Get involved – the relationship between Reformation and foreign policy

01.11.2016 - Interview

Article by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to mark the anniversary of the Reformation, published in the magazine “Zeitzeichen” on 1 November 2016.

Article by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to mark the anniversary of the Reformation, published in the magazine “Zeitzeichen” on 1 November 2016.

Martin Luther’s theology is a message of deliverance which gives everyone the ability to take responsibility for the world. Starting out from this concept, Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier outlines his personal motivation for pursuing a foreign policy that time and again strives to find diplomatic and peaceful solutions amid all crises and despite many setbacks.

When we celebrate the anniversary of the Reformation over the coming days, it is not merely a church event. The fact that the Reformation had a far-reaching theological, cultural and political impact, which continues to resonate beyond Germany and Europe to this day, means that its anniversary also has a foreign policy dimension. In a world that appears to be out of joint as a result of crises and conflicts, it is worth our while to take a closer look at the questions on religion and order, faith and peace, freedom and responsibility that are inherent to the Reformation.

In the words of Bishop Hermann Kunst, the first Chairperson of the Council of the Protestant Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland – EKD) to the Federal Government, Martin Luther’s theology places every Christian in a position of responsibility for the world.

The Reformation breaks with the doctrine that people first and foremost need to work to obtain their own salvation through charity, penance and the purchase of letters of indulgence. On the contrary, we cannot find justification through good deeds. God’s grace alone, sola gratia, embraces us and makes us right before God.

In this sense, the Reformation is above all a deliverance. We no longer have to primarily look out for ourselves because God does that. And no one – no society or authority – can call this freedom into question because it is not dependent on people. It comes from God alone. But deliverance does not mean the freedom to be idle or to retreat to the private sphere. Luther does not let us off that lightly. On the contrary, because we no longer have to look out for ourselves, we can and, perhaps he would say, must look out for others. We bear testimony to our freedom and our trust in God by taking on responsibility for the world and the people who live in it.

Almost four hundred and fifty years later, the Lutheran, Reformed and United churches still invoked precisely this shared legacy. The Leuenberg Agreement of 1973 states: “This message [of Jesus Christ] makes Christians free for responsible service in the world and also ready to suffer in that service. They stand up for justice and peace on earth between individuals and nations.”

This is what was so revolutionary about the Reformation, and this is what motivates me personally: not an abstract call to “politics” but a call to each individual to stand up for dialogue over confrontation and for reconciliation over war. When we say in the Lord’s Prayer “your kingdom come”, this does not relieve us of responsibility; instead we are all responsible for taking steps along that path. A power to change and shape society is inherent in this. But above all, it encompasses the certainty that the future is open. This is the core of Christian hope, as understood by Protestants: freedom in responsibility.

And yet, in foreign policy, the phrase “your kingdom come” almost sounds like a euphemism – or at least like an extremely far-off goal. People know and sense, of course, how far apart ideals and realities are. Unfortunately, and specifically in Germany, many people are turning their backs on the major foreign policy trouble spots and saying: “The situation is so messy – what can possibly be done to resolve it?”

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 Sölle 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 would add that we have to 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 – not even 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 and do not want to shirk.

In my opinion, what Willy Brandt said at the Evangelische Akademie Tutzing over 50 years ago about the task and meaning of foreign policy remains as valid as ever today. “Foreign policy,” he said, “is the attempt to solve problems peacefully without any illusions.” That is what it is about, no more and certainly no less! Working on solutions without any illusions means two things for me.

Firstly, it means not giving up, especially when a situation appears hopeless. For instance, during the years of negotiations on a nuclear deal with Iran, I was often asked “Why are you going to all that trouble? It’s a waste of time.” And sometimes it was hard not to believe that.

Over the course of the ten years, there was often no progress. The talks were stalled, suspended or even broken off. But nevertheless, we kept trying to allay the danger of nuclear armament – and in the end we succeeded. 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 get 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.

The second aspect I see as regards working on solutions without any illusions is the need to talk frankly with the other side, to try to see the world through others’ eyes and ideally to develop a joint perspective from this. 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 other societies’ dreams and traumas.

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

In all modesty, I believe the fact that Germany currently has a good reputation worldwide as a mediator in many conflicts is partly due to this willingness to understand and to the knowledge that understanding is the prerequisite for any agreement.

Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, the Chairperson of the EKD, recently 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 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 contains great wisdom about foreign policy, namely that 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 sensed 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 – also that the levels of liberalisation and internal reconciliation that have been achieved are being put at stake.

Striving to reach understanding beyond rifts and lines of division is an arduous 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 only comes in small steps. This path is littered 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.

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 US Secretary of State 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. Yet 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. Undoubtedly, politicians do not find an answer to every question in the Bible. But it is equally obvious that I don’t simply set my Christian beliefs aside when I sit down at my desk in the morning or board a plane.

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 which has become so very difficult to understand and that gives us the courage to do what has to be done.

The churches also encourage me 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 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. We also find them 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 struggles are becoming increasingly defined by ethnic and religious conflicts, we also need to talk specifically about differences – openly and critically where necessary. As regards living with differences and seeking understanding on this basis, the churches are ahead of politics.

We need to work more and more with other partners 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 have a free say about who the partners are.

What does our future hold? Our future will not necessarily be worse than the present. And President Obama, as only the Americans can, 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.

Martin Luther has left us a clear message: get involved! Take your responsibility towards God and the world seriously! Or to quote Willy Brandt, “the best way to predict the future is to shape it”.

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