Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at 'Berlin Correspondence' at the Gorki‑Theater in Berlin

22.05.2016 - Speech

Shermin Langhoff,
Jan‑Hendrik Olbertz,
Professor Mbembe and Professor Chakrabarty,
Ladies and gentlemen!

I, too, would like to give you a warm welcome to the first edition of “Berlin Correspondence”.

And a particularly warm welcome to you, Achille Mbembe and Dipresh Chakrabarty!

Today’s event is a première, and all first nights, especially in the theatre, are vested with a certain amount of tension with regard to what to expect and whether everything will go well. To be frank, that is also how I feel as one of the three partners who set up “Berlin Correspondence”.

This event is a bold step.

– A bold step of cooperation between three very different partners, the Gorki‑Theater, the Humboldt‑Universität zu Berlin and the Federal Foreign Office.

– A bold step for all speakers who have undertaken the long journey to Berlin, as you have done today, Professor Mbembe and Professor Chakrabarty, and who have joined us to examine the question of what forces are causing the tectonic shifts in our models for and concepts of order.

– And a bold step for you, the audience, who are embracing it by sharing in this multi‑faceted exchange about domestic and external affairs, about what unites us and what divides us.


Last but not least, this series should also be a bold step for those of us working with foreign policy!

You can perhaps see how bold it is by the fact that I am actually beginning with Böhmermann. Yes, that Böhmermann, but no, not that much‑quoted poem. He has also written good poetry. One much cleverer composition, for example, which is about Germany’s image in the world as well as Germany’s role in the international order, and which was even published in the New York Times!

“Wake up, Deutschland, sleeping beauty

Can you hear your call of duty

The world has gone completely nuts

That’s why we’re back to help, mein Schatz!”

And then it goes on to say:

“We are no longer murderous vandals! –

Be nice! Or we’ll come for you in socks and sandals.”


These ideas, insinuated here in the language of the hard rock group Rammstein, I would express in the language of foreign policy as follows: During the 20th century, Germany was responsible for the destruction of an entire order, not just a political one, but – during the Holocaust – a civilisational order. And despite that, this country, over the past 70 years, has gently and gradually had the chance to grow back into the heart of the international community and become an important hub in the network of international relations.

– Reunited and firmly anchored politically in the European Union and the United Nations.

– Economically strong, also thanks to our exports throughout the world.

– Well regarded and sometimes even well liked by our international partners.

– Even football world champions ...

But what does all that mean for our engagement in the world? I believe that since we now derive so much benefit from our integration in the international order, we have to do all the more to preserve and develop this order – especially now, when the world seems to be falling apart at the seams.


“The world has gone completely nuts.” – “Völlig durchgedreht”.

That, at least, is the view of many people in Germany and the West. This embodies the paradox of the international order we are dealing with at the moment.

After the end of the Cold War, many people in the West thought that the question of international order had been resolved! Until the fall of the Iron Curtain, the world was divided strictly into two: East and West, two blocs, two ideologies. But in 1989 and 1990 freedom and democracy won the day – and now their triumphant progress was beginning throughout the world. A particularly bold bestseller even spoke of “the end of history”.

Today we are realising that that wasn’t actually the case ... On the contrary, crises and conflicts are coming thick and fast at the moment, and that is no coincidence. It is a reflection of the wrestling for supremacy, the power struggles between old and new powers, between state and non‑state players with a wealth of interests, ambitions, ideologies.

And in the West people are asking: What’s going on? Where is the multipolar, liberal‑democratic age we hoped to see after the fall of the Wall? Who has destroyed these hopes? Whose fault is it? And less often, people ask: Have we in the West done something wrong? Or do the others just not understand what is good for the world?


It is this paradox that is the starting point for our programme of events.

For the question of the international order has by no means been answered satisfactorily. Perhaps it has not even been posed properly yet! We want to use this series to make up for that: we want to ask questions, which also means calling into question our own presumed certainties. And not by talking to ourselves and in vain self‑adulation, but in conversation with people who have a quite different view of the world as a result of their geographical location, history and traditions.


To begin with I would like to bandy about a few questions that are currently on my mind.

First: What order are we talking about? Shouldn’t we really be speaking of many orders rather than “the” international order? Neighbourhood‑based, communal, national, regional, global orders – they all exist simultaneously. How do they relate to one another?


Second: as well as the actual existing orders that often compete with one another, what concepts of orders exist?

Let me share a little anecdote with you: A journalist once told me how he travelled to Crimea in spring 2014. That was just at the time of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. 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 red background, a picture of Vladimir Putin, with one single word underneath, “Porjádok”. Russian for “order”! This is undoubtedly a quite different concept, a different promise of “order” which is completely contrary to ours! And the example shows that order is not a self‑defining term, it is not a category in which there is even the slightest agreement on what constitutes its core element.


This therefore raises a third question: what kind of order do we want? The phrase, “Order must prevail” is often attributed to the Germans. But this is just the kind of attitude that is unhelpful. Order is not an end in itself. Anyone who calls for order must define the purpose of that order.

Allow me as a Social Democrat to mention Willy Brandt just once in this speech: he wrote a most visionary text as early as 1979 – the report of the so‑called North‑South Commission.

In this, Brandt states that the world needs an order for peace and justice. For in a globalised world, there can be no justice without peace, and no sustainable peace without justice. I think that in an international context, we Germans in particular would do well to clearly state the values we are promoting in an international order. Yet at the same time we need to have eyes to recognise and ears to identify the values other players are seeking in their concepts of order. And we need to be aware that our idea of order can spark disorder in other societies.


The fourth question is: what, in fact, is order? How should we picture it: as a static building, as a blueprint created on a drawing board by heads of government or foreign ministers in strictly sealed‑off conference hotels? As a combination of regulations, institutions and international law? Definitely not! Order only becomes a reality when it is put into practice. And that means: accepted in principle, on the one hand, but flexible in practice, on the other.


That leads me to the fifth and final question, which goes one step further: what are orders based on? What gives orders their legitimacy?

Here, too, a little anecdote: A foreign minister friend said to me on the fringes of the last UN General Assembly: “Football, cars, beer – I like you Germans. But there’s one thing I don’t understand: You Germans won’t cross the road when the light’s on red, even if there’s not a car in sight. I could never get my people to do that. And anyway, what’s the point of it?”

This might be a trivial little story, but behind it lies the question: from where do orders, regulations, institutions derive their legitimacy and acceptance? Where are the cultural differences? What are the stories and narrative patterns, the dreams and traumas of societies, which define the political and social structures over and above the existing order?

This programme of events could play a key role in answering this question! For we need to engage in a process of negotiation between these narratives and story patterns, a process which is vital to ensure that shared concepts of order really become a feasible goal. And that is why I am convinced that this series is not just an intellectual dry run, but is itself part of the difficult task to build a common order that is capable of embracing new ideas, correcting errors and preserving fundamental values rather than calling them into question.

It is therefore only natural that we are reflecting on global order and disorder in a cultural context. After all, culture is also the platform on which these questions can be dramatised and negotiated.

You, dear Shermin, reiterated last weekend with regard to your institution that the theatre needs to be a platform for debate. For this institution is part of a unique democratic and globally minded tradition dating back to 1848, which you are continuing to nurture here. I and we would like to offer you our heartfelt thanks for this!

Related content


Top of page