News Overview

First Richard von Weizsäcker Forum: Responsibility and Leadership

Day One of the Richard von Weizsäcker Forum: The importance of leadership in a complex world

The Richard von Weizsäcker Forum began on 10 November 2015 with over 200 invited guests in the Berlin Representative Office of the Robert Bosch Stiftung. In attendance were Marianne von Weizsäcker, Christof Bosch, numerous members of the German Bundestag and diplomatic officials representing a wide range of countries, as well as a number of former, current and future Fellows of the Robert Bosch Academy. Musical accompaniment was provided by the Orchestra Academy of the Berlin Philharmonic, which performed pieces by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Joseph Haydn that von Weizsäcker had especially enjoyed.

Personal recollections of Richard von Weizsäcker

In his opening remarks, Kurt W. Liedtke, Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, expressed his gratitude to the former President for his service to the Board of Trustees, which he belonged to for over twenty years. As Liedtke noted, von Weizsäcker’s influence can especially be felt in the Stiftung’s outreach in Poland and in the Balkans. Until his death in January 2015, von Weizsäcker followed the developments and activities of the Stiftung, provided counsel and was a source of inspiration. He was the “ultimate statesmen”, in Liedtke’s words, and always loved a good argument. With notable enthusiasm and courage, he stood behind his convictions.

Christof Bosch, grandson of the company’s founder and spokesperson of the Bosch family, recalled how von Weizsäcker radiated a certain warmth and humanity in person, while his unapproachable bearing inspired respect. The combination of these qualities made a big impression on Bosch when he was a child. Bosch spoke about von Weizsäcker’s political career and how he shaped the work of the Stiftung, noting that one of his greatest gifts was the ability to both speak with and for other people.

One of the last great political leaders

Fritz Stern paid tribute to his good friend Richard von Weizsäcker in a video message from New York featuring Stern in conversation with Roger Cohen, columnist at The New York Times and former Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow. In the video, Stern recounted von Weizsäcker’s palpable authority, openness and curiosity about people. He showed courage, as seen for example in the famous speech he delivered on 8 May 1985, and he could earn people’s trust – one of the most important qualities for a leader, according to Stern. The 89-year-old bemoaned the dearth of larger-than-life leaders in contemporary politics, noting one single exception: Angela Merkel. In his estimation, she always rises to meet new challenges. Moreover, she deploys her consensus-based style of leadership to achieve a level of trust he refers to as "Vertrauen via Mutti" – that is, “trust your Mommy” – in an allusion to East German language usage.

Loss of trust a danger to democracy

The panel discussion that followed focused on the implications for political leadership in a world characterised by increasing complexity. In her introductory remarks, moderator Sabine Christiansen noted that we are now confronted with a crisis in leadership. Giuliano Amato, the former Prime Minister of Italy, observed that people have lost faith in government, even in Western democratic nations. According to Gesine Schwan, President of the Humboldt-Viadrina Governance Platform, trust is the most important ingredient of effective political leadership, even if this means that a critical stance should be fostered in democratic societies, not blind faith. Former Prime Minister of Sweden Carl Bildt cited a further reason for the erosion of trust: he explained that politicians now seek popularity instead of respect. In the absence of major ideological battles, political debates are now more fragmented than ever before. He believes that while it may be more difficult to earn respect, it is nonetheless more enduring over the long term.

The current refugee crisis was a further topic of discussion. According to Carl Bildt, governments must show that they can handle the situation if they want to gain the trust of their citizens. Though Angela Merkel asserted, “We schaffen das” (We can do it), many have begun to question whether this is true. Once confidence is lost, it can quickly turn into fear, warned Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies, especially when citizens have little past experience with migrants, or when a situation threatens to spin out of control. Ivan Krastev concluded that these fears could pose a danger to democracy.

Day Two of the Richard von Weizsäcker Forum: A call for leadership in times of crisis

The opening evening of the Richard von Weizsäcker Forum on 10 November 2015 was dedicated to remembering von Weizsäcker’s many achievements. On the following day, panellists explored the topic “Responsibility and Leadership” over the course of three sessions. The day began with opening remarks by Uta-Micaela Dürig and Joachim Rogall from the Board of Management of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, who provided a brief overview of the issues on the day’s agenda. In attendance were sixty guests as well as numerous Richard von Weizsäcker Fellows from around the world.

A time of crisis and conflict: Challenges facing the world community

The morning session shed light on the current state of global hotspots that have formed during the past few years. Ghassan Salamé, Dean of the Paris School of International Affairs, Sciences-Po Paris, opened the first panel with a talk that showed how the perception of war has changed over time, arguing that its importance has declined since the end of the Cold War; since then, conflicts motivated by ideology have been contained by the predominant forces of market economy and democracy, as well as by interdependencies created by globalisation. About ten years ago, however, we started to see the rise of newer, hybrid forms of conflict: these spring from a complex variety of causes and are fought by antagonists who cannot be clearly defined. In his conclusion, Salamé predicted that war would likely always be a part of our world, yet there is often a “banalisation of war”. According to Salamé, this is because many refuse to truly understand conflicts and how they arise.

How much responsibility should Western nations assume during an international crisis? Can or should they influence this kind of event? These issues were the focus of the following discussion, moderated by Constanze Stelzenmüller, Robert Bosch Senior Fellow at the American think tank Brookings Institution. As Philip Gordon, former Special Assistant to the President of the United States, explained, over the last few years we have seen the rise of hotspots that are fragmentary and complex. He sees no alternative to intervention by Western nations. On the other hand, he argues that we can never predict the consequences, as seen for example in Iraq, Libya and Syria. Anne Applebaum, columnist for the Washington Post and Director of The Transitions Forum, reminded the audience that we must question how the West views itself – and ask what “The West” really means in the first place. She argued that “The West” believes not only that its own notion of world order reflects the natural order of things, but also that this should be a universal goal. This assumption has proved to be wrong, Applebaum said. Franziska Brantner, Member of the German Bundestag (Alliance '90/The Greens) stressed the importance of examining root causes of conflicts: We should not merely “extinguish” conflicts once they arise; rather, we need to conduct a thorough examination of their development. According to Vesna Teršelič, Director of the organisation “Documenta – Center for Dealing with the Past” based in Croatia, this is the best approach for conflicts like those in Syria and Iraq and it can help hold those responsible accountable.

Cooperation and compassion: Quo vadis, Europe?

In the second session of the day, panellists discussed the issue “Europe, Compassion and Democracy”, focussing on the future of the community of states. From the crisis in Greece to the refugee issue – events of the past few months have put the international community to the test. Jörg Asmussen, State Secretary, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, began his talk with a look back at the founding principles of the European Union, noting how they continue to define European values to this day. One of the most important principles concerns the solidarity of Member States. The refugee crisis shows, however, that there remains room for improvement in this regard. In order to achieve these ideals, states must strive to fulfil European ideals and keep their faith in essential values like social progress, inclusion and democracy – and refuse to incite fundamentalism and tighten borders.

To achieve these goals, people need a better understanding of the overall idea and meaning of Europe, stressed Kemal Derviş, Vice-President of the Brookings Institution and the former Economic Minister of Turkey. He also believes that further progress needs to be made in terms of European integration, rejecting the notion of an “à la carte” vision for Europe. In his view, the Member States must pull together and show an increased willingness to give up more sovereignty to the EU. At the same time, he sees the need for a more encompassing Europe, one with a common market that allows other countries like Great Britain to continue their participation in the future.

On the other side, reservations were voiced by Ivan Krastev, Chairman of the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, as well as Mario Monti, the former Prime Minister of Italy, who argued that forcing even more European integration could trigger a backlash that could possibly result in inward-looking policy based solely on national interests. Ivan Krastev sees a further negative outcome as a result of the refugee crisis: In his analysis, this crisis shook many people’s faith in political leadership, and this loss of trust can spill over into anti-EU sentiment.

In discussions on Europe’s future, Anna Diamantopoulou, President of To Diktio and former European Commissioner, warned against leaving out an important aspect: According to her, creating a shared identity is just as crucial as creating shared structures on the institutional level. She also underlined the importance of fostering equal opportunities for young people all across Europe.

Give and take: Germany’s role in Europe and around the world

In the final session of the Richard von Weizsäcker Forum, panellists discussed Germany and its role and responsibility in times of crisis. According to François Heisbourg, Chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Germany did the right thing when it opened up its borders to refugees, even if this act violated the Dublin Regulation that codifies the Common European Asylum System. In his talk, he also criticised Germany for what he sees as an overly tentative approach taken in other crises. He urged the country to take a more active approach in implementing its strategy of using soft power to exert influence. Furthermore, Janusz Reiter, Chairman of the Centre for International Relations and the former Polish ambassador to Germany, argued that, in view of Germany’s political and economic power and place at the heart of Europe, the onus is on Germany to hold Europe together. He called for increased solidarity from all European nations in facing the refugee crisis together.

An international perspective to the discussion on Europe’s current situation was provided by the panellists Daniel Hamilton, Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations, and Huang Jing, Director of the Center Asia and Globalisation. Both confirmed that Germany has ramped up its leadership role, while pointing out that it sometimes comes up short; for example, Huang Jing noted that Germany is practically invisible in many international institutions. This ambivalent posture towards matters of power and influence can be attributed to historical reasons, explained Steven Erlanger, London Bureau Chief for The New York Times and panel moderator.

In closing remarks, Norbert Röttgen underlined that Germany understands its role on a European level. The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the German Bundestag affirmed that Germany faced a lack of alternatives when it formulated its position on the refugee crisis, yet stressed that other current crises also pose challenges for Europe. In his view, finding a solution will require close cooperation from all parties.