Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on civilian crisis prevention as a key element of contemporary Social Democratic foreign policy

20.10.2016 - Speech

Thomas Oppermann,
Edelgard Bulmahn,
Rolf Mützenich,
Ute Finckh-Krämer,
Esteemed colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Honoured guests!

I have two speeches with me today: one for our conference and one that I will give to the Bundestag later on. The Bundestag is about to debate Germany’s military involvement in the fight against the barbarism of IS. In my speech, I will be calling on the Bundestag to approve that military deployment. And for now, I’m speaking here at a conference held by my parliamentary group to discuss civilian crisis prevention. You might wonder how the one cause can be reconciled with the other. Isn’t this a contradiction within German foreign policy, or particularly within Social Democratic foreign policy?

I say no – and moreover, I say these topics have to be thought about and approached as a pair.

We need to stand together and do all we can to oppose these IS thugs. And we clearly need military means to do that. You cannot hold peace talks with suicide squads.

However, though we are forced to turn to military means to fight the barbarous thugs of IS, those means alone will never suffice as a solution. It is clear that we need civilian measures to stabilise the areas liberated from IS, enable people to return to their homes and create the conditions for reconciliation. In Iraq, we have succeeded in providing 185,000 people in liberated areas with water, electricity and healthcare services. As a result, not only have 90% of Tikrit’s displaced residents been able to return, but we’re also seeing more and more success in Ramadi and Fallujah too, in spite of the difficult circumstances. Of course I’m saying that because I am thinking about Mosul next. We are providing aid there in a situation of extreme emergency – Germany is the largest humanitarian aid donor in Iraq – and we are preparing to support the people of Mosul when, as we hope, it too is liberated from IS. In Syria too, we have been building civilian infrastructure in areas controlled by the moderate opposition. 300,000 people have regained access to electricity. I am citing these examples primarily because they show that we need civilian instruments even in the most brutal of today’s conflicts, to open up roads to stabilisation and, in the long term, reconciliation.

This conference today could not be any more vital. My heartfelt thanks, therefore, to everyone who helped organise it.


In discussions with my fellow foreign ministers these days, I am often asked, sometimes in a somewhat bemused tone, why Germany sets so much store by civilian elements of conflict management. One of the answers I might give them is that, historically speaking, we Germans have a special responsibility to stand up for alternatives to military intervention. But that’s probably not the whole answer; it doesn’t cover everything. Another part of it is that, as we have had to learn over the last two decades, military means – even where they are essential – can never establish stable peace alone.

What is more, we cannot take the approach of only paying attention to a conflict once the fires have broken out.

It is therefore correct to say that the most effective policy for peace is preventive in nature, which contains conflicts before they break out and degenerate into military confrontation. Since the Social Democratic-Green coalition government published its action plan in 2004, we have established that approach as a hallmark of German foreign policy.

It has also, I would add, become a hallmark of Social Democratic foreign policy. On this very day 45 years ago, the Nobel Committee announced that Willy Brandt was to receive the Nobel Prize. That was of course in recognition of his Ostpolitik, but that wasn’t the only policy Willy Brandt pursued. He also focused on North-South relations. He realised earlier than others that, if we are to prevent conflicts before they arise, we need to ensure that people have equal opportunities, that social justice becomes a tangible reality and the people have prospects. We need to build on that!


Someone once described the German author Kurt Tucholsky as “a fat little Berliner using his typewriter to try to avert catastrophe”. For me, that affectionately mocking description contains a very key question which I ask myself all the time in my job: how can we, in practice, oppose chaos and violence by civilian means? What tools do we have for that in our foreign-policy toolkit?


Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me give you a quick briefing from the factory floor, as it were, on our day-to-day crisis prevention and management work around the world. Edelgard, Ute – did I read that correctly, we have until 6 p.m.?

Not to worry, I’ll keep it short!

As many of you will know, the self-critical inspection that I launched at the Federal Foreign Office has involved setting up a new department, namely the Directorate-General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilisation and Post-Conflict Peacebuilding. This is where we now pool all the capabilities that enable us to deal with the whole spectrum of crises more concentratedly – not only engaging in acute crisis management, but also bringing the instruments of precautionary foreign policy under one roof and making them deployable.

Political mediation, i.e. searching for political ways to resolve acute crises, is certainly the highest discipline in our work. That’s what I spend a major part of my days doing at the moment – and sometimes longer, like last night.

If one sees the crisis phenomenon as a whole, one cannot simply doggedly focus on seeking a comprehensive political settlement in conflict situations as intractable as that in Syria – although one must do this too! – but must also, wherever possible, help people and provide support. I told you earlier about our work on the ground in Syria and Iraq that aims to do exactly that.

We are also active outwith the major current trouble spots, often under the public radar. In Mali, for example – whose challenges will be discussed later – we are involved through diplomacy, development cooperation and a military peace mission. And that’s not all. We are also using other means of post-conflict peacebuilding, with German experts from the Max Planck Foundation advising our Malian partners as they prepare extremely politically sensitive constitutional reform – a crucial building block for the country’s peaceful development.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We focus most particularly on the tools of crisis prevention, even if they draw the attention of the public far less than our work in current trouble spots. In practical terms, that means for instance supporting the establishment of the rule of law in Nepal, Jordan and Ethiopia. We are assisting mediation processes in the Sudan and Georgia.

We are now also taking a closer look at countries and regions where the risk of escalation is high, in the hope that strategic foresight will enable us to spot crisis brewing more quickly and accurately. That enhanced analytical capability is important. In terms of policy though, it means not just recognising things early but also responding early. That, esteemed colleagues, is our job; Government and Bundestag need to work together on that!

We are also enhancing our cooperation with the other Government departments and our international partners, such as the United Nations. It is furthermore essential that we have dialogue with civil society, our research institutes and the many experts who support us in implementing difficult projects. You all have my heartfelt thanks!

Let me highlight one particular organisation at this point: the Center for International Peace Operations, or ZIF. We are turning the ZIF into a full sending organisation. It is important to us that our civilian staff be not only extremely well trained for their complex tasks as, for example, OSCE observers in eastern Ukraine. These people deserve our complete backing for their often dangerous work – including the appropriate care after their assignments. That will be assured by our Posted Workers Act which will enter the parliamentary process before the end of the year.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have to be realistic. Civilian crisis prevention and peacebuilding work is always slow, often arduous and sometimes simply impotent. I am thinking, for instance, of our work in Yemen. Since 2012, we have been working behind the scenes to set up contacts between the conflict parties. This has not been enough to prevent the horrific escalation of the conflict. But we do at least have the hope that we can fall back on those reliable contacts when a peaceful solution for Yemen becomes more of a possibility. As I see it, that example demonstrates that we cannot always make the desired outcomes happen – but this shouldn’t stop us trying. Engaging in crises is a high-risk investment. We should therefore be prepared to acknowledge, when necessary, that a project has not succeeded as planned – and draw the right conclusions from that. That is why we at the Federal Foreign Office are subjecting our projects to greater scrutiny. Edelgard, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you most sincerely for doing so much to advance the topic of evaluation and for remaining at our side in that endeavour in future too!

Ladies and gentlemen,

We have advanced considerably during this legislative term. Despite the crises raging around us, we have managed to get ourselves into a better position strategically and invest more in crisis prevention and management. Thanks not least to the work of the SPD group in the Bundestag, we have been able to keep funding stable at a high level this year. That must be an incentive, esteemed colleagues, to do even better in the 2017 financial year.

At the same time, we want to consolidate our experience and keep developing our conceptual positions. That’s why we established an elaborate public debate process called PeaceLab2016 – A Fresh Look at Crisis Prevention. More than 20 events will be held in various formats before the end of November. Many of you are already actively involved. You have been giving us suggestions, food for thought – and we have been gleaning lots of important ideas. Our aim is to collate it all into a central strategic government document. The Cabinet will adopt those new Guidelines on Crisis Engagement and Peacebuilding in the coming year. This will give us a new long-term frame of reference for the political pursuit of peace twelve years after the action plan.


Esteemed colleagues, we can think ourselves lucky that, unlike Kurt Tucholsky, we have not only a typewriter but a well-stocked diplomatic toolkit at our disposal. Let us use it together for the good of our fellow human beings. We have a duty to them!

Thank you for your attention.

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