Q&A: Does the world look to Canada as it does to Germany?

German diplomat Walter Stechel on what unites Canada and Germany — CETA, refugee resettlement, soft power and finding a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis — and what sets the two countries apart.

By: /
March 9, 2016
The cupola of the Reichstag building, the seat of the lower house of parliament Bundestag is pictured in Berlin, Germany, February 25, 2016. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Walter Stechel returned to Canada in 2013 as Consul General of Germany in Toronto, after a career that has brought him nearly full circle from an early posting to Ottawa. He has represented Germany in as diverse a range of cities as Mumbai, Addis Ababa, Buenos Aires, Santiago and San Francisco. Consul Stechel arrived in Toronto in the midst of the European debt crisis, not long before an unprecedented influx of migrants into continental Europe driven by the ongoing Syrian Civil War.

In advance of this week's Toronto Conference on Germany, Consul Stechel sat down with Andreas Kyriakos, director and founder of Diplomats on Campus, a new initiative to connect scholars of international relations and related disciplines with practitioners in the field, via a diverse program of public events. They spoke on the state of Canada-Germany relations today, the two countries’ approaches to the refugee crisis and current geopolitical situation in the Middle East, and the continuing evolution of the diplomatic profession.

You are nearing the end of your term as Consul General of Germany in Toronto. What would you consider your most valuable memory from your tenure here?

From a professional standpoint, it was the visit of our president in 2014. When you have a president of your country coming to the city where you’re serving, that is absolutely a highlight. Particularly since Toronto is offering a lot – not only beautiful blue skies but also a lot of insights into immigration and integration. That was 2014, before this major number of asylum seekers came to Germany last year, so it was very important to give him an idea of how Canada was dealing with these issues. Otherwise, I would say Toronto is an extremely stimulating environment, culturally and intellectually, with the universities here. That is something I very much enjoyed during these two and a half years and I am looking back at that with great satisfaction.

You spent a long time working in trade and finance – how has that played into your role here?

[On February 29] it was announced that the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union has been finalized, which is a very important step. It is mostly negotiated between the European Commission and the Canadian Government, so it’s not a bilateral issue as much, but the whole discussion on ratification and the concerns of the European powers on certain aspects of CETA show that it is spreading beyond the bureaucracy, so to speak. This has been an issue that has accompanied me through my tenure and it is going to determine the way forward for European, and particularly German-Canadian, economic relations. We are looking forward to this treaty as it is offering great opportunities. I know a lot of companies are very anxious for the prospects they are going to have under CETA.

Trade is obviously a key factor in Canada-Germany relations, but what else would you say defines this relationship?

You have to go back into history. I was reading over the weekend the draft to be released soon for a book about the Germans in Kitchener-Waterloo, which has been the heartland of German immigration [to Canada] for more than 200 years now. [The book] is interesting because it is building on oral history; they interviewed more than a hundred people on their experiences coming to Canada, integrating into Canada, finding jobs, adapting to the language. It shows how important this experience is and how Germans, like all other immigrant communities here in Canada, are contributing colour, their values and their skills to the Canadian mosaic. That is a very important factor for the relationship between our two countries. We consider them as bridge builders, as communities between the two countries.

The second aspect is that Canada and Germany are not superpowers; they are middle powers. We are not the United States, we are not China, and we are not Russia. We are middle powers. We share a lot of values and even though we cannot solve international problems singlehandedly, we are both important contributors to solutions. I think that is the way the international community looks at Canada, how it looks at Germany — that they are important team players in the international game.

That seems especially topical lately, given the current iteration of conflict in the Middle East. How would you compare Canada’s approach to the Syrian refugee crisis with Germany’s?

There’s the Atlantic Ocean between us. If somebody is standing in front of your house, do you close the door of your house and say, “I don’t want to see you?” The German government is trying its best to tackle this problem at all levels: nationally by administrating the influx of refugees, helping them to settle and to integrate, and at the European level, trying to find a way of sharing the burden and of finding a solution to the crisis in Syria. We have to work on all these fronts, and there is definitely no easy solution.

The political situation in Germany is such there are a lot of protests without indication of possible alternatives or solutions, unless you want to destroy Europe and the integration we have achieved in Europe, [such as] the free movement of people. The tension is between outside factors, inter-European factors and inter-German factors, and it is a really big challenge for the Chancellor and the government to find a way out that respects these colliding interests.

We very much respect Canada for taking in 25,000 refugees and announcing that the number will increase over the course of this year. This is a very generous gesture. Which other countries are announcing to take refugees? Russia? China? Saudi Arabia? We are really looking at a very limited number of countries beyond Europe that are taking refugees. In my opinion, this is a predominantly European problem, as we are the neighbouring region. But we definitely appreciate that Canada is showing solidarity in this aspect and we would appreciate if other countries also showed solidarity.

"We are really looking at a very limited number of countries beyond Europe that are taking refugees."

What would you say Canada and Germany could learn from one another’s policies?

Circumstances are very different, histories are very different, and traditions are very different. Canada is an immigration country. Germany has always been one as well in a way, since we have had movement from France, Poland and other countries, with people coming to Germany for work. But [this current movement] is different in that it is coming from a neighbouring region that does not share the same history of Europe or the same language, so it is going to be a challenge. Canada has shown us that multicultural societies are possible, that integration is possible. 

How does Germany’s approach to the regions these refugees are coming from differ from that of Canada? 

The policy on the Middle East is, in the case of Germany and Europe, a bit more urgent, as we need to find solutions that help to avoid increasing the refugee stream. Apart from that we are both governed by the same concerns about human rights violations, development and economic prosperity – how are these people going to make a living in the longer term? There are also geopolitical concerns. What is the role of Saudi Arabia, Yemen or Russia? It would be unrealistic to expect that Europe come in with an expedition army to solve this. It needs to be a joint international effort.

That is what the German government is contributing to in the [UN Syria truce task force]…Germany is doing its best to support the ceasefire agreement, to help supply the civilian population, and to supply weapons and training to the Kurdish armed forces against ISIS. We are talking not only about Syria, but also about ISIS and the whole region that is in turmoil.

So you think that middle powers can best contribute in terms of training and rebuilding efforts? As you know, Canada withdrew its fighter jets.

Each country’s policies are derived from its background, legal situation and what it can contribute. I wouldn’t offer a fit-all recipe. Germany has a parliamentary army, which cannot be used outside of Germany without a parliamentary mandate, which in itself requires a multilateral mandate. This limits the ability for German armed forces to be active in armed conflicts abroad. There is also a strong tradition in Germany after World War II to be reluctant to use force, and I think this has stood us in good stead for decades. That is why we have this emphasis on negotiation and efforts to find a peaceful solution, so do not expect German fighter jets replacing Canadian jets soon.

How has the job of a diplomat changed since you began your career?

When we look at my career, it spans a time from the last years of the Cold War, when there were concerns about nuclear winter after possible nuclear conflict. This was very real at the time, a time of high military expenditures, little hope of German unification, but a strong hope in European dynamism and the expansion of the European Union. In 1989 came German reunification and the end of the Soviet Union – major events and after them an uncertain world. It had been thought ‘the end of history,’ with the hope that the end of the Cold War would lead to a time of international cooperation and collaboration of peace and development.

The environment has changed tremendously and with it the role of Germany. When I started in the foreign office in 1980, one of the rules of the game is that we looked at where Britain, France and the U.S. were leading, because Germany was, as was then said, an economic giant but a political dwarf. After the experience in the 20th century, that was the right thing to do. But after reunification, more was expected.

Germany has moved into a more robust contribution in conflicts, be it in the Balkans or Afghanistan. That is what our partners expect from us and we are moving in this direction, but this takes time, given our historical experience. This means we cannot always look at where others are leading. We work with others, but we also have to find our way in this process and contribute our share. That is why the Polish foreign minister said Germany is the indispensable state in Europe and that is true. But Europe is a mechanism that cannot be dominated by one power. You can pull your weight as a member of the union, perhaps the strongest, but you can only do it in partnership with others. That is why we have to find consensus and not just unilateral approaches. That is reflected in the changing professional environment. I find that fascinating and challenging, but also important in bringing forward Germany and Europe.

Germany is often portrayed as a leader in soft power, given the corporations under your flag, as well as cultural institutions, such as the Goethe Institute. Has ‘soft power’ become more important recently for Germany, or has ‘smart power,’ taking into account a gradual increase in military involvement?

Why didn’t you mention the German Soccer Association, which is the biggest soft power mechanism we could have? [Laughs] Soft power is very important. You just have to look at [the Toronto International Film Festival]. German film is respected, Gerhardt Richter is one of the major figures of international art, and Wim Wenders is honoured with a major retrospective at TIFF right now. You also have the respect for German engineering. As a non-military power, Germany is not, I think, projecting an aggressive image. The world sees that we are trying to come to consensual solutions and not imposed solutions. Economically we are obviously a presence, as a key exporting country, but beyond that we are trying to make use of the possibilities we have through the Goethe Institute as well as the German political parties’ affiliated institutes. They have been very important as platforms for dialogue and cooperation at arms length from the government.

Are you a soccer fan?

In my youth, I was in athletics. The club I was running for, Darmstadt, is in the first German League again after 30 years and not doing too badly.

Why did you decide to become a diplomat? You started out at Deutschebank?

That was an apprenticeship, which is one of the advantages of the German economic system. For me, it was very important hands-on insight into practical economics, but after my high school diploma I already thought about the diplomatic service as a final goal. I studied economics and the driving force was a combination of my interest to live abroad and my interests in history, geography, politics and economics. I have to admit that when I joined the Foreign Service I was not aware of what exactly life in it would be like. It was an interesting surprise: learning by doing.

Do you think students should pursue careers in foreign services that, at least in Canada, may be considered underfunded and often undervalued? Or should they direct their talents elsewhere, towards NGOs or multinational corporations?

I like this question. I think that everybody, when they are pursuing a career, has to look inside him or herself to see what their motivation is. You can have philanthropic motivations that bring you to an NGO, or profit maximizing motivations that bring you to a hedge fund or an investment bank. If you feel some obligation or connection to the national good, however defined, you might think of joining government. When I joined government I knew I wouldn’t get rich, but you don’t starve in the Foreign Service…It is an interesting, decent, satisfying profession. I don’t think foreign services are in any way looked at negatively in the public. There may be certain aspects where people question if the service provided is up to par or if the German policy vis-à-vis a country or region is good. But that is often in the eye of the beholder. Foreign ministers in Germany are usually the ones who have as much or even more popularity than a president, or even a chancellor. I wouldn’t say that foreign services are underfunded or undervalued, so these two aspects should not be reasons to decide against a career in them. 

"Foreign ministers in Germany are usually the ones who have as much or even more popularity than a president, or even a chancellor."

What advice would you give to someone seeking a career in the Foreign Service?

First of all, it’s a decision on lifestyle. You are going to move, over 30 or 40 years, throughout the world to countries where it’s easy to live, like Canada ‒ in spite of the winter ‒ and countries where it’s more difficult to live. The number of countries where it is difficult to live has increased for political, economic and environmental reasons. When I look at India, where I have served, the air pollution in the major cities is tremendous. As a diplomat you are not immune to these factors. 

Being a diplomat means you are a generalist, not a specialist. That can be a weakness as you may not be the expert on every topic you are dealing with. On the other hand it can be a strength, because it allows you to combine different aspects when you analyze a country, and that is beyond, with all due respect, what the IMF can do. The IMF is looking at countries from an economic perspective, and not at the impact a certain economic measure that may be absolutely justified has on the social life and political stability of a country. Therefore, the privilege and advantage that a diplomat has is that they can and must have a comprehensive view. That doesn’t make it easier, because the more factors you integrate the more difficult it becomes.

It’s good to hear that there is something out there that generalists like us can do.

This was part of my motivation for joining the Service, because I am more broadly interested than just focusing on banking and devising new financial instruments.

What is the most valuable life lesson or experience you have had as a diplomat?

It is lifelong learning, and that is wonderful. You are never in a rut. I am here, 25 years later, and I may have moved up the hierarchy but I am still in the same field. I learned to respect the diversity and complexity of the world. There are no easy answers when you look at the world, because of its complexities. You pull on one string and you may be unraveling the whole tapestry.

The really important question: what is the best German food in Toronto?

The whole wheat spelt bread my wife is making. When you come to a country as a German, what you most often miss is German bread. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. For those interested in further discussion on Canadian-German relations, the 2016 Toronto Conference on Germany will be held on Friday, March 11, at the Munk School of Global Affairs. More information can be found here.