“Making a difference in an often troubled world”

02.10.2015 - Interview

Article on German foreign policy by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the occasion of the Day of German Unity. Published in the special issue “The Berlin Times in cooperation with DIE WELT” (2 October 2015)

If tectonic plates made a sound when they move, then the noise in Europe would have been deafening in 1989 and 1990. While the world’s tectonic plates stayed put, the world order fairly well came off the rails back then. The reunification of the two German states caused an earthquake that tore holes in the edifice of the Cold War around the world and was nothing less than the evolution of “a new architecture for a new era”, as the then US Secretary of State James Baker put it on his visit to Berlin at the end of 1989.

Many people in western Europe greeted the re‑emergence of Germany on the fault line of the Cold War with scepticism. Despite this, France, the United Kingdom, the USA and the Soviet Union signed the Two plus Four Treaty together with the two German states on 12 September 25 years ago. The fact that they restored our country’s full sovereignty in foreign policy with this agreement was tantamount to a resounding vote of confidence in the nascent foreign policy of a reunified Germany. Since then, Germany has secured and consolidated its place on the world stage and is, despite all the concerns raised, firmly anchored in the European Union and the transatlantic partnership. Like no other country, Germany has taken advantage of the transformation of recent decades, above all the political and economic unification of Europe, which paved the way to an unprecedented measure of security, freedom and prosperity for our nation, the likes of which is only enjoyed by few other countries.

We perhaps temporarily failed to notice that the world had not settled down. The oft‑quoted “end of history” did not come to pass. On the contrary, the rumbling and creaking of the tectonic plates of world politics is still clearly discernible, and the plates are shifting more today than ever before. Very different developments that were perhaps perceptible but not foreseeable in 1990 are driving these international upheavals along: globalisation and the connectivity it entails, digitisation and economic acceleration, the rise of ambitious players such as China and India, the influence of non‑state, worldwide actors such as major corporations and terrorist groups, religious fundamentalism, climate change and – the pressing issue of the moment – migration of historic dimensions. The list is long and unwieldy. And fresh eruptions are constantly shaking the globe, such as the civil war in Syria, Islamist terror in Iraq, the collapse of Libya and Yemen and the conflict in Ukraine. It is gradually becoming ever clearer to us that these still number among the consequences of the collapse of the bipolar Cold War world order. While referring to these as after‑shocks would be in line with our metaphorical language, this would not do justice to the dramatic crises that the world faces daily.

A particularly intense eruption rocking Europe now is the major influx of refugees that also hit Germany head‑on this summer. The German people’s willingness to help is impressive – however, for all their solidarity, they justifiably wonder what needs to be done in order to master this challenge also in the long term. It is clear that Europe has a duty to help refugees in need of protection, no matter which country they arrive in. But it is also clear that no country can manage this alone. Europe faces one of its greatest tests.

The refugee crisis and its causes are but one example of many issues for which international partners rightfully expect help from a prosperous and strong Germany. Germany has simply become too big to duck away and far too connected with the world to remain on the sidelines. We are doing our part with tangible contributions – for example by assuming this year’s presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council and the Chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Co‑operation in Europe (OSCE) in the coming year. Is there any other country with a greater interest in stable and peaceful world politics than Germany? Virtually no other country is as globally connected in terms of its economy, people and culture as Germany, or so profoundly dependent on functioning rules of the international game for its economic and political stability.

With the annexation of Crimea in vidation of international law and the events in eastern Ukraine, these rules of the game were cast into severe doubt. Europe’s peaceful order hung in the balance. We worked to achieve a de‑escalation of the conflict from the very outset, despite all of the setbacks and strong headwinds. We are not out of the woods yet by a long stretch. Fighting continues in eastern Ukraine and people are still dying. While the Minsk agreements are no universal remedy and far from perfect, they offer a framework for direct negotiations between the parties to the conflict at the very least. Germany will continue to work along with France to achieve a stable, peaceful and sovereign Ukraine.

The fact that the world remains in flux also means that we are able to shape it in accordance with our own visions. The successful negotiations with Iran on its nuclear programme proved that unswerving commitment can make a tangible difference, in spite of all the international arena’s complexity. The Vienna agreement not only prevents Iran from gaining access to nuclear weapons lastingly and verifiably, but may also provide impetus for renewed talks and efforts to achieve greater cooperation in the region, thereby potentially opening up avenues for solving the difficult situation in Syria and Iraq.

The example of Iran is encouraging as it demonstrates that Germany has strong and reliable partners, especially the USA and the European Union with all of its member states, with whom we can tackle even the most complex challenges. In view of the enormity of the challenges around the globe, the EU remains the only realistic foreign policy framework in which we can act in a genuinely effective manner and help to shape the international order. German diplomacy would not have had the same impact on the Vienna agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme or on the Minsk agreements regarding the conflict in Ukraine were it not embedded in Europe. It is therefore all the more important for Germany’s foreign policy to preserve its European stance and a “European reflex”.

The world is changing rapidly and is unlikely to settle down in the foreseeable future, which is why our foreign policy must never cease to develop. In so doing, we must always ask ourselves where and how we want to assume responsibility. It remains the task of German foreign policy to make a difference in an often troubled world together with our closest partners.

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