What Values Guide Us?

05 July 2016   ·   Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Current experiences such as in Libya or Mali show that German engagement in crises has become indispensable. But it is still important to take a step back from our daily work and ask: are we always doing the right thing, and if so, are we doing it with the right tools?

A naval base in Tripoli, April 2016. My French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault and myself are in Libya to meet Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of the new Libyan Government of National Accord. This is a government that lacks all apparatus of state. After five years of civil war the situation in the country is appalling. The health system is on the brink of collapse, schools are closed in many towns, and security is fragile. Islamic State took advantage of the power vacuum left by the rival groups in the west and the east of the country, seizing a 200 km strip of coastline. Human smugglers have been able to go about their business undisturbed. In order to help the Government of National Accord establish itself, Germany and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) jointly launched the Stabilisation Facility for Libya in April 2016. The facility will finance projects that bring tangible benefits to the population – providing water and electricity, for example, and repairing health centres and schools.

Gao, Mali, May 2016. Another joint visit with Jean-Marc Ayrault, this time to Camp Castor, the temporary home of 650 Bundeswehr soldiers. They are part of the MINUSMA peace mission, which is designed to help secure the ceasefire, protect civilians and build trust between the parties to the conflict. Peace remains fragile in the country and the people’s discontent is palpable. Progress is being made on political reforms and rebels are being disarmed, but it is a long process. Germany has not only contributed soldiers to the mission, but is also supporting the reintegration of former combatants and the creation of administrative structures.

These are just two snapshots from my travels these past weeks. Two of the many examples which highlight to me just how we are responding to the international expectations placed on our country with respect to resolving international crises and conflicts – and which show how indispensable our engagement has become.

Assuming international responsibility is in our own interest

Nowadays international politics is in permanent crisis mode. The number and intensity of conflicts are increasing – and the refugee crisis has brought home to us how directly these conflicts impact on us. We have to assume international responsibility – not just out of a sense of responsibility for the world, but also because it is in our own interest to do so. We have to identify crises in good time, prevent escalation where we can, take action to help restore stability wherever trouble has flared up, and prevent the renewed outbreak of conflicts that were believed to be settled through long?term engagement.

How do we do this? First of all, by means of political endeavours at all levels – i.e. by good old?fashioned diplomacy. Diplomacy remains the supreme discipline instrument of foreign policy. However, the experiences of the past years have shown that diplomacy alone is not enough. Modern crisis policy must try to act upon all phases of a conflict, tangibly, in the conflict zone. Crisis policy thus makes use of a “toolbox” containing a wide range of instruments, civilian, police?related, and – when it cannot be avoided – even military instruments.

A public debate instead of back room discussions

Over the past years we have already made numerous adjustments in the Federal Foreign Office in order to enable us to respond earlier, more resolutely and with more substance to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. The German Bundestag has acknowledged this by approving the biggest increase to the Federal Foreign Office budget in decades. Successes, such as the return of the inhabitants to Iraqi cities liberated from Islamic State, show that we are moving in the right direction. But it is still important to take a step back from our daily work and to ask if we are always doing the right thing, and if so, are we doing it with the right tools?

The German Government plans to adopt a new conceptual basis for our action in this field by the coming spring. We do not wish to hold the preparatory discussions in back rooms or with small groups of trusted partners. Today, on 5 July, activists, stakeholders and interested citizens will gather in the Federal Foreign Office for the first time to take part in PeaceLab2016, a kind of workshop for peace, to discuss with us where, why and how the priorities of a precautionary foreign policy should be set.

Shortly after I assumed office, we conducted a debate with the German public which critically examined German foreign policy and sought ways to improve it. Our positive experience of that review has made us even more receptive to suggestions from within and without, and has confirmed us in our desire to routinely seek dialogue with civil society and the public. We want to continue this conversation over the coming weeks and months, at numerous events across the country, online and in the social media.

Finding answers to key questions on crisis prevention and peacebuilding

At the end of this process, we hope to have answers (even if only interim ones) to key questions. What values and fundamental convictions underlie our actions; what interests are we pursuing? How do our actions fit into European and global frameworks? Where can German engagement provide particular added value? In which areas can we and must we do better?

No matter how vital it is for us to take a fresh look at crisis prevention, there are three principles of German foreign policy that will remain unaltered: first and foremost, the primacy of civilian action, secondly, the precedence of prevention, and thirdly, our orientation to the goal of long?term peacebuilding. German foreign policy is and remains a policy for peace.

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Frank-Walter Steinmeier

Frank-Walter Steinmeier ist Bundesaußenminister.