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Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the opening of the Munich Security Conference
Munich Security Conference, © Florian Gaertner/photothek.net
Munich, 14 February 2020
The world today is not the same as it was in 2014. Six years ago exactly, I spoke here about how German foreign-policy responsibility had to prove its validity. Much has changed since then. Above all, though, the “we” of “the West” that was then a given is something that can no longer be taken for granted. This is true both within our societies, but also in relation to the existential issues of foreign and security policy on which this conference focuses.
As you are unlikely to have invited me here today to weave a few more diplomatic threads, I would like to talk about how today’s world appears from the German vantage point. Now, I am no longer a regular guest at your annual meeting, and diplomacy is no longer my bread and butter. So I hope you will not only forgive me for speaking plainly – you might even be expecting me to do so.
This year we are commemorating the end, 75 years ago, of that most destructive of all wars. A war which Germany unleashed and waged, particularly in the East, as a war of annihilation. Two weeks ago, at Yad Vashem and then at Auschwitz, we commemorated the liberation 75 years ago of the most murderous of the concentration camps. Without that war and without Auschwitz, the inner and outer face of today’s Germany would be inconceivable. Germany’s view of the world cannot be explained without reference to those experiences.
“I wish I could say that the lesson we Germans have learnt from history is a lesson that will last forever. But I cannot say that when hatred and hate speech are spreading.” I had to admit that at Yad Vashem. Today the evil spirits of the past – ethnocentric thinking, racism, antisemitism – are emerging in our country in a new guise. So we – in Germany, but by no means only in Germany – are called upon once again. We are called upon to defend our elementary understanding of the dignity of the individual and to fight for our open societies.
The constituent assembly of the United Nations was held in San Francisco 75 years ago come autumn. The catastrophe of excessive nationalism had lessons to teach, not only for my country: a joint organisation of all states to assume responsibility for peace and security. A system of free trade and financial support in the newly-established institutions of the Bretton Woods system. There followed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights which imposed high standards on all states, also in relations with their own citizens. Standards which were extended over the ensuing decades to include civil, economic and social rights. True, much of this remained a lofty goal, far removed from reality. Nonetheless, the international order we built up from that foundation – in Helsinki in 1975, in the midst of the Cold War, and with the Charter of Paris following the end of the Cold War 30 years ago – offered stability, orientation and hope in what had long been an anarchical assortment of states.
I wish I could say that as an international community, too, we have learnt an enduring lesson from history, after 1945 and then after 1989. But today we are witnessing an increasingly destructive dynamic in international politics. Year by year, we are moving further and further away from the goal – international cooperation in order to create a more peaceful world. The idea of the “great-power competition” is not only influencing the strategy papers of today; it is also shaping anew the reality all across the world, and its tracks can be followed right to the unending wars with huge loss of life in the Middle East and Libya.
Russia, whether rightly or wrongly offended and alienated, not only annexed Crimea in total disregard of international law. It turned military force and the violent redrawing of borders on the European continent into political instruments again. The result is uncertainty and unpredictability, confrontation and lost trust.
Thanks to its impressive rise, China has become an important actor in the international institutions as well, becoming indispensable for the protection of global public goods. At the same time, it is selective in accepting international law only where it does not run counter to its own interests. Its actions in the South China Sea are unsettling the neighbours in the region. Its actions against minorities in the country disturb us all.
And under its current Administration, our closest ally, the United States of America, rejects the very concept of an international community. Every country, it believes, should look after itself and put its own interests before all others. As if everyone thinking of himself meant that everyone is being considered. “Great again” – even at the expense of neighbours and partners.
It is indeed true that international law primarily protects the small. The strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must, as Thucydides put it over 2000 years ago, looking at the ancient world. In other words: whilst laws and rules are of extreme importance to the “little man”, they are always merely an option for the great. They have other ways to survive.
But that’s not entirely true. Thinking and acting this way hurts us all. Firstly, it casts us back to an age in which everyone sought to ensure his own security at the expense of others. In this scenario, the security of one is the insecurity of the other. We fall back into the classic security dilemma. The inevitable result? More mistrust, more armament, less security. Possibly even a new nuclear arms race that will produce not only more weapons, but above all more nuclear powers, with all the risks that entails for an already precarious nuclear stability. The nuclear bomb, however, is the great equaliser – big countries have as much to fear from it as small ones. In addition, there are countless conflicts which medium-sized and small powers believe they can resolve themselves, where the large powers don’t take the rules so seriously any more and no longer act as guarantors and guardians of order.
But the damage goes much further than that. This withdrawal to concentrate on a narrowly-defined national interest prevents us from taking joint action and coming up with convincing answers to the issues and problems that no-one, not even the biggest nation-state on Earth, can solve alone. This way of thinking is worse than a return to the past: it robs us of our future in a closely interconnected world. It damages the institutions and instruments we absolutely need to tackle the major issues facing humanity, issues specified in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Climate change mitigation is but one of them. Here, though, it becomes clearer by the day that the repercussions are felt not only by small states. A blinkered or short-sighted national view will cost even the biggest of us dear. All over the world, our children’s and grandchildren’s generation will pay a high price for our failure to act and for nations going it alone, undermining joint action to combat climate change.
That is why we must be so worried by a phenomenon that is obvious to everyone in this, the 75th anniversary year of the end of the Second World War: the institutions and authorities which help us to overcome our different traditions, interests and priorities and to translate them into viable compromises are being deliberately weakened. The United Nations Security Council is deadlocked on central issues. Agreed and ratified conventions are simply being terminated. Dispute settlement bodies are being paralysed as no new judges are being appointed. In short: the trust that needs years and decades to grow is being put at risk and eroded. This is not a new way of thinking, but a relapse into old patterns of thinking. And it is extremely dangerous.
I am well aware that international community is not something that can be taken for granted. In most instances it is more goal than reality. But the validity of universal values is not dependent on whether they are observed or applied everywhere. The idea of international community is not outmoded. We are the first generation to live in an age in which humanity is irreversibly changing the living conditions on the planet. At a time like this, withdrawing into our national shells leads us into a dead-end, into a dark age. Only the concept of a global order offers the opportunity to formulate persuasive answers to the challenges of the Anthropocene. That is why we must continue our efforts to create a supranational legal order. It would be dangerous for all of us, big and small, to abandon this ambition or to shrug it off as an idealistic fantasy. Henry Kissinger is right in saying that today’s world needs a concept of order that transcends the perspective and ideals of of any one region or nation.
Today many Germans observing international politics feel irritated, unsettled, anxious. We like to think that if everyone was just sensible and like us Germans, then everything would be fine. But that is overly simplistic. Germany, too, is being tested now.
This year, we will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of reunification – at the time, an unbelievable and unexpected stroke of good fortune, particularly as it was associated with the reunification of Europe, which had been divided by the Iron Curtain. “Felix Germania” – at one with the world, surrounded by friends, secure in the global “Pax Americana”. This is the framework that is at risk of crumbling before our very eyes. As yet, there is no indication of what might replace it. But it is clear that the hope that someone else will sort it out for us is a vain one.
For the first time in its history, Germany is surrounded solely by friends. That’s true. And it is a source of happiness. But happiness can also make one blind. That true sentence, dating from the early 1990s, has occasionally blinded us to the fact that our neighbours see the world differently from us, that they are closer to acute troublespots than we are, that they feel an existential danger.
We Germans like to think of ourselves as the best Europeans. We tell ourselves that we are particularly generous towards our partners and that we do our utmost to take their interests into account. We also like to believe that we have learned the lessons of European history more thoroughly than anyone else. But when we look at the European Union today, what we see is economic divergence, not convergence.
We see political, and increasingly also ideological, divides. Europe has not grown closer together. And the responsibility for that doesn’t lie only with everyone else.
Do we really always behave in the way our speeches on “Europe, a community with a common destiny” would require? For example, is this how we behave in security and defence policy, or in the economic and monetary union? In many issues, we see ourselves differently from how others see us. Germany often believes that it is being helpful and demonstrating solidarity, while others reproach us for pursuing our narrowly defined national interests. This is true of dealing with external threats as well as for issues relating to solidarity and consensus-building within our Union.
However, it is not only internal differences that are causing difficulties for Europe. In the year 2020, unlike before, we can no longer assume that the great powers have an interest in seeing successful European integration. On the contrary. Each of the major players is pursuing its own advantage even at the expense of Europe’s unity.
This Europe, however, must not be allowed to fail. What is Germany’s national interest today, 30 years after the constitutional goal laid down in the Basic Law became reality? It is still to be found in the Basic Law: “to promote world peace as an equal partner in a united Europe”.
For Germany, Europe is not simply something that is nice to have for when other partnerships wilt. No, it is our strongest, our most fundamental national interest. Today and tomorrow, Europe is the indispensable framework for us to assert ourselves in the world. At the same time, 75 years on from the end of the war, Europe is and will remain the only successful response to the challenges posed by our history and geography. If the European project fails, the lessons of German history will be called into question.
It is these two considerations taken together that make Europe so vitally important for us. Only in and through Europe was Germany able to stop oscillating between rampant power politics and cultural hubris. This united Europe will only survive if we regard it as the most concrete repository for German responsibility. Here at this conference, which is devoted to security issues, I wish to say this quite openly: of all the dangers I sense facing Germany, I see none greater than that our German narrative of the future dispenses with the united Europe, whether as a result of a lack of insight, because of indifference, or in some people’s eyes even through intent.
But what are the consequences? How should we approach Europe and the world? Above all else, we need to adapt mentally to the new reality. Otherwise we will lose touch with Europe and thus also our ability to shape events. The realistic view of the world I am calling for does not advocate resignation, and certainly not cynicism. It recommends realism and curiosity, occasionally also a touch of humility.
In Germany in particular, we believed, supposedly with good reason, that the post-Cold War world revolved around a European sun, that the legacy of the European Enlightenment must necessarily be the focal point for all social development, and that some were just a bit late in getting there. But some of these assumptions have proven overly optimistic. They have led us to overestimate ourselves. They have led to a stance that too often manifests itself in moral condemnation, a stance in which morally guided positions are more likely to close rather than open our eyes to the necessity and actual possibilities of our actions. One important lesson here lies in realising that these possibilities are limited, but not sinking into despair. We, Germany, and we, the West, cannot shape the world in our own image. And so we must not overburden our foreign policy with the expectation that it will bring salvation. When I talk of humility, however, I certainly do not mean reluctance to take on responsibility. Quite the opposite. The job of a prudent foreign policy is and must be to prevent wars, defuse conflicts and lessen suffering through courage and drive. Its task is also to seek normative understanding to safeguard our key life resources – but without expecting ever to be able to ensure complete global harmony.
The second virtue we Germans should rediscover is curiosity. If everyone supposedly is becoming like us – or at least wants to become like us – then why should we care about their particular qualities, their history and traditions, their fears and priorities? Today, at a time when internal and external are becoming increasingly blurred in all societies, in which domestic debate determines the room for manoeuvre in foreign policy, we must once again rediscover a far greater interest in what drives our partners, our competitors, our opponents, in the roots of their ambition, and in the reasons for their fears.
Countless Germans are committed to and engaged in international cooperation. On my many trips, I am able to witness an impressive degree of personal commitment to fighting poverty and inequality and to building a better world. Especially in the young generation. And yet, what I miss in many of our national debates is an openness to the outside, a desire to make the effort to understand others. Instead, we often resort to the very human but unrealistic longing for clarity, with a straightforward friend/enemy scheme of things. Others do things differently from us – wrongly, in other words. I am certainly not advising naivety. But conflicts cannot be resolved if we are not familiar with the other side’s perspectives or interests, especially where they run counter to our own ideas. Without such an understanding, no nuclear agreement can be negotiated with Iran, and there will be no peace in eastern Ukraine. Whoever wants to make peace in Libya needs to shake a great many hands, not all of them clean. Whoever wants to combat terrorism in the Sahel region – and we have a few years’ experience in Mali – cannot simply make it a case of “military – yes or no?”, but must above all tackle the complex causes of the conflict on the ground to successfully ensure stability. There can be no conflict resolution, far less understanding, otherwise.
With this realism, openness and curiosity about others’ thinking, Germany should face up to the biggest responsibility resting on our country: to hold the united Europe together.
With regard to security policy, I regard our country as having a dual responsibility. For Germany, the development of an EU capable of action in defence policy is as crucial as the expansion of the European pillar of NATO. Future scenarios often suggest that Germany needs to choose one or the other. In strategic terms, I think that would be short-sighted.
To put it quite clearly: if we want to keep this Europe together, on security issues too, then it is not enough to make the European Union alone strong in terms of security policy and the military; we must also continue to invest in our transatlantic links. The French President is right when he says that it is not a question of whether we want to defend ourselves with or without Washington and that Europe’s security is based on a strong alliance with America. Many of our Central and Eastern European partners continue to see their existential security there; in particular, that’s where they believe their security is guaranteed. Irrespective of all the progress made, the European Union is a long way from being able to guarantee the security of all its members by itself. And to count solely on the EU would be to drive a wedge through Europe. Conversely, only a Europe that can and wants to protect itself credibly will be able to keep the US in the Alliance. I feel that this insight is lacking in some of the debates here in Germany, but also elsewhere in Europe. One aspect of Germany’s responsibility is to take seriously the worries and interests of the nations of Central Europe, to attach importance to them, and to act accordingly. At the same time, Europe cannot accept Russia’s increasing alienation. We need a different relationship, a better relationship, between the EU and Russia and between Russia and the EU. But the necessary consideration of our future relations with Russia cannot take place without or at the expense of the countries and peoples of Central Europe.
Europe is already no longer as vital to the US as it used to be. We must guard against the illusion that the United States’ dwindling interest in Europe is solely down to the current Administration. That doesn’t justify accusations from Europe. For we know that this shift began a while ago, and it will continue even after this Administration. The new centre of gravity for American interests and challenges lies in Asia. However, we are hoping for an America that regards European integration – as it long did, and rightly so – as an extremely valuable and connective project. That is the view I advocate for on my trips to the US and in many conversations. And I am delighted that this year again such a strong American delegation has come to Munich, to this conference which has always been a special forum for transatlantic understanding. Welcome!
Germany must contribute more to European security, including financially. The Alliance has agreed a joint goal to this end. I believe it is correct and necessary to try to attain this goal. But let’s be honest: even if every country in Europe, including Germany, were to spend far more than two percent of its GDP on defence, we would not be able to stop, far less reverse, the erosion of the international order we have been seeing over the past couple of years. I am not criticising the benchmark. Far from it. I believe it is right. But let’s make sure we don’t make that the be all and end all for peace and security in our future. We cannot compensate for the loss of diplomacy, of essential pillars of our security architecture, of arms control agreements and international agreements, with tanks, fighter jets and intermediate-range missiles. We should leave these overly simple categories in debates in the recent past behind us. On the contrary, if we do not find our way back to a situation where everyone respects international law; if we do not learn again to integrate others’ security into our own security strategies; if we do not orient foreign policy precisely to that – then in a few years we will have armed ourselves globally to the hilt, to the detriment of all. Finding and taking another, wiser path is our common responsibility.
No one must be allowed to refuse to join in seeking this path. However, as a result of the post-war order, the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council share a special privilege. At the same time, this means that even now they bear a special responsibility for peace, security and disarmament. President Macron is right in calling with his initiative for their resolve, their action, to meet precisely this responsibility again in this changing world. The privileges of the P5 are only justified as long as they stand up as preservers or promoters of a world order that goes beyond their own interests. But not if they are indifferent or hostile to this order, or if they undermine it in pursuing their foreign policy.
Germany’s responsibility has a different basis. We too, however, must be measured by that responsibility. What we need, alongside improved capabilities, is an honest analysis of Germany’s security situation and a credible desire to help Europe to assert its interests. Only a European foreign and security policy designed for effective action will allow us to make a credible contribution towards preserving the international order. The military instrument is indispensable for our security, but is neither the first choice nor the most likely to deliver success when it comes to diplomatic and political readiness to act. Europe must invent its own answer to the seminal shift in spheres of power and influence, to the new political and military heavyweights on the international stage. It must formulate a truly European policy on Russia that is not restricted merely to condemnatory statements and sanctions. It must find its own balance with China, finding an equilibrium between increasing inter-system competition and the necessary cooperation, while also taking the many other strong partners in Asia seriously. It must develop its own initiatives to contain and end the conflicts on the fringes of our Union, in both east and south. The German Government’s diplomatic initiative for a comprehensive effort to push Europe’s interest in stabilisation in Libya – together with and in support of the United Nations – is a good example here. The Sahel region in northern Africa requires just as much attention. As – obviously – does the explosive situation around Iran in the Middle East, which affects Europe directly. The termination of the JCPOA was a mistake. The Middle East has become an even more dangerous, definitely not a safer, place. However, we have to deal with the new realities. It remains the Europeans’ task to introduce new initiatives and courses of action to help prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to ward off a nuclear arms race throughout the region. Truly, there is no shortage of huge challenges facing European foreign and security policy.
But we Germans must also answer the question of how we are going to talk seriously and in a spirit of confidence with France, our closest partner, about the European security issues President Macron mentioned in his important speech at the École de Guerre in Paris a week ago. We should take up his invitation to engage in dialogue. However, that also means seeing things from France’s perspective and making our own contribution towards developing the joint strategic culture without which Europe will not really work as a security-policy actor.
We Germans must accept being measured by whether we are able not only to withstand the tension between Germany’s growing responsibility and our realisation of our own limitations, but to use it for the benefit of Europe. It is not a matter of either-or, of intervening or standing back. And it is certainly not a matter of engaging in courtesies with others.
It is a question of our own well-considered interests. From these derives the responsibility not only to say everything we cannot do, with reference to the historical roots of our restrictive export policy and parliamentary army. Instead, we must state more clearly where and what we can contribute to strengthening the European pillar in security policy. Then, and only then, will our limitations be understood.
Are we really serious about Europe? Then there should be no timid heart beating at the centre of Europe. Then we need the courage to keep on re-examining the substance of our responsibility, staying abreast with the times.
I know from many conversations I have had across the country that there is a fundamental, widespread need for simplicity and certainty. Given the state of the world, this is a promise no one who takes an honest and open look at what is happening before our eyes can in fact make. Rather, the world will become even more ambiguous, more complex, more contradictory.
I know that many people in Germany are worried that the word “responsibility” is being used to hide, first and foremost, military missions abroad. This assumption is wrong. In today’s world, responsibility means, above all, facing up to reality, not becoming fatalistic, and looking for practical ways in which to change and improve the world. That will not happen from a position of weakness. Germany, however, can only gain its strength from a shared community with others.
Let us not be driven by fear and anxiety. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the US President under whom America freed Europe, and who had himself been in a wheelchair since childhood, said this: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. This is true with an eye to the future of our democracy here at home. And it is true of our role in Europe and the world. An open view of the world reveals developments that are astonishing and encouraging: progress in the fight against poverty, hunger and child mortality; countries undergoing transformation, such as Ethiopia; societies that are opening up, having been shut off for so long, like the Sudan or Uzbekistan; millions of people in many countries of the world calling for recognition and dignity, for participation and for opportunities to develop their personalities.
Meeting this primeval human need is the normative project the West once set itself. Europe, and Germany in particular, would do well to take a less missionary approach to the world. Our political agenda does not include westernising the world. However, we cannot and must not abandon the normative project of creating a world which makes the dignity of the individual – one of the overarching goals laid down 75 years ago in the preamble to the Charter of the United Nations, alongside peace and security, putting the strength of the law before the law of the strong – the standard for state action. It is an open project, without geographical borders, without skin colour. If we ourselves keep it alive, if we can once again breathe life into our ideas and institutions, then it will have an impact and set an example far beyond our own borders. It will build trust and develop new power.
Self-confidently, not with a sense of mission. It is up to Germany to make its contribution. With realism and curiosity, drive and confidence.
Thank you very much.
Subject to change. Translation of advance text