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“The G20 has rarely been this important”

Interview with Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on the G20 Summit in Hamburg and the risk of a confrontation with the United States. Published in the Hamburger Abendblatt on 6 July 2017.

Minister Gabriel, security has been ramped up in Hamburg and tensions are high: 20,000 police officers are on duty, and 100,000 demonstrators are expected. Many are wondering if a summit like this is even worth it – is it still appropriate in our day and age?

For many years now, I’ve thought it’s terrible that such meetings can only be held with massive security in place. But without them, the world would become even more unhinged than it already has. There has rarely been a time when this meeting has been more important or necessary than it is today. Let us take a look at the world. There are crises everywhere, and the global order is in ever greater danger of disappearing. Instead of the strength of the law, the law of the strongest is coming back. In this situation, many can think of no better option than military strength and self-isolation. Anyone who believes we should all just stay home and twiddle our thumbs has completely withdrawn from this world. If we communicate exclusively through Twitter and by shouting out our opinions, we will change nothing.

Can you understand the protesters?

I understand that many people are dissatisfied with how today’s world works. That’s because I’m just as dissatisfied. War, hunger and injustice – it’s perfectly understandable how they cause desperation and anger. We Germans and Europeans will therefore do our best in Hamburg to work towards a more peaceful and just world, one in which growth benefits not only the rich and the financial predators. This is difficult to do, and there certainly won’t be any quick fixes. However, anyone who merely stages protests and doesn’t engage in discussion is actually giving up on changing anything.

Could you briefly list, from Germany’s perspective, the most important objectives of the summit? What would constitute success? And at what point would the summit be considered a failure?

Dialogue within the G20 is vital for survival of the world, and for our future. Germany, as host of this year’s G20, has intensively prepared the summit in recent months. We are focusing on new initiatives for Africa, maintaining climate protection despite the United States’ announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, promoting fair and just world trade, and tirelessly working to achieve ceasefires and negotiations, as well as ending wars and civil wars. I do not know how much progress we will make. But I am a social democrat, and I’ve learned from our 150-year history that a better life will not come about all by itself. Even tiny steps need to be taken.

What is Germany’s special contribution as host of this summit? Is Germany showing even stronger leadership through its G20 Presidency?

A G20 summit may never have been held at a more difficult time. Germany is exactly the right host for this year’s meeting. Around the world, we are valued and respected as an honest mediator. I notice this again and again during my travels – whether it be in Saudi Arabia, China or the United States. If you’re willing to assume the G20 Presidency during times like these, and if you tackle the difficult issues, this to a certain extent demonstrates strong leadership. That doesn’t mean we want to make ourselves more important than we are. We know our place in the world, and we want to make a constructive contribution.

Many eyes are on US President Donald Trump. He has terminated G20 agreements, and he has undermined the Climate Agreement. What do you expect him to do in Hamburg?

President Trump will undoubtedly also bring his “America first” foreign policy focus with him to Hamburg. We want to explain to him that “America first” does not mean “America only”. Current US policy holds that international agreements are unnecessary, that they should be replaced by bilateral agreements between two countries. The idea behind this is that there are always advantages and disadvantages for every individual country, and that the stronger party must compete against others and assert its own interests. We, on the other hand, believe that reliable international rules benefit everyone and amount to more than the sum of individual interests. They guarantee fairness, stimulate competition based on common rules and, most importantly, create common standards, also with regard to human rights and civil liberties. For us, freedom and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. This, ultimately, is the fundamental idea of the West and of Europe. We will campaign for it, regardless of what the US Government thinks. Naturally, our policies are based on interests, too. Yet these interests must conform to our values. Right now, in the United States, it appears to be the other way around.

Would a climate agreement without President Trump be worth anything at all?

The international community’s reaction was perfectly clear. It remains fully committed to the Agreement. You can’t just turn back the clock. What is more, many people, states, municipalities and corporations in the US agree with us. We will continue to closely cooperate with them and with the rest of the international community.

Can Germany afford to have an open confrontation with the United States?

We do not want a confrontation with the United States. Far from it. But we also shouldn’t in any way be submissive. Rather, we must be confident and speak plainly. We are not subservient to any particular policy. We Germans are part of a strong Europe. Despite some problems, one thing can be said about Europe: nowhere in the world can people live in as much peace, with as much democracy and in as much security as in Europe. There’s no reason for us to be faint-hearted.

In the event of an open conflict with the United States, would Europe stand sufficiently united? And what about European unity in general at this summit?

I think we should not make the question of whether or not Europe will act as one contingent on our relationship with the United States. For us in Europe, the Unites States are, and will remain, a key partner. What is much more important is that we Europeans always make perfectly clear, also on the international stage, that we have a common Europe, and that we are united by the values we share. This must be understood and acted on – especially by us Germans. Europe thrives when we discuss matters as equals, without letting ourselves be divided. Global issues such as climate change can be successfully tackled only if we work together to achieve our objectives.

The transatlantic signals that were sent in the run-up to the summit have not been very encouraging. Do you believe there is the threat of a trade war with the United States? How can the imposition of tariffs still be prevented?

I do believe the signals we are hearing out of Washington on trade policy are dangerous and backward-looking. Trade is not a zero-sum game, in which one side’s gain is another side’s loss. On the contrary, all nations that are involved in trade benefit from value chains, which have by now to a great extent been globalised. The actual problem is not, after all, how rich countries will compete for prosperity, but how we can enable those who are poor to finally have a share of this prosperity. The time has come for globalisation to deliver justice for all, not riches to the few.

The US president will be stopping in Warsaw on his way to Hamburg. This sends a clear message. What is your view of the visit?

Europe will not be divided into “new” and “old” Europe. It is completely normal for bilateral visits to occur in connection with multilateral summits. Poland is an important state in Central Europe, and it is concerned about Russian policy. The fact that the US President is visiting one of NATO’s most important member countries early on in his presidency sends an important message to Central and Eastern Europe. What would be even more important, however, is a meeting between US President Trump and Russian President Putin. We absolutely need a reset of relations, to reduce tensions and promote disarmament.

Donald Trump will be meeting his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for the first time. You have spoken with President Putin and with the US Secretary of State – What are your hopes for their first meeting in person?

Specific agreements regarding future cooperation – in Syria, with a view to resolving the conflict in Ukraine, and talks on arms control and disarmament. We must not let these two leaders shirk their responsibility. 

Relations with Turkey have been further burdened by the ban on public appearance by President Erdogan in Hamburg. What strategy are the German Government and the Foreign Minister adopting to deal with this?

Bilateral relations between Germany and Turkey have rarely been easy. However, in view of our current great differences of opinion with Turkey, a clear line had to be drawn. Precisely because Germany is open and tolerant, we will not permit conflicts to spill into our country and divide our society. This applies not only to Turkey, but to all foreign officials. At the same time, it does not mean we will end our cooperation with Turkey, for example in the area of migration. Let’s not forget that this applies to both sides. Europe is important for Turkey. Not only with regard to trade relations, but also as a political partner.

Interview: Christian Kerl

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