Speech by Minister of State Michelle Müntefering at the Opening of the 10th German American Conference at Harvard

05.10.2018 - Speech

Let me begin by thanking you most sincerely for your invitation. I’m pleased to be speaking to you today for several reasons.

First of all, this event, the German-American Conference, is organised by the students themselves and is the biggest of its kind in North America.

Self-determination and democratic engagement thus form the foundation of the debates you have in this forum.

I believe there is virtually nothing more important than that for our societies. I want to talk about this in more detail in a moment.

Secondly, I’m still young enough to find it much cooler to be chosen as a speaker by students than by teachers!

Thirdly, I have a very personal reason. Being a child from a working class family in the Ruhr region – you would say from the Rust Belt – I wasn’t exactly preordained to deliver a speech here at the renowned Harvard University.

I was involved in local politics in my city for more than ten years as a member of the city council. I studied journalism at the nearby university of applied sciences in before being directly elected to the German Parliament in 2013.

The education system in Germany is perhaps a little less selective than here in the United States. However, it’s still not a given that children from working class families will study.

Indeed, they can still face considerable hurdles.

But an inclusive society is important, also for the development, progress and economic success of society as a whole.

Today we see on both sides of the Atlantic that people who don’t grow up in the liberal cities feel more and more left behind.

We also see how vital it is to reflect the realities of their lives in political processes and decisions if we’re to counter crude populism.

It’s crucial that the so-called “elite” doesn’t become self-absorbed. That applies not only to politicians but also to academics and business people – all of us have to reach a broader audience.

We’re all children of our time and influenced by the time in which we grew up.

I believe that we see the world not more or less clearly but through different eyes when this kind of education isn’t a given.

Or at least we’re less likely to take things for granted.

Fourthly and lastly, and this brings me to the key theme today – transatlantic relations. Today, – one hundred years after the end of World War I and 70 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – they, too, can no longer be taken for granted.

I’ve been very much occupied by this during the last few years as a Member of Parliament and of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Today I’d like to talk to you about this and to say something about the challenges facing democracy and politics today.

The fact that this conference has given me the time and scope to do this is as valuable as it is meaningful and necessary.

I’d like to thank everyone who helped to make this happen.

The transatlantic dialogue practised and shaped here is unparalleled and shows the way forward.

You are an inspiration!

The 10th conference is part of the great tradition of exchange which has always been alive in this place – an exchange which as a student I admired from afar and which shapes this country and the world to this very day.

Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs Heiko Maas just recently opened Deutschlandjahr USA – a program comprising more than 1000 events throughout the country and with which we want to deepen transatlantic relations all across this country.

Heiko Maas described the significance of October 3rd, the Day of German Unity as follows:

“After all of the horrors that the Germans brought to the world, it was above all the Americans who placed their trust in Germany. Who believed in a peaceful Germany without any fantasies of world domination.”

It is through the same lens that we want to view transatlantic relations. The United States is and will remain Germany’s closest partner outside Europe.

We are bound by seven decades of partnership and friendship.

Our societies are now deeply interconnected by a wealth of economic, cultural, and political ties.

Nevertheless, we do see how under the current U.S. administration diplomatic uncertainty between our countries is on the rise.

For the first time after the Second World War, we see it is no longer self-understood that we share the same common values and interests that were the mainstay of our relationship for many generations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Our countries’ history also shows how enemies became friends. Germany owes its freedom and democracy to the Americans and we shouldn’t ever forget that. And indeed we won’t.

Two days ago I had the honor of inaugurating the Helmut Schmidt professorship not far from here in Washington DC.

In his moving tribute for Helmut Schmidt, Henry Kissinger spoke about what made their sixty-year friendship special. He said it was their ability to engage in “continuous conversation.”

Kissinger and Schmidt did not always agree. But they were ready and willing to have a constant, uninterrupted exchange.

This is how they went from university companions in the 1950s to close, life-long friends.

This willingness to engage in dialogue, and to listen to one another, is what we are badly in need of in this day and age, when German-American relations are becoming more complicated.

When Chancellor Schmidt came here to Harvard in 1978 he told the class that, democracy couldn’t live without tradition and added that democracy without leadership didn’t have a chance either.

That also applies to a new, to a young generation.

I see many here today who have assumed responsibility or will do so one day. A generation which is better educated than all those before it.

A generation with the will for change. A generation facing challenges which have seldom been so huge.

But are we prepared for this? Do we have the right qualities to assume responsible leadership? How are the global trends and developments changing the demands placed on politics and democracy?

But let me stay with Helmut Schmidt for a while.

As a politician he also wrote outstanding works on statesmanship which are far too little known and yet are perhaps more relevant today than ever before.

What’s more, he was a “Chancellor of reason.”

With a strategic approach and deep moral convictions based not least on Immanuel Kant, Helmut Schmidt advanced the cause of, and built a solid foundation for, multilateralism.

Reason and the will for cooperation as a guarantor for peace and security.

Ladies and gentlemen,

we could do with more of both again today – on both sides of the Atlantic!

We cannot leave communication and dialogue to Twitter accounts which, on the one hand, generate freedom of opinion while, at the same time, producing a vast and confusing amount of information or disinformation.

The best form of censorship is to flood the masses with information.

It becomes dangerous when those with political responsibility can no longer be heard above the babble of voices and when democratic leadership is constantly called into question because compromise has become impossible.

Because: Only autocratic systems can afford to conduct politics without compromise.

Around the world – including Europe – we are currently witnessing a regression to nationalism.

A right-wing populist party is again in the German Parliament.

I would never have imagined that something like that could happen again.

Yet, a new study has just been published in Germany which shows that one in three voters agrees with populist views.

Populism is described in the study as a notion of democracy based on the assumption that an objectively definable and uniform “will of the people” exists.

Its proponents regard politicians as a “corrupt elite” out to further their own interests.

They’re in favor of exercising the direct sovereignty of the people, for example in referendums, and reject political compromises.

Especially in view of the autocratic networks supporting populism, dealing with this is a real challenge for German democracy, which was able to become strong again after the end of World War II not least thanks to the United States.

The United States helped and had confidence in Germany at a time when others, also in Europe, still had major reservations.

That’s the reason why today we Germans must do all the more to counter any trend towards populism.

And it’s why we’ve been especially hard hit by the uncertainty caused by the “America First” policy and the Twitter diplomacy of the American President.

This uncertainty is all the more serious at a time when the international order is under pressure from many sides.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in violation of international law and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine have greatly changed the security situation in Europe.

In global terms, an economically and politically self-confident China is increasingly engaged in a competition with Europe and the United States to assert its interests.

That’s why we’re placing our faith in “Europe United” – in shared values. Because we believe that a strong and sovereign Europe is the right answer.

Especially where the system of a rules-based, multilateral trade order is being openly called into question.

The European Parliament elections next year are therefore crucial.

For us, the United States is quite simply irreplaceable as a NATO Ally, and as a partner in the fight against terrorism.

At the same time, we also know that Europe must become more self-sufficient and independent.

On security issues, we must assume greater responsibility and play a stronger political role. Our cooperation with Africa is only one example of this.

This also applies to key international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. For, if other nations move in to fill the void that is created by the withdrawal of the United States, then instability will further increase.

We must also accept that it’s OK to have different opinions. Take, for instance, the United States’ withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, and the reimposition of U.S. sanctions.

Together with France and the United Kingdom, we are working hard to preserve the Vienna nuclear agreement, which for many years would have prevented Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

One of our objectives now is to prevent an escalation in the Near and Middle East. The effects of a nuclear arms race would be devastating.

The United States and Europe must ask themselves how we should deal with these changes. Do we drift further apart – or do we draw closer together in order to tackle challenges jointly?

In a nutshell, the question is this: do we agree with the statement that “everyone’s interests are served when each person thinks only of himself?” Or do we think we can achieve greater things if we act together and cooperate?

Do we have faith in the idea of multilateralism – as a platform for reconciling interests, a vehicle for progress, and a way to prevent war?

We’re convinced that we shouldn’t call into question the key principle that always bound us together as friends and allies in the world, despite any differences of opinion.

However, reason is a complicated matter. Perhaps Helmut Schmidt sometimes had too much of it: my generation remembers him best for something he once said: “People with visions should go to the doctor”.

But he also knew this: that one individual on their own can never know enough and that they therefore always need others. And that – in a democracy – the majority may be wrong in the final analysis.

That’s why the exchange between our civil societies is so important if we want to learn from each other.

Today I’m the Minister of State for International Cultural Policy at the Federal Foreign Office. And although our Cultural Directorate-General will be 100 years old in 2020, this office is brand new.

We’re placing greater importance on international cultural policy because we know that we’re faced with a competition among narratives on the global scale.

And we know that we have to stand up for democracy.

Schmidt said that the strength of Western democracy lay in its openness, in its effectiveness, in its ability to adapt to new situations and problems.

Because democracy grows in a climate which allows for debate and conflict, we’ve opted to do more to move away from a “foreign policy of nations” towards a “foreign policy of societies”. We made a conscious decision to adopt this approach.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is my second visit to the United States this year. In June, I had the honor of being present when Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier reopened the Thomas Mann House in Los Angeles.

The former home of the exiled author is a strong and important symbol of German-American friendship and of our shared foundation of values.

During the ten years that the Mann family lived in this house, many expatriate literary figures, artists, actors and thinkers gathered here to exchange thoughts and develop new ideas.

It was from here that Thomas Mann spoke out against Hitler and warned against fascism in more than 50 BBC interviews.

The place where he worked, this house, is now being given a fresh lease of life as a forum for lively debate in the spirit of Thomas Mann.

The first fellows are working there as pioneering transatlantic thinkers addressing the major questions of our time and entering into a dialogue and forming a network with each other.

In the shadow of the looming Nazi terror, Thomas Mann once said: “It is a terrible spectacle when irrationalism becomes popular.”

Especially at a time such as this, when fake news and irrationalism are once again dominating communication and thinking to an ever greater extent, we’ve consciously chosen exchange and interaction.

We’re sending a message by setting up places such as the Thomas Mann House and its fellowship program and driving forward the important dialogue with America’s civil society.

Villa Aurora is another successful residency program which enables young artists in particular to go on an exchange to the United States. In future, it will cooperate with the Thomas Mann House.

In addition, the German Academy New York will soon be opened as another independent intellectual and cultural centre.

Politics, ladies and gentlemen, continues to be the pursuit of moral ends through pragmatic action, which needs both: Competence and responsibility.

We, students, have to provide this ourselves.

We bear responsibility for what we do – and also for what we don’t do.

A new chapter in transatlantic history has been opened. We’re helping to determine what future generations read in it.

Especially today, it must be clearer than ever before that this peace, that democracy and human rights, have to be fought for time and again.

The future begins now.

It’s in our own hands.

I declare this conference open.


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