Speech by Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the award ceremony for the 2016 Tolerance Prize of the Evangelische Akademie Tutzing (Protestant Academy of Tutzing)

16.09.2016 - Speech

Chairman of the Council Bedford-Strohm,
Mr Hahn,
Dr Beckstein,

Less than five hours ago, I was standing on a makeshift bridge at the eastern Ukrainian front. Now I am standing here before you at beautiful Lake Starnberg. The contrast could not be greater!

I am very happy to be here today.

What an honour it is to be awarded the Academy's Tolerance Prize and to follow in the footsteps of such renowned laureates as the Aga Khan, Shirin Ebadi and Daniel Barenboim! Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, thank you so much for your kind words – although as a simple Christian, I asked myself more than once if I really deserve this praise.

But let me start by saying that I am also very happy to be here because this award ceremony is taking place in a particular context, both in terms of time and content. Halfway through the Luther Decade, this event marks the start of a conference that poses the question “How much influence does the Reformation (still) have today?” Almost 500 years ago, Martin Luther’s theses launched a transformation that galvanised society and the Church.

But not only that. It was also Luther – and this is interesting as regards the special prize with which you are honouring me today – who introduced the word “tolerance” to the German language. Translated from the Latin “tolerantia”, it means “endurance”.

Allow me to start off by saying that the term “tolerance” gives me a few headaches as regards foreign policy. How should I be able to tolerate the unspeakable situation we are currently experiencing in many parts of the world or the suffering of the people in Aleppo, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and countless other crisis-ridden areas? There is simply no way I can accept or tolerate the violence, deprivation, suffering and seemingly endless nature of these conflicts!

Tolerance is often misunderstood as a well-meant call to let others be – come what may. But can we allow ourselves to do this? Can we be tolerant when a dictator abuses his power and unleashes suffering and poverty on his people, when a partner country provokes a war and breaks all of the international rules, when a government tramples all over its people’s human rights? The unequivocal answer is “no”. We cannot and we must not tolerate the conduct of those who violate human rights, who knowingly and intentionally cause suffering, and who endanger peace, democracy and the rule of law. So far, so good! Hardly anyone in this room will take issue with these assertions.

But what are the consequences? Is it enough to deplore the state of the world? Is it enough to get angry about the world’s problems? In both foreign policy and normal life, I say it is not enough to complain. Shrugging our shoulders in resignation cannot be an option. We cannot allow ourselves to be paralysed by the crises that surround us, even if they seem so hopeless.

Dorothee Söller wrote: “Even if our contribution is small, and sometimes seems too small, we must not allow ourselves to be overcome by powerlessness. ‘There’s nothing we can do’ is a godless phrase.”

I say that we must help to put solutions in place, even if it is difficult, even if the goal seems a long way off, even if we have to cope with setbacks and obstacles, and even if many people think failure is certain, before the first step has even been taken. Especially then! “Making the world a better place” is not just a throwaway phrase – for many people, it is a question of survival. No one – including us! – can shoulder such a burden alone. But the fact that we Germans are playing our part – as a large, rich country at the heart of Europe – is a responsibility we cannot shirk. And nor do we want to shirk it.

In my opinion, Mr Hahn, what Willy Brandt said here at this very academy over 50 years ago about the task and meaning of foreign policy remains as valid as ever today. Speaking here in Tutzing, he said that foreign policy is “the attempt to solve problems peacefully without any illusions”.

That is the point – not more and certainly not less!

Working on solutions without any illusions means two things for me. Firstly, it means not giving up, especially when things are difficult. How often do you think I heard the question “Why are you going to all that trouble?”, for instance during the years of negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran? “There’s no point,” people would say. And sometimes it is hard not to believe that yourself. Over the course of the ten years, there was often no progress. The talks were stalled, suspended or even broken off. How often did we find ourselves on the slippery slope of confrontation, even military confrontation? This would have come to pass if we had given up and the conflict had spiralled out of control. The lesson I learned from this – and it applies far beyond the nuclear dispute with Iran – is that giving up cannot be an option, especially when things are difficult. Instead, we need to hang on in there. We need to keep exploring how we can shift the realm of what is desirable step by step to the realm of what is possible and feasible. That is one aspect.

The second aspect I see as regards working on solutions without any illusions is the need to talk frankly with the other side and to try to see the world through their eyes.

I firmly believe that we will only be in a position to find joint solutions to the problems of our time if we are familiar with the cultural, historical and political experiences that shape our partners’ thinking and actions and if we try to understand these experiences.

And this thinking is crucial to our policy. Regardless of whether we are talking about Russia, Turkey or our partners in the European Union, I believe that a posteriori reasoning in diplomacy proves is it unwise and dangerous to decide on one’s own foreign policy course without knowing the other side’s motives and perceptions.

And in all modesty, I think 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 the knowledge that understanding is the prerequisite for any agreement.

This is often carelessly ignored. And even more often, it is wilfully misunderstood by those who blithely accuse someone of sympathising with Iran, Russia or, as has recently been the case, Turkey, when they don’t like a certain opinion. In the media, this frequently achieves the desired goal. At the same time, I always ask myself what is actually the message.

And where will foreign policy end up if we ever stop wanting to understand, when the term “wanting to understand” is even used as an insult? Once again, understanding does not mean acceptance and it certainly does not mean consent. But without understanding, we can never reach agreement!


Heinrich Bedford-Strohm just pointed out that it was not actually a Social Democrat like Willy Brandt or Egon Bahr, but rather Henry Kissinger, who said that foreign policy is perception; that there is often more than one version of the truth in international relations; and that there are different perceptions of the same reality, particularly in conflict situations.

That reminds me of a story I recently heard from a colleague from a southern African country. He told me about a group of hunters who stumbled over a large obstacle in the dark. The men approached the unknown object from different directions. “It’s soft and long. It must be a snake!” one said. “It’s hard and rough. It’s definitely a big, poisonous plant!” the second hunter said. “It’s huge!” the third one shouted. “It’s definitely a rock!” The hunters started arguing. Each of them believed he knew what was there in front of him. They almost came to blows. Exhausted, they finally fell asleep and woke up the next morning beside – wait for it! – an elephant. All of them had been right to some extent; none of the three perceptions was completely wrong; and yet they led to three different interpretations of reality simply because, as I would like to remind you, they had approached the object from different directions.

This fable unknowingly contains great wisdom about foreign policy.

There are different perceptions of the same reality. This does not only play a role in hunting. It is also important in politics. We recently felt that with regard to Turkey, which had the impression that we never took the attempted coup seriously and didn’t show our sympathy openly. And perhaps we really didn’t make it sufficiently clear that this attempted coup was an outrageous attack against the institutions of democracy. But conversely, not every critical question from Europe can immediately be seen as ignorance about the events in Turkey. Naturally, this attempted coup must have consequences. However, our expectation that rule-of-law standards be upheld must not be seen in Turkey as overbearing. Instead, it may be seen as an expression of concern – concern that the levels of liberalisation and internal reconciliation that have been achieved are being put at stake.

I could mention many other examples where different perceptions of a single reality are at the heart of crises and conflicts and make it so hard to find solutions. The Middle East certainly provides plenty of material to explore this idea!


My impression is that the willingness to deal with complex interwoven causes is declining. The tendency to see everything quickly in black and white, to decide who is good and who is bad, rather than analysing conflicts, is dangerously high. Complexity is almost regarded as an excuse not to do what is right and necessary. The reactions of news and TV audiences are also increasingly influenced by digital technology, with people just closing whatever they find it unpleasant. It’s better to just not deal with it, they think. But what is more relevant than ever today is that we need to talk, we need dialogue in which criticism can be expressed, especially given the ever deeper rifts. And we need to talk not just via cameras and microphones, but rather with each other. We need to talk in particular about difficult issues on which we do not agree.

This goes for Turkey, Russia and the many other conflicts where we are trying to help and mediate.

This is why we took on the Chairmanship of the OSCE in 2016, an organisation that many people believed in recent years was no longer necessary after the end of the Cold War. But today it is the only organisation in which East and West speak directly with each other! It is a unique forum for dialogue and as such we must make it stronger.


Ladies and gentlemen,

The task of seeking understanding beyond rifts and lines of division is a painstaking process, whether we are talking about Syria, Libya, Iraq, Yemen or eastern Ukraine. It takes patience and determination to keep the channels of communication open with difficult partners. We often experience setbacks in this work. And when some progress is finally made, it often takes the form of small steps. My French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault and I have just returned from another visit to Kyiv, where we are trying to help the parties to the conflict on the path to a political solution to the crisis. This path is paved with obstacles. But we are doing everything in our power to follow it because I firmly believe this is the only way we will be successful.

And for the first time in ages, we are now seeing a glimmer of hope once again. The fact that both Russia and Ukraine have agreed to a ceasefire since midnight today is an important step. The head of the OSCE mission told us today that apart from a few exceptions, no shots have been fired since midnight. I am under no illusions. This is just the first step. But it opens a window of opportunity for us in which the priority now is to take the next steps. All of the parties have promised to sign the troop disengagement plan, which has been painstakingly negotiated over the past months, in Minsk next week. I hope this will enable us to make the ceasefire permanent and lend momentum to the political process step by step in the coming weeks.

And, as you will recall, this is exactly “the attempt to solve problems peacefully without any illusions”.

It is true that we rarely – far too rarely – see the success of our diplomatic endeavours. But these special moments do happen! One example was the nuclear deal with Iran that we were able to sign last spring, following years of exceptionally difficult negotiations. I will never forget what John Kerry said after the agreement had been signed. His words were “we prevented a war”.

That is the success of the struggle to find solutions without illusions that I am talking about.


Ladies and gentlemen, I do not equate having no illusions with a lack of passion or values.

On the contrary, a compass that guides me inside – be it as a person or a politician – is of course my Christian faith. Naturally, politics is not something you do with a Bible in your hand at all times. The Holy Scriptures do not have an answer to every tax regulation. But even if they do not have all the answers, it is equally obvious that I don’t simply set my Christian beliefs aside when I sit down at my desk or board a plane in the morning.

My first speech ever at a Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchentag many years ago was a Bible study about Christian hope. I spoke about the internal framework, based on trust in God, that dispels fearfulness in a world that has become so very difficult to understand and gives us the courage to do what is needed.


The churches also give me courage through their work to foster understanding. This may come as a surprise, as the Bible itself is not exactly a canon that overflows with tolerance. In fact, the word “tolerance” does not appear even once in it. But what one does of course often find are the words “love” and “mercy”. These are the cornerstones of our faith.

And it is no coincidence that I mention these two words. Love and mercy are also terms that we have in common with Judaism and Islam, where one finds equivalents. We find equivalents in Buddhism and Hinduism. They are the root of religions, despite all the big differences between them.

Recognising common ground while not glossing over differences is not easy even for churches and religions. In a world in which the traditional power conflicts are becoming increasingly defined by ethnic and religious conflicts, we also need to talk in particular about differences – and where necessary to do so openly and critically. When it comes to living with differences and seeking understanding on this basis, the churches are ahead of politicians (although I can certainly imagine there being more courage and passion for ecumenism in Germany).


This courage to seek understanding is something we could really do with in today’s society in particular.

I make no bones about it – I am very concerned about the words we are currently hearing in so many places, here in Germany, but also in other parts of Europe and beyond.

The monster of nationalism is rearing its ugly head once again. And this monster feeds on just one thing – fear. Whether we are talking about Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the AfD in Germany or Donald Trump in the US, these people are playing on people’s fears. They are turning fear into policies.

And we must stand up to this. Pulling up the drawbridge, shutting others out, keeping ourselves to ourselves – this supposedly simple solution proposed by the populists is not only cowardly because it avoids giving a real answer. It is also dangerous. Those who play with fear are playing with fire.

And that is why I say we must all take a stand against these calls to withdraw to the nation state.

But simply getting angry does not help here either.

If people are afraid of the future, if they are afraid that policymakers have lost control, if they do not feel that Europe protects them properly against the threats of globalisation, if they can no longer cope with an increasingly complicated world with its many conflicts, then we need to explain more often and more patiently why national governments can do even less to counteract the fears arising from these things than our shared Europe can. We must explain that we need to work more and more with other partners, and less and less alone, in order to solve the far too many conflicts and the great challenges of the 21st century, namely climate, water and energy, often in alliances in which we do not even have a free say about who the partners are.

Many people are asking what sort of future we will have. And my answer is that our future will not necessarily be worse than the present. And, as only the Americans can, Obama said in his speech in Hanover in April:

“If you had to choose a moment in time to be born, any time in human history ... you'd choose today.”

Despite all the changes, growing complexity and global interdependence, the future is open and we can influence how it turns out. And it is our responsibility to do what needs to be done – to get involved, as Martin Luther would call on us to do.

The best way to predict the future is to shape it. That is also a quotation by Willy Brandt and it remains valid.

The prize with which you are honouring me today will serve to encourage and motivate me in my part of this work to shape the future.

Thank you very much.

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