Speech by Federal Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel: A fair world – what can German foreign policy contribute?

22.06.2017 - Speech

Dr Füllkrug-Weitzel,
Dr Martin Junge,
Prof. Arun Appadurai,
Christof Vetter,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very grateful for the invitation to join you here in Wittenberg. It gives me a chance to talk about something that I believe not only has a special connection to the age of Martin Luther but is also, as I see it, the key theme of the 21st century, namely a fair world. Many of the subjects with which we are confronted on a day-to-day basis, whether as churches, NGOs, private individuals or politicians, are directly connected to the question of how fair or unfair the world is. There is a certain American attitude that says we know what’s what in the world, and we’ll show everyone else, and there’s a European attitude that says we know what’s happening in the world, but we don’t really want to get involved and will at most do a bit of charity. I think that is going to have to change considerably. The challenges are huge, and almost all of them have to do with today’s topic.

There is also a link between this topic and Martin Luther. In Luther’s day, it was the hopeless state of the impoverished rural population, the capitalist dictates of the rapidly growing merchant houses and a thoroughly materialistic church which heightened his sense of injustice. It was here, in a tower room at the Wittenberg monastery, that he developed his ideas about fairness.

We know today what powerful changes the Reformation and Luther’s ideas would soon bring to the church, society and states well beyond Germany’s borders. The early 16th century was a time of radical change, as the newly invented printing press brought the first form of mass communication, numerous wars and revolts dominated the age and Renaissance culture, with its break from the purely religious, became more and more widespread – all this accompanied by growing poverty in the rural population.

We are also going through major radical transformation today. It may be quite a leap in terms of years to link the age of the Reformation to our own time, separated as we are by half a millennium. But in terms of their force and impact, the changes we are facing are certainly comparable to those of Luther’s day. Globalisation, digitisation, technology and a never-ending flood of information are turning the world into a noisy spinning top that seems to be turning ever faster.

Add to that the various crises we have come to know in recent years. Whether we are talking about the crisis accompanying and following the Arab Spring, the rise of politicised Islam or the wars and civil wars going on in many countries, ultimately, questions of fairness are always involved. Climate change is no exception, as the discussions, when you get right down to it, are about fairness between the mostly poor countries which are particularly affected by the effects of climate change and the wealthy countries which can go some way towards adapting to those effects. And it’s about fairness between generations too.

Pushing for a fairer world is therefore the crucial key to facilitating peaceful coexistence among people and continents in the 21st century. And that being the case, Germany and Europe have a special responsibility to play their part.

Let me give you three brief examples to explain why I think fairness is going to be the key topic of this century.

For my first example, we need only look at our western societies in Germany, Europe or the United States. Amid a widespread searching for identity and security in a fast-moving and globalised world, populists in the long-established western democracies are selling their false solutions as simple answers. Those populists are primarily a symptom of the fact that we have not been doing enough for fairness in our societies or ensuring that people have a stake in our countries’ prosperity and security. This has caused some parts of our electorates to lose trust in our democratic systems. I have spoken to a number of Americans about what they think led to the election of Donald Trump. One sentence really stuck in my mind. They said it had been a “can you hear me now?” election – because there was a section of the American people, often associated with the Rust Belt, the old industrial areas, who no longer felt represented by the esoteric battles of liberal democracy – no longer felt that their material wish for security, fairness and a proper place in society was being heard. I think it makes sense. If you neglect the Rust Belt and the people living there over the years, not even all the hipsters in California will be able to help you. That’s why I believe that this sense of no longer being able to take part in our societies or, ultimately, the sense that our democracies’ promise of prosperity is not being kept, is one important factor – though not the only one – in the growth of such movements.

Africa presents another example. When I was in Libya two weeks ago, I saw the dreadful conditions in which people, chiefly young people, are trying to exchange the hopelessness of their homelands for the goal of a life in security. That hopeless situation is also a breeding ground for instability, insecurity and violence.

For my third example, we look to the East. We often forget that emerging powers like India or China also feel entitled, with good reason, to play more of a role in the institutions which represent the levers of power in our international order – an international order which is in truth still the post-war order that emerged after the Second World War and therefore reflects the realities of last century but not the 21st. And of course that, too, is about having a fair slice of not only prosperity but also of responsibility when it comes to dealing with global problems. If we fail to create fair forms of cooperation, i.e. inclusive rules and institutions, then the response will be more clashes between the various parts of the world.

It goes without saying that pushing for greater fairness around the world is a moral responsibility, at least if we are serious about our values.

However, it is also in our purely material, one could almost say selfish interests. Let me illustrate that with something I have very vivid memories of. After the heinous attacks of 9/11, I went to an ecumenical church service. The Catholic bishop of Hildesheim, Josef Homeyer, said in response to the attacks that, if we want to counteract such developments, we need to be clear that the goal of globalisation has to be a fair world for everyone, not just wealth for the few. Those wise words from Bishop Homeyer are still far from becoming reality.

It is beyond doubt that there are inextricable links between the fairness of the world and international security.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Back in 1977, the North-South Commission led by Willy Brandt knew that the globalisation of dangers and challenges – war, chaos, self-destruction – calls for a kind of global domestic policy. There is a quote from an Indian Food Minister which I have been reminded again and again of during discussions about migration this year. She said if you don’t give us a fair seat at the table now, one day we will be sending you our children. Such children are now coming, though from Africa rather than India. And what other option do they have? For all the problems migration may be confronting us with – wouldn’t we be just as keen, in their position, to try to emulate the Bremen Street Musicians of the Grimm fairytale and say, “wherever we go, we will find something better than death”?

I therefore think we mustn’t sit about waiting for a new collective moment of realisation like that which struck Luther in his tower room; we have to engage with this debate about a fair world and our role in it now.

As I say, I see this as the key debate of the 21st century. Instead of a World Economic Forum in Davos, I would prefer it if we would gather for a World Fairness Forum in future. Sadly, the World Summit for Social Development has rather lost momentum. I have always wondered why, at a time when the important questions are very different, we still show the stock market figures before the evening news. Maybe it would be better to show figures on the development of global poverty – graphs showing how the fight against hunger and hardship is going, or how well we are combating illiteracy, or how many children have gained access to education. Instead, we show graphs depicting the very thing that almost led us to global disaster, namely stock market speculation. It seems we have not quite reached the point where those of us outside the religious sphere, in the tough world of economics and politics, can retain a firm grasp of the real priorities.

While others may be trying to shut themselves in, we should take that as even more of an incentive to take this debate to the rest of the world.

Let me therefore give you a brief summary of what our foreign policy is doing to contribute to a fairer world.

The first point is a stronger Europe. In a world that is disintegrating into various poles and in which the focus is increasingly on the law of the strong rather than the strength of the law, there is one continent whose people I sometimes think no longer know what a precious thing they have got. I am far from convinced that everything Europe does is good, but it is the most peaceful, most democratic and safest place in the world. What are we doing to ensure that we have a voice and communicate what we have to offer in a dramatically changing world, with our numbers in Europe dwindling and other populations growing? Our particular offer is the combination of freedom and shared responsibility. You will find the concept of individual freedom in many other parts of the world, such as North America, and there are many other places where collectivism is a priority. But the combination of freedom and responsibility, of liberty and solidarity, is Europe’s USP. What can we do to make sure this special model, which has fostered peace, democracy and security, continues to develop and makes itself heard? That endeavour can only succeed when we in Europe speak with one voice – maybe once our children are as old as we are now.

Even Germany, strong as it is, will not have a voice, as we will not be heard over 27 or 28 others. Strengthening Europe is about strengthening the institutions, sharing a common economic area and, not least, embracing Europe as a peace-building project, a guarantor of prosperity and a life-insurance policy in the 21st century.

It is just as important to have a fairer Europe with more social justice. Why is it actually so hard to ensure that people anywhere in Europe get the same money for the same work? Instead, we condemn people to unwinnable competition, with dock workers in Hamburg having to fight against pay offers at Romanian or Portuguese levels, which are too low for them to afford somewhere to live in Hamburg. Why are we not able to say we want more competition over quality and productivity, not over who in Europe can pay the worst wages and the lowest social-security contributions? Why does every bakery in Wittenberg pay a higher rate of tax than large firms across Europe? We are losing 1.5 billion euros each year through a legal form of tax avoidance – money that we could do with to foster European development and combat hunger and poverty in Africa. So Europe is the first major thing we have to work on.

The second area where we have work to do is fair trade and better rules to govern globalisation. I still remember attending the last Kirchentag assembly of the German Protestant Church as economic affairs minister. There were heated debates about whether we really need free-trade agreements. As I have always said, of course we need them – but that doesn’t mean they have to be unfair. We would be glad to have agreements with other countries today like the one we have with Canada, because it has set an unprecedented benchmark that seems almost entirely unattainable in many other cases. The United States’ current desire to abandon the realm of international agreements might make us realise just how important such agreements are. Not every agreement is good – that goes without saying – but we should fight for fair agreements that combat the dark side of globalisation which Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz warned us of no less than 15 years ago.

The world’s richest one percent own almost 50 percent of the world’s wealth.

We still have 1.2 billion people, an unimaginable number, living is extreme poverty – not in poverty, but in extreme poverty. Wars, state collapse, terrorism and directly life-threatening situations caused by climate change are most prevalent in regions with low GDP. Poverty and war go hand in hand.

Europe is a great power when it comes to trade. We can make a major difference through trade agreements that are fair, that emphasise social and environmental standards –actually setting those standards rather than fitting in with Chinese or American ones – and are flexibly tailored to our various trading partners.

On a related note, if everyone is always calculating how much economic progress free trade brings about, why do we find it so hard to develop an instrument to skim off a portion of that economic success generated between the trading nations and put it to good use – for example, to make a commitment that the trading partners will give it to the UN World Food Programme as an annually increasing donation? Or it could go to other UN programmes. The point would be to pass on some of the benefits of globalisation and this proliferation of trading links to those who still have a long way to go before they can even take part in such trade.

We need international standards and rules. And by that I mean reliable global rules, not bilateral deals like the Americans tend to propose. A deal is not the same as an international set of rules that is binding on everyone, and the point is not to use the rules as a means of imposing your particular interests but, through adherence to them, to do as well as possible in international competition. The model proposed by the Americans is different: bilateral deals in which they seek to establish their advantages in the treaty itself rather than demonstrate their relative merits on the basis of international law.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Global challenges are calling for more and more global answers. In the end, climate change, terrorism and eradicating poverty are all connected to global injustice. There is a lot of potential inherent in collaboration with new partners, such as, for example, India, China or any of those who have signed up to and will continue to uphold the Paris climate-change agreement.

For me, such collaboration is a sign that there is a desire to shape the world in concert not only with emerging economies in Asia, Latin America and Africa but also with other, non-state actors like cities and communities or civil society, rather than simply to trust that agreements between states will sort everything out.

Only by making the world fairer, and that at all levels, can we also make it safer. We see particularly in Africa how closely intertwined fairness, development and security really are. A lack of economic prospects has been driving many young people into the arms of extremists and the different sides in civil wars. I’d like to make one remark on security and defence spending. I know that the pursuit of peace does sometimes call for the deployment of military means. And we certainly all have a bit of catching up to do when it comes to taking better care of our own security rather than relying on the Americans.

However, I believe this debate is currently heading in completely the wrong direction. Before we spend more money on armaments, we need to start making our joint security structures more efficient. In so doing, we need to bear in mind that, as any soldier will tell you, no conflict on earth can ultimately be resolved by military means alone. Granted, there are conflicts in which people in possession of arms subject others to murder or brutal rape, and I certainly don’t want to stand idly by. We need UN missions to step in in certain situations and prevent genocide. Basically though, I believe that military interventions alone achieve nothing. On the subject of European defence capabilities, I am for matching every euro we put into defence with at least €1.50 for preventing crises, combating hunger and misery, or fostering stability and development. We have been hearing some people propose that the two-percent target for NATO should be made a three-percent target, meaning two percent for defence and one percent for development assistance. That is entirely the wrong argument. I could imagine doing it the other way around, i.e. two percent for sustainable development and one percent for armaments – but not a little bit more funding for development aid just to legitimise our military expenditure. That cannot be what the public debate seeks to achieve.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I believe we are living through a time that will set the parameters for many decades of this century. Let’s go back to Martin Luther’s time for a moment. Though the Reformation would have considerable political consequences down the line, Luther’s focus was initially on changing structures within the church. He was not thinking about political changes; indeed, he was something of a reactionary in that respect.

We have fortunately escaped the age of princes and are free to seek political change. In a globalised world, this is primarily relevant to foreign policy.

According to the Deutschlandtrend national survey conducted in early June, 62 percent of Germans think that Germany should assume more of a role on the international stage in future. Eighty percent think that the European Union should take on greater global responsibility.

We should take heart from the German people’s willingness. And I would point out that this is not a willingness to send more soldiers out across the globe; it is a willingness to help make the world a fairer place. I take it as confirmation that we have excellent chances – that Germany and Europe can make an important contribution to 21st‑century efforts for a fair and inclusive world.

Tomorrow is the 75th birthday of someone whom the older music fans among us will still know. I therefore thought it would be fitting to close with some of Hannes Wader’s lyrics – the tone is somewhat melodramatic, I admit, but it’s nonetheless a catchy line:

“I wish
For more sensitive, more open ears
To stop me growing numb, deaf and indifferent
To the cries of the damned upon this earth.”

Thank you.

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