Remarks by Dr. Heinz Fischer, Former President of Austria, at the Plenary Session of the 13th Annual Meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club

Mr President, distinguished audience, excellences, ladies and gentlemen. First of all, I want to thank the organisers of this meeting for the invitation to the Valdai conference dedicated to an exchange of views about the problems and chances in international relations, including the question of the future of international relations. I think everyone wants to know as much as possible about the future. Personal future, political, economic future, etc. But there is never a satisfying answer because the future is neither only a product of human will and human personalities nor is it only or mainly a product of objective factors, but it is a complicated mixture of these two elements. And there are many philosophies to explain this mixture. And I read with great interest books expressing different approach at how we should look at the future. There are two main streams insofar. Something at the beginning of civilisation was a golden age, a paradise and then human beings with their sins and with their failures went deeper and deeper and further down in history. Another approach says at the beginning there was the chaos, everyone against everyone. The rule of the stronger, the rule of violence continuing to a society of slavery, feudalism, capitalism and final, the last stage where reasons for antagonism and for using violence are behind us. I think it is neither nor.

I myself was born before WWII and I have memories on the last phase of this war and, in particular, memories on the difficult but promising time of reconstruction after the war. A very positive highlight of the post-war era in our area was the signing of the Austrian State Treaty in 1955, which re-established Austria as a sovereign state and arranged the withdrawal of foreign troops. And we have the feeling that from that point that started a very, very positive successful period not only in Austria but in all Western Europe.

But there was one shadow cast over this positive development, which was the division of Europe, the so-called Cold War and the imminent threat of war. At the turn of the 90s, when the division of Europe and, therefore, one of the most prominent reasons for tensions had been overcome, the perspective for the future, for the continued development in international relations seemed bright and promising. However, again, the development was not a straight one. These expectations could not be fulfilled. One could also say the existing opportunities from this time were not used to their full extent. And once again, it was demonstrated that history doesn’t, as I just said, work in a linear fashion much rather develops in waves. It alternates between progress and setbacks, between positive and negative developments. Of course, these developments vary from continent to continent regardless of globalisation. And I would mainly focus on Europe and its neighbourhood. And I remain convinced that the project of European cooperation enshrined in the ideas of the European Union or vice versa is and was necessary and an outstanding undertaking, and it will also remain an important goal and an important strategic element for a reasonable future. This is partly due mainly to the fact that the European Union, as we have heard in many discussions, has lost some of its cohesion and of its attractiveness. This is due to a sufficient amount of economic and financial coordination, since different interests between member states become increasingly visible with increased challenges, and because European solidarity does not work in the way it would be necessary. I just have to mention the problem of refugees where the European Union demonstrated a lot of incapacities and a lack of solidarity.

The relationship between Russia and the European Union also did not develop in a way we had hoped it would 25 years ago. I know the arguments on both sides, who or what is responsible for this development. Yet, when we now speak not about the past but about the future, both sides should demonstrate that they are aware of the importance of their relationship. The European Union, in particular, should not lose sight of how the relations between Russia and the West have developed in the past, in the last century, for instance. And that the evolution of NATO is seen differently by Moscow, from the perspective of Moscow than it is by Washington or Brussels. And Russia, in my opinion, should increasingly consider that certain actions, which are connected to military force and incompatible with international law, irritate and worry the European public and the European policy. A recent example goes by the name of Crimea. And Aleppo is differently a symbol for how difficult it is to distinguish between a fight against terrorists and bombing innocent people. There’s obviously, and I listened carefully this morning, a lot of problems included in this necessity. The war in Syria, by the way, has lasted already longer than WWI and longer than from the invasion of Hitler into the Soviet Union till the end of the WWII. And this damned, confusing and horrible war costs hundreds and thousands of human lives, produces millions of refugees and damages the trust between states that do not even share common borders with Syria.

And connected with the rise of terrorism, I must say, terrorism produces fear, fear produces aggression, aggression produces inter alia fanatism and strict nationalism who in turn, are enemies of freedom and peace. This is also on a smaller scale but still depicted in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, which to me seems to be further away from resolution than ever. I recently assisted at the funeral of Shimon Peres in Jerusalem. And even the eulogies referenced that Shimon Peres was convinced of the necessity of peace with the Palestinians, since without the courage for peace, so Shimon often said Israel cannot safely exist. The current Israeli government focuses on security and they say, without security there can be no peace. However, security cannot take precedence over peace, both are needed simultaneous and full.

Ladies and gentlemen, at this point, one can ask whether there are also some positive aspects and opportunities ahead. And the answer is yes. The negotiated agreement between the 5+1 and Iran regarding the production of nuclear weapons is one very important example. Another one is the successful conclusion of the Paris Agreement on climate change as the first positive step even though a lot remains to be done to address this challenge as a whole. And European integration as such, even if there are several negative developments I just have touched and decisions or non-decisions to be criticized, is altogether a success story. I also give great expectations in the work of the United Nations that are so often faced with criticism pertaining to their powerlessness and yet remain an essential player in international relations as well as a moral authority. The Millennium Development Goals of the year 2000, for instance, were instrumental in reducing extreme poverty by almost 50 percent. Since then, in addition, maternal and infant mortality rates have dropped by 45 and almost 50 percent, respectively. And a new agenda, 2030, aims at continuing this endeavour and have formulated reasonable and very important goals.

Ladies and gentlemen, even though it is not possible to measure and quantify the development of democracy, I’m convinced that democracy is a political system limiting the power of those who rule, monitoring abidance by the laws and enable peaceful transition of power will increasingly assert itself. Also human rights and respect for human dignity are increasingly recognized as an important benchmark for good government. And I think that democracy has to play a big role in our deliberations about the future, including the fact – that’s my opinion – that the democratic system and readiness to peace or to avoid war has somehow a connection and interaction.

Distinguished guests, in soccer the next match is always the most important one. In domestic politics, the next elections are always the most important ones. And in international relations, the next ten years are the most important ones and the most difficult ones at the same time. But one is for sure. History, as I said at the beginning, is not a linear development. But since history is made by mankind, mankind, you are responsible for how history will change in those ten years ahead of us, which is why it is our collective responsibility to maintain peace, seize opportunities that present themselves, learn from past mistakes and work towards positive developments in the period ahead of us.

Thank you for your attention.

Originally published on

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.