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Opening address by Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas on the occasion of the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum of the Körber-Stiftung

23.11.2021 - Speech

The first Berlin Foreign Policy Forum took place ten years ago. The Forum has since become something of an institution in the foreign policy debate in Germany. I would therefore like to offer the Forum, the Körber-Stiftung and you, Mr Paulsen, my most sincere congratulations on this anniversary. And I hope that you will mark many more anniversaries in the future. We have seen that this Forum has, time and again, injected impetus into politics that is not only taken note of, but from which consequences are also drawn.

Ladies and gentlemen,


For Germany, the world was an entirely different place in 2011, the year in which your first meeting took place. And only very few of us would have expected at the time what has happened on the international stage since then:

The Arab Spring – a topic that was discussed full of hope at the first Berlin Foreign Policy Forum – was not followed by democratic transformation, but by bloody civil wars.
The euro and refugee crises have since shaken the European Union, and Brexit saw a member state leave the EU for the first time.
Russia challenged the peaceful order in Europe across the board with its annexation of Crimea. Rivalries between regional and major powers – especially between the US and China – have since intensified dramatically.
Donald Trump was President of the United States for four long years. In many countries, populists and nationalists are poisoning domestic and foreign policy. And, most recently, the pandemic has cost countless lives while the dangers of climate change have arrived on our own doorstep.

In short, Germany has lived through an era of international crises in the past decade that has undermined many of the things we considered to be certain.
German foreign policy was primarily a question of crisis management in the past decade, and sometimes simply damage control.
Our more recent foreign policy past therefore raises a most fundamental question:
Why have these past crises caught us so unawares – and what do they mean for Germany’s role in the world?

Ladies and gentlemen,


When seeking to answer this question, it is worthwhile taking a look at “The End of Illusions” – a book by the sociologist Andreas Reckwitz. This book describes how, especially after the global financial crisis in 2008, Western perceptions of progress have fallen into crisis. Economic globalisation, social liberalisation and new technologies have created unprecedented new opportunities. But they have also fuelled extreme inequality and political polarisation.


The title “The End of Illusions” captures these social developments. It is also, in my view, in keeping with the foreign policy debate in Germany in recent years.
After all, many of our foreign policy ideas of progress have recently begun to falter.
The idea that the process of European integration is irreversible.
The idea that economic power and networks will gradually replace military power in global politics.
And the idea that states around the world are converging on the Western model of democracy, the rule of law and human rights – and that time is on our side here.

Ladies and gentlemen,


Nowhere was the fact that these ideas were, at least in part, illusory more painfully demonstrated in recent times than in Afghanistan.
The events of the past few months there were bitter – first and foremost for the Afghan people, but also for us.
Together with our allies, we successfully fought international terrorism in Afghanistan following the attacks of 11 September. The country has also made progress in human and social development over the past 20 years that cannot simply be reversed.

At the same time, however, our failure in Afghanistan is obvious. Efforts to establish a viable political order – with a democratic government, effective institutions and a functioning army – have failed.

Afghanistan therefore marks a watershed. We must not infer from this mission that Germany should no longer assume responsibility internationally. For example, defending against terrorist threats, which can quickly make their way to Europe, will justify foreign deployments of the Bundeswehr in the future.
However, it has become clear that there are limits to our leverage vis-à-vis other countries. Deploying greater resources does not necessarily yield better results. Exporting forms of government that we’re comfortable with cannot be the sole ambition of German foreign policy.
Instead, this German foreign policy must set realistic goals in the future that are in line with clearly defined German interests. Or, to put it bluntly, it’s time to put illusions to bed.

Ladies and gentlemen,


That might sound tough at first – it smacks of cynicism, resignation and retreat. However, I advocate – and this is what Reckwitz also does in the book I just mentioned – perceiving disillusionment as an opportunity: for a new political sobriety, for undogmatic confidence and for a pragmatic realism.
It is precisely this kind of realism that opens up new perspectives for Germany’s foreign policy debate. It leaves behind exaggerated hopes for an “end of history”. But it also avoids an equally excessive pessimism and alarmism of the sort that has become widespread in many statements on foreign policy in Germany in recent times.
After all, objectivity – not exuberance or fear – is the right basis for an analysis of Germany’s situation in the world. And this kind of – realistic – analysis gives rise to three points in particular in my opinion:


Firstly, global politics is undergoing an “era of transformation”, as the title of this Forum also puts it. The multipolarisation of the international order is fuelling economic, technological, diplomatic and military competition between states. At the same time, interconnectedness and global challenges such as climate change are giving rise to greater cooperation between these very states. A paradoxical international system is emerging in which there is, simultaneously, greater competition but also greater cooperation. A system in which there is more division between states while at the same time they are closer than ever before.

Secondly, Germany has all the prerequisites to hold its own in such a competitive, cooperative and networked world. Our economy is strong, our society is stable and our state is capable of action. We have strong partners and allies in the European Union, NATO and around the world. We are an active player in global multilateralism.
At the same time, many predictions of impending disintegration in recent years have turned out to be exaggerated. Neither the European Union, NATO nor the West have broken up, as was frequently predicted. The United Nations is certainly in need of reform, but it is resilient nonetheless. And the pandemic has hit the world economy far less hard than was initially feared.

Thirdly, on the basis of this situation analysis, Germany must continue down its ambitious foreign policy path that is has already embarked on in recent years.
And German foreign policy must be one thing above all else – namely more than the extension of German domestic policy – if not, then noble German aspirations will collide with the realities of global politics.
In a world of competition and cooperation, there are no alternatives to two priorities of realistic German foreign policy. We must strengthen our own position – and we must cooperate more with all countries around the world.

Ladies and gentlemen,


On the one hand, this means dialogue with those who don’t share our values. The essence of diplomacy isn’t hosting parties with friends, but bringing difficult players to the negotiating table. In so doing, we are “pursuing a policy not of surrender but of common sense” – as Willy Brandt once most aptly put it. After all, maximum pressure and attempts at isolation, decoupling or an insistence on one’s own moral superiority extremely seldom achieve anything in international politics.
This is why it is right that Germany is advocating diplomatic solutions to conflicts and antagonisms around the world – even when, in the domestic arena, this initially gives rise to misunderstandings or criticism.


In Libya, we have helped with the Berlin Process to ensure that the weapons have fallen silent in the country after years of civil war. And I’ve lost count of the number of times people have recommended that I stay out of this because we’re doomed to fail anyway.
We have kept the nuclear agreement with Iran alive together with our E3 partners France and the UK, which was difficult enough – and talks will, at long last, be held once again between all parties in Vienna in just a few days’ time.
With the Stockholm Initiative and our Rethinking Arms Control conferences, we have put arms control back on the international agenda in difficult times.
And we have endeavoured to defuse antagonisms in the eastern Mediterranean and NATO by means of diplomacy.

Above and beyond this, we also need international cooperation in order to tackle the global challenges of our age: climate protection, global health and global justice.


The COP26 climate summit demonstrated just recently that such cooperation is worthwhile. Indeed, you can certainly take a critical view of the outcome of the conference. But compared with where the international debate on climate protection stood just a few years ago, the agreements reached in Glasgow are remarkable.
This also goes for cooperation in the G20. The agreement on the worldwide taxation of corporate profits is a step towards greater global justice that only very few people believed was possible.
Moreover, it is right that we continue to focus on multilateral solutions also in the fight against the virus. The vaccine platform COVAX, to which Germany is the second-largest donor, has already provided half a billion vaccine doses to three quarters of countries worldwide.
And it is precisely this work on major issues facing humanity that we have pressed ahead with also in turbulent times with the Alliance for Multilateralism, which now numbers more than 70 countries.

Ladies and gentlemen,


On the other hand, however, a realistic German foreign policy also means that we identify threats, firmly address our concerns and defend our values. We will never succeed in doing this from a position of weakness. Here, too, Willy Brandt’s words are apposite: “(…) peace policy must be something more than merely applauding others.”


Our influence in the world is built on social cohesion and a strong economy here at home – and that is not going to change. That is why it is important that the incoming German Government will continue to invest in social justice, in modernisation and in our country’s power of innovation – also so that we remain capable of action on the foreign policy stage.
Germany must succeed against international competition in key technologies, defend technological leadership and reduce vulnerabilities – as was made painfully clear in the pandemic.
To that end we need research and development, but also better protection of our know-how. We have therefore tightened up various aspects of our foreign trade law over the past years. We also have a new IT Security Act, which is an important step intended not only to have an economic impact but also to take account of security-related issues.

In addition, Germany must continue to play its part in the Atlantic Alliance, which remains the unshakeable cornerstone of our security. Within NATO, we have launched what has been coined the “reflection process”, the outcomes of which will be incorporated in a new Strategic Concept next year, as is urgently needed. This must make NATO fit for new challenges – for example in cyberspace and also in outer space.

Furthermore, it must be clear that systems of governance are competing at international level, and Germany cannot escape this. Authoritarian states such as Russia and China are putting ever more pressure on the rules-based order, international law and universal human rights. Hybrid threats and disinformation are gnawing away at our open societies – more than has ever been the case before. To speak plainly, the Chinese system stands for autocratic values that people like us in democratic states do not want to live by. This fact must also be reflected in our policy.
Germany has therefore formed new coalitions and expanded its partnerships with like-minded countries – from the G7, via our new Indo-Pacific policy guidelines, to the Summit for Democracy to which President Biden has invited participants next month. For Germany will not be able to remain strong alone, but only with partners.

Ladies and gentlemen,


That brings me to my next, and perhaps most important, point – Europe.
The unalterable tenet underlying any realistic German foreign policy remains as follows: Because of our history, geographical location and economic weight, we bear a special responsibility for the future of the European Union and thus of our entire continent. We must live up to this responsibility – judiciously, not with gung-ho federalism or unsolicited German advice.
It must remain our goal to hold the European Union together internally and to make it more sovereign externally.

During the pandemic the joint procurement of vaccines and the agreement on the European Recovery Fund were decisive successes – achieved, by the way, during the German Council Presidency and driven forward by the Franco-German motor.

For European cohesion it is moreover vital that Germany remain a bridge-builder to the EU member states in Central and Eastern Europe. The fundamental values of the European Union – democracy, the rule of law, freedom of the media – unite and bind us all. Further steps towards greater European integration are also needed. But at the same time, it must be clear that a division of the European Union into East and West, into a two-speed Europe, perceived by our eastern neighbours rather as a first and second-class Europe, with them in second class, weakens us all – and endangers the European Union.

The perceptions of the Central and Eastern European states must also be taken into account in a common European Ostpolitik – vis-à-vis partners such as Ukraine and Moldova – and vis-à-vis Belarus and Russia. For this reason, we want better relations with Russia – no surprise there, they can only get better. This does, however, presuppose progress, particularly on resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine on the basis of the Minsk agreements. Russia has, however, recently refused to set up Normandy-format Foreign Ministers meeting. And the latest news of Russian troop movements near the Ukrainian border is extremely worrying. These events show that the ball is in Moscow’s court when it comes to resolving existing antagonisms. The European Union will speak with a single voice on this issue – of that I am certain.

Ladies and gentlemen,


This brings us to the question of the external sovereignty of the European Union and of Europe as a whole.
Let us continue to build on the strengths of the European Union, its economic strength and regulatory power.


We need progress on trade agreements between the European Union and key partners worldwide. Trade agreements are not something bad per se, as some sections of German society seem to think. We want to live in a free world, and free trade is part of this free world. Only through trade agreements can we advance international environmental and social standards, rather than putting them at risk through isolationism. At the same time, we must continue to defend ourselves from unfair trade practices.

We also need to make progress on developing and setting standards for new technologies. This involves close cooperation with partners such as the United States, as has already been put on track with the Trade and Technology Council.

And during the French Council Presidency next year, we want to build on the progress made on the European Security and Defence Policy – for example on the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Last week EU High Representative Josep Borrell submitted a first draft of the Strategic Compass, which we believe definitely points in the right direction.
In this context, I would like to mention one point, which is particularly important to me. The latest developments in the Western Balkans, just on our doorstep – i.e. the tensions between Serbia and Kosovo and the volatile domestic situation in Bosnia – show that Europe above all needs to demonstrate credibility and an ability to act in its own neighbourhood. Therefore, after all this time, we need to inject new momentum in the accession process for the Western Balkans, and to discuss sanctions against those who pursue a policy of obstruction through hate and rabble-rousing.

Ladies and gentlemen,


Holding Europe together internally, and making it more sovereign externally; strengthening Germany while expanding international cooperation; assuming responsibility in the world, but being honest about our finite capabilities: this is the way forward for German foreign policy.
And herein lies the proof that it is possible to make a virtue out of the end of illusions, out of being without illusions – if they make way for a realism in which we learn from mistakes, foster new ideas and continue with successful policies.

Thank you very much.

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