Germany’s President Frank Walter Steinmeier accused Washington, Beijing and Moscow on Friday (14 February) of jeopardising the international order by stoking global mistrust and insecurity with a “great powers competition”.
“Each country should see for itself where it stays and put its own interests above all others,” Steinmeier said in his opening remarks at the Munich Security Conference, denouncing the three powers’ approach to global diplomacy.
“And our closest ally, the United States of America, under the present administration, rejects the idea of an international community.”
The upshot is “more mistrust, more armament, less security…all the way to a new nuclear arms race,” said Steinmeier, a former Social Democrat foreign minister for six years.
He repeated on Friday that the so-called “Munich Consensus” from 2014, when German leaders said Berlin was ready to assume more responsibility in global affairs, was once again needed in German politics.
Germany “is being put to the test by these foreign policy upheavals” and its foreign policy obligation lies first and foremost in “holding Europe together”, to take on more foreign policy responsibility and keep the country away from “moral self-righteousness.”
“Europe is our strongest national interest. Europe remains the only successful answer to our history,” Steinmeier said.
Without explicitly naming US President Donald Trump, Steinmeier criticised the “make America great again” catchphrase: “‘Great again’ – even at the expense of neighbours and partners.”
At the same time, however, he praised the transatlantic cooperation and advocated its preservation.
According to Steinmeier, Germany’s response should be to raise defence spending and contribute more to European security and maintain its alliance with the US, recognising that Washington’s interests were shifting away from Europe toward Asia.
Turning to Moscow, Steinmeier accused Russia of annexing Crimea “regardless of international law”.
“Russia (…) has made military violence and the violent change of borders on the European continent a political tool again,” Steinmeier said, adding that the only result this had produced was “uncertainty and unpredictability”.
He also called for a common European policy line towards Moscow “that is not limited only to condemning statements and sanctions”.
Meanwhile, China’s power has increased and it has become an important player in international institutions, the German President told the Munich audience.
“At the same time, it only accepts international law selectively, where it does not run counter to its own interests,” Steinmeier said, condemning Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea as disturbing the region’s neighbours.
Europe, he added, “must find its own balance with China between intensifying competition between systems and the need for cooperation.”
The German president also addressed China’s crackdown on minorities. “China’s actions against minorities in its own country are disturbing for us all,” he said, referring to reports of mass detention of Uighurs, a Muslim minority group.
“Such thinking and acting harms us all,” warned Steinmeier. If everyone is looking for their own security at the expense of others, this leads to “more distrust, more armour, less security”, he added.
The German President described the damage resulting in the United Nations Security Council being “blocked on key issues”, while other institutions, which are “meant to help us to bridge our different traditions, interests and priorities and translate them into viable compromises, are wantonly weakened”.
Steinmeier warned that this was “not a new way of thinking, but a lapse into yesterday’s thinking”, something that would be “immensely dangerous”.
According to Steinmeier, in addition to strengthening the EU’s foreign and security policy, Germany must reassert its commitment to strengthening the European pillar in NATO, effectively arguing for an increase in military expenditure.
Germany’s reluctance to spend more on defence, in a country that is home to US troops in Europe, has been a sore point for Trump, who has openly questioned NATO’s continued value to Washington.
Only seven NATO countries currently meet or exceed the 2% target – the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland and the three Baltic states, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Germany is Europe’s biggest economy, and the second biggest in the NATO alliance after the United States.
With his remarks, Steinmeier advocated for a more assertive German policy, something many in Europe have been calling for in recent years.
He did not, however, take a step closer to the position of French President Emmanuel Macron, who continuously advocates for Europe to strive for strategic autonomy from Washington when it comes to its security and defence.
Macron is expected to address the conference on Saturday.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic and Benjamin Fox]