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Former Federal President of Germany Joachim Gauck

“The days when we believed that we could simply export our own values are over.”


Many of our partners in international politics and trade do not share our perceptions of values and freedom. Joachim Gauck shared his thoughts with guests gathered in the Large Hall at Frankfurt’s Alte Oper on how we can address this. As a former Lutheran pastor with a professional responsibility for morality, he spoke about how he was converted from idealist to realist as he became increasingly involved in politics.

Gauck believes that the reasons why we attach such importance to values and moral factors are deeply rooted in history, explaining: “The Bonn Republic’s model of democracy was driven by a single idea: never again do we want to be like the Germans who came before us. From now on, we always want to be one of the good guys.” This resulted in a guiding moral culture driven by a ‘desire to be good’. In order to trust ourselves, we need to repeatedly prove that we are on the side of right.

Gauck points out that this approach sometimes has unsatisfactory results when it comes to foreign policy. Placing a strong emphasis on admirable values does not automatically translate into good politics.” According to Gauck, that means we need to ask questions about our political and ethical self-image. While we do not need to be ashamed about pursuing values-based policies – after all, it must be clear to everyone what we stand for as liberal democracies – “there are good reasons for standing by our values without believing that we need to convert the whole world to our values and damaging our own interests in the process”.

According to Gauck, the days when we believed that we could simply export our own values are over. Everyday foreign policy often requires us to choose between bad guys and not-so-bad guys. From commodities and energy supplies to sales markets and foreign policy, we depend on other countries in all kinds of ways. “We are also forced to work with those whose values we do not share, and this means we almost always have to compromise on our own values.” Those following a credible values-based policy must therefore be able to justify their decisions by openly considering their values and interests.

Take Qatar, for example – an absolute monarchy that has also been providing Hamas with generous financial support for years. According to Gauck, vocal criticism of the Emir’s recent visit to Germany is nevertheless unfortunate, as the country has significant influence over Hamas that could help it to mediate [in the current conflict with Israel]. Gauck believes it was important to bow and scrape before the Emir as Qatar has something we urgently need – natural gas. He pointed out that while monarchistic, communist, theocratic and corrupt governments certainly exist, there are also pragmatic political interests. Despite all of our awareness of values, said Gauck, we should therefore avoid overreaching when it comes to ethical politics.

Interview with former Federal President of Germany Joachim Gauck

In his interview, Joachim Gauck discusses the charge that Germany takes an excessively moralistic approach to foreign policy, the kind of world we need to prepare for in light of current conflicts, and how we as a society can respond to these conflicts.

(* in german)