Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at Paderborn University during a ceremony awarding him an honorary doctorate and address as part of the Culture of Conflict – Conflict of Cultures lecture series

19.12.2016 - Speech

Vice President Riegraf,
Representatives of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities,
Prof. von Welck,
Mr Mayor,
District Commissioner,
Representatives of the city and the region,
Fellow Members of the German Bundestag,
Honoured guests,
Dear friends, and above all those few of you that I see before me right now, despite the fact that Christmas is only four days away:
esteemed students of Paderborn University!

I would like to thank you sincerely for the great honour that you are bestowing upon me today – for this wonderful ceremonious event. You know, the fact that I am being given such an honour in my home region is something that would never have occurred to me – and certainly not to my mother, sitting over there – in our wildest dreams when I left school in Blomberg 43 years ago and started my career, first going to the Bundeswehr after finishing my school exams, then to Gießen to study, to Frankfurt for my legal training and then back to university for my doctorate, before winding up in Hanover in 1990, the first step on my political journey in the Federal Republic – a journey that I have now been on for a quarter of a century.

When I return to Eastern Westphalia today, I don’t feel as if I’ve been away all that long. That might come as a surprise to you, because at the end of the day I’m constantly on the move and fly about 400,000 km each year as Foreign Minister – that’s almost precisely the distance from the Earth to the moon.

But on a day like today, I sense how my home region has stayed by me for all of these years – and just how much it has informed my life. The region where I come from – on the other side of the Teutoburg Forest, you’ll understand – my home village of Brakelsiek, the people that I grew up with taught me one thing in particular: that good things don’t happen by themselves; that you don’t achieve something with big words, but you have to work hard for it, and that you shouldn’t give up if things don’t work out just the way you want them to the first time around. In short, strong nerves, patience and, above all, persistence – that is what I took from this time, and persistence is also – and this is something that I intend to talk about a little in my address today – perhaps the most important virtue for foreign policy, especially in our troubled times.


But before I get to politics, allow me to say a word or two from my everyday experience. I occasionally meet young people who want me to tell them exactly what they need to do in order to get onto the next rung of their career ladder. I don’t consider ambition to be a bad thing per se – but I always remind young people that they can’t plan everything! At least my life hasn’t been, for the most part, about working according to a plan. Becoming a politician wasn’t part of my original plan, and I thought instead that my future lay in the academic field. Encounters, experiences and coincidences have guided me along my political path. In 2005, when Gerhard Schröder resigned as Federal Chancellor, I thought that spelled the end to my political career – and then I was appointed as Foreign Minister. And now I have been nominated as the grand coalition candidate for the office of Federal President – something which I genuinely considered to be the biggest possible surprise in my life. I had no idea that an even bigger surprise was in store, one that we are witnessing today. A Social Democrat Protestant member of the Evangelical Reformed Church from Lippe is awarded an honorary doctorate in Catholic Paderborn – and to a lawyer by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities... It doesn’t get any more surprising than that!

And that brings us to the topic of this lecture series, Culture of Conflict – Conflict of Cultures. Well, I think that we’ve managed to overcome the conflict of cultures between the north and south of the Teutoburg Forest in a most exemplary way today. Not only that, Westphalia even stands as an example of how to resolve conflicts. I recently gave the keynote speech at the Biennial Meeting of German Historians. And what do you think I talked about – about the Peace of Westphalia, of course! I considered whether the peace treaties of Münster/Osnabrück of 1648 can offer us any clues for how to resolve other persistent conflicts in the Middle East nowadays. Today, Westphalia is not a conflict region, but rather a model of conflict resolution.


But, Prof. Schroeter‑Wittke, when you asked me to talk about “conflicts” and the “culture of conflict” today, you were probably not so much thinking of Westphalia, and certainly not about East Westphalia, but rather about the crises and conflicts that dominate my work as Germany’s Foreign Minister on a daily basis. I, for one, have never in my entire political career experienced so many and such complex and dangerous conflicts as there are now: the terrible war in Syria, collapsing state order in the Middle East from Libya to Iraq, the inhumane terror of the so‑called Islamic State, the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, growing tensions with Russia, the crisis in Turkey, Brexit and the growing centrifugal forces within the European Union. And now the elections in the US, whose impact on international affairs we can barely even begin to conceive.

In the 1990s, people still used to say that globalisation would turn the world into a village. Distances would shrink while our knowledge about what is happening on the other side of the globe would grow. But our understanding for each other has not been able to match our increased nearness. Instead, rather the opposite has happened: the world has become more complex and less peaceful than ever before.

And, one more thing, people can no longer say “leave me alone. Iraq, Syria, Libya – those are other people’s crises”. No, the conflicts are no longer that far away. They’re not just about the terrible pictures of Aleppo that we see on our television screens in the evening. The fact of the matter is that the world’s crises have come to us, also here in Westphalia, in our towns, our gymnasiums, our schools – everywhere where people seek refugee from war and violence!

And it is precisely for this reason that I am happy and thankful to see just how many people – also here in this region – have demonstrated solidarity and humanity and have looked after the refugees, on a voluntary basis and in the context of municipal structures, in public offices, schools, among the police and fire brigade and in associations. And, at the same time, I am appalled at how right‑wing populists and pied pipers exploit the refugee crisis. How can anyone who sees the images from Aleppo pretend that these people come to us out of recalcitrance. Far from it, they are fleeing barrel bombs, attacks on children in schools and sick people in hospitals. It is therefore simply disgraceful to whip up animosity, to twist the social climate and to make the mantra of every man for himself the guiding principle of our political action!

We mustn’t hide beneath banal statements such as that we cannot put an end to suffering in the world on German soil. No, we won’t be able to do that. But we are part of the international community, and, in the face of suffering, we have to shoulder at least part of the shared burden. By the way, this is a smaller share of the load if we consider what other countries such as Lebanon or Jordan are doing, where a quarter of the population are refugees from Syria. The principal responsibility must now be assumed by others, however! We say this first and foremost to those who have laid siege to Aleppo with military force, the Syrian regime and its allies Iran and Russia. They are responsible for the immeasurable suffering of the people there. They must silence the guns at long last, open up corridors for an evacuation and finally allow United Nations aid workers to help the people and ensure that humanitarian aid supplies reach them at all. With this in mind, it is welcome news that the United Nations Security Council has just unanimously decided to endorse an international observer mission to guarantee this access.


Ladies and gentlemen, in the face of the Syrian inferno, the guiding concept of this lecture series, “culture of conflict”, sounds almost like a rallying cry from another planet. Isn’t this just wishful thinking? Is there such a thing as a minimum level of “culture of conflict” in the crisis regions of our world, or indeed a minimum level of humanity?

No, there isn’t. And why is that the case? Why have conflicts and conflict structures changed? On the one hand, foreign policy is increasingly having to grapple with non‑state actors – with groups that no longer see themselves as being bound to the minimum standards of the law of war in their uninhibited violence. Moreover, at the same time, ever deeper divides have emerged between state actors on the world stage. Today’s conflicts are so difficult to resolve because not only are stark conflicts of interest running up against each other which could be counterbalanced through negotiations, but rather because of much deeper, fundamental antitheses. There are competing visions of international order, new divides between East and West, democracy against autocracy, power politics against international law – we are witnessing this particularly with respect to Russia, which is increasingly bent on reviving the logic of Yalta.

All of this, ladies and gentlemen, makes diplomacy so incredibly difficult these days. And this is why I wish to return to the concept of persistence.

The more complex and entrenched conflicts are, the less simple, quick‑fix solutions can help us – and least of all knee‑jerk military responses. The persistence of diplomacy is becoming ever more vital in this context – constant efforts to break the spiral of escalation, to bring the parties to the conflict from the battlefield to the negotiating table and to create conditions under which solutions become possible.

At the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, I said that it now takes 14 days to spark a conflict. Resolving it takes 14 years. This is unfortunately the case, and sometimes makes you lose heart. I am all too familiar with moments of frustration – but I have also seen that persistence does pay!

Let me give you an example: we conducted negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme in various constellations over the course of 12 long years. I recall this so clearly because I was there from the beginning of this process. And I also recall that we were often only a hair’s breadth away from failure, and only a hair’s breadth away from military escalation. But we achieved a breakthrough last summer. On 14 July 2015, we signed an agreement in Vienna that blocked Iran’s pathway to nuclear weapons and offered a roadmap for its return to the international community.

I remember 14 July 2015 well. After one last long night negotiating, we sat down together once again right before the final press conference – all those who had been negotiating and arguing with one another – and stopped for a moment to reflect. You really could feel the emotion in the room. John Kerry, my American counterpart, someone who experienced the horrors of the Vietnam War first hand as a young soldier, stood up and said plainly and simply: “Friends, you should be aware: today, we avoided war”!


That is why I still maintain that diplomacy is impossible without the conviction that understanding is feasible; that there is, somewhere out there in the great entanglement of crises, a way to use dialogue and understanding to defuse and resolve conflicts. It is in this context that I see the power of culture – and the essential importance of cultural relations and education policy for foreign policy in the 21st century.

Prof. von Welck already said a great deal about this function in her wonderful speech – please therefore allow me to add just one thought to this in the context of my address. Cultural policy is even more important especially because conflicts have changed in the 21st century, and especially because they have become more complex. Culture and education allow us to appreciate the deeper dimensions of conflicts and the historical, religious and cultural influences that lie beneath the surface, as well as the dreams and traumas of other societies.

I have always held that foreign policy must take place in the realm of reality – reality as it is, and not how we would like it to be. And something that makes this even more difficult is the fact that, particularly in conflict situations, one and the same reality can accommodate multiple versions of the truth. It is often not the case that one person is just right and the other just wrong. Very different perceptions often exist of one and the same reality. Allow me to tell you a wonderful story from Africa that I heard on a trip to Mozambique, which I believe illustrates this point. A monkey, the fable has it, was walking along the side of a river when it saw a fish in the water. The monkey said to itself, “The poor thing’s underwater. It will drown. I must rescue it!” The monkey snatched the fish out of the water and the fish began to flap around in its hands. Then the monkey said, “Look how happy it is now!” But of course the fish died out of water. Then the monkey said, “Oh, how sad. If only I’d got here a bit sooner, I’d have been able to save it.” As you can see, this is someone who is only familiar with their own perception of reality... Diplomacy starts with perception, and with a willingness to try and understand the other’s perception – his or her motives, attitudes, influences. When I sometimes hear the self-righteous debates about so‑called “Russia apologists” or “Iran apologists” or “Islam apologists”, then I tell you that if wanting to understand has become a dirty word, then foreign policy has reached a low ebb. If foreign policy stops wanting to understand, then it will be unable to solve conflicts. That is also why we need culture. And that is why, to my mind, cultural relations policy is not just a policy of cultural relations, but also a culture of politics.


We must preserve a culture of politics – this not only applies to our dealings with far‑flung regions of our world, but also strengthens our own societies and Western democracy.

In this age of social media, of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, at a time when the general tone is becoming louder and more abrasive, when anger and hatred lurk in the anonymity of the web, when society has ceased to gather together each evening to watch the news and to see the same things and talk and argue about the same things, when each of us finds confirmation or rejection in our own private Facebook world, in an age of echo chambers and filter bubbles, when fear and stereotypes and whipped‑up emotions get more clicks than facts and the better arguments – how can we preserve a political cultural within our democracy? A culture in which we can argue with each other, but where we treat each other with respect? How can we create spaces for debate beyond echo chambers and social barriers? Spaces where people listen to each other, and also where you can separate facts from lies? This question is just as much a domestic as a foreign policy issue, and I have a suspicion that it will continue to be in my in‑tray in any offices that I may potentially hold in the future.


Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to conclude my speech by reading part of a letter to you. This letter moved me greatly, and it also shows just how closely related our work in the field of cultural relations and education policy is with current foreign policy crises.

I received it shortly before Christmas 2014, and it started like this: “Dear Dr Steinmeier, our children have a right to a future! They should go to a school that is warm. Under no circumstances will we stop lessons. Every day our students only have three hours of lessons because it’s not yet warm enough in our school. The teaching staff has decided to celebrate the Christmas party at the school in spite of everything, because our children also want to laugh, dance and sing.” And this is how the letter ended: “We hope that the new year will be peaceful for everyone. Yours sincerely, Tetyana Prystupa, head teacher of secondary school no. 19, Donetsk, 12 December 2014.”

Donetsk is an industrial city, the main city of a coal‑mining district, and lies at the heart of the contested territories of eastern Ukraine. There was heavy fighting between pro‑Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military in the Donetsk municipal area in 2014. Secondary school no. 19 was hit on multiple occasions. Almost all of its windows and doors were destroyed. But the children wanted to keep on learning. After we had written to Ms Prystupa, we raised the necessary funds at the Federal Foreign Office together with the consulate general in Donetsk and found workers in the region. By the end of January 2015, we had repaired 125 windows and 19 doors at secondary school no. 19. The Christmas party was saved.

Foreign policy is not an abstract concept. It’s not about red carpets, or moves on the geopolitical chessboard, but about people; about their lives, and often about their suffering. Sometimes foreign policy is nothing more and nothing less than a question of repairing school windows destroyed by gunfire.

But, unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. A few weeks later, I received another letter from Ms Prystupa. The school had been struck by more grenades and had been damaged again. On 9 February, shortly after the last of the 125 windows had been put in, the school was hit once again, she wrote to me. There was now a large gaping hole in doctor’s room roof. Dozens of windows were destroyed again.

And what did we do? What would you have done? We scraped funds together once again and built new windows and doors – for the second time. I believe that this story is emblematic of foreign policy. Persistence is what counts. Making progress is laborious, and setbacks are unavoidable, sometimes even foreseeable. But what was the alternative? Not to take the risk of destruction again? Close the school and hammer the hopelessness of the situation home to a young generation in a crisis region?

Secondary school no. 19 has been operating normally since the beginning of September 2015. “Even if our contribution is small, and sometimes seems too small”, Dorothee Sölle once wrote, “we must not allow ourselves to be overcome by powerlessness.”


However, I don’t want to end my speech on the topic of the culture of conflict here in Paderborn with a Protestant author, but rather I have brought a picture with me that symbolises this very same attitude most wonderfully, and which comes from a very Catholic place, the pilgrimage church of St. Peter am Perlach in Augsburg. I didn’t find it through any painstaking search, but it was brought to my attention by Thomas Sternberg, the President of the Central Committee of German Catholics. This is the altarpiece with the title Mary, Untier of Knots, which depicts the Mother of God picking away at a ribbon full of knots.

Ladies and gentlemen, that’s foreign policy for you! Cutting to the chase, simply slicing through the Gordian Knot with a sword, as Alexander the Great did, almost never works. But standing idly by is also not an option. Instead, we must be like patient untiers of knots and encourage as many people as possible to help pick away at them.

Thank you very much for listening, and thank you so very very much for this honour today!

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