Speech by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock at the panel “Unlearning Helplessness: Meeting Global Challenges” at the Munich Security Conference

18.02.2022 - Speech

I’m delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you here today, at the beginning of the panel “Unlearning Helplessness: Meeting Global Challenges”.

Only a few days ago, I was on the ground in Lebedynske not far from the contact line in eastern Ukraine. Behind me stood a destroyed building, and there was a schoolyard to my right. And like every mother, I thought of my children, who we take to school in the morning, quite innocently, sometimes in a great rush – and at the same time, I spared a thought for the mothers who aren’t able to do precisely that here. They're not able to do that casually and as a matter of course, but always with great concern. Because violence is omnipresent. And how real this concern is becomes clear when we hear that there were hundreds of violations of the ceasefire yesterday. The daily life of children is anything but peaceful in this place.

This shows what’s really at stake when we talk about Minsk. It isn’t just a negotiation format. Minsk is also not just a technical term but is a question of human security. About whether families, children at the heart of Europe, at the heart of our Europe, can grow up in security and peace.

Today – and we have to spell it out so clearly – a new war is at risk of breaking out at the heart of our Europe. With its deployment of troops, Russia is making an absolutely unacceptable threat – vis-à-vis Ukraine. And also vis-à-vis all of us and our peace architecture in Europe.

This is why this crisis – and we have to be very careful to frame this correctly – is not a Ukraine crisis. It is a Russia crisis. We therefore urge Russia to withdraw its troops without delay. Initial signals – and we have seen this time and again in recent days and weeks – offered a glimmer of hope. But we must now also see action. Because the Russian threat is still real. However, our common response is just as real. If Russia were to attack Ukraine, there would be massive consequences for Russia – financially, politically and economically.

And we have another message to Moscow that is just as clear. We / we don’t want that; we don’t actually want those consequences. We want a serious dialogue on security and peace in our common Europe. That is in all of our interests. And yes, we want to minimise the risk of escalation in Europe. What else could we possibly want? Yes, we, too, want to establish reliability. That’s precisely why we, as NATO countries, have been working on substantive proposals in recent weeks. These proposals are now on the table in Moscow. And at any time, any minute, at this very moment, yesterday, today and tomorrow, we want to talk about just that.

But what we don’t want and cannot afford to do is to call into question the security architecture that we have built together. However, yesterday’s reply from the Russian side, to my great regret, sounds exactly like that. President Putin, Sergey Lavrov, you emphasise in your reply that freedom of alliance also includes the principle that security must not come at the expense of others. Yes, we have reached agreement on this together. We have established together that this is a common security that mustn’t come at the expense of others. We are expressly committed to this principle. But that’s precisely why we have to talk about the deployment of troops on the eastern Ukrainian border, which is, of course, at Ukraine’s expense. 130,000 troops on the border – that’s difficult not to see as a threat. Those who want to coexist in security do not threaten each other. Those who want to coexist in security talk about our common security at the negotiating table.

Of course – and you have to be honest about this – we are now, and this goes for Tony Blinken and myself as well as for many, many other foreign ministers, defence ministers and diplomats here in this room, asked the following question time and again: this has been going on for a week now, how much longer is it going to take? Maybe weeks, maybe months. Negotiations are usually a marathon. With setbacks, with misunderstandings, sometimes also with fouls. But if you’re afraid of the road ahead and don’t even start down it, you’ve already lost.

Helsinki or Yalta – that’s how historian Timothy Garton Ash recently put the choice that we Europeans now face. The choice, in other words, between a system of shared responsibility for security and peace based on the Helsinki Final Act and the Charter of Paris, which we have all signed. Or a system of power rivalry and spheres of influence, which the Yalta Conference of 1945 stood for.

For me – and I think for everyone in this room – that is the key question. After all, what is at stake here for us Europeans and the international community is not just the question of how we resolve this current crisis. It is the question of how we stand up for our rules-based order in the future. An order based on the Charter of the United Nations, on the principles of self-determination, respect for freedom and human rights, and also on the principle of international cooperation – as the UN Secretary-General emphasised so convincingly here today.

Does this principle still work? Or are we living – and this is the title of this three-day conference – in an age of collective “helplessness”, of resignation and helplessness, as the title of this panel asks?

Tony Blinken, you and I are holding countless talks these days. But what sustains my optimism in these difficult times is precisely the knowledge of the strength of our transatlantic unity and the steadfast nature of our alliance. And the knowledge of the strength of our liberal democracies. That’s why my answer to the question of where we are right now – helpless or not – is very clear. We are not collectively helpless. On the contrary. We derive our strength from our collective action. It is up to us, together, to decide whether we are “helpless” or not.

Three elements here are crucial to my mind: determination, solidarity and reliability. This applies to the Russia crisis, but it also applies above and beyond it.

We’re showing determination with regard to the measures that we’re preparing in the event that Russia takes action against Ukraine. These sanctions would be without precedent and would be coordinated and prepared with all partners. We, as Germany, are prepared to pay a high economic price for this ourselves. That is why, for me, for us, all options are on the table, including Nord Stream 2.

We show solidarity because we stand by Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. And I say very frankly here that solidarity means being clear, especially in situations of pressure. Only the country itself and, first and foremost, its people, can decide which path a country wants to take. We’re not negotiating over Ukraine’s head. Solidarity means that we take the concerns of our Central and Eastern European neighbours seriously. That’s why we’re working together to strengthen our NATO engagement. But solidarity also means, and I would like to emphasise this point, reminding ourselves that foreign policy isn’t just a question of politics and politicians. It’s not just about shuttling back and forth between capitals. Foreign policy is about people. And that’s why solidarity in the current situation means not only solidarity with Kyiv, but also with the people in Ukraine, and, above all, with the people on the contact line. The OSCE, whose observers in the region are our eyes and ears, is crucial to this end. We need to work together to ensure that they can do their job effectively – especially now that the violence around the contact line has increased dramatically over the past 48 hours.

This is now one of the dangerous moments, when provocation and disinformation can give rise to escalation. Make no mistake: we will not play this game! Quite the opposite – we’re working flat-out to find constructive ways out of the crisis. In the Normandy format, in the EU, in NATO and in the Security Council. Every step towards peace is laborious. We’re wrangling over every millimetre. But even a millimetre is better than no movement.

And that brings me to my third point. Reliability – in a foreign policy based on clear values. For the people of Ukraine, this is about their right to freedom, their right to decide their future for themselves. What’s at stake for all of us is nothing less than peace in Europe and the question of whether we will defend our rules-based order even when the going gets tough. We live in a world in which this rules-based order is coming under pressure, not only in Eastern Europe – with growing geopolitical tensions, in competition between authoritarian forces and liberal democracies.

We have seen that if we as liberal democracies withdraw from this competition, others will fill these gaps. We are witnessing this in the form of private mercenary groups and large infrastructure projects in Africa. But we have also seen this in Europe, in the EU, when we fell short in terms of solidarity. With investments in power grids, in motorways and in digital infrastructure. And we witnessed this even more keenly at the beginning of this pandemic in the area of vaccine distribution. When others get involved, it’s often not for altruistic reasons, but there’s hard-core geostrategic calculation behind it.

Therefore, in my view, as liberal democracies, in the competition between authoritarian forces and liberal democratic values, we must not only clearly spell out what others are getting wrong, but show through our actions what we stand for together.

The joint recovery from the pandemic, which US President Biden and the UN have defined under the apt label “Build Back Better”, is also a huge opportunity for all of us, for international cooperation, to genuinely get things right together on the way out of the crisis. To invest in Ukraine on its way out of the crisis, to invest together in infrastructure, but also to invest together on the way out of the pandemic.

And that’s why Germany’s G7 Presidency, which we’re holding this year, will focus first and foremost on this. We will show what our values are and we will show that international cooperation is stronger than nations going it alone. We will show that an order based on international law, a level playing field, democracy and human rights will yield more benefits in the medium term than national isolationism.

And for me, when it comes to human rights – and yes, I’m also saying this as my country’s first female Foreign Minister after 151 years – that also includes women’s rights. Women’s rights are the yardstick by which the state of liberal democracies can be measured. Around the world, we have seen – and I say this as a German and as a European – not only in other countries, but also in our own country at the beginning of the pandemic, that invoking the strong man is often not the most successful approach. And we have seen around the world that putting our trust in one strong man in particular goes hand in hand with the rise of authoritarian forces and the dismantling of democratic rights.

And therefore, and this was one of the memorable sentiments that I took away from the contact line, as a number of the mothers said: “Only when women are safe is everyone safe.” That is the task that lies ahead of us. And with this in mind, I am convinced that global challenges, such as the climate crisis – you mentioned the 1.5 degree pathway – and the fight against pandemics, cannot be resolved by one person alone, but only by all of us together – with a clear compass of values.

We must be aware that we’re going through a really difficult crisis, especially here in Europe, especially here as transatlanticists. After this crisis, this world will be a different place. It is up to us; it is in our hands.

Now is the time to stand up for justice and peace in Europe.

Thank you very much.


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