Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the 19th Ambassadors Conference“Build back better – Foreign policy for the post-COVID world”

07.06.2021 - Speech

The Bundestag elections will be taking place in three and a half months. And the closer they come, the more often I am asked, both at home and abroad: What lies ahead, politically, in Germany?

I am quite sure that many of you will have been hearing this question in your host countries, too.

Often there is an undertone of concern that Germany might soon be preoccupied with its own affairs, as it was for six months after the last election, for some time to come – and at a time when the world needs to right itself and in many ways to reinvent itself.

This is what makes our meeting here today so important. We must use this opportunity to send out two key messages.

Firstly, despite all of the justified debate around our future path, the fundamental consensus underlying the Federal Republic of Germany’s foreign policy – the four pillars of European integration, multilateral responsibility, reliability as an ally and international solidarity – is non-negotiable.

And secondly, Germany’s diplomats stand for precisely this consensus, uniting ambition and realism, and will continue to do so.

The coming period will be an utterly crucial one, because, despite the global lockdowns of recent months, a look around the world shows that we have been anything but at a standstill. The only question is where the world is going, and whether it is always going in the right direction.

Geopoliticisation, deglobalisation, renationalisation, but also quantum leaps in digital and technological transformation are just a few of the developments we want to discuss today and over the coming days.

But before I touch on those points, I would first like to look back – back, to be precise, to 14 June 2019.

That brings me to you, Ine, and my visit to Oslo, when you presented your white paper on multilateral issues and I had the honour of joining you.

Of course, no one at the time could have predicted the pandemic. But what we are seeing today makes your assessment back then sound even more visionary.

You called upon us, as Europeans, to do more to defend our liberal values against authoritarian influences. To mitigate the side effects that our societies are feeling due to globalisation and the digital transformation. And to look for new ways to uphold the global order.

Far-sighted in your analysis and fearless in your approach – that is how I got to know you.

However, it wasn’t until yesterday that I learned that these qualities are not only hallmarks of your service as Norway’s minister of defence and first female foreign minister. But that you keep sharpening those strategic and tactical skills even in your free time – as a skydiver and by taking flying lessons.

So, thank you, Ambassador Grannas, for letting me in on that secret, and I hope I didn’t give it away now.

And thank you very much, dear Ine, for your friendship – and for joining us today.

Ladies and gentlemen,
The opportunities and challenges confronting us as a result of the COVID-induced time lapse may not be new, but the urgency with which we need to deal with them is.

And I would like to begin by discussing the opportunities, because in recent months I have all too often had the impression that we always begin with the risks.

At our last Ambassadors Conference a year ago, I expect hardly any of us would have wagered that we would have multiple vaccines to fight the pandemic just a few months later.

The vaccine platform COVAX, to which we are, incidentally, the second-largest donor, has already provided around 80 million vaccine doses to two thirds of countries worldwide. The European Union alone is exporting more vaccines than all other industrialised nations together. And I am grateful to you, dear colleagues, for your steadfast public support for these efforts in your host countries.

But at the same time, it is clear that we must do even more – for example to expand production in developing and newly industrialised countries in particular.

Above all, we must reach an agreement in the very near future to give surplus vaccine doses, which we will find ourselves with in Germany and many other European countries by this autumn, to other countries via COVAX as fast as we possibly can – to countries whose vaccine campaigns are still far behind. There are, sadly, far too many such countries.

We must keep the promise which we made together with more than 60 other nations as part of the Alliance for Multilateralism last year – that vaccines are a global public good.

In doing so, we will not only be taking a crucial step out of the crisis. We will also be ensuring that multilateralism and not, for instance, isolationism or vaccine nationalism is the winner of the pandemic. This battle is far from being won.

That will also bring our next goal within reach – a global pandemic treaty. Because learning from this crisis means, above all, ensuring that we are better prepared for the next health crisis, which is quite certain to come.

We have already set out requirements compelling us to do so. That is the goal of our White Paper on Multilateralism, which Ine and I will be presenting this afternoon to the German Council on Foreign Relations.

It brings together all of the Federal Government’s instruments for international action, for the first time – something which is long overdue.

Most importantly, it clearly sets out the ways in which international cooperation affects the lives of the people of our country. This will secure support for our work – support which we will need, particularly when we can expect to see public funds becoming tighter, which will be the case in the coming years.

Dear colleagues,
Another opportunity is of course created by the United States’ return to international cooperation.

We saw this again just last week, dear Ine, at our meeting with the NATO Foreign Ministers. The whole atmosphere is, happily, entirely different.

We in Europe have answered Joe Biden’s “America is back” with “OK, we are still here”.

It is no secret that the stability of the international order and indeed the continued existence of not a few international organisations hung in the balance in recent years.

We invested political, strategic and financial resources in counteracting this danger during those years.

Our efforts are now beginning to bear fruit, and we are seeing just how important they were.

The fact that we have reached the home stretch of the negotiations in Vienna to restore the nuclear deal is, after all, partly thanks to European tenacity and dependability. And we hope that Iran will now rapidly muster the political will needed to bring these negotiations over the finishing line.

When it comes to crises closer to home, too, we Europeans have been taking on greater responsibility for all of the issues in the public eye.

One example that comes to mind is our wide-ranging involvement in the Sahel, particularly in challenging and indeed increasingly challenging times. There are also our diplomatic efforts in Libya, which offer a blueprint not just for increasingly European-led crisis management, but also for better burden-sharing within the Euro-Atlantic relationship.

The same goes for the six countries of the Western Balkans, whose representatives we will be bringing together tomorrow as part of the Berlin Process. This is another area where Europe must lead the way, because, when it comes to the accession process, it is we who have the most leverage to steer many of the problems affecting the Western Balkans in the right direction.

But we must invest in transatlantic coordination and a transatlantic division of duties beyond the fields of foreign and security policy as well, now more than ever, in order to build additional pillars which will hold up this partnership going forward.

These include closer cooperation on trade and technology, where we are currently working to finally bring an end to the age of reciprocal tariffs and sanctions.

We should join forces to think about how we can ensure the level of freedom and security that we want to see, particularly in the digital age. As well as how we can better reconcile free trade with the protection of jobs and of environmental and social standards which benefit people on both sides of the Atlantic.

Another vital pillar is climate change mitigation. The climate conference in Glasgow needs to be a success – John Kerry and I agreed thoroughly on that point when he visited Berlin several weeks ago. It is also encouraging to know that June will bring a fresh start for the Transatlantic Climate Bridge.

Because before Glasgow, we urgently need to establish a transatlantic consensus – on renewable energies, on financing, and on difficult issues such as emissions trading and carbon pricing.

Finally, we must secure our foundation of values and thus the resilience of our liberal democracies.

Much of the preliminary work that we have done in recent years – in the fight against disinformation or to protect the freedom of the media, for example – will now meet with more support than opposition going forward, including, for the first time in a long while, from Washington. And this is also what we will be bringing to the table for the Summit for Democracy which President Biden is planning.

We are in agreement with Washington that standing more firmly alongside other democracies – in Latin America, Africa and Asia – does not mean dividing the world in two once again. We do not want a “Cold War reloaded”.

But we must take note when others call our system into question. Just think of the issue of mask and vaccine diplomacy, which has been blown up into a clash of systems. Or Moscow’s hybrid methods of interference. Or Beijing’s increasingly ruthless translation of economic dependencies into political allegiance.

Germany and Europe can only prevail over this ideological bloc mentality if they are themselves in a position of strength – and certainly not one of political equidistance.

The best way to understand what that means in practical terms is to look at our own updated policy towards Asia. Three fundamental principles lie at its core: differentiation, diversification and Europeanisation.

Differentiation means, firstly, not understanding “policy towards Asia” to mean China alone. And, secondly, not seeing the region predominantly through the lens of good trade relations.

We do of course have a significant interest in trade – on both sides, incidentally. And on the climate, on the 2030 Agenda, or on reforming international organisations such as the WTO, we will not make any real progress without China.

But in areas where China is increasingly openly breaching international law, violating human rights or challenging our democratic system, we too must act more resolutely than we have done in the past. And intimidation and threats will not prevent us from doing so.

One key to this lies in diversification.

That is the principle underlying our new policy guidelines for the Indo-Pacific. It is not a question of boxing China in – which would in any case be absurd. It is, quite fundamentally, a question of bolstering our own strength, for example by working more closely with partners such as Japan, India, South Korea and Australia, as well as the ASEAN countries.

The second key is the Europeanisation of this policy area, in line with the principle of cooperation where possible, but a clear stance where necessary.

And that not only requires Europe to show greater common resolve, as we did in recent months on the issue of sanctions related to human rights, for example. It also requires more specific offers of cooperation, such as the EU’s Connectivity Partnership with India and with Japan.

This must equally go hand in hand with the reinforcement of what we once called “tech diplomacy”.

Because what we have experienced on a small scale in the Federal Foreign Office in recent months – a push towards greater flexibility, greater digital and technological transformation – is, on a larger scale, radically altering the global balance of power.

In short, in the current century, power is bestowed by technology.

And so we must be able to keep pace with the global competition when it comes to key technologies such as semiconductors, quantum computers, 5G and artificial intelligence. What this means in practice will be discussed at tomorrow’s Business Forum.

Today I will say this much. One thing that we will need to do is to identify digital trends, from Tokyo to San Francisco, at an earlier stage, and to build on them to develop ideas for new technology partnerships.

The second thing we need is a new set of ethical and international legal standards which are capable of limiting the risks of new technologies, in both peacetime and wartime.

And we must ourselves become more innovative and better at protecting our ideas – something that we are, of course, working on within the EU. We need better conditions for venture capital. But also better investment and export controls for key technologies.

And in the process of achieving this – to round off the challenge ahead of us – we must not inadvertently allow global free trade to become the major loser of the pandemic.

This means that we can no longer settle for “free” without adding “fair” and “green”. Only then can we count on continued support here in Europe for global relationships, not least economic ones. And only then can we preserve our high social, environmental and living standards, rather than jeopardising them through isolationism.

We have already laid the groundwork with the recovery plan for Europe, which sets new standards in terms of sustainable growth and not least in terms of European solidarity.

And because we have always understood internal solidarity and external sovereignty to be two sides of the same coin, we must ensure that these internal crises are followed by further progress in Europe’s capacity for external action.

We can no longer allow ourselves to be held hostage by those who hobble European foreign policy with their vetoes. In doing so, sooner or later, they will jeopardise the cohesion of Europe. And so it must also be said loud and clear that the veto must be abolished – even if that means running the risk of sometimes being outvoted oneself.

And I am confident, I remain confident, that the issue of majority decisions will be a key one in the discussions at the Conference on the Future of Europe.

To translate these debates into real progress for the people of Europe we need two things – two things which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. Ambition, and realism.

The ambition to continue resolutely down the path which we have begun towards a sovereign Europe.

And the realism to recognise that we will not make progress with a Europe of different speeds or with flag-waving European federalism, because these will not be accepted or supported by our partners.

I believe that the true point of contention within the European Union is not the issue of migration. That is certainly an exceptionally difficult issue, and one which strains the cooperation between European governments. But the structural threat lies, in my view, in a two-speed Europe, divided into a “core Europe” and the rest, seen by our partners in Central and Eastern Europe in particular as a first-class and a second-class Europe.

If this comes to be, then the partners in Central and Eastern Europe with whom we already have difficulties will be forever lost to us – and we cannot allow that to happen.

Instead, let us continue working here and now on remedying Europe’s deficits – the profusion of different voices which I have mentioned in the field of foreign policy, and our weaknesses in crisis management, which have been so clearly exposed in recent months.

As well as, of course, the deficits in the rule of law within our Union.

This would also be the best insurance against the nationalists and populists who will soon be using next year’s elections in France to make a fresh attempt at bringing down our united Europe.

Uniting ambition and realism – one might also say, following a middle way – has become much more difficult in recent years.

But this is our path, dear colleagues, and it must remain our path.

Because it is the only way that we can succeed in boldly taking Europe forward without rending it in two.

It is the only way that we can secure our partnerships and alliances without contributing to the division of the world into opposing camps.

It is the only way that we can make ourselves resilient to harmful external influences without jeopardising our global-mindedness.

And it is the only way that we can achieve this technological, ecological and social transformation, the much-cited “building back better”, without leaving the rest of the world behind.

If there is anyone I believe capable of this diplomatic balancing act, it is you, dear colleagues. And I am speaking from experience, the experience I have gained here in my years as Foreign Minister.

The situation in many of your host countries, meanwhile, has been anything but simple in recent months. And so you have my utmost gratitude for the professionalism, dedication and understanding with which you have led your teams through this crisis.

Here in Berlin we have tried to support you however we can – for example with special deliveries of vaccines, something which has been very much at the top of the agenda for all of you at the missions abroad these past months.

And so, as well as gratitude, I am left with the recognition that this crisis has fused our “Team Foreign Office” even closer together.

In my view, this is perhaps the most important thing that we can take with us on the path out of the crisis and into the future.

And now, dear Ine, we are very much looking forward to your far-sighted and fearless remarks.

Thanks again for joining us today.

The floor is yours!


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