Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Egon Bahr Symposium

21.04.2016 - Speech

Adelheid Bahr,
Wolfgang Schmidt, Roland Schmidt,
Ladies and gentlemen of the Willy‑Brandt‑Kreis,
Honoured guests and friends,

Thank you for inviting me here today. I think Egon would be very pleased with us and with this symposium, which sees us honouring his legacy not by holding a dreary memorial event but by looking to the future – just as he always did.

And you were right – in the last year of his life, he was extremely worried about the future of Europe’s peaceful order. It was no coincidence that he gave his last major speech in Moscow, a place that symbolises landmark moments not only in his own political career but also in German‑Russian relations.

I myself spent some time with him shortly before that trip to Moscow. He was very worried about relations with Russia and the new east‑west divisions, and rightly so. Our discussions were serious, searching for ways to curb the estrangement reemerging between Germans and Russians. We had arranged to meet again after his Moscow trip. He wanted to pass on his impressions after his talks with Gorbachev and other experienced Russian contacts, as he had so often done in recent years. But it was not to be. And now I miss his voice – as many of you do too.

It’s not just his wise advice that I miss from our talks, though. I miss, for instance, the familiar ritual of our little tobacco time. Every few months, he would announce a visit: “I’ll need one hour precisely!” He’d arrive five minutes ahead of time, sit down in the big armchair on my right, and – whether the topic was to be Moscow, Washington or Kyiv – always started with the same question: “Frank, how’s your wife?” Then he’d dig his cigarettes and lighter out of his coat pocket and wave them under my nose. Always the same ritual. I’d say, “Egon, you know I worked hard to become a non‑smoker.” To which he’d reply, “And you can remain so – but take one. It makes the talk flow better, you’ll see.” And there we’d sit together, smoking and talking the hour away, until he said, “I’m leaving now; you’ve got more important things to do.” And he’d be off again, as punctual as he’d arrived, with his familiar short stride.

Responsibility for the European peace, the legacy of Egon Bahr and Willy Brandt, is ours to shoulder now in these turbulent times. For those two, taking care of the European peace always included looking after relations with Russia, preventing new rifts between east and west.

When the Cold War was at its coldest, Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr dared to launch the new Ostpolitik. It was highly controversial at the time, but its tenets have now becoming nothing less than the guiding principles of our foreign policy. From 1966 on, Egon planned that “change through rapprochement” in minute detail on the Policy Planning Staff at the Federal Foreign Office, and it became a reality under Federal Chancellor Willy Brandt, in the “policy of small steps”, coming to fruition in the Eastern Treaties, the CSCE process and, ultimately, in German reunification and European coalescence. After the Wall fell, the CSCE process led to the establishment of the OSCE, which Germany is chairing this year. Clearly, the European peaceful order for which Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr prepared the ground at the height of the Cold War has proven astonishingly resilient – and these days, responsibility for it is ours!


Where do we stand today with the legacy of Brandt’s Ostpolitik and détente?
One key principle of Ostpolitik still stands, for geographical reasons if nothing else (as geography doesn’t exactly change very quickly...): Russia is our largest European neighbour. Or as Egon once put it, “America is indispensable; Russia is immovable.” And that means there can be no lasting security for Europe without, not to mention in conflict with, Russia.

But our Ostpolitik is operating in a different context today. In fact, the prevailing conditions are quite the opposite to what they were.

Egon Bahr and Willy Brandt were seeking to establish connections at a time of great division. They built bridges over the rifts of the Cold War. Today, in contrast, we have enjoyed a period of at least apparent coalescence and are facing new and growing rifts in the European and global order.

In the 1990s and 2000s, many thought it practically inevitable that the world would just keep coalescing. You will remember that, twelve years back, we were still talking about the possibility of Russia joining NATO. Many people – myself included, and many of you as well – were extremely hopeful about Russia’s modernisation and a growing partnership within the structures of a common European peaceful order. If you go back and read the speech Putin gave in the German Bundestag in 2001, you’ll find that hope reflected very clearly on the Russian side too.

Nowadays, however, we are facing the unmistakeable emergence of cracks, division and regression.

The illegal annexation of Crimea and destabilisation of eastern Ukraine was an OSCE participating State, for the first time since the end of the Cold War, openly contesting the sovereignty of another country and massively undermining the principles of the CSCE Final Act. These actions jeopardise the European peaceful order. The sober endeavour of fairly balancing interests on important issues has been replaced by the politics of prestige on Russia’s part, as it seeks to be treated as an equal by the major powers, primarily the United States.

The vision of a shared space from the Atlantic to the Pacific that we worked so long and hard for – and which of course remains the right goal! – is opposed in Russia by nationalist voices and a desire to be distinct from Europe.

Add to this the deep economic crisis in Russia, fed not only by low oil prices but by a lack of structural reform. In this context, I welcome the fact that talks on possible interests in modernisation have at least been resumed between German business and President Putin.

And, wherever we are working for exchange in the arts, sciences and civil society, we must be aware of Russian attempts to control and restrict spaces of social interaction. The question of influence over Russian minorities abroad has become such a matter. In Moscow, I told President Putin and Minister Lavrov very clearly that, if the case of Lisa F. – which the state prosecutor found to be completely without foundation – could see protests held in several cities simultaneously shortly afterwards, some influence must have been exercised – as indeed we were able to observe on social media, with some Russian embassies involved.

I believe that recognising these rifts and describing them as such is realistic and part of what it means to feel responsible for Egon and Willy’s legacy. After all, we have to assume that these factors will affect our relations with Russia for a long time.


So what does that mean for our policy? I advocate double dialogue with Russia: not only dialogue about what we have in common and may be able to collaborate on but also frank dialogue about our differences!

You know that I call for dialogue with Russia wherever there are realistic areas for cooperation. I seek those conversations not only bilaterally – I was in Moscow as recently as Easter for long talks with Putin, Lavrov and Medvedev – but also within our multilateral frameworks: in the OSCE, between the EU and the Eurasian Economic Union, NATO and Russia’s military and defence apparatus, etc. I want us to make use of Russia’s readiness to cooperate and resolve conflicts jointly whenever it exists. I’m thinking, for instance, of the Iran agreement. Having followed those negotiations for ten years and seen them teeter on the brink of failure more than once, I know how valuable cooperation with Russia was in helping to end that conflict. We now need to carry on unbowed in a similar constellation for Syria, within the ISSG. We need Russia at the negotiating table, just as we need the regional powers: Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. There can be no effective political solution for Syria without Russia – and my impression is that Russia does actually want that solution. The setbacks of recent days in Geneva represent an interruption but not, I believe, an end to the process.

The NATO‑Russia Council is another part of that cooperative context. The fact that it convened again yesterday after a long hiatus is something that we advocated strongly and that I expressly welcome. The Council meeting sends out a clear message. Within NATO, however, I have long been arguing for a minimum level of confidence building to be kept up, including at the technical military level, in order to prevent hazards and incidents. And as part of our Chairmanship of the OSCE, we are proposing the introduction of a joint crisis‑response and mediation mechanism.


However, the idea of double dialogue does mean talking to Russia just as frankly and sincerely about our differences, as well as areas of cooperation.

The Süddeutsche Zeitung referred to the NATO‑Russia Council rather disparagingly yesterday: “The breach [between the West and Russia] is a reality, and a good conversation won’t make it disappear.”

That is of course true – but it’s not actually what matters. Single conversations don’t often change the world. But talking to one another and gaining clarity about exactly where the fault lines lie can help us overcome them in the long term. Developing a shared understanding of the nature and extent of our differences, of our differing concepts of a common international order, will not iron out those differences. But it can make them less dangerous and less open to misinterpretation and mistakes which could have unintended consequences – at the military, diplomatic and political levels.

Often the problem is that we don’t read one another very well. Either we don’t read one another at all and merely swap stereotypes instead, or we are constantly surprised by what the other side does – while continuing to assume that the messages we want to send are being understood loud and clear. In international affairs, there tends to be more than one message flying around, which often makes it difficult to recognise the “right” one.

And there’s another thing that such a dialogue on difference is good for. It makes it clear to the Russians that our willingness to cooperate in certain areas doesn’t mean that we will turn a blind eye to other things we find unacceptable, like the influencing of Russian minorities or the funding of nationalist parties in other countries. We need to talk about those “other things”, the things that stand between us.

That double dialogue needs to be engaged in at various levels, by the relevant specialists and by politicians. It needs to be a long‑term dialogue, if it is to have a lasting effect. Reaching agreement on things we have in common is complicated enough; agreeing on differences takes a lot more time! I see a particularly key role here for civil society, for the many foundations and associations involved in German‑Russian and European‑Russian relations – the Willy‑Brandt‑Kreis, the Friedrich‑Ebert‑Stiftung and the German‑Russian Forum, to name but a few. Anyone who has access to good channels of communication, as many of you do, should be using them now to talk about what divides us as well as what unites us.

In times of increasing division at the political level, ties between people become all the more vital. We need to counteract the threat of estrangement between our societies. That’s why my Russian counterpart and I have decided to launch a German‑Russian year of youth exchange this summer. We want to expand academic cooperation between Germany and Russia. And in the interests of better understanding Russia, the things we have in common and those that divide us – to improve both sides’ reading skills, so to speak – we will be inaugurating a new research institute for Russia and Eastern Europe in Berlin this year.


What does double dialogue ultimately mean for our political cooperation with Russia? I would say it means cooperation where possible and dialogue and awareness of differences where necessary.

In short, there is not such thing as a black and white relationship with Russia.

I remember a NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting, right at the outset of the Ukraine crisis, at which the Canadian Foreign Minister said, “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!”

Cooperation where possible and dialogue and awareness of differences where necessary – as a think tank might put it, compartmentalised cooperation. It’s a difficult balancing act, made all the more complex by the blurred lines between foreign affairs and domestic politics and a media landscape that immediately notices, relays and thereby magnifies every move we make in the political sphere. But here too, we should look to the man this symposium is named after, who was himself a journalist in his early career. Egon was not just a cunning negotiator; he was a brilliant communicator too. At the end of 1972, when he had negotiated the Treaty on Basic Relations and the journalists thought the Brandt Government would really milk it as a success, Egon simply said, “We used to have no relationship at all with the GDR. At least now we have a bad one.”

Of course, compartmentalised cooperation is not the ideal state for our relations with Russia to be in. It is simply essential at a time that is too turbulent to lend itself to the establishment of a new international order, as some would propose with their references to 1946, for example, and George Kennan’s long telegram. It remains our long‑term goal to persuade Russia to return to the rules‑based international order founded on the CSCE Final Act and the Charter of Paris, so that cooperation can resume across the board.

Until this can be achieved, however, we will be willing to at least cooperate on those areas where it makes sense and is possible. This approach, I believe, follows in the tradition of Egon Bahr: recognising realities does not mean accepting them. As he put it himself, you need to know what the status quo is before you can overcome it.

I look forward to discussing these matters with you.

Thank you very much.

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