Conferment of the Grand Cross 1st Class of the Federal Republic of Germany on John F. Kerry

05.12.2016 - Speech

On 5 December Secretary of State The Honourable John F. Kerry was awarded the Grand Cross 1st Class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Welcome to all of you and thank you for joining us tonight!

John, In my experience of foreign policy, there haven’t been many happy moments such as this one – and I want to add: there haven’t been many relationships such as this one. You’re not just a colleague, whom I deeply admire, a true statesman – but you’ve also become a true friend. And one doesn’t have to watch House of Cards to know that in politics, that doesn’t often happen. Tonight, I trust in our friendship so deeply that I even feel comfortable enough to talk to you in my mother tongue … So, John, there’s good news and there’s bad news for you tonight: I will award you the highest honour of my country, but I will do so in German.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to welcome you all most cordially to the Weltsaal at the Federal JoForeign Office on a truly special occasion: tonight, we’re conferring the Grand Cross 1st Class of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany on the 68th Secretary of State of the United States of America.

John Kerry, welcome to Berlin!


Ladies and gentlemen, John Kerry has many qualities. One that we don’t normally see is his fondness of taking risks.

His risky but fascinating activities include:


taking flying lessons,

running for the office of President of the United States,

spending long nights negotiating with Bibi Netanjahu,

and ... perhaps the most dangerous of his passions: cycling!

You might now be saying: well, cycling is quite harmless ... But let me tell you that you and I don’t cycle the way John Kerry does. Not only I but the entire diplomatic community saw how dangerous this passion is: after having spent long nights negotiating with the Iranians in Geneva you needed some fresh air – as most of us did. Except, you didn’t just go for a walk along the shores of Lake Geneva. Instead, you went cycling and did the Col de la Colombière tour, one of the toughest mountain stages in the Tour de France in just one afternoon. Distracted for a moment, you hit a curb. After your accident, one concern spread like lightening: would this spell the end for the whole agreement with Iran? No way! While still in hospital, you carried on working, talked on the phone, called meetings – and six weeks later the historic agreement with Iran was in place. So you see, even though some traces of his cycling tour were still visible at the signing ceremony ... I vividly remember that day: after one last long night negotiating with the Iranians, we once again sat down together right before the press conference – all those who had been negotiating and struggling with one another – and stopped for a moment to reflect. You really could feel the emotion in the room. You got up, John, as someone who had himself lived through the horrors of another war and you said, quite simply: “Friends, you should be aware: today, we avoided war”! That not only highlighted the political and historical significance of the agreement but was also one of the most memorable moments of my entire term of office.


However, your dangerous passion for cycling dates back even further. Referring to your childhood, you once said: “My bike was sort of my great escape from parents and rules and everything”. Now, there’s nothing exceptional about 12 year old boys exploring their neighbourhood on their bikes. But it wasn’t just any old neighbourhood. It was this very district! One beautiful summer’s day you set off from your parents’ house in Bachstelzenweg in West Berlin. As your father worked for the State Department, you had a diplomatic passport which allowed you to cross over into the eastern sector at Checkpoint Charlie. And you went cycling in this very area: riding up Friedrichstrasse, along Unter den Linden and through the Brandenburg Gate. That a US diplomat’s son going for a spin in the eastern sector could’ve triggered something of a crisis – well, you weren’t really aware of that at the time ... What impressed you much more was the scenes from post-war Berlin.

As a boy, you saw the aftermath of war with your own eyes.

But you also saw something else: the first big buildings were springing up again along the Kurfürstendamm – re‑erected, renovated and with a plaque proudly proclaiming: “Rebuilt with the help of the Marshall Plan”. These images became an indelible part of your political world-view. And today you’ve come back to Berlin, driving through those same streets ... and now it looks like this!

Ladies and gentlemen, seeing these photos side by side, you can’t help but recognise and acknowledge the outstanding importance of this US policy. The Marshall Plan wasn’t just an act of American generosity but was and remains the most incredible example of political far-sightedness and reason. A policy which didn’t give in to the – all too understandable – urge to seek revenge against the nation of perpetrators but, instead, opted for long-term and comprehensive renewal, a renewal which paid off for both sides: for us in Europe and for America. In the very best sense, this political reason is an example of self interest well understood, which Tocqueville described as the distinguishing feature of American democracy almost 200 years ago.

Witnessing the Marshall Plan in action as a child left a deep and lasting impression on John Kerry. He is a man who has always believed in political reason: despite his terrible personal experiences in the Vietnam war, despite some setbacks, in both domestic and foreign policy. I want to talk about this, his political reason, this evening – not only because it’s a distinguishing feature of John Kerry the statesman, but of transatlantic relations in general.


As German Foreign Minister, I’m privileged to see on a daily basis that our country, Germany, today inspires hope in many people around the world. For our country perhaps embodies like no other the experience that wars can be followed by peace; division by reconciliation; and that political reason can return after a frenzy of nationalism and ideology. We Germans largely owe that, ladies and gentlemen, to the United States. For that reason, we should resist any temptation to feel superior – especially today. Indeed, we have all the more reason to show the best qualities we’ve learned from America.


John Kerry embodies these qualities. John Kerry embodies the best of America! And this is not because he has the exact same initials as John F. Kennedy

– J.F.K. – or because, incidentally, he’s exactly the same height as Abraham Lincoln: 193 cm or six foot four ... How do we convert that again? I can never remember ... For he’s generous, warm-hearted, smart and a man of political reason through and through.

What does that mean exactly? First of all, his unshakeable belief in dialogue. Or, as your teachers at St. Paul’s School would have put it – some of them shaking their heads: He just won’t stop arguing…

John Kerry is the most patient and persistent diplomat I know. He listens and tries to understand the person he’s talking to, he doesn’t relent, he discusses and weighs up every aspect of a conflict in the quest for solutions. Your four or five-hour-long meetings with Hamid Karzai are legendary. One could say that an Afghan cricket match is short by comparison ... In the tremendous speech you made in Brussels in October you said, John, that you’ve spent more time with Sergey Lavrov than with any other diplomat. For you know that it is precisely the difficult partners that diplomats cannot ignore if they want to break a deadlock or at least win a little time or gain some respite from suffering.

I’ve already mentioned the tremendously successful negotiations with Iran. Now I want to remind you of another example: In the days after the US election last month when the political scene in America was busy navel-gazing and many Democrats were paralysed with shock, John Kerry was far away from Washington spending night after night trying to broker a ceasefire in one of the most terrible and all too often forgotten conflicts: namely in Yemen.


John, even at college you were a gifted debater – and to this day, your approach is to trade arguments rather than insults.

Indeed, the same goes for the transatlantic relationship itself. Although most people here in this room are probably firm believers in the importance of this relationship, that does not mean Germany and the US always see eye to eye. That is certainly not the case – and I don’t think it would be in the interests of transatlantic relations if we pretended it were or simply never mentioned these differences. On the contrary, in trusting in the strength of arguments and the foundation of reason, we come to terms with our differences.

I would like to mention just one example of how we work together, John, and that is our approach to personal data. We know that for reasons deeply rooted in our history and culture, Germans and Americans have very different views on the balance between freedom, security and privacy in the internet. Our approach has always been to say “Let’s talk about these differences because ultimately we all need and want common rules for the global asset that is the internet”.

I also say the following with a view to the future – yes, there will be ongoing differences in German‑US relations, not only on questions of external security, but certainly also on internal issues in our societies. These are also relevant, as this alliance is not just some sort of “marriage of convenience”, but rather an alliance between enlightened democracies. And as such we can argue rationally in the search for what unites us and for the “self‑interest, well understood” described by de Tocqueville.


Secondly, I see a quality in John Kerry that has become a rarity in today’s political climate – humility. This quality means meeting the complexity of the world head on and resisting the temptation of simplistic answers. It means recognising that one’s own influence is limited – yes, even if you’re Secretary of State of the most powerful country in the world!

The US needs partners. You did not only say this frequently, John, you also behaved this way. You fostered relations with both large and small countries, thus earning unparalleled respect from our colleagues. You wrote a passionate plea for multilateralism in your book, “A Call to Service”, and always acted accordingly. And you can rest assured that Germany will always stand shoulder to shoulder with the US on account of this multilateral approach.

Your willingness to take risks is part of your humility in foreign policy. Those who want to conduct foreign policy only when success is guaranteed will not return home with bad news – but nor will they change much in this difficult world of ours. John, I am certain that the talks with Iran proved successful in the end because you were willing to take on personal responsibility for a difficult negotiating process whose outcome was still unclear at the time.

Another aspect is also relevant here – the admission that strong democratic governments can also make mistakes. We make mistakes. The US makes mistakes. And I firmly believe that if we now want to regain credibility and restore trust in democracy today, we need to be able to criticise ourselves.

I can only encourage you all – if you haven’t already done so – to watch a video from 1971 on YouTube in which a 27‑year‑old Navy Lieutenant who has just returned from Viet Nam, where he had fought and lost comrades, addresses the US Senate and asks “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

This brave young man was John Kerry.


And thirdly, ladies and gentlemen, John Kerry’s political reason includes a quality that really gets to the heart of what characterises our transatlantic alliance, indeed what defines the very project of the West, namely the belief in informed democracy and the ability of each and every citizen to think for themselves. It is no coincidence that you served your country longer as a dedicated parliamentarian than in any other position.

Western democracies are in stormy waters today. We are seeing trends that I imagine 90 percent of the people here in this room do not welcome. And I can hear the first people saying, “Oh man, where will it all end...?” I want to ask all of you to vigorously shake off any inclination whatsoever towards withdrawal or resignation.

John, one of your towering predecessors said “It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not.” If our arguments do not convince people, then we must become more persuasive and more credible. We need to make more of an effort. This does not mean always being proved right in the end. Nor does it mean winning every election. That is another experience that unites us, John. But neither of us stuck our heads in the sand or resigned because we felt offended – instead we kept working in other positions and on other tasks. One can lose elections, but this did not shake your faith in democracy or your call to service. A few years later, you began serving your country as Secretary of State, to my great delight and to the delight of many other people.


Your virtues are openness to dialogue, humility and a firm belief in democracy – and this is what we need now more than ever before. The day after the election, President Obama said in an interview with David Remnick that he had “complete confidence in the American people” if he could sit down and “have a conversation with them”. This is the heart of an enlightened democracy. Let’s sit down and have a conversation! The challenge of today is how to actually do this.

In the age of echo chambers and filter bubbles, where fear, negative stereotypes and whipped-up emotions get way more clicks than facts and better arguments, how can we recreate space for reason, space where one person does not tell the other what he or she should think, space where everyone can clearly state their interests and where facts can be separated from lies?

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Paine said that “all truth wants is the liberty of appearing”. This task has not become easier since then, and it is certainly not only one faced by the US. I would like to make a short observation. Only a few German words are used in the US. They include “kindergarten”, “rucksack” and “butterbrot”. Now, during the ill‑fated US election campaign, another German word has crept into American usage: “Lügenpresse”. This should make us think.

For people involved in transatlantic relations, there is more to do than ever before. We need to get out of our echo chambers and comfort zones. I know that most of those here are frequent flyers, but wherever we fly, we mostly only talk to other frequent flyers. We need to talk, and we need to do so across social and cultural barriers. And of course we say the same thing to President-Elect Trump’s new administration: “Let’s sit down and have a conversation!” It’s important and it’s urgent.

John, ladies and gentlemen,

Nothing less than the foundations of the West are at stake. The project of the West is the project of enlightened democracy. We trust each other to use reason. We trust each other to govern ourselves. This in an experiment, as Thomas Jefferson said 200 years ago. It is the most exciting experiment of all time. “No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth.” Thomas Jefferson, 1804.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The West’s experiment is not over. It is at a crucial stage. All around us, there are plenty of autocrats who offer a counter‑experiment – self‑designated “strong men” who do not trust their societies to be governed by democracy and reason. So let us prove the power of enlightened democracy in the heart of our own societies. And let us honour a man whose life work stands for this power, a man whose best qualities are needed more than ever today.

Congratulations, John Kerry!

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