Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier on the occasion of the Ambassadors Conference of the Swiss Confederation’s Department of Foreign Affairs in Bern

17.08.2015 - Speech

Didier Burkhalter,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you very much for inviting me to Bern.

You, Ambassadors, are currently carrying out a task which probably makes many of your international colleagues envious: you’re representing Switzerland in the world and by doing so the “happiest people” on earth. That is, at least, according to the results of a recent study. And anyone who has had the chance to enjoy the Swiss Alps or Lake Geneva – or like myself, the picturesque Neuchâtel – understands why! And, by the way, we Germans only come in a modest 26th in this world happiness report. Perhaps this is because only a few Germans have the pleasure of enjoying a direct view of the Alps!

Nevertheless, we are similar in many ways. Some people describe Germany as a “large Switzerland”. I’m afraid that they don’t always mean this in a positive sense, for it often implies the reproach that both the Germans and the Swiss are making themselves scarce when it comes to mastering the international challenges of our time.

Didier, you painted a more nuanced picture in your speech to the Berlin Ambassadors Conference a year ago. You said that the Swiss and the Germans did indeed take on their due foreign policy responsibility but that neither of our countries viewed this task primarily in terms of military intervention. Foreign policy responsibility is multi‑faceted and requires the entire toolbox of diplomacy.

Another further thought is important to me when we talk about the image of Germany as a large Switzerland: if we compare ourselves to partners such as China, India or Nigeria, Germany suddenly stops seeming quite so much larger than Switzerland. And because that is the case, as a closely globally‑connected country we have a great interest in making our voice heard in the process of shaping the international order of tomorrow. Thus Bern and Berlin may be similar in a very different way to the one implied in the saying a “large Switzerland”. By taking on foreign policy responsibility we’re investing in our future.

Switzerland has a particular foreign policy responsibility due to its special position, as you said in your speech in Berlin, Didier. Your country can make a special contribution to resolving conflicts because you can build bridges between conflict parties, because you believe in dialogue and talks.

Responsibility and the willingness to engage in dialogue: these two concepts which play a crucial role within Swiss and German foreign policy are linked to three fields that I would like to examine with you today:

  • The conflict in Ukraine,
  • The agreement with Iran
  • And finally our responsibility within and for Europe.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Switzerland has shouldered particular responsibility in recent months, in what is doubtlessly the worst security‑policy crisis that Europe has seen since the end of the Cold War: the Ukraine crisis.

It was Switzerland that took on a key role in the year of crises that was 2014 and that placed the OSCE at the heart of the international community’s efforts. I would like to express my sincere thanks to you, Didier, and your entire team for having done so.

Under the Swiss Presidency, last year the OSCE created an essential platform for dialogue between all actors in the Ukraine conflict, namely the Trilateral Contact Group. I don’t want to imagine where we would be today without this group and without direct dialogue, without the OSCE and the Special Monitoring Mission.

With the Minsk agreements we then agreed on a road map, something which we achieved not least thanks to the tireless commitment of the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in‑Office for Ukraine, Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini.

Minsk charts the political path out of the conflict. It’s not a perfect process, as you all know, but it is the only one we have. And if we’ve learnt one thing from the diplomatic efforts of recent months, it’s that we can often only move forward in small, pragmatic steps. That we need stamina in order to make progress. That we require perseverance and patience.

It is an arduous journey, and certainly not always a popular one. Successes are all too rarely visible to the public. However, there are still moments which encourage us along the way, glimmers of hope.


That brings me to my second topic: the agreement with Iran. For this agreement shows us what we can achieve with perseverant and patient diplomacy!

One is not employing grandiose rhetoric by calling the Vienna agreement historic: we succeeded in finding a political solution to a conflict which has driven the world to the brink of military confrontation on numerous occasions.

The agreement now brings one thing above all: more security for the region. It rules out the possibility of Iran making a break for a nuclear bomb in a lasting and verifiable manner.

But that’s not all: the agreement has also proven that it is possible to resolve even deeply ingrained, complex conflicts which have overtones of mistrust and enmity. Thus the Vienna agreement also opens up new prospects for our scope for action within the region.

Two developments are crucial here.

On the one hand, the Iran agreement has opened up previously non‑existent communication channels. The lack of communication between Iran and the US has been overcome and regional players are seeking direct talks, for example Saudi Arabia with Iran and Syria. The large international players – the permanent members of the UN Security Council – have also moved closer together, pursuing mutual interests. There is no need for me to explain the significance of this remarkable consensus to you, Ambassadors; you take part in negotiations and bilateral talks on a daily basis.

On the other, the Vienna agreement offers Iran the chance, now, after decades of isolation, to move towards the international community as well as to further advance its domestic policy.

We’re under no illusions about Iran – its role in Syria or its support of Hizbollah in Lebanon or the religious militia in Iraq – and we’re taking the Gulf states’ concerns in this regard very seriously. It will not be possible to solve these problems overnight with a nuclear agreement. Yet it may enable us to open up diplomatic channels which were previously not an option. Perhaps we can now capitalise on the momentum of the Vienna agreement to de‑escalate the to date seemingly intractable conflicts elsewhere in the region.

Here I’m thinking of matters such as the following:

  • Syria, where the Assad regime’s military situation is becoming increasingly untenable and where the terrorism of ISIS is threatening the stability of countries far beyond Syria.
  • I’m also thinking of the conflict in Yemen, where under the mediation of UN Special Envoy Ould Cheikh Ahmed, a new attempt to start peace talks is being sought.
  • Of Lebanon, where the presidential elections have been blocked for over a year.

I’m also thinking of the chances of developing a comprehensive security architecture for the entire Middle East, a hope which shines a little brighter following the agreement.

If we want to move forward on all of these fronts we’ll need patience and perseverance – that is probably the most important lesson from the agreement with Iran. For this is the only way for us to restore the trust that will ultimately bring the conflict parties together.


And that brings me to the third topic: responsibility within and for Europe. The European unity which Churchill dreamed of in his 1946 speech in Zurich remains, following two world wars and the division of Germany, the only convincing answer to the “German question” of how to integrate the power at the heart of Europe. It is the only realistic foreign policy framework in which we can help to shape the order of our globally-interconnected world. For it is crystal clear to me that it would not have been possible for German diplomacy to have the same effect either in Minsk or in Vienna were it not underpinned by the European framework.

That makes it all the more important for us to undertake a critical self‑evaluation of our role within and responsibility for Europe, particularly with regard to the debate over Greece. What do we mean when we talk about Germany’s responsibility within Europe?

In my opinion, Germany’s strength in Europe must never be measured solely by how effectively we defend our national interests. Especially as a country at the centre of Europe, we must measure our strength by how we manage to broker rational European compromises, with France, with Poland and with our other European partners. In Brussels and in other European capitals.

To me, responsibility doesn’t mean that the interests of the then stronger party should prevail. It means working persistently to fairly balance interests amongst equal partners – to step‑by‑step create a common European horizon. This thus means responsibility not only for your own country but for the common European project.

Not out of naive Europhilia or hubris, but out of the sober realisation that we Germans have a higher, political, interest in European unity.

Switzerland may not be in the euro and may not be a member of the European Union, but in light of our unique integration I believe that the Swiss in particular have a very acute sense of how vital it is to have a stable political order in Europe.

You have seen for yourselves that if the euro goes through a rough patch, the Franks are not spared the ramifications. If freedom of movement in the Schengen area is questioned, then that too has consequences for Switzerland. And by the same token, if we work together as Europeans – such as in Ukraine, and with Iran, then it becomes clearer still that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

This shows that in the future, will need more, not less, cooperation in Europe.

Your task is to draw the conclusions of this for Switzerland’s future foreign policy.

I look forward to our discussions.

Thank you very much.

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