‑conflict Peacebuilding at the Federal Foreign Office, which will pool all of the skills that allow us to deal more intensively with the entire spectrum of crises, and not only acute conflict phases. We want to learn from the experience of our Crisis Response Centre. However, the new directorate-general will be far more active at the policy level. I intend to strengthen precisely those elements that make up precautionary foreign policy – crisis prevention, supporting fragile states, peace mediation and post-conflict peacebuilding. There is an immense amount of demand for this kind of expertise in the world. Just one week ago, I was in Colombia, where the President asked us Germans – with our own very specific experience of history and coming to terms with history – to support a national reconciliation process that, after decades of a brutal and gruelling conflict between the state and terrorist groupings, aims to re‑unite society.

To do this, we also need the many civilian aid workers from Germany working in crisis regions throughout the world – just take the crucial importance of the OSCE observers in Ukraine, for example, whose mission we are currently strengthening and want to extend. We want to improve their working conditions – from questions of insurance to remuneration and training – and we want to raise the profile of the Center for International Peace Operations here in Berlin as a sending organisation and improve its performance.


A second, big question thrown up by both reality and the review is the following: 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 that 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, technological and digital globalisation alone does not yet guarantee political rapprochement, and certainly not a sound order.

Yes, the world is unravelling. That is a pithy sentence for speeches, but we must also act. Germany is more interconnected in and with the world that almost any other country. We depend on a rule‑based international order more than any other state. I can say this from the perspective of the economy – with our strong focus on exports, we rely on predictable, solid conditions far beyond our own borders – and I can say this from a human rights perspective – because if the United Nations and its institutions of international order lose their legitimacy, then the most important instruments to safeguard human rights are no longer at our disposal. This is why we Germans must make active use of our voice and our clout in order to strengthen the building blocks of international order where they are to be found, and to create new building block where they are possible.

The second structural reform at the Federal Foreign Office will help us in this cause. We will merge two directorate-generals that, to my mind, are better together than the sum of their parts: the Directorate‑General for Disarmament and the Directorate‑General for the United Nations. Together, they will form a new Directorate‑General for International Order. We are thus creating a place where we can make extensive use of our most important international order principle, namely multilateralism. There are many examples of this in the Disarmament Directorate-General: in our negotiations with Iran, the Non-Proliferation Treaty is our most important lever. Our biggest contribution to de-escalation in Syria was the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention. And, looking to Russia – if, and only if, we manage to de-escalate the military situation, which I urgently hope we can – we must focus our efforts first and foremost on confidence-building measures in the coming months and years. If we can combine the expertise and wisdom of our staff who have worked with these treaties for years with the experiences of the UN experts, we will be able to create a kind of laboratory of multilateralism that gives rise to the mechanisms, levers and ties that help to create new models of order. The ideas for this do not grow on trees and are not quick-fix solutions – they are not about more soldiers, more pressure or more sanctions. So we could perhaps call this the directorate-general for complex responses so that we don’t always get bogged down in a mire of simple responses.

But we could also call it the directorate‑general for peace order. For it is important, beyond the language of international law, beyond the tangle of institutions, to recall what the idea of a multilateral, rights-based order actually embodies, which is the hope for peace! Peace achieved by a world that sets rules for itself; peace achieved by relying on the strength of the law instead of the law of the strong.

This hope for peace is also not abstract, but is being put to a difficult test in reality. In the Ukraine conflict, two diametrically opposite conceptions of order emerged from the outset: the peaceful order which has been painstakingly developed by Europe, based on international law and self‑determination on the one hand and the logic of power politics and spheres of influences which is prepared to flout the rules through the use of force on the other. Together with the EU and NATO, we have been resolute and united in our response to this dangerous trajectory of annexing Crimea and the conflict, militarily underpinned by Russia in eastern Ukraine. We cannot talk about the importance of peaceful structures of order without defending them where they are flagrantly infringed.


We can only achieve all of this – and this is the third message – in and through Europe. We thought and talked a lot about Europe in this review. Many experts around the world regard Germany as the leading power in Europe, a power that should generate greater influence for the European model in world affairs. Reality positively chased the review along also in this regard as Europe came under massive pressure in recent months, and not only owing to Ukraine, but also Greece. I think we haven’t done too badly in this respect. We demonstrated that we Europeans are capable of facing challenges to our security and orders together – without losing our sense of proportion. In the Ukraine crisis, we Germans acted with the knowledge that there can be no German foreign policy without European foreign policy – and that this also applies to our dealings with Russia. Among the 28 member states of the European Union, historical experiences and emotions vis‑à‑vis Russia vary most greatly. With our history as a divided country – with one half belonging to the West and the other half to the East – we have a particular responsibility, and hopefully a particular sensitivity, for these historical nuances. We have therefore managed so far to preserve Europe’s unity in troubled waters, and that is worth more than words can say.


I would like to end perhaps with a couple of thoughts on what this review can and what it can’t be. The final reports that are on display here, and which some of you are already holding in your hands, by no means amount to general terms and conditions for German foreign policy. Especially since – if I may infer a general tendency from my own Internet use – no one reads the terms and conditions anyway... Rather, these review results take stock of Germany’s responsibility. There is never an operating manual for this responsibility. On the contrary, responsibility is always about concrete action. The responsibility question arises in situations that are never just black or white, and when taking decisions that are never just right or wrong. There were quite a few decisions like these in the past year. We tried to communicate them, such as the question of supplying weapons to the Kurds in northern Iraq, as transparently and openly as possible – with all the risks and side effects that this entails.

And we tested this out during the review, for example by letting people from around Germany take the hot seat for such decision-making processes themselves at interactive simulation events. It was an exciting process for all concerned.

We intend to continue this and other initiatives. We know that our channels of communication must improve and be made more transparent at the Federal Foreign Office – both internally by harnessing the potential and creativity of our staff at all levels of the hierarchy and by streamlining our routine tasks – and also with regard to our external communication processes. Explaining German positions abroad is in the Federal Foreign Office’s blood. In the course of the review, we came to realise that we must increasingly learn to engage in dialogue with our own German public, and that more questions are asked of foreign policy in Germany than we answered in the past.

At the end of the day, the review is therefore a contribution to a greater process that is under way, namely a redefinition of Germany in a turbulent world; in times in which our role in the world is changing and in which expectations of us are increasing. This act of defining our nation’s role can only take place in the context of as broad and open a social discourse as possible. The difficult question as to Germany’s responsibility cannot be answered by a consensus among the elites, but must be negotiated at the heart of society. This discourse must continue. I, for my part, will be glad to continue it, and I hope that you will all, especially the German Council on Foreign Relations, continue to follow and enrich it.

When I visited my counterpart in India last year, she said to me: “Frank-Walter, there are no full stops in the grammar of foreign policy – only commas and question marks.” She’s right – but I hope that we have updated our dictionary of foreign policy as best we can.

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