Foreign policy in turbulent times – speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Ernst Moritz Arndt University of Greifswald

13.07.2016 - Speech

Vice-Chancellor Weber,
Minister Pegel,
Sonja Steffen,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am delighted to be here with you in Greifswald – in such a youthful city! I have been told that Greifswald has the highest youth population in Land Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. More than one in three people are under 30 years of age. And when I look at you here in this hall, then I imagine the other two-thirds are probably at the beach right now! However, my presence here makes the average age shoot up. Please bear with me. I will try to make up for my advanced years by keeping this speech short. The university holidays start on Saturday – so that gives us around 60 hours. That should be enough for a short talk on foreign policy. I think we should start with the Romans... By the way, I hope you’ve brought food with you!

Your city is young and dynamic, but, in my opinion, your University and the city of Greifswald stand for something else. The residents of Greifswald have always had a gift for looking further afield and for being open to new things. The authors Hans Fallada and Wolfgang Koeppen, both natives of Greifswald, are good examples of this. But perhaps the best example is the most famous native of Greifswald, Caspar David Friedrich, whose works make us look to the outside world, to the rough seas and the world beyond the horizon, to look from the “Chalk Cliffs on Rügen” across “The Sea of ice” to the unknown and uncertain world. I see Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings as an invitation to explore the unfamiliar. And, my dear students, this is exactly what your University also stands for. In Friedrich’s day, the University of Greifswald had only 60 students. Now it has over 10,000! And they come from all over the world, because the University of Greifswald has established an outstanding reputation for being modern, diverse and international, with particular expertise in the Baltic Sea region and the specific perspectives of northern and eastern Europe.


I firmly believe that we need precisely this sort of regional expertise more than ever, particularly in view of the crises in our neighbourhood. Even if it is not the largest programme, the fact that your University offers Ukrainian Studies makes it a very special place, Professor Weber. The Ukrainian language, literature and culture are taught here in Greifswald, making your institution unique in Germany. This is as it should be. It is important and it must continue. And so I was delighted, Minister Pegel, that we and Land Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania were able to safeguard the future of Ukrainian Studies, which enjoys a status that is unique in Germany, here in Greifswald last year. I am grateful to all those who were involved in this.

For over 20 years, specialists on Ukraine have been coming to Greifswald from all around the world to attend the Greifswald Ukrainian Summer School. I have heard that you have even had applicants from Korea! And you have set the bar quite high, Professor Brehmer. The title of this year’s summer school is nothing less than “Closing Pandora’s Box: Ukraine’s Path to Peace”. We all know that closing this particular Pandora’s box is not something that engineering can help us with. It requires more effective tools than cement, hammers or spanners. But I believe that the work you do here in the humanities, cultural studies and social sciences can certainly help to point up ways to achieve peace, ladies and gentlemen. I am happy that I was able to visit the institute of Slavic studies just now and to talk with you, Professor Brehmer, and the researchers at your institute about Ukraine and the conflict that is so disastrous both for the people in the country and the security of our entire continent.

Do the social sciences and concrete foreign policy have anything in common? That makes me think of the old joke. Two social scientists get together. One of them has developed a political theory and outlines it. The other one listens, has a think and then says: “Hm, that sounds like it might work in practice – but does it work in theory?”


Seriously, I am convinced that an openness for other perspectives, as well as the willingness to understand and foster understanding, are not just the cornerstones of academic research. They are also prerequisites for foreign policy. And in all modesty, I think that the fact that Germany currently has a good reputation worldwide as a mediator in many conflicts is partly due to this very willingness to understand and to foster understanding. Sometimes we are criticised for “understanding Russia” or “understanding Iran”. When that happens, I always ask myself what foreign policy is coming to if the desire to understand is perceived as an insult. Understanding doesn’t automatically mean agreeing with someone. But without trying to understand we have no chance of reconciling different positions!

And we need mutual understanding these days in particular, in these turbulent times we are experiencing. Please forgive me if I mention my advanced age once again, but even for someone of my generation, what we are currently experiencing is unprecedented. Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Ukraine – the crises and conflicts seem to be coming at us thicker and faster than ever before.

At the same time here at home, exceptionally powerful centrifugal forces are driving our European community apart. In the Brexit debate we have seen the revival of dreadful stereotypes and old forms of nationalism, which are putting our cohesion to the test. It is bitter for the United Kingdom, where people are now experiencing a rude awakening after irresponsible politicians first lured the country into voting to leave the EU and then, once the decision had been made, beat a hasty retreat so they would not have to take on responsibility and instead went off to play cricket. To be honest, I find this outrageous. It is bitter for the United Kingdom, but of course it is also bitter for the European Union to lose the tradition, sophistication and experience of the British.

However, we can not allow this bitterness to paralyse us. The priority must now be to keep the European Union together – to keep it together now in particular, when these centrifugal forces are at their strongest and when other member states, not least the government of the neighbouring country closest to you here in Greifswald, namely Poland, has very different ideas about the future of Europe and would like nothing more than to see integration scaled back.

This is why my French counterpart and I presented a paper that takes two issues into account. On the one hand, the EU must become capable of taking action once again in the areas where European action is most important, that is, in the fields of security, foreign policy, migration and economic and monetary union. On the other hand, it must also meet people’s different expectations. It must cater to those who want greater integration, while including those who don’t want to move at the same pace in all areas of the European project. We need to weave greater elements of flexibility into a renewed European Union. This is why Jean-Marc Ayrault and I speak of a “flexible” European Union.


These are turbulent times and the world is changing at an enormous pace. Let us look back to 25 years ago. It was a happy time, what with the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification. Many of you may well have been born during those happy years. At the time, it seemed that the world – East and West – would automatically grow ever closer together. Many regarded Russia as a future member of NATO. People wrote about “the end of history” and about a new age of peace.

And now? Nowadays, we are facing the unmistakeable emergence of cracks and regression. For the first time since the end of the Cold War, the annexation of Crimea and the destabilisation of eastern Ukraine means that a signatory state to the Helsinki Final Act openly called the sovereignty of another state into question. The conflict in Ukraine has brought the question of war and peace back to our continent. Relations with our large neighbour Russia dominated the NATO summit last weekend. And I know that this topic is not only a matter of concern to me, but also to many of you here in this room. And that is why I want to focus on it this evening.


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 now opposed in Russia by nationalist voices, but also by a desire in Europe to seal the continent off. The apparent certainties and the hopes that we had at the end of the Cold War seem not to apply any more. But what is going to take their place? What is our response? How should we deal with Russia in these times of crisis?

I recall a NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting, not the meeting in Warsaw last weekend, but one that took place a little while ago – at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. 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!”

There is no doubt in my mind that there is no such thing as a black and white relationship with Russia. Much more illuminating than black and white narratives is, to my mind, a glance at Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr’s legacy of Ostpolitik and détente. To those who dismiss this reference to the past in relation to Russia’s behaviour, I say this: the policy of détente of the 1960s and 1970s had its origins in the very coldest days of the Cold War – this is why we have no right to rule out at least attempting to move towards each other today. “America is indispensable; Russia is immovable”, was Egon Bahr’s maxim. And that means that there can be no lasting security for Europe without, not to mention in conflict with, Russia. We need both the firm anchor in the Western alliance and openness for channels of communication with Russia.

NATO’s reassurance measures, which we adopted in Warsaw last weekend, and our willingness to engage in dialogue are two sides of the same coin. One is impossible without the other. One makes no sense without the other. This is borne out by many decades of experience, including during the Cold War period. In Warsaw, we showed that we are taking our eastern Alliance partners’ concerns seriously. We are strengthening our readiness to defend ourselves. But our measures threaten no one. We don’t want a Cold War! This is why we have managed to convince the Alliance to declare its unequivocal commitment to the letter and spirit of the NATO-Russia Founding Act. We managed to ensure that the missile defence shield is not directed against Russia – neither now nor in the future. And, most importantly, dialogue and the willingness to talk to each other have been enshrined as strong pillars of our strategy. We are now working to implement this not long after our meeting in Poland. The NATO-Russia Council is already meeting today, just four days after the Warsaw Summit! I firmly believe that we can enhance security once again as after the fall of the Berlin Wall if we take both pillars of our strategy – reassurance and dialogue – seriously. However, we can only do this, of course, if Russia is prepared to respond to this in a constructive manner.


However, dialogue does not mean that we gloss over differences. On the contrary, it means that we call a spade a spade and try – wherever possible – to bring about solutions. Perhaps the term “double dialogue” is helpful in explaining what I mean. On the one hand, we need dialogue with Russia on what we have in common and potential fields of cooperation. But we also need a frank dialogue about our differences.

I want us to seize Russia’s readiness to resolve conflicts jointly whenever it exists. We all know that Europe’s security has long since ceased to be threatened by conflicts in Europe alone. Iraq, Libya, Syria – the list is long. And we have come to realise that there is no such thing as a genuinely distant conflict any more. These wars have long since made themselves felt here with the many thousands of people who have sought refuge in Germany – in our communities and businesses and in our schools. And, since the beginning of the winter semester, refugees may also attend lectures free of charge here in Greifswald!

And we have come to realise another thing, namely that there is no single actor or world power that can solve such crises for us. We need new constellations, alliances of regional actors and global players who can assume responsibility together without themselves having the same interests at heart as a result. And if we take a closer look at the structure and parties to the conflict, then it is clear that progress is impossible without Russia. But sometimes we can make progress with Russia!

An example of this is 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.

It was this experience that ultimately brought us to Vienna last November to finally – after five years and the deaths of 300,000 people – sound out ways to end the bloody war in Syria. While we were fully aware that the US and Russia were not able to end the conflict alone, we tried to encourage them to move towards a cooperative stance in Syria.

At the end of the day, as long as the US and Russia are at loggerheads in Syria, all efforts are doomed to fail. Only after we achieved that did we – you may have followed our shuttle diplomacy between Tehran and Riyadh in the media – also bring important regional powers, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which are, to all intents and purposes, engaged in a proxy war on Syrian soil, to the table, as well as the other relevant actors in the region: Turkey, Qatar and others. None of this will guarantee success, or even progress, in the negotiations. But without this constellation, the Munich commitments on a ceasefire and humanitarian access, which have, after all, helped to get aid to 800,000 people in besieged areas since February of this year, would not have materialised.


However, the idea of double dialogue with Russia does mean talking to Russia just as frankly and sincerely about our differences, as well as areas of cooperation. It is true that mutual understanding with regard to the nature and extent of our differences does not make these differences go away. But it can make them less dangerous and less open to misinterpretations that 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 assume that the messages we want to send are being understood loud and clear by the other side. Only the problem is that there is mostly more than one message in the realm of foreign policy, which often makes it difficult to tell which is the “right” one when faced by a host of simultaneous messages.

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, such as efforts to influence Russian-speaking minorities or the funding of nationalist parties in other countries. We need to talk about those “other things”, the things that stand between us.


I firmly believe that we must draw on all of the forums that are available to us for this difficult yet important double dialogue. We are doing this at bilateral and multilateral level, at the NATO-Russia Council and in our talks on Syria. What is more, we are, above all, also doing this at the OSCE. We decided to assume the Chairmanship of this institution especially against the backdrop of this difficult environment. At the end of the day, it is the OSCE that embodies the spirit of Helsinki to this day. Moreover, it is – alongside the Council of the Baltic Sea States – the only European institution in which EU countries, the EU’s eastern neighbours and Russia are still represented together! And with the modest resources at our disposal, we are, via the OSCE, managing the monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine, drafting proposals for preparations for local elections in the region and working on a draft of an amnesty law, as well as on measures to improve the security situation in the Donbas region.


This is an example of the difficult yet essential dialogue that I’m talking about!

This is what we are trying to achieve. This is our political responsibility. However, In times of unmistakable and deep division at the political level, ties between people become all the more vital. We need to counteract the threat of estrangement between our societies. And this is why we need you, ladies and gentlemen. We need civil society and the many foundations and associations that are committed to the German-Russian relationship. And we need academia and institutions such as your university, which do such excellent work to promote links with Russia and Eastern Europe, and which help to foster understanding in the process.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is true that rifts are a very real fact of life in Europe. But, to take a leaf from Willy Brandt’s book, Russia is and remains our biggest neighbour, above and beyond these rifts. That won’t change. We cannot alter this geographical reality. But what we can do is to work together to prevent the rifts between us neighbours from becoming deeper and more dangerous. Thank you very much.

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