“A world out of joint: What binds us together? The international order 70 years after the founding of the United Nations” - Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Freie Universität Berlin

21.10.2015 - Speech

President Alt,
Professor Risse,
Distinguished guests,
Learned students,

I am really glad to have been asked to speak here at the Freie Universität Berlin. It’s been a while since I went to uni – I know it's hard to tell just by looking at me ... But seriously, it’s now my daughter who has just started university. Not here in Berlin, but in Leipzig, another town that’s also hip – or so I’ve been told.

As regards my student days, let me clear one thing up straight away. What I really wanted to become was a sports journalist. But you know how it goes. I studied law instead. You’ve got to make a living somehow.

To follow your passion or the dictates of reason – that’s one of the great questions in life in general, and in particular when deciding what to study. One of my professors at university once told us about a group of first years who were debating their choice of subjects.

At some stage they started arguing about which of their subjects was the oldest and most venerable. The medic said, “Well, when God made Eve from one of Adam’s ribs, he performed the first medical operation in history. So obviously medicine is the oldest subject!” But a student of architecture did not agree. (By the way, that’s another subject I wanted to study.) She said: “No, no. Way before that, God made the world out of the chaos. Architecture existed first!” At that point the lawyer got up and said: “Yeah – and where do you think the chaos came from?”


À propos chaos: Today’s lecture is entitled “A world out of joint” – the international order 70 years after the founding of the United Nations.

I suggest we start with the momentous occasion we are recalling today, something we rightly want to celebrate! The founding of the United Nations was a pivotal moment for humankind.

But what was truly astounding about that moment is that it came not against a backdrop of glorious sunshine and pastures green, but in 1945. The world order was not simply “out of joint” – it had been reduced to ash and rubble.

At this nadir – amid the ruins of the Second World War, over 50 million graves, as the winter of the Cold War spread its frosty fingers – the founding fathers and mothers managed to give their vision of a more peaceful world a new ordered foundation: the Charter of the United Nations.

I think that this is an encouraging message, even today! It is true that we live in restless times. But the foundations of the United Nations are still strong – and it is up to us to renew them, the pillars of our coexistence, as required. The moment of their birth 70 years ago proves that we can do it! We can make order.

Not, of course, on our own. But there are many people who want order – our European and transatlantic friends, of course. But also elsewhere, also among the difficult players – for example in Iran and Saudi Arabia, from whence I returned just last night. There, too, people need to assume responsibility for a shared order, a responsibility which will prevail over national interests or pride.

For – and this is another way of defining the term – the opposite of “order” is not simply “disarray”. That sounds much too harmless. As if someone hadn’t cleared up their room. The real opposite of order is brute force! Brute force – as unleashed in the present devastating conflicts, in Syria, in Iraq, across the entire arc of crisis from Libya to Afghanistan, and in many parts of Africa. And even – something we had long since discounted – even on our continent, in Europe, war and peace has become a real issue once again, in Ukraine.

The concentration of crises in the present day, the flood of dreadful images on the news every evening – this concentration is no coincidence. It is a conflagration caused by the erosion of the existing order, the scrambling for influence, and the fight for prestige and domination. The world’s tectonic plates are being shifted out of their accustomed places. And rifts are opening up, as so effectively illustrated by the sculpture outside the UN Headquarters in New York, which you can see behind me.

25 years ago many people hoped that the East-West confrontation, the bipolar Cold War era, would be followed by a new, peaceful, multi-polar age in which responsibility for peace would be shared equally on many shoulders. Some even spoke of the “end of history”. But no. The world of today is no longer bipolar. But it’s not multi-polar either. It’s non-polar. It is in search of a new order. But this search is not like a civilised class discussion at the Otto Suhr Institute – it has erupted into violence around the globe.


The struggle for order – that is indeed one parallel between the birth of the UN post World War II and our times now. But there’s a huge difference that can’t be overlooked: the world has shrunk. It has become more interconnected – in technological terms, economic terms, and social terms. Borders are becoming indistinct. There is no clear distinction between home and abroad. Even the dividing line between domestic and foreign policy is fading!

Nowhere is this as clear as when considering the fate of the hundreds of thousands who have fled the trouble spots of this world and who are now seeking refuge here. A seemingly distant conflict in a seemingly distant land. But the people are here, at our gates! I have heard from your President just how incredibly many students and members of the Freie Universität have volunteered to help with the arrival and integration of refugees here. All the volunteers have my full respect – as does the management of the Freie Universität, which has launched “Welcome@FUBerlin”, a wide-ranging package of courses and aids to help refugees settle in and study at the university. Thank you very much for that as well.

The question remains how are we to react politically to the mass exodus? Ladies and gentlemen, if it is true that the distinction between home and abroad is becoming foggier, that national borders are disappearing, then this is really the wrong time to put up new borders in our heads. It’s the wrong time for a debate on a “defining German culture”. Instead, it’s time to ask how we want to live together across borders. It’s time to ask the question on the board right there: “What binds us together?” And what can we and should we expect of each other internationally? That – not anything abstract – is the question that underlies any ideas about an international order.


I would like to try to answer it.

My answer begins with Willy Brandt – you’ve got to allow for the fact that at your age I drove around in a Citroen 2CV plastered with “Vote Willy” stickers. In Willy Brandt’s very first speech to the Bundestag as Federal Chancellor, he used these wonderful words: “We Germans want to be a people of good neighbours.”

That was in 1969. Back then these words were directed above all at Poland, France and all the neighbouring countries in Europe that had suffered greatly at the hands of Nazi Germany. But now, when we meet people here, among us, who have fled the violence in Damascus or Aleppo or Erbil and come all the way to Berlin, we realise for ourselves that these parts of the world have also become part of our neighbourhood.

And shouldn’t we then interpret Willy Brandt’s words in a new light? At a time when the world has become smaller, but the crises have if anything got bigger, I believe we should reaffirm once again that we Germans want to be a people of good neighbours, to those both near and far.


Good neighbourliness – that’s a concept that can be expressed in many languages. Sometimes diplomacy can be difficult, if our terms and values have no direct equivalent in other languages. But wanting to live in good neighbourliness is an idea familiar to peoples and cultures in many tongues.

Good neighbourliness is also a meaningful analogy when applied to the tasks of foreign policy. This is because neighbourhoods, just like international orders, only work if their inhabitants assume responsibility, not just for their homes, but also beyond their garden gates. As I always say to my counterparts and colleagues around the world, neighbours don’t have to like each other – they don’t have to go down to the pub together every night – but they do have to be able to work together to solve problems that affect them all.

That’s how the UN Security Council functions, for example, especially as concerns the US and Russia. Of course, it’s counter-productive for Russia to take unilateral military action in Syria. And of course it’s set back the negotiations towards a ceasefire at least, which many people – including myself – had placed so much hope in during the UN General Assembly in New York just a few weeks ago. But nevertheless I try to engage in dialogue with both my American and my Russian colleagues, wherever I can. For it is clear that we need Russia to solve the Syrian conflict. But we don’t need Moscow’s bombs. We need Moscow’s commitment at the negotiating table along with all the key powers: the US, Russia and Europe, but of course the regional players as well, namely Syria’s neighbours in the region.

As you know, I was in Iran and Saudi Arabia this weekend, and a few days earlier I went to Turkey. They are all, in their different ways, very difficult interlocutors. But that just makes it all the more imperative to talk to them. Sometimes, if I'm still feeling strong enough in the evening, I look at my Facebook page. There are loads of new comments on it right now. Some explaining just why we shouldn’t be talking to Turkey, others explaining why we shouldn’t talk to Iran, and others making the same point about Saudi Arabia. But I think this is wrong. People who don’t want to talk to these players can’t genuinely claim to want peace in Syria. The conflict in Syria will only be soluble if these players are also willing to engage in dialogue. But it’s not enough for us to talk to them. They have to be willing to talk to each other.

It’s a long, hard road. We Germans should facilitate the opening of such channels of communication and support political processes wherever we can. But of course we mustn’t forget that politics – and especially foreign policy – is the art of the possible.

Our leverage is limited. Professor Risse, I know that in academia it is said that diplomacy requires “strategic patience”. Or, as I would put it as a practitioner, it requires diplomats who need very little sleep.

But there is hope. Perseverance does pay! Let’s take Iran as an example. Ten years ago, I attended my first negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme. (That was back in 2005, when I was first elected German Foreign Minister, before the voters decided they would rather see me in the Opposition, a decision I wasn’t happy with, as you will have noticed, and so I came back!) Over the ten years that followed, I was involved in or closely observed all the twists and turns of this process. I saw how these negotiations were often frustrating, how they were often simply treading water, and how often they were almost abandoned. But this summer, in Vienna, we managed to conclude an agreement with Iran. This agreement not only prevents Iran from gaining access to nuclear weapons, but could also be a foundation that might create new options for a new order in the Middle East – if Iran were to choose to be less isolated and were to gradually become less of a spoiler and more of a constructive partner in the region. Whether this will happen is an open question. But the point is it will not happen on its own. Peace and stability don’t simply fall like manna from heaven, they have to be worked for. And that’s why I said the following on the day the Vienna agreement was signed: The responsibility of the E3+3, who negotiated this agreement with Iran, did not end with the signing of the document. It entered into a new phase. And we Europeans especially, who have already been through this process of establishing peace and security for ourselves, we should keep on campaigning and working to ensure that the parties there agree to seek not just a precarious security from each other, but true security with each other.

That’s all very well, you might be thinking. These are all fine diplomatic words. But what do they all mean in practice?

Let me give you one topical example. Libya. Just a few nautical miles off the southern Italian coast we have a neighbour which as a state has almost entirely failed. We know of nearly a hundred armed groups that are fighting each other while the state and its organs descend into chaos. Given this situation, we said in the summer we should at least try to get the main parties to the conflict around one table. And so we got to work: firstly, to identify the key groups and individuals, then we invited them and a few major international partners to Berlin for talks, even sending a plane to Tripoli to collect them. Right there, though, you hit on a very practical diplomatic problem. These people had only been used to shooting at each other; they’d never spoken to each other. So they refused to get into the same plane! Everyone wanted their own plane. At that point I said “There won’t be any extra planes. If you can’t even pass this test, there’s no point in going any further.” Our first partial success? They got on the plane. When they landed at Tegel airport that evening, they all wanted to disappear straight off to their hotels. All different hotels, naturally. At which point we said: “But we want to invite you to dinner!” To which they replied: “Oh, that sounds good.” And we said: “So you can get to know each other.” And each group said: “But we don’t want to get to know them!” Well, what do you do in that situation? We were prepared: dinner was on a steamboat on the Spree! No‑one can get away from there! So we chugged up and down the river for a few hours, and slowly they put out a few feelers, and started to talk to each other, and next day we were able to hold real political talks. That’s just one example of everyday diplomacy. A word of advice: if things are hotting up a bit too much in the students’ union, hire a steamer on the Spree!


That’s one side of the coin. Orders, like good neighbourhoods, need members who are committed. But they also need shared foundations, in other words rules and institutions. This was precisely the vision behind the establishment of the UN 70 years ago: the world’s states would set themselves rules, which everyone would then have to follow, including the strong states.

The neighbourhood analogy works here, too. After all, there’s at least one fundamental rule among neighbours – the garden fence. Respecting boundaries and the inviolability of others. Unfortunately, not even that is a given in international politics today. Russia violated this fundamental rule with its annexation of Crimea and its intervention in eastern Ukraine. And of course we had to call this violation what it was and respond to it.

I believe we Germans in particular do well to stand up for rules and institutions in the international order. And the best way to ensure our credibility in doing so is to integrate ourselves and let ourselves be integrated into these rules and institutions. After all, it is precisely this gradual integration into rules, alliances and institutions which has given rise to new confidence in us over the decades, which – following the catastrophe of the Second World War – has again earned us a place at the heart of the international community.

That is why I believe that we Germans bear a special responsibility for these international standards, institutions and rules. Because of our historical responsibility in itself, but also because, as a globally connected country, we quite simply depend on a rules-based international order.


The word “rules” reminds me – and possibly you, too – of a rather revealing stereotype I often hear about on my travels: “Oh, you Germans. You won’t cross the road when the light’s on red, even if there’s not a car in sight.” To which I say: “Well, you don’t know what our cyclists are like – especially when they’re on the way from the uni to the pub!”

Seriously, though, there is a deeper truth behind the stereotype. Rules are not an end in themselves. We had an intensive discussion about this in Europe during the euro crisis. Reliable shared orders need rules, yes. But ultimately rules need to meet political goals. The eurozone is not a rule-bound temple, but a political space in which policymaking has to carry on.

And that’s true of international order as a whole: it is not a rigid construction, but needs room to breathe.

Steven Erlanger once said that “world orders grow old”. This is true in two senses. Firstly, legitimacy can be lost over time. An institutional order which, right the way up to the UN Security Council, reflects reality as it was in 1945 will in time lose legitimacy, especially in the eyes of the self‑confident new players on the world stage. The BRICS states’ New Development Bank – set up in part as a result of the refusal of the West in particular to adjust shares in the existing institutions – may be a first indication of this tendency.

The second aspect is this: over time, completely new areas are emerging which have yet to establish their order. If you take a look at your own modern world, you’ll soon come up with a whole list of such areas: climate and the environment, of course – and we need to make substantial progress on this at the Climate Change Conference in Paris in December – along with space, the question of new uses of and conditions on the world’s oceans and above all an area you most certainly know more about than I do – the internet. We do not yet have an order for the digital sphere. Governments alone cannot decide how to balance freedom and security not only at national level but at international level; this is a job for the internet companies that accumulate all the data, working along with the technology community, NGOs and governments. This has all to be tackled.

Institutional legitimacy and room to breathe – this is a crucial balancing-act for world public policy. Order needs change, but change also needs order if it is to take place peacefully.


I believe there is one system in which this balance best functions, and that’s democracy. Democracies are able to question themselves. This takes effort, but it makes peaceful change possible. And that’s why I believe we have no need to fear change in a democracy.

This brings me back to the subject of flight and migration. When borders become indistinct, when the neighbourhood network becomes denser, then self changes too. Home changes. Let’s take a look back over the past few decades. Germany has become home to millions of people! We can start with my own mother, who arrived in eastern Westphalia in 1945 as an expellee from Silesia. Even then, of course, the new arrivals were not welcomed everywhere. Then think of the guest workers from Italy, Portugal, Turkey and Greece who arrived here in the 1960s and 70s. The 80s and 90s saw new arrivals from the territory of the former Soviet Union and the regions of the Balkans hit by civil war, and from many other places too. Our country has a wealth of experience with migration and integration. It may surprise you to know that, even before the current influx of refugees began, Germany had a higher proportion of inhabitants with foreign roots than the country of immigration, the United States. When I mentioned that in the States, at first people looked at me disbelievingly, then they wanted to see the statistics...

Home changes, and its standards change. Take some time and ring your parents or grandparents and ask them what Germany used to be like. Even if you don’t ask them that, take the time to give them a call! They’ll be pleased... Fifty years ago, for example, women in Germany were not allowed to have their own bank account, and they had to ask their husband’s permission if they wanted to go out to work. That’s really not all that long ago. This standard has changed. Fortunately. And so we should not be anxious, and certainly not self-righteous, in the discussion as to whether we will manage to integrate the new arrivals in Germany, and we should not make the question of their religion the dominant one when it comes to integration.


Commitment, integration, the ability to change. Finally, I’d like to mention a fourth aspect of international public policy. Diversity.

There is no one international order. There are lots of international orders.

From a street in Kreuzberg – or wherever you live – to the European Union, each and every one of us belongs to many different overlapping orders. There are local, national and regional orders. But also those which we can rightly call “universal”, first and foremost the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“Public policy” takes place at all these levels. An exclusively national “regulatory policy”, that old standard in economics textbooks, is an impossibility now, in the network of neighbourhoods in which we live. And because we Germans are members of many orders, we engage at various levels.

We engage in the United Nations, because the UN cannot be stronger than its members allow it to be.

We engage at regional level, because although the EU is undoubtedly a global pioneer in terms of regional order, many people around the world wonder, given the euro crisis, the distribution of refugees and the Ukraine conflict, whether it can cope with the pressure. We Europeans can only prove that it can if we act together!

And we engage at national level. I believe the sovereign nation-state will remain the basic building-block for international order. That’s why were are participating in missions to stabilise fragile states in the arc of crisis from Libya to Iraq and Afghanistan; that’s why we are providing support for essential state functions like schools and hospitals; that’s why we are supporting crisis prevention and good governance projects, such as those you, Professor Risse, are studying in cooperation with the Federal Foreign Office in Collaborative Research Center (SFB) 700.


But diversity of orders means something else as well. “Everything has its order” is a fine saying, but it’s not much use in foreign policy. It’s rarely helpful to categorise things as axes of evil or axes of good. I remember a NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting, right at the outset of the Ukraine crisis last year, at which the Canadian Foreign Minister said: “Guys! We need to decide now whether Russia is friend or foe, partner or opponent.” I said to him: “You might be able to put it that way in Canada. But there is one thing Russia will always be to Europe: a large neighbour!” For that reason alone, we must not shape security in Europe in the long term without Russia, far less against Russia – but only with Russia. In this spirit, we have decided to take on the OSCE Chairmanship this coming year.

Yes, there are many different concepts of order around the world. There is even a kind of competition of ideas when it comes to the term. A journalist told me how he’d travelled to Crimea in the spring of 2014 during the annexation phase. The separatists were holding a referendum on secession which was not in keeping with international law. In the days leading up to the vote, the journalist saw a poster on walls all around the city: on a dark red background, a picture of Vladimir Putin, with one single word underneath, “Porjádok”. Russian for “order”!

There is no doubt that “order” is not a fixed term. It’s all a matter of what substance we give it. But I believe if there is a competition for ideas on order, then we have every reason to take part with confidence.

Not by swinging the moral cudgel, but by trusting in the power of our example.

Not because we claim to know everything better, but because we have something to offer.

Not by shutting ourselves off from an unpeaceful world, but by going out and engaging.

One thing I can definitely report from my trips as Foreign Minister: that’s what many people out there expect of us! They trust us Germans to be good neighbours. And they hope that we, and soon you, will engage for the network of neighbourhoods in which we live. I encourage you to do so.

Thank you very much.

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