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Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the Munich Security Conference 

17.02.2018 - Speech

Ladies and gentlemen,

The fundamental assumption of this year’s Security Conference is that we were on the brink of collapse in 2017. Unfortunately, recent news from around the world gives us no cause to relativise this assessment. Predictability and reliability currently seem to be the rarest commodities in international politics.

The Olympic Truce – as welcome as it is – can only slow down the highly dangerous escalation surrounding North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. In the Middle East, the conflict in Syria, after six bloody years as a civil and proxy war, is moving in a direction that poses an acute threat of war even for our close partners.

China’s increasing leadership aspirations, Russia’s claims to power, and the renaissance of nationalism and protectionism – all of these phenomena are resulting in massive shifts in our world order that have unforeseeable consequences.

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht from the University of Stanford recently had the following to say about this: “Instead of turning out to be something that we can shape, the future appears above all to be a question of fate today.”


Ladies and gentlemen,

I’m sure that all of us here agree that we mustn’t make do with a development driven by fate. I, for one, want to ensure that we shape our future and not just have to endure it. To my mind, the two most important responses to the challenges of our age here in Germany are as follows:

1. Helping to make Europe stronger and better able to act,
2. strengthening and improving cooperation between the two Western actors, the US and Europe, in the world once again.

It must be clear to us Europeans that we need to stand together if we are to defend our values, prosperity and security in tomorrow’s world.
Anyone who claims that Europe is about forfeiting national sovereignty doesn’t understand that we wouldn’t enjoy sovereignty in many areas at all by ourselves in the future – not even as a strong Germany – but that the European path is about winning back, and not relinquishing, national sovereignty.

If we intend to bring our influence to bear in this world, then we must also realise that our own power in Europe will not suffice. Neither we nor the US can do this by ourselves. We can only do this together with our partners.

However, it should also be clear to our American partners and friends that close cooperation with Europe is not only in Europe’s interests, but also in America’s own interests. The US has achieved many great things in its history, but its greatest accomplishment of all is and remains the dissemination of the concept of freedom around the world.

The liberal order that reorganised our world after the devastation of two world wars was and is certainly not perfect. But it is the best thing we can come up with nowadays.
Today, freedom is at stake once again. Not only freedom from oppression and hardship, but also the freedom to lead a self-determined life. We will only be able to prevent the law of the strong from holding sway by strengthening the rule of law at the international level.

Safeguarding the architecture of a free world was never a selfless gift from the US to the world, but has always been in its own national interest. This is all the more so when the United States is no longer clearly the world’s strongest power. Where the architecture of the liberal order begins to crumble, others will start to erect their pillars in the building. The entire construction will change in the long term. I am certain that, at the end of the day, neither Americans nor Europeans will feel comfortable in this new building that is emerging.

China’s rise will result in a massive shift in the balance of power. The initiative for a new Silk Road is not what some people in Germany believe it to be – it is not a sentimental nod to Marco Polo, but rather stands for an attempt to establish a comprehensive system to shape the world according to China’s interests. This has long since ceased to be merely a question of economics. China is developing a comprehensive systemic alternative to the Western model that, in contrast to our own, is not founded on freedom, democracy and individual human rights.

China currently seems to be the only country in the world with any sort of genuinely global, geostrategic concept, one that it is pursuing to the letter. I’m not in favour of blaming China for having this concept and this desire. China is entitled to develop such a concept.

But what we can blame ourselves for is the fact that we, as the “West”, do not have our own strategy for finding a new balance between worldwide interests, one that is based on conciliation and common added value and not on the zero-sum game that is the unilateral pursuit of interests.

I therefore believe that cooperation between the US, Europe and other nations is, ultimately, the only promising way to preserve the architecture of freedom – for us in Europe, and also in the interests of the US.


Ladies and gentlemen,

The ties between Germany and America go back a long way, and they continue to be strong to this day. Scarcely any other country has benefited more from America’s friendship and protection in recent decades than we have in Germany, or in West Germany at any rate. I grew up just west of the intra-German border and I was always sure that there would be no war because I knew we were part of a strong protective system led by the United States.

No other country in Europe has placed its security in the hands of the Americans to such an extent as we have done in Germany. And no other country has done as well out of this as we have.

Since the Second World War, we Germans have been eager to learn from our American friends about the domestic advantages of democracy, the rule of law and the market economy, as well as the value of multiculturalism, multilateralism, international law and free trade in intergovernmental affairs.

Perhaps that explains why we Germans in particular have had occasion to look across the Atlantic with concern in recent times. We’re not sure whether we still recognise our America of old. Is it deeds, words or tweets that we have to measure America against?
Fortunately, however, we are able to look back on a plethora of joint successes that can help to enhance security. Cooperation between the US and European states in NATO has proved its worth and continues to be the foundation of our security and freedom. Our common response to destabilisation and aggression from without – such as the conflict in Ukraine – is only one of many examples of our strength that emerges when we act together.

And there are many more. Together, we have blocked Iran’s path to a nuclear bomb, incidentally in cooperation with Russia and China. With the JCPoA agreement, we achieved a significant milestone that has created greater and not less security in the region. We negotiated this agreement in partnership. And we don’t want to and we won’t give it up. On the contrary, we have advised our American friends not to let this agreement fail, but to work with us at the same time to develop and launch strategies that will help us to limit and reduce the destabilising influence of Iran’s policy in the region to a considerable degree.

This also means that we must work together to achieve lasting political solutions in Syria and Yemen. This is the only way we can help people ravaged by civil war. This is the only way for us to successfully oppose Iran’s hegemony in the region.

We agree that the Korean nuclear programme must be terminated and that the global threat posed by the regime in Pyongyang must be brought to an end.

And we are very concerned about infringements or indeed breaches of the INF Treaty, which prohibits medium-range missiles and cruise missiles in Europe to this day. We are still beneficiaries of the era of détente and the arms control treaties that the US and the former Soviet Union and subsequently Russia negotiated in the 1980s and 1990s.
We Germans do not want to go back to an era dominated by the nuclear arms race because, ultimately, we at the heart of Europe would once again be directly in the sights of nuclear conflict.

We are seeking close dialogue and understanding with our American allies on all of these issues. How successful we will be depends not least on the way we interact with each other.

Powers such as China and Russia are constantly trying to test and undermine the unity of the European Union. Individual states or groups are tested with sticks and carrots to see whether they want to remain in the community that is the European Union or whether they can be detached from it. It is one thing, however, when possible rivals and competitors, sometimes even opponents, try to do this. But we expect our friends and partners to respect or, better still, support the common ground that the European Union represents.

No one should attempt to divide the EU – not Russia, not China, not even the US. The European Union is a self-confident partner that wants to cooperate with the US on an equal footing and in a spirit of trust, and not simply be at the Americans' beck and call.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Naturally, the European Union is not an easy partner. I can understand that well. After all, it has never had to learn to be geopolitically active. The truth is that we left that to France and the UK, and when in doubt, the US. And it is also true that if things went wrong or became difficult, we always had someone to blame. It was a comfortable world for us. Europe was never supposed to be a global power. Instead, it was a project aimed at internal reconciliation. After centuries of war, the goal was to finally bring peace to Europe’s nation states. Achieving that was and remains an enormous feat. In no other region of the world have erstwhile enemies that waged war against each other – including a country like Germany, which committed genocide – succeeded in first becoming partners and then friends. What an incredible example in today’s world to see that it is possible for enemies to become partners and subsequently friends within the space of a generation! This is what the European Union stands for.

But now the European Union is facing a task of a similar dimension because in the world of the 21st century, peace can only be achieved in our continent through joint endeavours to foster peace, security and stability externally. 

This involves three tasks. Firstly, the European Union needs to create internal cohesion by resolving the internal conflicts that have arisen in the past ten years.

Secondly, the Member States must develop a common understanding of their interests in the European Union’s foreign relations.

And thirdly, we Europeans need to develop strategies and instruments to assert our interests together. Everyone should do what they can, but we do all need to have the same agenda.

This last task in particular, that of developing strategies and instruments for the world, will be very challenging for us – and particularly for us Germans.
But Europe also needs to project its power in the world as a united entity. This power must never focus on military might alone, but at the same time, cannot completely bypass it. As the only vegetarian, so to speak, we will have a damned tough time of it in a carnivore’s world.

There is no shortage of work ahead of us – of tasks that need to be done to safeguard the future of a free, secure, prosperous and socially just Europe.

For example, the European Union should launch its own initiative to further infrastructure development from eastern Europe to Central Asia, as well as in Africa, using European funding to do so, but also upholding European standards.

We are needed in Africa in particular and there are concrete ways for us to get involved there. We ourselves need to define our interests in a wide-ranging partnership with African countries. And this partnership should not simply involve development aid.
We also need to stop constantly perceiving Africa first and foremost as a problem region. China, for example, has been investing in Africa for years, without having to worry that a single African refugee will reach its shores. It seems that the Chinese view Africa as a continent of opportunities, whereas we define it far too often as a problem continent.

We also need to tackle the contentious issues with Russia with new vigour. We are currently in an escalation situation, one we thought had been overcome with the end of the Cold War.

Naturally, these notions have a certain appeal and it is tempting to go back to talking about the return of confrontation between superpowers in our speeches and doctrines. But we really should not just shrug our shoulders and accept this state of affairs.
The suffering and deaths of so many people in Ukraine are reason enough not to simply continue reiterating our indignation and viewpoint.

The idea of a robust UN peacekeeping mission in the Donbass region is extremely challenging. I am aware that Russia and Germany see the implementation of such a mission very differently. But it is still worth a try. We should persevere in our dialogue with the Russian and Ukrainian Governments and continue pursuing this idea resolutely.
Setting up this type of mission, enforcing a ceasefire and withdrawing heavy weapons can lead to a gradual lifting of sanctions. If this happens, we Germans and we Europeans should offer to invest in improving living conditions in the Donbass region. And Russia should see us as more than an opponent.

Where else will Russia find opportunities for lasting economic success and stability in its society if not in a common future and in cooperation with Europe?
By the way, in creating a Europe that is more capable of acting, we are likely to become painfully aware of what we will lose following the UK’s exit from the European Union.
For decades, the UK has contributed important skills, traditions and ways of thinking. And we need to try to keep our relations with the UK as close and productive as possible after a conceivable Brexit because even if the UK leaves the European Union, it will not leave Europe and it will certainly not leave the concept of a western liberal order.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Germany also needs to play its part in strengthening European foreign policy. That is why the coalition agreement that has been negotiated between the CDU/CSU and SPD here in Germany makes European cohesion a priority.

The future German Government’s foreign policy will thus focus on a wide-ranging definition of interconnected security, as security can never be achieved through military means alone.

Without a wide-ranging definition of security that also includes the fight against hunger, poverty, deprivation and social injustice, security is not possible.

And for this reason, the coalition agreement envisages massive investments in foreign, security and development policy by the new Government. Under the terms of the agreement, our expenditure on crisis prevention, humanitarian aid and development cooperation will increase in direct proportion to our defence spending.

One has to admit that it is often the other way around in the rest of the world, where defence spending is being increased at the cost of development aid budgets. We have made a conscious decision to try to do things differently.

With this direct proportion, we guarantee that the entire foreign policy toolbox will receive funding.

But more money alone is not enough. We need a European moment, not only because Europe is our best tool as regards asserting ourselves in this competitive world, but primarily because we firmly believe that we should focus on cooperation rather than confrontation.

To put it another way, Europe is not everything, but without Europe we have nothing. This is why Germany will make huge investments in Europe’s cohesion and ability to act and help to ensure that Europe can represent its interests as a strong pole.


Ladies and gentlemen,

In this new world, which is far more complex than that of the Cold War, we are witnessing rivalry between the systems of developed democracies and autocracies.
I am certain that liberal democracies will always ultimately prove to be superior because people inherently want to be free and freedom is the only way that the momentum needed for progress can develop. We are back to the old question of rivalry between systems based on freedom and democracy on the one hand and new autocratic types of government on the other.

And because we are at a military conference, this must also mean that democracies constantly need to maintain the balance between non-military and military resilience.
In the final analysis, peace cannot be ensured by relying on military rearmament and superiority alone. What is most important is finding the courage time and again to conduct negotiations and talks and to build confidence across borders, hostile stereotypes and ideologies.

In this regard, we Europeans are standing at a crossroads, the likes of which the world only experiences every few centuries.

The nature of this crossroads can be seen clearly by looking way back in world history. In the 1430s, Europeans set off to explore the world. Ships sponsored by Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator sailed further and further along the west coast of Africa, looking for a sea route to India and ultimately finding America. The crews were motivated by curiosity and a willingness to take risks, but also by greed.

In 1433, around the same time as Europeans were exploring the world, the Chinese emperor decided to halt his legendary treasure fleet, which had explored the Indo-Pacific region. China had far too much work with its own problems to want to deal with the rest of the world.

This decision would set the tone for the following centuries. Europe set out to conquer the world, while China gradually and quietly withdrew from it.


Ladies and gentlemen,

What will historians say about our era in 600 years’ time? Will they note the start of a new Asian age and the voluntary surrender of what was then known as the West, using Europe as an example?

Or will they see a decision by our continent to find the courage not to withdraw from the world, but instead to face the challenges of a far more uncomfortable and risky world than the one we thought would be our lot?

It is up to us whether we see the future as our fate and wear ourselves out in the meantime focusing on minor internal differences of opinion.

Benjamin Franklin said something unforgettable on this type of situation. I quote: “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”


Thank you very much!


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