Question: Ms Baerbock, you’ve been in your new job for two weeks, you’ve been on your first trips and have met various interlocutors. What does a foreign minister see that a candidate doesn’t?
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock: The office requires you to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, even if their worldview is completely different from your own. That’s the job of a top diplomat.
Question: Your first days in office have already seen some marked disagreements with authoritarian regimes. You have expelled Russian diplomats and summoned their Ambassador to the Federal Foreign Office because a German court ruled that Russia had committed an act of state terrorism in the centre of Berlin. Russia is threatening Ukraine with its military forces. How broken is our relationship with Russia, how great is the risk of war?
Baerbock: As critical as the situation on the Ukrainian-Russian border now is, Russia is part of the European house. Europe is not only the EU, but also the Council of Europe with its 47 member states, including Russia. Precisely for that reason, we must do everything we can to prevent new armed clashes.
Question: How can we defuse the crisis?
Baerbock: This crisis can only be resolved together, by diplomatic means. That is why I spoke on the telephone with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and told him that we should resume talks in the Normandy format...
Question: ... meaning Germany and France together with Russia and Ukraine...
Baerbock: Yes, exactly. But given the danger of military escalation, we also have to use the means available in the NATO framework, such as the NATO-Russia Council, for example, which has been neglected for years.
Question: How were your first talks with Sergey Lavrov?
Baerbock: They were an opportunity to resume discussions, even if we took distinctly contrasting positions on numerous points. But as I see it, that is the basis for a strong foreign policy: not beating around the bush or shouting the other side down, but describing the world as it is, and acting on that basis.
Question: The Normandy format and the NATO-Russia Council have not functioned for a long time now, because Russia has no interest in them and prefers to use other instruments to attain its ends.
Baerbock: Diplomacy is like competitive sports, you need to take a long-term view and persevere, and must not let setbacks knock you off track. You have to seek dialogue all the time, especially in tense situations like the one we have now. At the same time I think it’s important to make it clear what values we stand for as a liberal democracy.
Question: Is that why you sent your Minister of State Tobias Lindner to Ukraine on Friday?
Baerbock: Yes. In this tense situation we want to make it clear where our solidarity lies. I, too, spoke with the Ukrainian Foreign Minister myself, on the telephone. Ukraine’s sovereignty and the inviolability of borders in Europe are tenets of German foreign policy. We Germans have a special responsibility in the light of our past.
Question: Ukraine has long called for arms deliveries for its defence.
Baerbock: Further exacerbating the military situation is not conducive to Ukraine’s security; that is why I am pushing so hard for a return to the negotiating table. The greatest contribution we can make to Ukraine’s security is to influence Russia by working together as Europeans, with the US, and thereby helping to stop the military posturing at the border.
Question: Germany could let President Vladimir Putin know that the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in the Baltic Sea cannot come on stream while Russia continues to threaten Ukraine. You’ve said that there were also “security issues” associated with Nord Stream 2. But Federal Chancellor Scholz has now declared the pipeline to be a “private sector” issue, which will be “decided in a completely non‑political way”. Does the Government not have a common position on this?
Baerbock: Yes, we do. Even if it’s no secret that we come at this issue from different angles, both the Federal Chancellor and I have made it clear that the present approval process is being conducted in accordance with European energy law. It is precisely because the Bundesnetzagentur, the Federal Network Agency for Electricity and Gas, raised objections with regard to these legal issues, that the certification process was recently suspended. It is not just in our political interest, but also in our economic interest, to ensure that energy cannot be used as a weapon to destabilise Europe. That is why the EU has amended its gas directive. The question of energy security will also play a role when weighing up these factors going forward. The Merkel Government had also agreed with the US Administration that if Russia were to further escalate the situation with regard to Ukraine, the question of whether Nord Stream 2 could go on stream would be raised again. That is still the case.
Question: In other words, the message has been sent that no gas will flow through the pipeline unless the situation at the Ukrainian border is de‑escalated?
Baerbock: The situation is as I have just described it.
Question: In the event of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, should we respond with sanctions against people in Putin’s inner circle? Or should Russia be cut off from the SWIFT international payments system?
Baerbock: I am putting all my energy into ensuring that there is no further escalation. We thus made it very clear in the G7 context that any attack on Ukraine would have massive economic and diplomatic consequences for Russia.
Question: The crisis in Germany’s relations with Russia goes beyond this present conflict. It has often been said that we need a New Ostpolitik. Is this concept something you can relate to?
Baerbock: Yes. However, we cannot simply apply the answers of 50 years ago to international relations in a globalised and highly interlinked world. We live in a world in which the East-West confrontation is luckily a thing of the past, but in which competition between authoritarian forces and liberal democracies is rife. Europe must find its own sovereign answer to this.
Question: Since we’re talking about the challenges posed by authoritarian regimes... In the coalition agreement, the Government agreed to readjust the relationship with China as well. What’s important there?
Baerbock: A common European position. We view China as a partner on global issues, an economic competitor, and as a systemic rival with respect to our values. These three dimensions must always be borne in mind. Unfortunately there has not been any progress on human rights issues – rather the opposite, as the situation in Xinjiang, the case of Peng Shuai and the curtailing of freedoms in Hong Kong show. At the same time we need China’s cooperation, especially given China’s importance for environmental protection, climate action and global health.
Question: The coalition agreement included various issues on which China is extremely sensitive – the situation in Hong Kong, in Xinjiang, and in Taiwan. Doesn’t the clear language on such contentious points jeopardise the good business German companies are doing?
Baerbock: We have to face up to the reality that as the EU, and even more as the Federal Republic of Germany, we have close economic ties with China. We cannot, and do not want to cut our ties with this huge market. However, long-term successful economic cooperation involves reaching understanding on common values and standards, otherwise there’s an imbalance. The idea that it’s possible to talk to some countries about economic policy only and exclude other problems from relations just doesn’t work in a globalised world.
Question: So how sensible is the distinction between a values-based and an interest-led foreign policy then?
Baerbock: Values and interests are not opposites; this distinction is a dead-end. As a social, ecological market economy, we will only successfully assert our economic interests if we also defend the values of fair market access and fair treatment of workers. If we allow other stakeholders to get away with ignoring rules and standards, the German economy will be at a serious competitive disadvantage. We have already seen in the European single market that our companies are disadvantaged if others don’t abide by European rules such as those on state aids. That is why the Federation of German Industries, which was not previously always on the same page as Amnesty International, is now also urging us to rethink a China policy which subjugates everything to what seem to be short-term trade gains.
Question: China’s President Xi Jinping seems to hope that nothing much will change in Germany’s China policy under Federal Chancellor Scholz. Have you agreed with the Chancellor on a joint message for the Chinese leadership?
Baerbock: Of course. Either we have an agreed foreign policy or we have no foreign policy at all. I know that. Olaf Scholz knows that. And we understand each other. Foreign policy nowadays is more than diplomacy. It’s about practical action in all policy fields from trade to health. It is the principle of this coalition to have a coherent foreign policy in which individual policy fields are not addressed as separate strands or conflicting issues. The Federal Foreign Office is a place where we plan and join up our international actions as a whole, because it is here that the immense expertise of more than 220 missions abroad comes together.
Question: Rolf Mützenich, the head of the SPD parliamentary group, has said that foreign policy is “largely steered” from the Chancellery. And you have just dismissed a State Secretary who was a member of the SPD and replaced him with a Green. That makes it look more as if Social Democrats and Greens are fighting for supremacy over foreign policy.
Baerbock: No, that’s the wrong impression. At the start of any electoral term, all ministries have to see what appointments are best made. The former and the new State Secretary will continue to work with me in different positions.
Question: But isn’t it true, as some people suggest, that the Greens are the moralists in foreign policy and the Social Democrats have the hard-boiled interest-driven politicians?
Baerbock: In light of the present crises, I don’t have time to engage in political shadow-boxing. No policies can be 100% interest-driven or moral-driven. Such a simplistic view is not compatible with the challenges of our times. As I said, my aspiration as Foreign Minister is to represent Germany’s interests in the world on the basis of clear values.
Question: The United States and some allied nations want a diplomatic boycott of the Olympic Games in Beijing. Should Germany be part of the boycott?
Baerbock: As a former competitive sportswoman, I think that the Olympic Games should first and foremost be a highlight in the lives of athletes, not the lives of politicians. Furthermore, we are in the middle of a pandemic, which makes it harder for diplomats to travel anyway. Nevertheless, we can’t ignore the fact that we are dealing with a country whose actions raise many questions relating to human rights, also as regards sportsmen and women.
Question: Are you thinking of the Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, who accused a high functionary of sexual assault and then disappeared for several weeks?
Baerbock: Yes. That’s why it is so important for me to coordinate with our European partners.
Question: Lithuania allowed Taiwan to open a representative office, and is now under massive pressure from China. German companies, too, are being pressurised to suspend business with Lithuania if they want to stay in the Chinese market. Will Germany stand by Lithuania?
Baerbock: The countries of Europe must make it clear that we cannot be played off against each other. The example shows just how closely interlinked foreign, economic and trade policy is in our world. We have to strengthen Europe’s sovereignty, as the EU Commission is already doing, having just presented a new mechanism with which the EU can defend itself against such coercive measures.
Question: But this new mechanism to deter coercive action has not yet been adopted.
Baerbock: But it’s on its way. Overall, there’s more momentum in a joint EU policy on China. And we, the biggest country at the heart of Europe, play an important role.
Question: Democracy is today being challenged not only from the outside, but also by crises within Western states. It is conceivable that Donald Trump could launch a comeback in the United States. It doesn’t seem entirely impossible that our most powerful partner could go over to the authoritarian side. Under such circumstances, how do you stay optimistic?
Baerbock: By not focusing on what we are against, but – no matter the complexities – by strongly and confidently advocating the principles for which we stand, and breathing life into them: freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. That’s why I attach such great importance to intensifying cooperation with other liberal democracies.
Interview: Jörg Lau and Samiha Shafy