“Responsibility, interests, instruments” - Speach of Federal Mininster for Foreign Affairs, Dr. Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Opening of the Ambassadors Conference 2016

29.08.2016 - Speech

Dear Witold Waszczykowski,
dear Jean‑Marc Ayrault,
Members of the Bundestag,
Esteemed guests,
Members of staff

We live in turbulent times indeed. In such times, what we need is renewed self‑awareness and a sense of direction. This will be the focus of the coming days when we discuss responsibility, interests and the instruments of German foreign policy together. I am looking forward to this dialogue!

I am particularly delighted that my Polish and French counterparts Witold Waszczykowski and Jean‑Marc Ayrault, as well as many other guests from Warsaw and Paris, are here today. Allow me to offer you all a very warm welcome!

Our challenges in a complex world were also on the agenda in Weimar, where Witold, Jean‑Marc and I met yesterday – for the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Weimar Triangle. And if we think back for a moment, then it becomes apparent that the period when the Weimar Triangle was founded was also a turbulent one. The Berlin Wall had fallen and German unity had become a reality, but the collapse of the Soviet Union was still in full swing. It was a time that also pondered the question of direction – the best way to move ahead towards an open future. At that time, it was Krzysztof Skubiszewski, Roland Dumas and Hans‑Dietrich Genscher who were committed to Poland, France and Germany’s responsibility for integrating a Europe that had been divided for far too long.

Allow me to take this opportunity to pay tribute to three exceptional politicians for whom European integration was never just a political task, but a matter dear to their hearts, and who had an intimate connection to the Federal Foreign Office and its staff. We lost all three of them in the course of the past year. We mourn the passing of Walter Scheel, who died last week, and who was one of the architects of Germany’s Ostpolitik in difficult times alongside Willy Brandt. He shaped our country – with a policy that paved the way for the courageous and decisive steps that Hans‑Dietrich Genscher later took that led our country to reunification. We also lost Genscher, that great European, this year. And Guido Westerwelle likewise passed away – at such a very young age – a politician through and through who stood up for the European idea with passion and courage. We pay tribute to these three German Foreign Ministers and outstanding Europeans.

Today, ladies and gentlemen, it is our responsibility and our opportunity to set a course for Europe once again in these turbulent times. At a time in which the synchronicity of crises and their explosive dynamic barely give us time to breathe and sometimes leave us practically at a loss – Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ukraine, to mention only the most pressing trouble spots.

We have been hit by a whole series of devastating terrorist attacks this summer alone – from Nice and Rouen to Kabul; from the US to Turkey to Thailand. And, in the wake of events in Ansbach and Würzburg, concerns over terrorist attacks have become palpable here in Germany – a threat that our French friends have been exposed to at the latest since the terrible attacks in Paris in January and November of the past year.

Our important partner Turkey is struggling with the aftermath of a bloody attempted coup. In eastern Ukraine, the ceasefire agreed on is so porous and more people are dying than has been the case for many months. In South Sudan, the brutal civil war is at risk of flaring up once again. And every day, we are witnessing people’s fight for survival in Aleppo in harrowing pictures – in the sixth year of the Syrian civil war, which has destroyed the homes of millions and forced them to take flight. I do not intend now to add anything to what I have already said elsewhere about the American presidential election campaign. One thing is for sure, however, which is that the campaign in the US is both turbulent and unusual and that its outcome will have enormous ramifications for us all.


But times are also turbulent in Europe itself. With the bitter result of the British referendum on whether to remain in the EU, what was long unthinkable has become a reality. While the supposed irreversibility of the European integration project may be something to which we still hold dear, this irreversibility is no longer guaranteed. For many people, the magnet that is the European integration process has lost some of its attractive force.

At the same time, enormous centrifugal forces are tearing at our European community. We are experiencing the resurgence of old nationalist forces that are putting our cohesion to the test. A policy of resentment and fear is gaining in popularity in various places. Political movements are instrumentalising the concerns of their citizens for parochial, self‑serving purposes that exclude others, while institutions such as the EU are becoming the target of a widespread sense of unease over globalisation.

This gives us great cause for concern – however, it should also be an opportunity to stand up for this united Europe. Reason and the best arguments should be our most powerful weapon in this endeavour.

The fact that the EU is capable of committed and effective action was displayed this year with the agreement with Turkey, for instance. It is no secret that Turkey is not an easy partner and that we take a critical view of some of the developments since the coup attempt, which luckily failed. However, it is also true that efforts to secure the EU’s external borders in a humane way are barely imaginable without close cooperation with Turkey. The German-Turkish relationship has a unique dimension thanks to the millions of people of Turkish origin living in Germany today. However, it is in our own interest to embed these ties within the context of strong EU‑Turkey relations also in the future.

But when we talk about Europe and its ability to act, then we should be quite honest about the fact that we, who enjoy amicable ties in the Weimar Triangle, have different perceptions concerning the future of Europe and the appropriate interpretation of European solidarity. We do not meet because we already agree on all issues, but because we know that Europe can only move forwards when we are able to agree on a joint overall course for our Union. The history of Franco-German cooperation in the past decades is an impressive example of the fact that this consensus can, despite extremely different points of departure, grow and succeed through constant dialogue. We can and should also achieve this in the Weimar Triangle – as an important forum for dialogue on global challenges. The first Weimar Workshop on European policy towards China, which will bring together Polish, French and German diplomats this afternoon, is an expression of the potential that this cooperation has for our common future. I am grateful to Witold Waszczykowski for the proposals he made yesterday for more intensive cooperation in the Weimar Triangle.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In his novel The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil describes the internal upheavals of a world in chaos – the world of one hundred years ago – and chooses an illustrative metaphor: “Like what happens when a magnet lets the iron filings go and they tumble together again.”

This image of the state of the world probably reflects the perception of many people here in Germany, and presumably also in France and Poland, as well as that of many people far beyond Europe’s borders. In the discussions that I have held, I have sensed the deep‑seated uncertainty in the face of the many crises and conflicts in our neighbourhood. “Shutting our eyes” or “turning off the TV” do not work. The refugees who came to Europe in the hundreds of thousands are the clearest reminder of this fact. Along with many other ministries and organisations, the Federal Foreign Office has gone to great lengths to help overcome this crisis. This applies to literally all of our divisions, to countless missions abroad and, above all, to the staff at the visa sections in the region – in Ankara, Beirut, Erbil and other cities. Allow me to take this opportunity today to offer you my express thanks and respect for this work and commitment.

However, this image of the magnet whose structuring attractive force is weakening, maybe even disappearing – for reasons that we are perhaps only able to fathom to a limited extent at the present moment – is an excellent illustration of the challenge that we, the Foreign Ministers and diplomats of major European democracies such as Germany, France and Poland, face in these times.

The crises and upheavals within Europe reflect the turbulence around us, indeed they often stand in dynamic relation to the conflicts and problems in the European neighbourhood. This is true with a view to the Mediterranean and to the growing challenges posed by fragile and failed states in our southern neighbourhood. The fact that this also applies to the east was something of which Egon Bahr was aware, whose maxim was thus: “America is indispensable; Russia is immovable.”

We cannot simply wish that Russia, which has become unmistakeably more difficult, were further away. What we need to do is find a way out of a phase of confrontation and increasing tensions and back to a strong and resilient understanding of common security. As the older members of the audience will recall, we were further ahead in Europe in the past. The CSCE and the Helsinki Final Act reflect the experience that one’s own security cannot be organised in the long term without or against one’s regional neighbours. And we should not simply forget about this experience, which is perhaps actually more necessary than ever today both within and outside Europe, in this world of dangerous and complex conflicts.

The close partnership with America and the transatlantic alliance will remain essential in the future for our security here in the heart of Europe. And on a personal note, allow me to add that the intensive and trust‑based cooperation with John Kerry on practically all of the pressing issues of our foreign policy has been a real stroke of luck for me in recent years.

In order to provide orientation and to shape policies responsibly in these times within the scope of our possibilities, German foreign policy needs to focus on three areas.

Firstly, it needs an active and dedicated crisis policy, which we conduct with great commitment at diplomatic level.

This goes for our de‑escalation and mediation endeavours in eastern Ukraine and towards Russia. We gave this a firm foundation of reassurance and deterrence on the one hand and offers to conduct dialogue on the other via the balanced decisions taken at the NATO Summit in Warsaw in July.

However, this is also the case much further afield – in Syria, Iraq and other troubled areas. To this end, and with the active support of the German Bundestag, we have increased and focused our funding and instruments, ranging from humanitarian aid, crisis prevention and stabilisation in conflict situations to the expansion of our mediation capacities.

We are active in the international Syria contact group and support Staffan de Mistura’s endeavours to explore all options for a political negotiation process and to pave the way to it. We are one of the largest donors of funding for the stabilisation of the areas liberated from IS in Syria and Iraq and one of the largest providers of humanitarian aid.

Germany has significantly expanded its role in Mali. Germany is supporting the peace process in Colombia, the country where – after Syria – the largest number of people have lost their house and home.

All of these processes require staying power and, at times, a great ability to withstand frustration. But they offer a chance to change things for the better – if one actually tries to do so rather than merely calling loudly for improvements. Yes, it can be difficult to spend hours in stuffy conference rooms, struggling to reach sustainable compromises and then to experience setbacks. But that is what diplomacy is all about. It doesn’t dash from one triumph to the next. It doesn’t make progress simply by being in the right. Good diplomacy in the interest of the people is not conducted with a megaphone, but rather with a view to what is possible and with intelligent and frequently imperfect compromises – with Iran, with rebels in Colombia or in the Minsk process working groups.

Secondly, we need to look beyond the frantic pace of crisis diplomacy and think about the international order of the future.

We need to take the time to work on creative approaches in order to strengthen the international order in the long term, restore power to this magnet and recharge it in the right way – and if necessary, in a new way.

This was our motivation for taking on the OSCE Chairmanship in 2016. Alongside crisis diplomacy, our aim here is also to try to lend new impetus to this organisation, which spans all of Europe, as well as the Atlantic. We will do so shortly at the Foreign Ministers meeting in Potsdam.

It also includes a new arms control initiative, which we would like to set in motion. The time is ripe to use new transparency instruments to counter the risks of a new arms race. I agree with everyone who says that success is certainly not guaranteed in the short term. However, I think it would be irresponsible not to try. I firmly believe that we cannot afford to simply let things slide. We cannot allow things to get out of our control. We need to counter the risks and the dangers of escalation with binding rules. As difficult as it currently is and as long as it might take, I firmly believe that we must nevertheless persevere in attempts to build bridges, including where the deep rifts between East and West have become apparent in recent years. I firmly believe that all sides only stand to lose if we embark on a new arms race between East and West.

Our work on the international order also includes activities on a very fundamental level, namely the arduous efforts we have put into our cultural relations and education policy in recent years. To a certain extent, this is also aimed at shaping an order that will bring about a world in which differences do not lead to misunderstandings, misunderstandings do not lead to conflicts and conflicts do not lead to wars.

Germany is running for a seat on the United Nations Security Council in 2019 and 2020. Our candidacy is an expression of German diplomacy’s willingness to take on responsibility. And it is also an expression of our trust in a multilateral international order. Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your support of our candidacy, in which you can count on the help of our special envoys.

I also want to urge you to pay particular attention to the United Nations’ 2030 agenda. It arose from the notable achievements of the past decades, such as in tackling extreme poverty worldwide, which has fallen by 50 percent since 1990, or the significant progress made in the provision of education and healthcare in parts of Asia and Africa. These achievements put our crisis discourse into a wider context. If one could choose a moment in time to be born, as US President Obama said so movingly in Hanover this April, then one would choose to be born into today’s world, despite all its crises, injustices and unrest. And yet in many ways, the world is better than it has ever been. The 2030 Agenda contains an ambitious global transformation programme, which creates opportunities for millions of people to have a better life. Germany and Europe played a great role in drawing up this programme.

Thirdly – and above all – we need a strong and united Europe. The European Union is, and will remain, the crucial framework of German foreign policy. As regards German foreign policy, I say that Europe is not something to play around with, as it represents our one and only chance to actively influence the global order. A united Europe can be a magnet, whereas on their own the member states are little more than iron filings in tomorrow’s world.

The EU must be capable of taking action in the crucial questions of our time, that is, on security and foreign policy, the challenges and opportunities of flight and migration, and economic, growth and currency matters. We want a “more flexible Union” that addresses the big issues effectively, but does not oblige every member state to take every further step involved in a joint undertaking. You don’t have to sign up to every new joint initiative immediately in order to be a good European. But at the same time, it cannot be the case that those who want to move forward together are blocked from taking joint initiatives.

It is equally essential that we do not allow a situation to arise in which Europeans feel alienated from the European project. That is why we cannot limit the debate on Europe’s future to meeting rooms in Brussels or the Weltsaal in the Federal Foreign Office – especially now. What kind of Europe do we want? What needs to change? We need to discuss these issues with the people in our country, and if necessary, to argue with them about them. Entirely in keeping with our review process, we are planning to create a framework for this in the coming months in the form of discussion forums, town hall meetings and citizens’ workshops. I am certain that this can provide important impetus by the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome next March.

There is much talk in the editorials about Germany’s new role. Some criticise this role as being too dominant. Others, such as your predecessor Radosław Sikorski, my dear Witold, urged Germany to finally take on a leadership role.

In my view, the particular challenge facing German foreign policy is not the issue of whether Germany is the key power in Europe, but rather whether it is able to work with its closest partners to create and uphold a political centre from which a common and strong Europe can act.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In an essay in the journal “Foreign Affairs” this spring, I attempted to analyse the transformation of Germany’s role in the world over the past 20 years. In my text, I described Germany as a “reflective power”. It is not easy to find a concise and fitting German translation for this term. “Nachdenklich”, the German word for “contemplative” is not what is meant – and “grüblerisch”, the word for “pensive”, is definitely not right. What is meant by “reflective” is a keen awareness of the ongoing special aspects of Germany’s role. But it also implies self‑awareness in the best sense of the term, that is, reflective self‑awareness. We are willing to take on greater responsibility beyond our own borders, including globally. Even if we did not actively seek out this status and it was more the changes in the world around us that led us to this role, we are taking on this foreign policy responsibility.

Our special historical experiences are reflected in the ways and means we are doing so. This also includes the knowledge that there are often several and competing perceptions of the same reality; that, as Kissinger said, different perceptions are part of the reality we have to deal with; that we should ideally not resort to simplistic black-and-white depictions and dichotomies of “good” and “bad” in our analysis of the new types of conflicts in the Middle East and parts of Africa. This is more likely to conceal the path to a solution. The experience that there is no guarantee of success for foreign policy endeavours is also part of this knowledge. However, we must not forget that in this crisis-stricken world in which we live, the risk of failure never justifies the refusal to make new efforts. These experiences and the lessons we have learned from the past years form the foundation and framework for the use of our foreign policy instruments.

Our foreign service is stronger today than it was three years ago. But this does not mean we can simply rest on our laurels. Diplomacy is a business with a future – but this business is not getting any easier. On the contrary, let us take on this challenge. And please do it where and however you can in your missions in cooperation with your French and Polish colleagues.

Thank you very much.

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