Managing crises, shaping the future – opening speech by Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier at the 2015 Conference of the Heads of German Missions

24.08.2015 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,
Members of staff,

Welcome to this year’s Conference of the Heads of German Missions. As the staff in our headquarters know, the schools are still on holiday in Berlin. But the world doesn’t pay any heed to that. And as the Federal Foreign Office, we cannot simply close down for the summer.

At last year’s conference, we discussed the aims and responsibilities of German foreign policy in a changing world. As part of our Review 2014 process, we debated in detail if we were doing the right thing – and if we were doing it in the right way. In view of the crises in our immediate neighbourhood and of our partners and allies’ growing expectations of us, we took a close look at ourselves and our work. All of you and your staff played a role in drawing up the agenda that I presented here in this room six months ago – “An agenda for a More Effective Foreign Service in Times of Change”.

Now we are in the process of implementing the review findings. We have launched the most far-reaching restructuring that the Federal Foreign Office has seen in decades. But we want to do more than that. We want to ingrain a new working culture in the ministry – a culture with more interdepartmental collaboration, a greater focus on projects, more flexibility and a more active role. This is not an end in itself. And we are not doing it because it sounds modern. We are making these changes because the nature of the challenges requires us to do so if we want to be successful. And the new structure of the Ambassadors Conference also reflects this.


Germany has foreign policy responsibilities. I do not see this as a matter of choice or wishful thinking, but simply as a reality. This statement is anything but dry theory. And we did not shy away from our foreign policy responsibilities during the past year. There is no guarantee of success, but we took on the challenge. And I would like to thank all of you for your excellent work.

Over the past year, I too spent a large part of my own time and energy on crisis diplomacy.

German diplomacy helped to pave the way for progress in the conflict with Russia and in eastern Ukraine. In the Minsk agreement of February, we carved out a diplomatic and political framework under difficult conditions. And we are continuing to work steadfastly with France, and in extremely close coordination with Brussels, on ensuring that the terms of this agreement are met and implemented. However, I fear that we are still a long way from a real solution. The current escalation in the security situation fills us with the greatest concern. President Poroshenko is in Berlin today. And we will have to decide when we should hold the next Normandy format meeting. But precisely because so much is at stake – we are talking about war and peace and a functioning security order in Europe – it merits nothing less than our complete commitment.

In this situation, we had to decide quite some time ago if we would follow Switzerland and Serbia in chairing the OSCE. It didn’t seem like a great idea. It’s something of a thankless task. The OSCE is a complex and difficult organisation, and the parties to the conflict do not exactly make the work easier. Nevertheless, we decided to take on the chairmanship. And we did so out of a sense of responsibility for security and cooperation in Europe at a difficult time.

Sometimes you have to make this choice, despite all the widespread scepticism about international negotiation processes and the instrument of diplomacy. It doesn’t happen that often, but sometimes we are able to prove the sceptics wrong. The talks on a sustainable agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme showed that perseverance in diplomacy is not merely a cover-up for a lack of results. Indeed, perseverance and tenacity led us to an agreement that can be described as historic without being overly dramatic. We succeeded in finding a political solution to a conflict that had driven the world to the very brink of military confrontation on numerous occasions. I am aware that there are still further questions about this agreement in some countries.

But contrary to the scepticism, I believe this agreement will create one thing in particular – greater security in the region. The agreement permanently and verifiably rules out the possibility of Iran gaining access to nuclear weapons. And not only that. It has also proven that it is possible to resolve even deeply ingrained, complex conflicts that have overtones of mistrust and enmity. The Vienna agreement can thus pave the way to greater scope for diplomacy in this conflict-ridden region.

I regard two elements as crucial here. Firstly, the deal with Iran has opened up new channels of communication, clearly between Iran and the United States, but also in the region itself. You will have seen that Syrian politicians have visited Saudi Arabia. The Iranian Foreign Minister has also offered to visit Riyadh. And while the standstill on the Middle East between the two major powers, the United States and Russia, may not yet have been broken, the apparently insurmountable differences between them have been somewhat diminished. When I see that the UN Security Council was recently able to reach consensus on a resolution on Syria, that is certainly something new, something that became possible after the Iran deal.

Secondly, the Vienna agreement offers Iran the chance, now, after decades of isolation, to move towards the international community, to boost its economy and make progress in home affairs. What did we see on our TV screens the day after the agreement was reached? Who were the people celebrating in the streets of Tehran? They were young people! Some of them were even wearing Obama T‑shirts – wherever they got hold of them! This shows that some of the young generation have great expectations of the impact of the agreement. I will visit Iran in October and see things for myself.

We are under no illusions about Iran – its role in Syria or its support of Hizbollah in Lebanon or the religious militia in Iraq – and we are taking Israel’s and the Gulf states’ concerns in this regard very seriously.

It will not be possible to solve these problems overnight with a nuclear agreement. Yet this deal may enable us to open up diplomatic channels that have not been an option for years.

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. In this context, I am mainly thinking about Syria, where four years of civil war have killed over 200,000 people and displaced more than ten million, where it is still our duty to at least de-escalate the conflict and improve the humanitarian situation.

We also need to do this because it is clear that the military situation is becoming more precarious for the Assad regime. This is the result of two developments: firstly, the fact that certain radical groups have become stronger, but secondly, the fact that the opposition, the so‑called moderates, have joined forces, at least in the southern part of the country. It is vital that we put forward proposals before the entire institutional system in Syria completely collapses. Libya shows us that it is extremely difficult to turn a collapsing institutional system back into a state. This is why it is so important that we now seize the opportunity offered by the deal with Iran and do our utmost to support UN Special Envoy de Mistura – hopefully also with the backing of Russia, the United States and the major Gulf states – in making proposals that could gradually pave the way for a de‑escalation of the conflict.

The Middle East is experiencing dramatic changes, inhuman barbarism, bloody wars, the cynical destruction of world cultural heritage and the erosion of statehood. None of this will be resolved overnight. Nevertheless, something needs to develop in the region that creates a minimum level of shared interests, perhaps not a real partnership all at once, but at least a form of coexistence that will help the region to survive.

At an OSCE outreach conference in Amman in October, we will discuss regional security and talk about the lessons we had to learn in Europe – where responsible politicians began working on the cornerstones of a European security architecture during the coldest days of the Cold War. A security architecture for the Middle East now needs to go on the agenda.

I recall a conference I attended in Jeddah last year, where a Saudi Arabian intellectual on the panel spoke up at the end of the debate and said, “Mr Steinmeier, what we need is your 1648.”

I was astonished by that, partly because I realised people were indeed interested in European history in the region, and partly because the recognition of difference is something that has been understood as a prerequisite for more peaceful development in the region. I firmly believe that there will be no hope of genuinely more peaceful development in the Middle East without acceptance of cultural and religious differences. And this is why security and cultural issues are more closely interwoven in this region than almost anywhere else in the world. We will need to try to address this at the conference in Amman.

Elsewhere in the world, we are also struggling to establish order. It seems to be a long way off in these regions, too. Despite this, I am mentioning these issues today because German foreign policy, notwithstanding its aim of getting involved earlier, more decisively and more substantively, cannot exhaust its resources in crisis management. In the interest of our country, which is more closely intertwined with the world on all possible levels than almost any other nation, we need to help shape the international order of the future

- at the climate conference in Paris in December that we hope to help make a success with France, the host nation

- in the 2030 Agenda, which will lay down a global consensus on sustainable development goals at the United Nations summit next month

- and in drawing up a common European policy on dealing with the rise of China and the impact this has on international order.

And this is just to mention the next stages of the debate!

I am delighted that Parag Khanna, one of the most renowned analysts and interpreters of this emerging international order, is our guest of honour here today. I am particularly pleased that he has joined us because in his books, he does not only examine the fault lines, but also the new opportunities created by change.


We need strong partners in order to make use of these opportunities. Over the past 12 months, we have joined forces with France in tackling almost all of the major issues on the diplomatic agenda. Emmanuel Macron will be our guest of honour at the opening of the Business Forum tomorrow. Along with our other partners in Europe, we made progress on a large number of initiatives in close coordination with Brussels and the new High Representative, Ms Mogherini, with whom we have an excellent working relationship.

There is no doubt that the United States is, and will remain, our most important partner in many international conflicts. It is a contradiction that is hard to explain, but the fact is that now, at a time of vocal criticism of Washington – criticism that is indeed justified in view of the NSA’s activities in Germany – when it comes to foreign policy, our relations with the US administration are closer and better than they have been in years. I see at least three reasons for this.

Firstly, as occasionally happens in diplomacy, it has to do with the people involved – in this case with John Kerry, with whom our work during the past year could not have been closer or more trusting, particularly as regards the Iran dossier, but not only on that issue. This is why we will do everything in our power to convince the sceptics in Washington of the value of this agreement.

Secondly, policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic have understood that we need each other if we are to find credible solutions to the challenges of our time. This is the case in the Ukraine crisis, where we are ultimately still pursuing common goals, despite occasional differences in how we see the situation. It is also the case as regards Syria and the fight against ISIS, but also applies to climate change and free trade.

And thirdly, the alliance with the United States remains the guarantor of our security. In today’s complex world, we have no reason whatsoever to regard this guarantee as unimportant, let alone unnecessary.

One last point is of particular importance to me. The United States’ restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba does not only open up new prospects on the entire American continent, as I saw clearly in Brazil last week, but above all reflects a stance to which I feel personally committed, that one must be willing to examine one’s own positions if they are clearly not having the desired effect; that one can, and sometimes must, adjust one’s course, if the courage and political will to do so are available; and that this does not mean missing out, but rather can spell greater opportunities. This is shown by the United States’ willingness to adopt a new policy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is why the United States remains the most important partner country for Germany and Europe – both as regards crisis management and in shaping a fair international order.

But I believe we must also understand that we will only be able to tackle these great challenges effectively if we take another crucial factor into account, that is, Russia’s future role.

“Relations with our American allies are essential; Russia also has an important role to play on the European continent.”

These are the words of Egon Bahr, who died last week. I believe they remain valid even after his death.

For all of us, this means that we must not, and we will not, waver in our endeavours to de‑escalate the Ukraine crisis. However, we must also look beyond acute crisis management and ask what role Russia will play in the international order of the future. I do not know what the international security architecture will look like in 15 years. But I do know one thing. A European peaceful order can only exist if it includes Russia. The world is currently struggling with many conflicts. And both we and our American partners have understood that in many of these crises – especially in Syria – we will not be able to find a solution without Russia.

This is another reason why we should not allow ourselves to be discouraged by setbacks in the Ukraine process.


This brings me to my final point: Germany’s responsibility within and for Europe. European unity remains 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 international order of the future. It is 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 anchored in the European framework.

It is all the more important that we examine our role in and for Europe – especially at this time, when the debate on Greece has left its marks. It is a matter of decisions, but also of our position, our “European reflex”.

Germany’s strength in Europe must never be measured solely by how effectively we defend narrowly defined 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 – including difficult partners!

Responsibility, as I understand it, does not only mean responsibility for your own country, but also for the common European project. It means working persistently to balance interests fairly among equal partners – to create a common European horizon step by step. And this is not only because of our history – it also stems from the objective fact that we Germans have an overarching – political – interest in a strong and united Europe.

We can only live up to this responsibility if we listen closely to and look carefully at how our neighbours see the united Europe; if we recognise the reforms that have been undertaken in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal; and if we perceive the dimensions of the reforms that had to be demanded of Greece.

I remember very well the resistance and political discord that the Agenda 2010 programme caused in our country. And the changes did not have the dimensions that we are demanding of our neighbours, including Greece. A 12‑percent reduction in wages would probably have sparked revolt in Germany, too. And that is why I say that not only we, but we too, will have to take particularly great care of Greece in the coming years on its path to what will hopefully be a new and better future.

Sensitivity and the willingness to take on responsibility will also be needed in the second huge task now facing Europe. There are almost 60 million refugees in the world – more than ever before. We Europeans are only confronted with a fraction of these people. But the question of what is the right approach to the large numbers of people struggling to reach Europe lies at the heart of what makes up our societies and the united Europe, of what binds us together at our core.

This is why we must now draw up a European asylum, refugee and migration policy that is founded on solidarity and humanity. We need a new, much more ambitious integration of European asylum policy. This is why the Deputy Chancellor and I have just suggested a ten-point plan.

At the heart of this plan is the fundamental belief that Europe must protect people in need of protection in a humane way – regardless of which EU country they arrive in. No flow of refugees justifies the catastrophic humanitarian conditions that we have seen in recent weeks. This is why we need harmonised procedures, institutions and shared standards in Europe, including the introduction of a binding quota system that will ensure a fair distribution of refugees in Europe. It was courageous and correct that the European Commission, led by Jean-Claude Juncker, proposed such a system, despite staunch resistance. We will continue to support it.

A second belief is inextricably linked with this. Europe will only be able to protect people in need of protection in a humane way if we quickly repatriate those who are not entitled to asylum. This is why we need faster procedures and decisions, and why Europe needs to agree on which countries of origin are safe. I think we should agree in Brussels that countries that meet the criteria for EU candidacy cannot be persecuting countries and must be regarded as safe countries of origin.

In Germany’s case, the time is ripe for an immigration act that takes into account the demographic realities in this country, where one in five people now has roots abroad. And I believe that we will be able to slightly reduce the pressure on the asylum door if we open a second door via qualified and managed immigration.

We foreign policymakers in particular must ultimately tackle the problems of displacement and migration far more decisively at the roots. We must develop new political initiatives to combat the causes of displacement in the countries of the Middle East and Africa, and take these initiatives to the EU and UN. Stabilising collapsing states and curbing violence and civil war will play a key role in this.


We have a lot of work ahead of us. We wouldn’t get far without you in our missions abroad. We need your ideas – and believe me, I read more of what you write than you think I do! Above all, we need your voice, your energy and your willingness to take on responsibility.

I urge you to join in the debate on Germany’s role. Germany is now – I also say this after the events in Saxony, I stand by it – Germany is a globally minded, tolerant and culturally diverse country. It now has to learn how to cope with its new role and its prominent position. We make as many mistakes as anyone else. But we certainly have enough reasons to put forward our view of things and our ideas and initiatives calmly, hopefully without being arrogant, but in a self-assured way.

Thank you very much.

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