“Times of Crisis – Why Transatlantic Partnership Matters” - Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the George Washington University

01.03.2016 - Speech

Mr. Carbonell, Prof. Shaw, Prof. Harrison!
Dear Students of the Elliott School!

I am well aware that, on this day, few people in D.C. are looking across the Atlantic. Today, most are looking in the other direction: to Alabama and Arkansas, to Tennessee and Texas. So thanks for coming, even though I am going to talk about foreign policy and not about Super Tuesday. In Germany, we do not have Super Tuesday. We imported many things from the U.S. that start with “Super”: Supermarkets, Superman, and –especially for hot summer days– the Super Soaker… But our Tuesdays, they’re just Average Tuesdays.


The field I will talk about today isn’t looking “super” in any sense of the word: foreign policy. Syria, Iraq, Libya, Ukraine, the risk of failing and fragile states, the cancer of terrorism, the so-called “Islamic State” – Can anyone of you recall a time in which we faced as many, as dangerous, as complex crises as today? I cannot either, and I'm afraid I have a few more years to recall than most of you.

What’s more: None of these crises is far away, however much we may prefer that. None of these crises is just some terrifying news item that you read about online.

For us in Germany, these crises are present in our very midst: in our towns and schools and emergency shelters. In the past year alone, over one million people have come to Germany as refugees from conflict regions, about half of them from Syria. Over one million to a country of about 80 million. The United Nations tell us that, right now, there are more people in the world who have lost their homes due to conflict and violence than at any time since the Second World War, the great catastrophe of the 20th century.


How do we react to this? What does it do to us?

I didn’t start off with Super Tuesday just to tell a joke. I started off with Super Tuesday, because if you talk about foreign policy today, you need to look at domestic politics first. Effective foreign policy in our Western democracies relies on public support, on a broad bipartisan consensus, on a large degree of continuity. And I am worried about that. In Germany and in Europe, something is gaining momentum in our domestic politics – and to be honest, I am also seeing it here in the United States during the primary campaigns: It’s the politics of fear!

Don’t get me wrong: Fear is an important human reflex. And these crises are indeed dangerous. Fear is an important indicator. But fear is a terrible advisor. In politics, just as in all parts of life. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. You’ve heard the quote a million times. So I am not actually going to quote this one, but I am going to quote the sentence that comes right after it. And who of you knows that one…? Any FDR nerds here…? In the following sentence, Roosevelt says that –I quote– fear “paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” And that’s key: We need to advance instead of retreat! We need to go out there, we need to engage, we need to address the roots of the conflicts and we need to do it together as allies and partners, especially across the Atlantic.


The politicians of fear do the opposite - in Europe just like here. They call for retreat. They pretend that we can seal ourselves off and leave the world outside to deal with its own problems. But that’s wrong. The world you live in is much too inter-connected. And in fact, it’s better that way! My country, Germany, has benefited like no other country from openness –from open borders, open markets and free movement in Europe. So the worst thing we could do is seal ourselves off. And I think it’s not much different for the U.S., the leader in trade and communication and innovation worldwide. So if you ask me: building walls is a very bad idea – no matter who pays for them.


Let’s guard against those politics of fear – they are dangerous for Europe and the U.S.! They are bad for the world and, in the end, they will also be bad for our transatlantic relations.

But what’s the alternative? One might say the “politics of hope”. I know that term sounds familiar from earlier presidential campaigns. But I am not going to use it, because in foreign policy hope mostly doesn’t get you very far. In foreign policy, what you need above all is perseverance. Perseverance even in hopeless situations. Perseverance because there are no quick and simple solutions to any of these crises.

Let me give you an example: Last summer we reached an agreement with Iran. It was a breakthrough agreement not only because it makes sure that Iran will not get hold of a nuclear weapon but also because it allows Iran to follow a new path. A path towards openness and towards a more responsible role in the security of the Middle East. Some in the U.S. have criticized the agreement. I agree it’s not perfect. It’s not the best conceivable solution to the nuclear threat, but it is the best possible solution. And do you know how long it took? Twelve years of negotiations!

Imagine this at your own university: You’ve signed yourself up for a really tough seminar, a seminar ranging from politics to nuclear physics. But when you show up to the first class, it turns out you got all the most complicated classmates of your entire school in this seminar. Classmates as complicated and incompatible as Russia and Europe and the U.S. and China and Iran - all in the same classroom. And now imagine that seminar going on for 12 years! That’s the Iran deal for you... And it does give me hope that diplomacy can bridge even the deepest of rifts.

Or take another case of perseverance. All through the Cold War, when the Iron Curtain ran right through the middle of my country, the United States stood guard in Western Germany. Imagine your grandfathers, who might have been servicemen around that time. Imagine in the year 1955, they had looked at their watch and said: “Oh wow, it’s been 10 years already…Enough of this. Let’s pack up and go!” Nobody back then, not even in the 60s or 70s, knew that it would all be over in 1990. And yet your grandfathers and your fathers stayed! For 45 years.

And if they hadn’t stayed, I wouldn’t be living in a unified, free and strong Germany today. Those are the fruits of perseverance!


After 1990, after the end of the Cold War, many of us hoped that things would be easier now. There was a famous bestseller called “The End of History”. After all, the Western liberal democracies had proven their superiority once and for all. So we hoped that, somehow, history wouldn’t be as hard again.

What a naïve hope! Of course, history is still hard on us. Now it is throwing new types of conflict at us –not just conflicts of states against states, but more often states against non-state actors. Conflicts wrapped up in layers and layers of interests and ambitions of competing neighbors. Conflicts that drive state order and international order to the brink of collapse. All this is happening right now in the terrible suffering in Syria. And again, we can’t just hope for these crises to go away. I’m afraid they are here to stay. In fact, while we are normally use the word “crisis” to mean an exception, I think crisis is about to become the new normal. In foreign policy, anyway – hopefully not at home.


But do you know what my colleague John Kerry said two weeks ago, over in Munich? He said: “This moment is not as overwhelming as people think it is.

We know what needs to be done, and most importantly, we have the power to do it.” In spite of all my gloomy analysis, I agree with John! I believe we have every reason to be confident. Confident not out of thin air, but confident because we mastered even greater challenges in the past! And most importantly: Because we’ve learned from them!

That’s why I said in Munich: Now that history is throwing new challenges at us, let’s not go through the pains of the old ones again! The world has moved on – for better and for worse. And we have moved on, too. We have learned from the past and we have developed precious institutions and instruments in response!

Let me give you a few examples:

After centuries of violent strife, Europe has created the European Union, to live together in peace and cooperation. Today, as all the crises from Euro to Brexit to refugees are putting Europe under pressure, do we really want to give up that lesson? Do we really want to risk falling back into the pain of the past? I hope not!

Second example: After two World Wars, the world has given itself rules and institutions to protect the peace and safety of all people: the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Just some weeks ago, the world showed that it still knows how to use these institutions today. 190 states signed an agreement in Paris to fight the most far-reaching long-term crisis we all face: the challenge of climate change.

Third: After centuries of power politics, the West created an alliance that transcends the old logic of “might makes right”. NATO protects the territorial integrity of all its members, big or small. Or, as the Three Musceteers would say it: One for All and All for One. Today, as some countries are falling back into 19th century power politics, we must stand up to NATO’s vision. We will reaffirm our vision and unity at the Warsaw Summit – our resolve to defend each other against any aggression while offering dialogue and engagement to overcome conflict and renew trust.

As a fourth example, take your own historical experience: It took a painful Civil War that almost tore this country apart for the States to learn the importance of national unity. You learned under great sacrifices that “a house divided” cannot stand. And now, 150 years after the Civil War, it is important to apply this lesson to the conflicts of today. Nation states are under pressure. Fragile and failing states are a bigger threat in our age than inter-state conflict. That’s true all across the Middle East and also in Northern Africa. I don’t think any conflict, including Syria, would be easier to solve if we just redrew the maps and changed state lines. Instead, my country invests great resources and energy in the stabilization of fragile states, from Mali to Iraq.

My last example goes back to the Cold War. You know: When I was your age, I was also at university. But my university was just a few dozen miles away from the Iron Curtain, the line dividing my country and the entire world. I remember that pain of division, and that’s why I said in Munich: We are not back in the Cold War, and we shouldn’t talk ourselves into it.

Instead, let’s look at what we've learned! We have an institution, called the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, that not only helped us overcome the Cold War, but that can still help us solve the conflicts of today. Take the Ukraine conflict: Without the courageous men and women of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, we wouldn't have been able to conclude the Minsk agreements. And even though Minsk is not a perfect solution and there is still much to do on both sides to implement Minsk, we would be in a much worse place without it. Because we believe in the importance of the OSCE at this time of crisis, Germany has taken on the OSCE Chairmanship for this year. Part of that leadership will be our continued dialogue with Russia. And do you know why? Because for good or for ill, Russia is a reality which we cannot ignore. For good or for ill, Russia has influence. It has influence in the Middle East, in Syria, in Europe, and beyond. So if we want to achieve solutions, we need to engage with Russia, even if it’s hard. And at the moment, it's very hard indeed.

Okay, I realize that my speech almost turned into a history lecture. And though I do have white hair and glasses, that’s not why I like to talk about history. I just believe we need to remind ourselves of the lessons that our fathers and grandfathers learned. Of the tools and institutions they created. You can put these tools to work now, on your generation’s challenges. That's why I’m confident.


So what do I set against the politics of fear? Perseverance, confidence, and thirdly: cooperation. The United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone and neither can the world solve them without the U.S. We need to cooperate and we have cooperated for seven decades. In doing so, we have built the strongest alliance that either of us has ever had: the Transatlantic Alliance.

It’s strong in terms of security,

it’s strong in terms of economy –last year, the U.S. has become Germany's biggest trading partner. German firms have created more than 600.000 jobs in the U.S.

And it’s strong in terms of culture. Hollywood loves Berlin. So much that, according to Season Five of that series, Berlin is now part of the “Homeland”... And speaking of another long-awaited series: Maybe in Season Four, Claire Underwood will want to become Ambassador to Berlin. It's just so fashionable...But no spoilers today.

Coming back to the real world, the Transatlantic Alliance is also strong in the every-day cooperation between our governments. I think our governments today are closer both in our basic ideas and our daily work on foreign policy than I can ever remember. And you can’t overestimate how important that is in this time of global turmoil.

The closeness of our cooperation sometimes shows itself in unexpected ways. Two weeks ago, after a long day of panels, speeches, bilateral and multilateral meetings at the Munich Security Conference, your Secretary Kerry and I spontaneously spent three hours in a Paulaner beer hall… After a while, our entire staffs joined in and they stayed even longer. So the next morning, they weren’t looking very good. But they said to us: “President Kennedy once said: ‘United, there is little we cannot do’. Last night, we found new meaning in that.” I see: some of you just decided for the Diplomatic Service…


When I talk about cooperation to solve the current crises, then we need others, too. The United States and Europe cannot shoulder responsibility for peace and security alone. Every strong nation bears part of that responsibility. Take the case of Syria again. When people talk about that conflict, they talk not only about Syria. But they talk about Iran and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia. They talk about their national interests and ambitions, about rivalries and fears. All that is real and it is relevant.

But I suggest that we measure a country’s true strength not by these things but by its willingness and ability to assume responsibility not only for its own security, but also beyond its own borders. With the International Syria Support Group, we have a group where all nations who have a stake in Syria sit together at the same table. Two weeks ago, every member of that group renewed their commitment to shared responsibility in Syria. The Munich commitments are clear – they are clear about humanitarian access, they are clear about the reduction of violence and the ceasefire, and they are clear about political, humanitarian and military coordination. So what counts now is that we all live up to the implementation of these commitments! Every hour that the current ceasefire holds is an important part of that - most of all for the people suffering in Syria.


Perseverance, confidence, cooperation and responsibility. It’s a long list. But while we try to do all that, let’s not get overwhelmed by the magnitude of crises. Let’s take one step before the other. Let’s be pragmatic! In my mind, pragmatism includes not inflating and exaggerating everything that we do politically. Take the example of Germany’s refugee policy. Our refugee policy is neither Germany’s moral perfection nor Germany’s downfall. Giving shelter to victims of war, violence and persecution is simply a humanitarian duty. Not more, not less. And by the way, that humanitarian duty is enshrined not only in Germany’s Basic Law, but also in the European Treaties and in the Geneva Refugee Convention, which 146 other countries besides Germany have signed. I know this is a controversial issue over here. But the United States are known around the world as the “melting pot”, as a nation that welcomes immigrants and gives refuge to those who need it. So I hope we will work together pragmatically to manage displacement and migration today. Of course, we have to bring down the number of refugees. The deescalation of the Syrian war and the stabilization of those conflict regions is critical in tackling the root causes of displacement.


If you’re thinking: “This pragmatism is so typically German of him” – that’s not entirely true. The Founding Fathers of this great nation were not only powerful leaders and visionary statesmen, but they were also pretty pragmatic and practical people.

George Washington not only won the Revolutionary War and was the First President of this nation, but he was also a farmer who invented the seven-year crop rotation.

Thomas Jefferson not only wrote the Declaration of Independence and ensured the separation of church and state, but he also got up every morning to check on his 250 varieties of vegetable and noted down every detail of their progress in his notebooks.

I, by contrast, hardly know how to make a pancake. But that’s not my point. My point is: We don’t have to retreat into the politics of fear. We have every reason to be confident in our ability to change the world for the better.

We know that, in times of crisis, every practical step counts. Even if for every two steps forward there’ll also be a step back.

We know that, in times of uncertainty, we can build on the institutions that our ancestors gave us after a violent history.

We know that, in times of changing global order, we can shape the new order, just as those Founding Fathers did.

And we know that, in times of shifting global weights, we should deepen our confident alliance across the Atlantic.

Thank you.

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