Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier marking 60 years since Germany joined NATO

30.06.2015 - Speech

Secretary General,
Defence Minister von der Leyen,
Ladies and gentlemen,

They say that the first Secretary General of this Alliance, asked what the purpose of NATO was, very soberly replied, “To keep the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down.”

NATO’s first Secretary General was Lord Ismay, in office 60 years ago – so just when the young Federal Republic of Germany joined the Alliance.

That quote shows rather starkly in what circumstances our country found its way into NATO just ten years after the end of the war. And it’s hardly surprising that the world approached the new and divided Germany with maximum distrust at that time, after the barbarity and tyranny of the Nazis.

At the same time, the quote also shows what a long way our country has come since Lord Ismay’s day. It has made its way back into the civilised world, on the basis of integration into the western community, and it has achieved peaceful reunification as a free, sovereign country with a firm place among the world’s great democracies.

Lord Ismay’s quote therefore raises an important question for the present day. What responsibility arises for us today from the fact that Germany was allowed to return to the international order – in freedom and security – after the Second World War? It is clear to me that Germany, having started that conflagration and been a destroyer of order, has a duty today to play a special role in building an order that safeguards peace, including with and through NATO. We are no longer simply a partner with equal rights; we have equal obligations too. That’s what I mean when I speak of “more responsibility”. I’m not saying we should seek greater responsibility; I’m saying we already have it. We bear responsibility to make policy that strengthens the structures of a peaceful order, especially here and now, in a world in which order seems lost.


Ladies and gentlemen,

The Ukraine crisis has brought the question of war and peace back to the European continent. The annexation of Crimea, the destabilisation of Ukraine and a dangerous game of rhetoric about nuclear options have drastically cast doubt on the peaceful European order – the order that Russia helped create with its signature in Helsinki. We can only speculate about what further plans Russia may be pursuing to secure its geopolitical claims. This makes our worries about European security all the greater – especially in the more exposed states in the east of our Alliance.

Just as the Federal Republic of Germany could be sure of its allies’ support during the Cold War, we say today to our friends and allies in the Baltic and Eastern Europe, “Your worries are our worries; your security is also our security.” That reciprocal solidarity forms the basis of the North Atlantic Alliance, and these are the sound foundations on which Germany’s security policy stands too.

And those words are backed up by our actions, as we are demonstrating in an array of areas:

We have taken a pioneering role in establishing the new rapid‑response unit, together with the Netherlands and Norway, provided rotating contributions and a water‑borne, land and aerial presence in the Alliance’s eastern territory, and transformed the Multinational Corps Northeast headquarters in Szczecin into a hub for all of NATO’s Article 5 activities in the Baltic and Poland –

– to name but a few examples.

The conditions for security have changed in recent years. Europe is sadly no exception. After years of intensive crisis management in the Balkans and Afghanistan, collective defence need to resume a much more central place in NATO activities – not only in the eastern territory but also in view of the arc of crisis in the south.

Violations of territorial integrity, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and jihadism, hybrid threats, cyber attacks, failing states on Europe’s doorstep – these are challenges to which we must find responses, at the national, European and transatlantic levels.


At the same time, we know that collective defence and international crisis management alone will not provide the exhaustive answer to the threats facing our security. Our citizens expect NATO to be far‑sighted in its strategic thinking – and rightly so! They expect NATO to pursue intelligent policy that looks beyond the immediate future and to draw on its experience in so doing.

That’s why cooperative security is and will remain an equally key task for NATO. Even if many find it hard, initiatives in this area are more important than ever. I say this particularly in view of the current escalation of tensions with Russia. Such initiatives are important – but we won’t make them succeed just by assuming or wishing they will. We’ll need to work for that, in the knowledge that stagnation and sometimes even setbacks will need to be overcome in the process.

After all, as much as we would like to see a return to a relationship based on partnership with Russia – as set down in the NATO‑Russia Founding Act of 1997 – we have to be realistic. As things stand, restoring the spirit of partnership will not be a one‑hundred‑metre sprint but is more likely to resemble a marathon – which means we have to be all the more far‑sighted and wise in planning our strategy.

That applies not only to our strategy but also to our rhetoric. The Cold War is over. The world has changed. There are new players on the international stage. There are new threats, posed by non‑state actors using terrorist methods. The blocs that defined the Cold War have ceased to be. But, it seems, the old reflexes from that era are still in place, and they appear to be gaining vitality these days. President Putin’s announcement a few days ago about plans to modernise Russia’s strategic missile arsenal is certainly not conducive to stability and deescalation in Europe.

But that need not make us respond with the same old reflexes. Just look to the last few years for examples of how ratcheting up rhetoric can lead to escalation on the ground. It is in our interest to keep our responses lighter on the reflexes and heavier on the nuance and the far‑sighted strategic thinking, giving less priority to short‑term media impact.

We need to watch out now to stop everything being torn apart that we so carefully and painstakingly built in our European order over the last several decades. And I know, Jens Stoltenberg, that we have an ally in you in that endeavour!

In 1967, Belgium’s Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel coined a piece of strategic wisdom in describing NATO’s objective as the creation of an enduring and equitable peaceful order for the whole of Europe. He made it strategy to regard security as a combination of deterrence and détente, of defence and deescalation.

Remembering this, we have taken a first step towards overcoming our lack of communication. NATO has established an emergency contact mechanism that enables the military side to catch dangerous situations or misunderstandings before they escalate by getting in touch quickly. We should go further down that road and make full use of the possibilities offered by reliable reciprocal military codes of conduct.

We also need a return to political dialogue between NATO and Russia, at least at the ambassadorial level – given that we did agree in Wales last September than political channels would remain open!

We also want to use our Chairmanship of the OSCE next year to assess our options for reactivating and fine‑tuning mechanisms that will allow us first off to prevent further entrenchment in Europe and keep the option of bridge‑building open.

But this isn’t just about Europe. I came away from the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme in Vienna yesterday afternoon, and I’ll be going back there right after this session. Yes, we’re talking mostly about Iran there, but the dangerous neighbourhood is being discussed as well: Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Syria. None of these dangerous major conflicts can be resolved without the United States, Russia, Europe and elements of the Muslim neighbourhood pulling together. We often lose sight of this as we allow our view to remain too Eurocentric.


Ladies and gentlemen,

To return to NATO, this Alliance has proven its worth as a pillar of a stable European order. It is also a unique forum of transatlantic cohesion – and in view of the variety and severity of crises and conflicts around the world, that cohesion is more important than ever.

At the same time, however, our American friends are making it clear that burden‑sharing cannot remain as asymmetrical as it has been hitherto. More is expected of us Europeans!

In Europe we have all accepted the imperative to consolidate our budgets – not out of pure pleasure but in recognition of the necessity. That limits our spending potential. However, for all the limitations on our financial flexibility, the German Government is certainly prepared to boost our defence efforts. The potential for using our European resources more effectively is comparatively high. Some positive steps have been taken, with pooling and sharing of resources by certain groups of countries, dovetailing of capabilities, establishment of joint associations, and multinational development and procurement projects. When this is going to become a European Security and Defence Union in the strict sense remains unclear, which makes it all the more important to make full use of NATO’s potential. Nowhere else in the world are several states’ armed forces as closely integrated as they are in our Alliance.

That is why I say that whatever is created under the common European security and defence policy in future must also benefit the Alliance and its effectiveness.

After all, the two have the same objective, namely to safeguard and protect our freedom, our prosperity and our vision for a peaceful world.

Deterrence and détente; ready to defend ourselves but actively seeking deescalation – even 60 years after Germany became a NATO member, our country stands by those principles, for the good of Germany, Europe and Euro‑Atlantic security.

The challenges are considerable. Let’s tackle them together! Or, if I may conclude with the words of the man who speaks for NATO today, 60 years after Lord Ismay – Jens Stoltenberg:

“We can keep the international order that has served us so well. If we stand up for its rules. And if we stand up for each other. It is up to us!”

Thank you.

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