Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas at the opening of the 17th Ambassadors Conference

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas speaking at the opening of the Ambassadors Conference

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas speaking at the opening of the Ambassadors Conference, © Thomas Köhler / photothek.net

26.08.2019 - Speech

There is scarcely anywhere in the world left where the actions of the human race have left no traces.

Two weeks ago I was in the Canadian Arctic, which felt like the ends of the earth. Yet here, too, human actions have had an impact. Climate change is actually visible there – with all the immediate consequences for the inhabitants. However, they themselves have no hope of achieving anything by changing their own behaviour.

They depend on what people around the world do: whether it be in New York, in Brussels or in Berlin.

When I was here last year, I evoked the image of the jungle to illustrate what Robert Kagan called a “jungle growing back in the world order”.

I believe that climate change is perhaps a better image.

“Jungle” sounds more organic or natural – certainly not man-made.

Just like climate change, we have created the current international political situation ourselves. No-one else is responsible for it.

What is currently being strengthened is, first and foremost, the extremes. In the case of climate change, it’s extreme weather events: heatwaves, storms. In politics, it’s the extreme, radical fringes. That goes for both Germany and international politics.

Those hoping that the radical views of the populists and nationalists would put people off, thus strengthening the moderate middle ground, have unfortunately been disappointed during the last twelve months.

The pendulum of public opinion seems to be moving further and further to the extremes: on both sides of the spectrum.

We see this, for example, when we look at the primary campaigns of some candidates in the United States. Or when we look at the upheavals in the party landscape in many countries, for instance in the United Kingdom.

And the forecasts for the upcoming federal state elections are fuelling concerns that here in Germany, too, there’s a danger that the extreme fringes will grow stronger at the expense of the middle ground.

In an ever more complex, digitalised and fast-moving world, there’s a longing for simple answers, for clear statements. There’s a longing for supposed leaders to tell us what to do. Leaders with supposedly simple solutions.

Mr Voßkuhle,

When we invited you, we particularly had in mind the parallels between the domestic scene and the international situation. We were thinking of the contradictions which have emerged. The contradictions between a world which is increasingly interconnected and in which foreign policy should long since have evolved into global governance. And we were also thinking of the calls around the world for more isolation, walls and borders.

I’m therefore delighted that you are here today to share your thoughts with us. Once again, I’d like to bid you a very warm welcome!

Esteemed colleagues,

We at the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, but also all over the world, are directly affected by the development I have just described.

For diplomacy thrives on nuances, the ability to make distinctions, on the capacity to find compromises, commonalities – in other words, the middle ground.

We’re striving to do just that in many different situations. Allow me to give you one example: our efforts and our contributions towards ending the terrible war in Syria.
When I took up office, we weren’t a member of the Small Group in which our allies have come together, among other things, to help bring about a political solution. It didn’t take long before we joined. We didn’t do this in the spirit of the Olympic motto, namely that the most important thing is taking part. Rather, we did so because we know that we can act as a mediator in this group.

The international community had split up into two blocs when it came to dealing with this terrible war which has gone on for far too long. One is the Small Group and the other is the Astana Group, comprising Russia, Iran and Turkey.

UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen’s is rightly trying to bring everything together under the auspices of the United Nations. For that is one of the prerequisites for getting the political process underway. We want to play our part – and we’ve already done so.

At the end of the day, a summit organised by Germany and France together with Russia and Turkey took place. We held this conference because we know that the two groupings have to be brought back together.

I believe that following lengthy negotiations, it will perhaps be possible in the coming weeks, for example, to reach an agreement on the list of participants for the constitutional committee. If that succeeds and this constitutional committee is finally established, then this would probably be the first of many small steps towards finally launching the political process to end this conflict.

As I’ve just mentioned Russia, esteemed colleagues, I’d like to make another comment on that country against the backdrop of current events.

I’m told and also read that we need more dialogue with Russia. I suggest that those arguing this open their eyes. Last week I met my Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov for the sixth time. That’s six times within the last eighteen months. We’ve even reached the stage now where we sit together and continue negotiating very constructively for another two hours after our press conferences.

We’ve long since revived many formats which were suspended after the annexation of Crimea, for example cooperation on security policy issues. We’re the ones within NATO, always after consultation with Jens Stoltenberg, who have frequently called for the NATO-Russia Council to be convened. Together with others, we have set the conditions for Russia remaining in the Council of Europe. By the way, this was warmly welcomed by the members of the opposition with whom I was able to speak in Moscow last week.

Ladies and gentlemen, this dialogue has thus long since been in place. And it has been closer than in the three years before. However, dialogue also means discussing difficult issues. It goes without saying, therefore, that democracy, human rights as well as freedom of the press and freedom of opinion have always been addressed in our dialogue with Russia. And that will remain so.

I’d like to say to all those who want more dialogue that this, too, is part and parcel of any dialogue.

And, ladies and gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, I regard this as examples of what I see as our positioning in the world as well as our responsibility as a liberal democracy: Germany’s place is in the middle ground, the space between the extremes.

For our strength, our stability and our influence, both in Europe and the world, is essentially based on one thing: namely on the power of compromise. If we were to lose this ability, we would be putting our country’s future at risk. We cannot allow that to happen.

We have to work towards this end. This will be difficult – I have no illusions about that. For nowadays compromises are all too often interpreted as an admission of defeat or a wait-and-see attitude. And simple messages often catch on better than nuanced ones.

That’s especially true in our digitalised communication society in which we have the impression that essentially all that matters today are simple answers and no longer the right answers.

Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, esteemed colleagues, we need partners. And that is precisely what we’re talking about when we discuss how to shape multilateralism at this Ambassadors Conference.

“Never alone” – Germany has been guided by this maxim ever since the Basic Law was enacted.

However, “never alone” is nothing more than an expression of pure reason. After all, our economy depends on free trade. Our knowledge-based society needs exchange and connections. Our security relies on strong partnerships.

And our influence in the world above all stands and falls with Europe’s unity.

Therefore, esteemed colleagues, for Germany multilateral action always begins in Europe.

I know that many are hoping for a grand masterplan for this Europe. So am I!

That is why we set out the goal of a strong and sovereign Europe last year. And we have to carry on working towards this goal – for example by strengthening Europe’s foreign policy, completing economic and monetary union or by focusing more on key issues for the future such as education, the digital transformation or research in the new multiannual financial framework. They need to have greater prominence in the EU than has hitherto been the case.

Mr Voßkuhle, you said in an interview last year:
“In many spheres, the European legal system is based on the principle of mutual trust. Where this trust is lacking, substantial functional deficits develop.”

And you are quite right! We can see that in our day-to-day work here. Europe is in the throes of a grave crisis – triggered by pressure from the outside world, but more especially by a loss of confidence within the Union.

We all know the causes: the financial crisis, migration, the conflicts about the rule of law in some European Union member states.

Our main task during the last few months has therefore been to rebuild the trust which had been lost. After all, without trust any discussion on Europe’s future will come to nothing. Indeed, it will deepen the divisions.

Incidentally, this is also one of the reasons why we’re now participating in the Three Seas Initiative – with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We had thought that this initiative would deepen the division.

I believe it’s the right decision not to stay away and not to stand by doing nothing but, rather, to help ensure that Europe doesn’t split into East and West.

Here, too, we have a key role to play as a bridge. Considering how we have been received by the countries in this initiative, I believe that this is not merely how we see our role. Above all, it reflects the expectation that many others have of us. And we want to live up to that.

It was therefore right to invest so much in our partners in Europe during the last few months.

I know that involved much work – and sometimes the results of this work were not necessarily immediately visible. And I’m not just thinking here of the many visits to you in Poland, Mr Nikel, or to you in Italy, Mr Elbling. I’d like to thank you both most sincerely!

First and foremost, diplomacy is about going to places where things have to be discussed and where we try and convince partners to support shared goals.

The Treaty of Aachen and the Franco-German strategy paper put Franco-German cooperation back on course following months of misunderstandings, some of which were not actual misunderstandings.

However, we’ve also got member states such as Spain, Ireland, Portugal and the Baltic states more closely involved. To sum up, we’re doing everything to hold Europe’s middle ground together.

By doing this, we have laid the foundation for taking matters forward, for working towards a strong and sovereign Europe. That must be the goal during our EU Council Presidency in the second half of next year.

  • Mr Voßkuhle, the rule of law continues to be of key importance to us. We must succeed in once again making the rule of law what it should actually be: something which unites us Europeans instead of separating us. To achieve that we want, for example, to use the new instrument of a peer review mechanism to protect the rule of law. This mechanism is expected to be finally ready next year so that it can be applied for the first time during our Council Presidency in order to make it quite clear: the EU member states stand by each other and share common fundamental values. What’s more, the rule of law is indispensable.
  • The second source of discord which we want to overcome lies in our migration policy. We’re therefore seeking to propose a voluntary ad hoc mechanism for taking in refugees rescued at sea. Of course, this cannot be a permanent solution.
    However, the current situation cannot be allowed to continue! Ultimately, this also signals our desire to ease the burden on countries such as Italy. It’s thus an opportunity to create new and positive momentum in the deadlocked discussion in all issues relating to migration policy.
  • Thirdly, we have to finally work towards a fully coordinated EU foreign policy. I believe that now is the right moment for a fresh start – the basic trust is there.
    We’ve made it clear which path we want to take. For instance, we want to see more decisions made on the basis of a qualified majority or a strategic approach to Eastern Europe or China.
    We will discuss these issues this week with the EU’s future High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell. For there’s one thing on which we completely agree: the meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council cannot be a “valley of tears”, as he is said to have called them. Rather, they must finally become a summit of action.

What is more, esteemed colleagues,

We must find answers to issues arising in connection with Brexit – whether they be political, economic or social. This includes asking: what impact will Brexit have on coordination among the E3?

One thing is clear – namely that our close alliance with France will soon be more important than ever. To me, “never alone” also means “not without France”!

However, the Franco-German tandem cannot replace the E3. The EU is too large for that to work – and we know that some do mistrust close cooperation between us and our French friends.

But let’s face it: interests in Europe diverge too much for only our two countries to address them as we move forward.

More than in the past, we will have to call on countries such as Spain and Italy in the south, and Poland in the east, to live up to their responsibilities – and we will have to create new, innovative formats.

Yes, I know this is not easy. However, just because current governments in Italy and Poland may not be guided by these European policy principles does not mean that we should allow them to abscond their responsibility. We need to work on that.

In saying this, I am not thinking we should have some kind of EU directorate, but rather making the pragmatic point that we need enhanced cooperation. We must get together more often, in order to move Europe forward as a whole. And these five countries will play a key role in this regard.

Our cooperation should not hinge on whether or not, in some of these countries, the parties in power subscribe to our aims.

We all bear a major responsibility – namely, for the future of the European Union. And we must live up to that responsibility.

Esteemed colleagues,

Our responsibility by no means ends at Europe’s borders. That said, Europe is what enables us to assume responsibility in the world.

Then there is also the responsibility that we bear for the United Nations, and as a member of the UN Security Council. Although we all know how difficult the dynamics in those fora have become.

We must not, however, lose sight of what is accomplished, time and again. These achievements bring real improvement to the lives of hundreds of thousands of People.

  • In Mali, for example, where the UN mission, which we support, provides at least a minimum amount of stability.
  • Or in the Sudan, where there were plans to substantially draw down the UNAMID mission at the end of this year – despite major instability at this point in time. We worked hard, and we managed to prevent that from happening. I will travel there next week, also so that I can tell those in positions of responsibility that Germany will remain engaged, also beyond the peacekeeping phase.

And yet, esteemed colleagues, there are of course spheres in which, despite all efforts, the Security Council is failing to make progress. Areas in which nothing more than hollow compromises can be achieved.

Areas in which international consensus continues to crumble.

Where that’s happening, we must press forward with like-minded countries. With countries that share our aim of preserving “middle ground” in the international order. That’s the idea behind the alliance for multilateralism that Chrystia Freeland and I established one year ago in this very place.

This alliance will not change the course of history. But it can achieve very tangible progress in areas where we are at an impasse or cannot move forward alone.

In recent months, we have managed to put truly important and difficult issues back on the international agenda – for example, disarmament, or compliance with international humanitarian law.

And we have won supporters; only a few weeks ago, for example, the entire European Union adopted Council conclusions calling for much more ambitious and better coordinated policies in multilateral fora.

In New York, we will table specific proposals during General Assembly week on issues such as climate and security, or arms control, and we will work to gain more supporters. I want to ask all of you to promote these causes when you return to your posts.

Esteemed colleagues,

In our view, there can be no reasonable alternative to multilateralism. This becomes even more urgent in times of a shrinking middle and stronger fringes.

We shouldn’t delude ourselves: multilateralism is not always the comfortable option. Because multilateralism means bearing international responsibility.

It also rules out taking a special path that quite a few people in Germany are calling for. Some even mean well – but that doesn’t make it right! Namely, withdrawing into the national shell. No matter what the context or one’s motivation – this would be a big mistake!

Multilateralism requires us to ask, time and again: how can we help solve international problems? And, in so doing, where do our interests lie?

So, considering that right now everyone is talking about the rain forest in Brazil and underscoring the role it plays for the global climate and the world as a whole, we probably did the right thing by hosting a large Latin America conference here a few months ago.

Because by demonstrating to this continent how much we are interested in it – and not only in Brazil, I should note – we have greatly increased our credibility when expressing our views on the issues that are being discussed right now.

The fact that we were in Brazil before nearly everyone else means that we have much greater influence on what happens there.

And the fact that a solution has finally been found for the EU-Mercosur Trade Agreement gives us ways and means to exert pressure and make ourselves heard. That’s because we are not only willing to discuss interests, but also make clear that there are certain values and standards on which we absolutely insist.

Let us now look at the Strait of Hormuz. Here, it was always obvious that we would not participate in a unilateral strategy of maximum pressure. How could we? In fact, for months, our work has focused on opposing this policy – and on resolving this conflict through other means.

It was also always obvious that we need shared European engagement, and that we must remain open to this.

That will also be a subject of discussion this week at the Gymnich meeting in Helsinki. At the meeting, we will point out that, if we want to be taken seriously as Europeans, then we must think about what type of responsibility we want to assume. Because assuming responsibility and at the same time remaining committed to the top priority of de‑escalation does not have to be a contradiction in terms. A conference on maritime security that brings together all parties to the conflict could be a significant contribution – and that’s why we’re pulling out all the stops to make it happen.

Or take Afghanistan, for example, where we are supporting United States efforts to broker a peace agreement between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban.

We are doing this even though we know that success is by no means certain – considering everything that has happened in the country in the last decades.

We have also committed ourselves to making sure that the causes we have been advocating there for many years – namely constitutional order, human rights and reconciliation – do not fall by the wayside.

Esteemed colleagues,

We all know that, in Germany, discussions about bearing greater responsibility are never easy. I’m glad we think long and hard about deploying the Bundeswehr. We also know that you in Karlsruhe are closely watching over this process, Mr Voßkuhle – and rightly so.

If and when we act, what is key is that we gain support for our decisions. That’s why we need to explain them.

Discussions about the mandate for our mission in Iraq are a good example. In everything that I’ve talked about so far, I don’t think anyone can accuse us of shirking international responsibility.

So, when the Bundestag has taken a decision stating that the mandate is due to expire at the end of this October, also stating that this is the final extension, then we need to deal with that. We’re talking about a parliamentary decision – and it must be respected.

On the other hand, what we cannot do is act like not much has changed in the region over the past year. We have a duty to revisit all of the decisions that have been made. If the nature of these developments is such that we should re‑examine and possibly change our past decisions, then we should have a discussion about that – if we’re serious about assuming responsibility. And that is why we must engage in this debate, also in that forum.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Esteemed colleagues,

Currently, here in our country, only very few people can say what “multilateralism” is. In a Körber Foundation study, only nine percent of those questioned said they knew exactly what the term means.

I believe that all of us – politicians, diplomats, think tanks and members of parliament – have a mission to more clearly communicate foreign policy to the people, and to thereby also emphasise what really counts.

If we do that, I am confident that we can rebut the supposedly simple claims of the populists.

We should use the 150th anniversary of the Federal Foreign Office to speak out for cooperation, common efforts, measured action and middle ground.

We should do this vis‑à‑vis not only our international partners, but also people right here in Germany. At a time when the fringes are growing stronger, that’s what we need to fall back on.

We must also make clear to people that increased international cooperation and more multilateralism does not in any way mean doing less at home or neglecting our community. Rather, it is the prerequisite for even having a home in the future that’s worth living in.

I believe that a large majority will be receptive to our arguments. More than three‑quarters of people in Germany support consensus and international cooperation. That should be our starting point.

It’s high time – returning to my introductory remarks – for the entire world to finally start discussing climate protection. If we want to truly tackle climate change, including all other global challenges – migration, globalisation, the digital transformation – then there is only one answer: multilateralism.

Without it, we cannot even begin to find a solution to any of these global challenges. So we face a clear choice – will we stand and act together, or against each other? Our position is equally clear: on this issue, we’re definitely not on the fence.

Thank you very much indeed.


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