Crisis, conflict, dialogue

11.02.2016 - Interview

German foreign policy in a tumultuous world: punching our weight. By Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Published in the Security Times (11.02.2016).

German foreign policy in a tumultuous world: punching our weight. By Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Published in the Security Times (11.02.2016).


More than any other event in recent history, the current refugee crisis has illustrated that the world has walked through our front door - mostly without knocking first. The effect of a civil war 3000 kilometers away is on display in German schools, gyms and on the streets. And it sheds a clear light on our responsibilities for Europe and abroad.

Two years ago at the Munich Security Conference, we discussed how the shouldering of international responsibility starts at home. This insight has become a reality to an extent I would not have imagined then. In 2015, Germany received over one million refugees fleeing war and violence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflicts. We have lived up to our responsibility, offering protection to hundreds of thousands of refugees. And that is something we can be proud of.

At the same time, it is obvious that we will have to find ways to reduce the number of refugees coming to Germany and Europe, as the current trajectory is clearly unsustainable. But just sealing off our borders will not help, nor defining an upper limit on the number of refugees that we will take on board.

Instead we need a strong and decisive Europe. Focusing on national solutions to this global challenge might seem tempting but is nothing but a mere illusion. And more than that: terminating the principle of European solidarity puts the European idea as a whole at risk.

In view of a divided Europe, right-wing populism is on the rise again. Freedom of movement within the Schengen area – a major achievement of our integration process – is in danger.

We cannot allow ourselves to stand on the side-line of this conflict. We have built this continent for over half a century; we have put enormous efforts, power and strength into achieving a truly united Europe. Together we have managed to overcome huge challenges in past and present. And yet again, we are facing truly historical tasks: to offer shelter to the truly needy, to integrate men, women and children into our societies, but also to reduce and control the steady influx of migrants to Europe.

However difficult this might seem, it also holds a chance: We have already taken steps towards a European solution, the European Commission has already put forward the sketches of a broader mandate for Frontex, and we are working hard to implement the far-reaching agreement with Turkey in order to reduce and manage the flow of refugees. Clearly, we will not achieve a solution overnight. But we are already in the course of implementing a bundle of measures that will help us tackle the crisis.

I admit: this is not going to be an easy road, but it is the only one which will not lead into a dead-end. Ultimately, however, we will not be able to bring the influx of refugees back down to manageable levels unless we address its root causes- most importantly by defusing the violent conflicts and crises that have been destabilizing Europe's southern and eastern neighborhood.

These are testing times for the European Union. Striking a balance between the common European interest in maintaining an effective and humane refugee policy on the one hand and the need to build and maintain political majorities in member states will remain a key challenge.

On the international stage, Germany has stepped up its efforts to contribute to political and diplomatic solutions. This is more often than not a painstaking process, requiring persistence and patience, but we have recently made important progress. The nuclear accord with Iran shows that it was possible to negotiate a solution for a proliferation crisis that had an immediate potential for a hot war. And it may yet turn out to be a crucial milestone on the way to resolving other violent conflicts in the region.

In the case of Syria, we have managed for the first time to bring all the crucial international and regional actors to the negotiating table needed for a political solution. More importantly, these actors have agreed on a road map for a political solution – including a ceasefire and the outlines of a transition process – which was endorsed by a resolution of the Security Council. There is still a very long way to go, and none of the steps ahead will be easy -the recent escalation between Saudi Arabia and Iran bears witness to that. But crises like these can and must be alleviated by diplomacy. Our message to Riyadh and Tehran is clear: Both countries bear a broader responsibility for the stability of the region.

In Eastern Europe we have also made some real progress since we last met at the Munich Security Conference. The situation in Ukraine is far from perfect. Yet compared to the situation we had last summer, where we were almost running into an open war, Ukraine and the whole of Europe is much better off today. The Minsk process has delivered a marked reduction in violence and casualties.

Without any doubt, there still is a lot of work ahead of us: frequent violations of the ceasefire must stop. Every shot that is fired is still one too many. At the same time, a constitutional reform for decentralization in Ukraine and the elaboration of a special status law for certain areas in Eastern Ukraine remain decisive for a peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intervention in Ukraine have stirred many concerns and fears, especially among our Eastern European NATO allies. That is why Germany has politically supported and militarily contributed to the Alliance’s reassurance and adaptation measures. At the same time we need to complement reassurance with a reinvigoration of our dialogue with Russia: I am speaking of a dialogue that should identify areas of common interest but also clearly spell out where we have sharp differences. The core principles of European security, as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act and the Paris Charta, are not up for negotiation. Reaffirming them is exactly what Germany will strive for in the course of our OSCE Chairmanship. Our guiding motive for this chairmanship is renewing dialogue, rebuilding trust and restoring security.

In all of these endeavors – be it in the Middle East or in Eastern Europe – our transatlantic relationship is of critical importance. The diplomatic punch and the security guarantee of the United States remain indispensable. It is in this context that Germany actively contributes to conflict resolution, be it in the context of the “E3 + 3” or the Vienna talks on Syria.

Germany wants to be a facilitator, enabling dialogue and supporting negotiation processes. We have stepped up our commitment both of diplomatic energy and resources to civilian stabilization and reconstruction, efforts that are essential to pave the way towards longer-term peace in conflict areas. A case in point is Iraq, where we are helping to quickly rebuild public services and critical infrastructure in areas liberated from ISIS – we are convinced that these measures are essential in order to restore the confidence of the Iraqi people in their public institutions. In Tikrit, this stabilization operation has allowed more than 150.000 internally displaced persons to return to their homes, and we are preparing to deliver the same support in Sinjar, Ramadi and elsewhere.

Relying on diplomacy, crisis prevention and stabilization does not mean to rule out military engagement if and where it is a necessary component of a peace effort. We all know that a group like ISIS, which is not interested in negotiated solutions or peace accords, will not be defeated without military means.

Germany has decided to contribute reconnaissance assets, logistical support and protection to the fight against ISIS, as well as providing training and equipment to the Kurdish Peshmerga, who are fighting ISIS on the ground. Germany is also contributing, alongside its NATO allies and other partners, to international missions in Afghanistan, Sudan and Mali.

In sum, Germany’s international responsibility has many facets – domestically, on the European level and with regard to global peace efforts. We have to use the full spectrum of our foreign and security toolbox in an effective and coherent way, from conflict prevention to post-conflict stabilization. The political processes to solve conflicts and crises will always be at center stage, involving persistent efforts and patience. The conclusion of the nuclear agreement with Iran and the beginning of its implementation is a heartening example that such efforts can indeed be successful.

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