Sisters and brothers,
Guests of the Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag,
“Where is God?” an elderly lady in a refugee camp on the Bekaa plain in Lebanon asked me. She had lost everything. Her husband: missing. Two of her sons: at war fighting Assad. Her daughters: with their children somewhere in no man’s land fleeing militia who fight for one side one day and the other the next. This elderly lady all alone – living under a couple of sheets of plastic – had escaped with her life, but definitely not much more...
Where is God? Where is the hope? When such a question is put to me, the Foreign Minister, when such a question is asked in a refugee camp, also being asked is: has the world forgotten us? What are you doing to help us?
Exactly 32 years ago, Willy Brandt stood on stage at the Kirchentag and asked if the governments of even the most powerful countries could actually do anything about the great conflicts of our world. And even then, the answer was not easy, in the time following the dispute over re-armament, when no one knew that the wall which separated East and West was already starting to crumble and crack.
Today, 32 years after Willy Brandt’s speech, our world is far from being a more peaceful place. For as long as I remember, I I can’t think of a time when so many international crises in so many different places were coming as thick and fast as they are today.
A great deal has changed in these years, but our task is not one of them. The task of foreign policy remains the same, as Willy Brandt described without a shred of emotive rhetoric: to, acting under no illusions, strive to help resolve conflicts. To give peace a leg up in a conflict-ridden world full of crises, of malevolence and hate. Peace is not achieved by simply wishing for it. It is not brought about by public declarations, not even by UN resolutions. It hardly even matters whether I’m right or not. Peace requires work, most of all when the very thing needed to achieve peace – trust – has been completely destroyed. Thus when parties to a conflict are no longer talking to one another it is up to third parties to help. In easing the Cuba conflict – the Vatican. In Mali – Algeria. In the conflict in Yemen – the United Nations. When communication between the conflict parties has broken down and the world needs to step up, we must not refuse this task.
That is why I was travelling last week: from Kyiv to emergency shelters for those displaced in Dnipropetrovsk in eastern Ukraine, via Jerusalem and Ramallah to the Gaza Strip where remnants of the most recent war are threatening to spark a renewed escalation. Then from the Middle East in the midst of the arc of conflicts between Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq, to Paris, where we consulted with the foreign ministers of allied states on how we can put paid to the murderous advance of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Sisters and brothers, these are the crisis hotspots which have not only foreign ministers but all of us watching with baited breath. Of course you can think that this is a coincidental increase in concurrent crises. I don’t believe that. I think that in the background we’re seeing a serious, tectonic shift in our small world.
Why is that happening and why now? There are many reasons. One may well be that, a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we’re only just properly understanding what happened. It was not only the end of the division of Germany, not only the end of the Cold War. We can all be pleased that these events made the reunification of Germany possible. However, it also means that the old world order, which comprised only East and West, has imploded. And with it all the cynical realities of a bipolar world in which you were either on one side or the other.
What happened when the East-West confrontation ended and the Soviet Union collapsed is that an old order vanished but no new order stepped into the void. We live in a world in search of order. And this search is not taking place in the form of a peaceful discussion in a seminar. Rather we’re seeing a showdown between the old world and new powers in Asia and South America, the struggle over influence and dominance, overshadowed by ethnic and religious conflicts, the rise of non-state actors, ISIS, Al-Shabab, Al-Nusra, Boko Haram, the combination of barbarity reminiscent of the Middle Ages and the internet: all of this is manifesting itself in a dangerous number of crises all around the world.
How can we respond to these severe crises? And how can we make order in the international community more robust in the long term? Or, to ask the question in the words of the Kirchentag motto: What must we do “to become wiser” and to make this world a fairer and more peaceful place? In light of these gargantuan questions you often take a step back in horror and ask: what can anyone do? Is there any point in all this discussion and negotiation when there’s no guarantee of success?
When he spoke here at the Kirchentag, Willy Brandt had a wonderful answer to this voice of doubt. He said: “Far from any form of self idolatry with regard to [our] power [and options to exert influence], I see no way to make a helpful contribution, other than to show a willingness to assume responsibility. As tempting as the opposite may be for some people’s peace of mind, it doesn’t lead to a sensible conclusion.”
What does that mean? Quite simply that taking on responsibility for peace is always difficult, nearly always risky and often accompanied by doubts. It rarely has anything to do with easy, black and white answers and is never rewarded with swift success.
And it means that turning a blind eye, doing nothing, wanting to stay out of things, can sometimes be a tempting alternative. But it mustn’t be, certainly not if you hold Christian beliefs. For at the end of the day, as Christians we are just as responsible for what we don’t do as for what we do do.
I think that Germany has a particular responsibility and should commit to maintaining and strengthening the international order. I have two reasons for thinking this.
The first is a very easy and pragmatic one: who else depends on the international order as much as we Germans do? We are more globally connected that just about any other country in the world – in economic terms of course, but also in human, cultural and social terms as well as by the strong anchors of our political alliances. We should be particularly keen to have rules of the game in the world, to have reliability, law and trust. And we especially, who benefit so much from the international order, must play a particular role in helping maintain it. To me, fairness dictates that we do so – strong shoulders must carry more weight than weak ones, and that applies at the international level, too.
We must thus contribute to the work that our guest today represents like no other, that of the United Nations, perhaps not the headquarters of world reason, but certainly the wisest which we have produced following two World Wars and 80 million deaths. The entire Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag, Kofi Annan, thanks you for having made your way here today. Thank you for coming.
And the reason that this responsibility is incumbent upon us lies in history: 70 years ago the Second World War came to an end, and with it the suffering and crimes that the Germans perpetrated in the name of our country. And something else started 70 years ago, too: on the ruins of Europe, work on a new international order, the United Nations, began.
Kofi Annan, we Germans have not forgotten that the founding of the United Nations in 1945 and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were the international community’s response to the unparalleled crimes and horror which this country inflicted on the world. Back then, after the war, Germany initially had no place in the new world order. Germany was not a part but rather an object of the new order. Never again should such disaster be unleashed by this country.
Yet over recent decades, Germany was granted the chance to cautiously grow back into the heart of the international community. And today? We’re reunited, firmly anchored in Europe in political terms and continue to enjoy international respect and recognition. We Germans can be pleased and grateful for this development. Yet we must also recognise the responsibility that history bestows upon us: Germany, over 70 years ago instigator and destroyer of order, has a particular duty to act as a founder of order today and must actively help to further developing this order – especially in the United Nations!
And what is behind this idea of the term ‘order’? For some it can sound technocratic, rigid and stiff, very German somehow, in the sense that everything must have its correct place. But in fact the idea of an international order, as embodied by the United Nations, contains nothing other than the world’s hope for peace. Peace in a world which makes its own rules. Peace in which conflicts arise over the negotiating table and no longer over the flashes of machine gun fire. That was the founding idea of the United Nations, and its task is not complete, certainly not in a world which seems to have come loose from its moorings.
The elderly lady from the refugee camp in Lebanon, the young woman with her three children in Dnipropetrovsk, living separated from her family and displaced from her home in Donetsk, the women in northern Iraq, victims of rape and enslavement, who survived the escape from their guards, the despairing who I visited on Monday of this week in the ruins of the Gaza Strip, all of them urge us not to look the other way! Do not be fainthearted and impatient. Do not listen when others call your efforts naive. Do not despair if small steps are not big solutions. Do not give up if you suffer setbacks in your efforts to achieve peace. If you fail, then start again. Giving up is no option, inaction is no approach.
Even if our contribution is small, and sometimes seems too small, writes Dorothee Sölle, we must not let ourselves be overcome by powerlessness. “There’s nothing we can do” is a godless phrase, she says.
I say: “As long as we don’t give up there’s still cause for hope.” And has this not been proven?
After 10 years of negotiations in the nuclear dispute with Iran, during which we came to a standstill on numerous occasions, there is now for the first time a real chance of reaching a settlement.
In Ukraine we are far from securing peace, but people are no longer dying on a daily basis and we may achieve a lasting ceasefire.
Last weekend, 70 years after the end of the war, I yet again felt a renewed sense of the miracle that is the German-Israeli friendship. It was possible because the country of victims held out its hand to the perpetrators. Why, if we continue to work for it, should such miracles not be possible there in their neighbourhood, with Palestine, too?
Above all, it is people – just as you here today, too – who give renewed cause to hope for peace time and again. It’s those who know that they cannot solve the global refugee problem but who nevertheless care for the 120,000 people from Syria and other countries who have found refuge in our country. Those who fight against rejection, resentment and heartlessness and quite simply help people who have lost their homes, some of whom have survived persecution and perilous flight, find a place to rest here. We should thank them very sincerely for doing so.
Admittedly, we’re still a long way from achieving world peace. But the examples go to show that it’s worth working towards it. Theologian Hans Scholl gave us politicians some encouragement along the road: Rest your gaze firmly on your goal, but on the journey towards it – with the setbacks and diversions – don’t lose your strength and patience. And so let us stick together!