Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to the German Bundestag in the debate on the continued participation by German armed forces in training support for the security forces of the Kurdistan-Iraq regional government and the Iraqi armed forces

26.01.2017 - Speech

Madam President, Fellow members of this House,

Whether you believe it or not, almost exactly three years have passed since we first discussed the grand coalition’s foreign policy guidelines here in the German Bundestag. I’ve dug out the statement I made then, and I have to say I’m slightly embarrassed by the predictions it contained. I said that we would have to expect a few upsets and that therefore our country would face greater responsibilities.

Looking back now, I would say that “upsets” turned out to be something of an understatement... We had the protests on the Maidan, followed by the illegal annexation of Crimea. We had the Ebola crisis. We had the new confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. We had the first campaign by the IS militants who set out to subjugate all of northern Iraq. This isn’t a list of what happened over the past three years. All of this happened in the first six months!

We never had a dry run to practise this “more responsibility” idea. We were thrown in at the deep end. The international crises have tested our readiness to assume responsibility from day one. And we rose to the challenge! This parliament did not, as is now sadly the fashion in so many parts of the world, start screaming: “Pull up the drawbridge, batten down the hatches – leave the world and its troubles outside.” Instead you all took your responsibilities seriously, and acted accordingly. For that I want to thank you.

Today’s topic, our engagement in Iraq, is an example of this increased responsibility. And let me stress that we have never naively viewed this responsibility as one-sided in nature. We always knew that military options might be involved. We did not however confine ourselves to military options, but tried a comprehensive political approach. We knew that there could be no negotiating with the IS killers, and that we had in particular to support those who formed the first line of defence against IS barbarity. But to consolidate Iraq as a whole, to deprive the forces of terror of their breeding grounds, much more was and is needed: humanitarian assistance, of course, as well as political action in coordination with the central government of Iraq. Iraq is thus an example which shows that not only have our responsibilities grown, but so too have the foreign policy instruments at our disposal. With the support of the Bundestag, we have continuously enhanced our options, most tangibly in the field of stabilisation. In Iraq alone we have invested 47 million euros in the past two years, as a result of which schools and hospitals are operating again, and power lines and water pipes have been repaired. Many of the people driven out by IS have therefore already been able to return to towns such as Tikrit, Fallujah and Ramadi. That is seamless foreign policy in action. That’s what I like to see.

Honoured members of this House, you may have heard the stubborn rumours that this could be my final speech to the Bundestag as Foreign Minister. I fear that this is not “fake news”, but something we must take seriously. I therefore hope you will indulge me in a final review of the past three years. I will do my best not to exceed my allocated time by more than a few hours...

All joking aside – and in all brevity – we have indeed ventured to assume more responsibility! And this venture would not have succeeded without the German Bundestag. I’m not referring now to the fact that members Barnett, Karl, Leutert and Lindner hold the purse strings. No, what I’m getting at is something much more basic. More responsibility, greater engagement in the world is not something that can be imposed from above. It is something that can only be based on a society’s own moral compass. If our country’s role in the world is changing – and it is – this has to be discussed by our society as a whole!

What I say now, I say not as a member of the Government, but as a member of this parliament. I am proud that the Bundestag initiated this debate, that we did not shy away from discussing the issues ourselves and with the public.

Firstly, we argued about what diplomatic approach to take – especially when dealing with difficult governments, where tensions are growing, as is the case with Russia and Turkey. Secondly, we discussed an increase in the resources available for foreign policy – and I do, after all, have my Foreign Minister’s hat on when I say thank you for the resources made available to the Federal Foreign Office, which have grown year on year. Thirdly, we talked about foreign policy instruments. By way of example I would like to mention the Guidelines on Civilian Crisis Prevention, a project close to the heart of many members of this House, the revival of arms control in Europe, as well as our cultural relations and education policy, the third and still underestimated pillar of our foreign policy. I am grateful to the subcommittee, to Ulla Schmidt, Claudia Roth, Peter Gauweiler and many others, for not only recognising the importance of our work but for also giving us the means to do it. Thank you very much!

And of course, honoured friends, we have held many intense debates on mandates, like the Iraq mandate today. Our disputes are never so long and so heated as they are when mandates are concerned!

But it must be said that, in the light of our past, it is definitely no bad thing that we Germans really wrestle with each individual decision to approve the use of military means. As much as I would like to see an active, self-confident German foreign policy, we would most surely not be a better country if we found it easy to send soldiers, police officers and aid workers off to crisis regions around the world. This is why the debates and controversies are so important.

Esteemed members of this House,

Crises and conflicts – a world out of joint – you’ve heard my stock phrases so often over the past three years that some of you know them by rote... But something did change in 2016 and 2017: the major political shocks did not come from outside, but from within our Western societies – the Brexit bombshell from the UK, Donald Trump’s victory in the US, and now the upcoming elections in the Netherlands and France. It is these that will decide the direction Europe will take and the shape of international cooperation to come, and it is thus on these that the effectiveness of our foreign policy will depend.

I don’t yet know what these developments will mean in detail, any more than you do. But I do know one thing. When the line between domestic and foreign affairs becomes blurred, we must not allow parliamentarianism to be swept away. On the contrary, you, the parliamentarians, have to bridge the gap, you have to form the link between the two sides. You have to take decisions here in the Bundestag on Germany’s involvement in the world at large, and you also have to explain to the people in your constituencies what is really going on in Syria, Russia and Turkey.

Each and every one of you bears this responsibility – to explain the state of the world without simplification; to communicate our foreign policy without painting things black and white. This is a difficult task, but it is a truly noble one.

And because this noble task of yours is likely to become even more vital, I have two requests to make of you.

Firstly, in brief – keep on travelling! Foreign policy cannot be conducted in the comfort of your living room. That is just as true for MPs as for the foreign minister. You, my fellow MPs, have undertaken more than 2000 trips abroad in this parliamentary term. That’s even more than me! But that’s a good thing. Keep open the channels of communication, both bilaterally and through the international parliamentary assemblies of the OSCE, the Council of Europe and NATO, and through international exchange programmes with precisely those countries where democracy and parliamentarians are in peril. My second request concerns the future. If we can’t escape greater international responsibility – and hopefully we don’t want to – then we need new MPs to be internationally aware. That’s why I would like to ask all of you to instil in the next generation a spirit of international engagement. Encourage young people to broaden their horizons and look beyond Germany’s borders. Tell them, and spread the word in your parties, that time spent abroad is not wasted time for their careers. It is more likely to give them a boost up the ladder and prevent them from sliding back down. It is important for us to have young MPs who are familiar with the world and know what the world thinks of us. We need these young people to play an active role in foreign relations.

Fellow members of this House,

If I may, I will close with a personal comment. I am leaving this parliament as a member of the government, but I entered it as a member of the opposition. It’s no secret that when I was elected to the Bundestag in 2009, I didn’t have my sights set on your seat, Thomas, but on one there in the front government benches. But things didn’t work out that way...

A great Social Democrat party chairman once said, “Opposition is crap.” A great SPD chairman said that... And in the SPD, you can never contradict the chairman, but you can perhaps interpret his words. If the Opposition is crap, it is the dung that fertilises democracy! That’s a good thing, and I hope that this sentiment will continue to be respected in this House.

Willy Brandt, his years as Chancellor far behind him, once put it thus, as the oldest member of this House: “All members of this House perform equally important functions, whether they are on the government or opposition side, whether they hold power or hold it in check [...] Parliamentary responsibility for our state is borne by both sides equally, it is not the preserve of one side alone.”

Today, we must apply Willy Brandt’s words of 34 years ago to foreign policy. Parliamentary democracy is under pressure around the world; in many places it is being called into question. In too many countries, civil society and parliamentary opposition groups are facing increasing restrictions, and self-proclaimed “strongmen” have even made contempt for democratic debate a sovereign principle.

At the same time, the Internet has created space for anonymous and disinhibited communication, in which each new wave of agitation generates more clicks than any facts or arguments; in which language has lost all moderation and the dividing line between the utterable and the ineffable is wearing increasingly thin.

You, my honoured colleagues, must now defend the space for democracy and the culture of democracy, within our society and outside it.

If I can, I would be glad to help do this in any possible future capacity I may be privileged to hold... but the defence of democracy can begin nowhere but here, at the heart of this House. I therefore urge you to make use of this floor! I at least will miss it.

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