Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Tiergarten Conference: Diplomacy – Opportunities, Limits, Prospects

09.09.2016 - Speech

Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Tiergarten Conference

Kurt Beck,
Fellow members of parliament,
Members of the Board of Trustees of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung,
Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung lecturers,
Ladies and gentlemen

“Diplomacy – Opportunities, Limits, Prospects” is the motto of this year’s Tiergarten Conference.

With this motto in mind, I’d like to start by telling you what I suspect, albeit without the slightest shred of evidence. I suspect that when you, the audience of experts on foreign and security policy gathered here before me today, think about the current state of the world – about Syria, Libya, eastern Ukraine, Brexit, the situation in Turkey, the tensions with Russia – and you hear the three words “opportunities”, “limits” and “prospects”, then you probably think first about the limits of diplomacy. Am I right?

And what about the prospects? Well, they’re not exactly promising at the moment.

I don’t want to exclude myself from this hypothesis. Those who know me – after all, this is not the first time I’ve attended this conference and I see plenty of familiar faces in the audience – know that I too fundamentally advocate being realistic, not overestimating our own abilities, and remaining sceptical of people who come up with fast and easy solutions that do not ultimately solve anything.

And you know – perhaps some of you here were even involved in the process – that we in the Federal Foreign Office carried out a very self-critical inventory of our own diplomacy in 2014 and 2015. Our review process had a very similar name to that of this conference. The idea was to redefine our “objectives, instruments and partners”, but also the “limitations of our responsibility”, in a world that has become more unpredictable and less secure.

However, I’d like to try something different today and I hope this can also be reflected in our discussion – I want us to focus on the opportunities of diplomacy.

Why do I suggest this?

Firstly, for the simple reason that diplomacy still has chances of success, as we have seen in concrete ways in recent years, despite all the crises. These include the nuclear deal with Iran; the Minsk agreement in the Ukraine crisis; the way we are gradually getting to grips with the refugee crisis; and, to give an example from a very different part of the world, the peace agreement in Colombia that brought an end to the last armed conflict in the western hemisphere last week, although it did not receive much coverage in our media.

It is important that we focus on these success stories because we who put our faith in the power of diplomacy are, to a certain extent, constantly at a competitive disadvantage. In the age of the internet, the conflicts we deal with generate a veritable flood of shocking images at high speed – day in, day out. Diplomacy doesn’t. It is tenacious and arduous. Days and nights spent in stuffy conference rooms struggling to reach a compromise do not result in nice pictures. But that’s what diplomacy is like. It doesn’t dash from one triumph to the next. A single figure sums up the dilemma: 12 years. It took 12 years from the first talks to the Vienna agreement with Iran. I was there from the very start – I’ve lost count of how many World Cups and European Championships I watched with Iranian diplomats in Swiss hotels!The tempo of diplomacy is slower than the fast pace of our era, slower than Twitter and Snapchat. But this doesn’t mean we should scorn it. A step forward, a step backwards and another step forward means we are getting somewhere!

In recent times, I’ve noticed a certain fondness for Greek mythology in our newspapers’ foreign policy op-ed articles. They talk about the “sword of Damocles” or “Steinmeier’s Herculean task”. Of all the analogies used, I have a favourite, one I very often hear: “Sisyphus”. Diplomacy is a labour of Sisyphus. I can live with this analogy, not because “we must imagine Sisyphus happy”, as we know, but because sometimes a stone does in fact remain at the top of the hill. And for the people affected by conflicts, such moments mean more than words can say.

There’s a second reason why I’m focusing on opportunities today – we need to do something to counteract the feeling that we have lost control.

To be honest, I’m very worried about this. An insidious threat is spreading across the western world, among our neighbours in Europe and here in Germany. A monster is rearing its ugly head once again – the monster of nationalism. And this monster basically feeds on just one thing – on fear. Take the AfD in Germany, the Brexit campaign in the UK or Mr Trump in the US – people’s fears are being very deliberately played on here. Fear is becoming politics. The sociologist Heinz Bude says we are living in a “society of fear”.

I think that most of the people who drove to the polling stations in Land Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Sunday, many of whom probably passed beautiful lakes and peaceful forests on their way, and ticked the box next to the so-called “Alternative for Germany” party did not expect their vote to lead to a real alternative, let alone any solutions. Instead, they were motivated by fear. And to my mind, the loss of control is at the heart of this fear. There is growing anxiety that we will no longer be able to get the many crises and wars, with their suffering and refugees, or globalisation, with its erosion of borders, impositions, offshore companies and credit default swaps, under control in Europe or the West.

The new populists have a very simple prescription for this: pull up the drawbridge, shut others out, keep ourselves to ourselves! This is a withdrawal to the national level, and we – particularly those of us involved in foreign policy – must offer an alternative, as each of the diplomatic success stories I just mentioned proves that things only work if we work together; things only work if we are willing to enter into partnerships, even if they entail their own problems, one example being the refugee policy with Turkey; and things – especially German foreign policy – only work if we work in and through Europe.

There was a third reason why I wanted to focus on opportunities, and this is actually the most important reason for me here at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung today. We need a young generation that is willing to take on international responsibility, a young generation that grows up with the belief that it can make a difference in the world.

I see some young scholars here in the audience. I also received a scholarship from this Foundation, and I remember how we grew up back then, inspired by Willy Brandt and the great revolution in education, how we young people were full of hope that we could change things. Our hope was that West Germany, which was so set in its ways, could change. But we also hoped to bring about change at international level, when I think about the tremendous courage of the policy of détente that Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr dared to pursue during the coldest days of the Cold War.

We need this hope today, too! Discovering and fostering this hope is your noble task as supervisors and lecturers for the scholars of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for your great dedication and voluntary work in choosing and looking after talented young people. And at the same time, I want to tell you how important your work is, how much we need good, politically minded and hard-working talented young people – especially now!

I call on you to talk with your students about where and how we can make a change in the world. Be an example of how we can get different partners around a table, even if the topics involved are tricky, because we in Germany should make use of this convening power in particular in the future. And put international understanding into practice in the Foundation – the understanding that is ever more essential for the survival of this generation. Yes, the world has become more difficult than we would like it to be. But a Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung scholar should not be scared off by this – and neither should we.

So, going back to the opportunities of diplomacy, allow me to be specific and to talk about the fiercest and most excruciating conflict of all of the current crises in the world, the civil war in Syria – a war that is raging in its sixth year, a war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, a war that has cost millions of people, many of whom have found refuge in Germany, their homes.

If we believe in the “opportunities” of diplomacy, then an honest analysis and a lesson for the future means admitting where we did not make use of them. And I fear that this terrible war in Syria is a prime example of a story of missed opportunities in many ways.

I’d like to tell you a story that dates back to my first days as Foreign Minister. At the time, a heated debate was taking place in the West on how to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who was still relatively young. US foreign policy under George W. Bush saw the world in black and white: an axis of evil and an axis of good. And the Americans were sure what side Syria was on. For my part, I advocated at least offering Syria a chance to take on responsibility, for example for security in the Middle East, instead of putting the country on the same level as Iran and thus under its influence. At the time of the Iraq War, Bashar al-Assad had only been in office for two years. The relationship between him and his father was regarded as distant. He had been very reluctant to give up his career as an ophthalmologist in London and people said that his wife, a Sunni Muslim who was born and grew up in the UK, had found it extremely difficult to go from shopping in boutiques in London to shopping in the souk in Damascus.

This story from those days is also interesting because it reminds me of the only time in my career that I had to cut a trip short – I did this literally in mid-air, en route to my destination. It was in August 2006. The planned itinerary was: Israel, Jordan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. I wanted to get a first-hand impression, and that is why I had arranged for talks in Damascus. At my hotel in Jerusalem, I got a call from the Élysée, strongly warning me about travelling to Syria. I continued my journey. At the next stop, in Jordan, my phone rang again, and this time it was US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice telling me – and I’ll never forget the serious tone of her voice: “Frank, I urge you not to go!” I continued with my scheduled appointments. Finally, during my audience with the King of Jordan, my final appointment before leaving for Damascus, we received news agency reports about a speech Assad had delivered in Damascus. We heard that, in his speech, he vehemently attacked Israel. And it was only in the plane that I received a hastily-translated copy of the Arabic speech from my people in Damascus. I saw it contained several tirades about “Israel, the enemy” and very vocal support for Hizbullah. It then became clear to me that, under these circumstances, any meeting with Assad would send the wrong signal. While circling above Amman, I told the pilot to change course, and that we would be travelling to Jeddah one day early. I then explained my decision to the journalists who were accompanying me.

Today, ten years on, when the international community is faced with a catastrophe in Syria, I am reminded of such events. We presumably missed, or at least neglected to seize, opportunities back then, long before the war began. Years later, after the Assad regime had bloodily put down the 2011 protests, the United Nations asked the man who was probably the world’s most experienced and knowledgeable mediator for help: Kofi Annan. He held intensive negotiations with the government and the opposition, and drew up proposals for a political process for which, from today’s perspective, we would probably be grateful. However, the Security Council withdrew its support, and the veto members accused each other of torpedoing the process. Frustrated, Kofi Anan resigned in the summer of 2012 as Joint Special Envoy on the Syrian Crisis. Later, after I’d again taken up office as Foreign Minister, I attended international conferences on Syria at which the entire international community drafted scenarios for a post-Assad Syria. The only problem was: Assad was not gone, and he remains a player to this day. After five years of civil war, formerly-proposed solutions that were once possible are today infeasible, ever since this dictator became a mass murderer of his own people. Meanwhile, the conflict in Syria has grown into a fierce proxy war with hundreds of fighting factions; with an international terrorist organisation that aims to erect a caliphate by means of murder; regional powers, above all Saudi Arabia and Iran, vying for supremacy on foreign soil; and a number of external actors, each with its own agenda and historical context, not least the United States, Russia and us Europeans. No attempt at simplification, or at blocking out reality, will help us make headway towards a possible solution in this quagmire.

Yet that, too, is a lesson we can learn from missed opportunities: Now that the situation has grown worse and more inextricable, we must do everything within our power to find and seize opportunities. With the agreement that was reached in the summer of 2015 on the dispute over Iran’s nuclear programme, a window of opportunity has been opened at least a tiny crack. The very day the agreement was reached, a new phase began in our efforts. For we knew we needed the parties to these negotiations to assume responsibility for a possible solution to Syria, as well. This includes the so-called E3+3 – that is, the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom and Germany, and above all also the countries in the region. From that moment on, we worked hard to persuade the two rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia to sit down together at the negotiating table. I travelled many times between Riyadh and Tehran. Finally, we did manage to get all of the regional and supra-regional parties to join a Syria format that held meetings in Vienna, New York and Munich. This is still a painstaking process, but these days it is the only feasible option that includes all actors involved in Syria, regardless of how intractable and impossible the situation may be.

When we speak of opportunities and responsibility in foreign policy, we must not always set our sights on an overarching solution, but also, wherever possible, look for the many little things that can help. We must learn to identify small steps that can be taken, and stop focusing on the great wall, that we could never break through with a single blow. In recent years, we have therefore proceeded to re-examine and revitalise our foreign policy, and we are beginning to look at the entire cycle of a conflict, ranging from humanitarian aid to crisis prevention to stabilisation and even expanding our urgently-needed mediation capacities.

For example, we have meanwhile become the world’s third-largest provider of humanitarian assistance. The crisis in Syria is, of course, our main focus. Germany managed to get aid supplies to 110,000 people in Deir ez-Zor via airdrops.

Regarding stabilisation, we have been doing reconstruction work in cities such as Ramadi and Tikrit, where – after they were liberated and no longer under IS control – we have rapidly helped create minimum, humane living conditions, enabling people to return. Some 90 percent of the former inhabitants have been able to go back to these cities. They now no longer need to cross the dangerous front lines in Iraq, on the way to Turkey and Europe.

Or think of the small yet important steps in our cultural relations and education policy. Together with the Federal Agency for Technical Relief, we are providing practical training to young Syrian men and women, so they can one day return home and rebuild their country. The Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee Initiative (DAFI) supports refugees in third countries, helping them pursue university studies there. Another example is the Philipp Schwartz Initiative of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. One of its scholarship holders is Hussein Almohamad. He was a professor in Aleppo before having to flee with his family. Thanks to a Schwartz scholarship, he now does research at the University of Giessen – my alma mater, by the way – where he is the key point of contact for a network of Syrian geographers who are working on reconstruction plans for a post-war Syria. Such efforts, too, offer opportunities for crisis diplomacy.

I want to mention a second example. Speaking of opportunities for diplomacy, we must also talk about security in Europe. A new, deep rift has opened between Russia and the West. Old enemy stereotypes that we believed were long gone are gaining popularity throughout Europe – and are unfortunately being reinforced on both sides. The annexation of Crimea in violation of international law has brought back the question of war and peace.

I don’t want to go on at length about the conflict in Ukraine, or where the Minsk talks stand – we can maybe discuss this later during a panel meeting. I also will not speak about the intensive debates at NATO over how to deal with Russia. All in all, following the annexation of Crimea, during the course of the conflict, and most recently in Warsaw, we have taken prudent decisions, based on the following understanding: We must of course protect ourselves, and we must protect those in Eastern Europe and in the Baltic who fear Moscow’s threats and potential actions.

However, and I will expand on this a bit: this is only one side of the coin. The other side is a basic principle that we are familiar with from the policy of détente during the Cold War, a principle that remains true to this day: A security regime for Europe cannot be built through confrontation, but only through cooperation!

Since the Harmel Report was published in 1967, NATO has pursued a dual strategy of deterrence and détente vis-à-vis Russia. Deterrence and dialogue. This strategy was successful, as it helped overcome the divide of the Cold War.

It has one problem, though: Deterrence is always real and visible to everyone. That is why the invitation to engage in dialogue must be given a concrete form, as well. I think we have an obligation to do this, and that is why I have proposed that we re-engage in a debate on arms control and disarmament in Europe, a debate that involves the West and Russia. If we let things go on like this, we will be faced with a new, dangerous arms race – involving new, dangerous strategies and new weapons technology: drones, cyber attacks and even an arms race in space. I strongly believe no one would win such an arms race, but that, in the end, both sides would lose.

Where do these efforts stand? Last week, I hosted a meeting of OSCE foreign ministers in Potsdam. I got lots of positive feedback on our initiative. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg told me on Friday in Berlin that he supports my proposal, because it aims to prevent future escalation and unpredictability. Of course this is a very sensitive issue, and I am hearing worries and concerns about some aspects. To be honest, I would be worried if this weren’t so. Because I’m proposing an open dialogue on a sensitive topic. My first proposal identifies five areas in which we can address transparency, control and building confidence. Of course, these are not final negotiating positions, because we haven’t even begun any discussions. They are important areas that give both sides opportunities – and they are areas that require efforts on both sides, as well.

In the coming days, we want to take initial steps, by meeting with a group of like-minded partners to discuss how we can get the actual, larger process under way. This core group is intended to be an initial nucleus. It will be open to all interested parties, and I hope it will lead us towards a broad, structured dialogue on the future of arms control.

That takes me back to opportunities: Such a dialogue is at least an opportunity – of this I am convinced. Whether or not it will help us obtain a new arms control regime, that, I admit, is not at all certain. However, to not even give it a try would be irresponsible.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Willy Brandt once said: “No war must again emanate from German soil.” This sentence defined an entire generation – including myself and many of you in this room today. The sentence remains true – yet I am afraid that, for us today, it cannot be enough. Yes, no war must again emanate from German soil. However, in these troubled times, the difficult and tedious work of building peace must emanate from German soil. Germany must create impetus for finding solutions on how to give new order to a world that is out of joint. Germany should be sending a signal and giving hope that life in the age of globalisation consists not only of constantly defending your own ground, but that this world can be shaped. I would even say that, with patience and willingness to approach others, this world can be made a little more peaceful and a little more just.

That is my task as Foreign Minister, and it is our common foreign policy task. Even so, it will be more the task of a new, international generation – that is who we need, and in this connection I’m also counting on you, the “Eberts”. Thank you very much.

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