“You cannot pick and choose”

12.01.2023 - Interview

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in an interview with Berlin.Table on 3 January.

Question: Ms Baerbock, a new year brings new hope: do you see any chance of peace in Ukraine in 2023?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: One should never give up hope, and there is nothing any of us wants more than peace again in Ukraine at last. Unfortunately, however, despite all the international efforts, it does not at present look as though Putin is planning to stop his brutal destruction in 2023. The fact is that it is entirely up to the Russian President whether the people of Ukraine can once again live in peace and freedom. The Russian President started this brutal war of aggression. And he alone can end it. If Russia stops the bombing and withdraws its soldiers, we will have peace. If Ukraine stops fighting, it will cease to exist.

Question: Will there ever be a way back to the world we knew before?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: There is never a way back to the past. But what is brutal about the situation since 24 February is that Putin has broken with all the principles that earlier generations in Europe, and in Russia, had worked so hard to establish over the past fifty years to enable themselves to live together in peace despite all the differences. The Russian President has attacked this European peace order as well. And at the same time, institutions from this European age of peace, such as the EU, and particularly the OSCE, are now more important than ever. Not only for many countries of the former Soviet Union; rather, many people in Germany, too, now realise that peace in Europe did not fall from the sky. The EU is our life assurance policy – that’s the positive thing to have come out of this year.
Question: Immediately after the outbreak of the war, you accused Moscow of lying. Had Sergey Lavrov assured you that there would be no war?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: The Russian Government had repeatedly told not only me, but the whole world, that there was no threat to Ukraine, that it was all Western hysteria. At the press conference in Moscow, I asked Sergey Lavrov how else the 150,000 soldiers on the border with Ukraine could be understood except as a threat. His reply: that it was normal military exercises on their own territory, just like any army in the world might carry out. Russia has always claimed that its aim was to protect the Russian-speaking population in Ukraine. And then we had to watch as Mariupol was razed to the ground, as the Russian tanks brought not baby food, but death, suffering and destruction to the whole of Ukraine.

Question: How did this lie affect you?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Not much, but at the same time a great deal. After all, since 2014, Russia had always denied what was obvious: that Russian troops were behind the annexation of Crimea and the so-called separatists in the Donbas. So I had not been assuming that the Russian side always told us the truth. And after all, we saw the signs of an attack, so it didn’t come as a complete surprise. That said, however, I would never have imagined this degree of brutality, or that Putin is ready to ruin his own country like this.

Question: So you had been expecting the worst anyway?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Like many, I had feared it; and we have to admit that our Eastern European neighbours had repeatedly warned us. That is the point we in Germany have to reflect on and be critical of ourselves for. Never in my life had I imagined that there would once again be a war of aggression like this in our immediate neighbourhood.

Question: Many people have conflicting feelings regarding the war. On the one hand, they absolutely want to rush to support the Ukrainians. On the other, more than a few are afraid that the war will spread. How often do you veer from one emotion to the other?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Fear, including fear of Russia, is not a good guide. At the same time, one should not be naive or foolhardy. That is why, over the past ten months or so, we have consistently weighed up, as the Federal Government, how we and our partners can help Ukraine – with humanitarian assistance, but also with weapons. So that the country can save its people and free itself from Russian occupation.

Question: That sounds unequivocal.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: It is. At the same time, however, we have done everything possible to ensure that this war does not spill over into other countries, for instance the Republic of Moldova. Perhaps the most important step was that we as the EU succeeded with partners like the United States, but also China and India, in making it clear that there can be no nuclear escalation.

Question: How worried are you that Ukraine will lose the war?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: I am doing everything in my power to ensure that Ukraine wins the war. If it loses, then Ukraine will cease to exist.

Question: Is there some sort of middle ground?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: I understand those who want nothing more than for the weapons to fall silent. But that would mean that we were prepared simply to accept peace dictated by Russia. And Belarus shows us that the absence of war doesn’t automatically mean peace or even an end to violence, because people there are living in neither security nor freedom.

Question: What does that mean in concrete terms?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: We know from the areas occupied by Russia what it would mean if we went for what some people are now calling a compromise: leaving women to be raped, men to be tortured or murdered, children to be kidnapped. Liberated cities like Bucha; Izyum and Balakliya are proof of that. Putin is not even letting the International Committee of the Red Cross or UN relief workers in to occupied cities like Melitopol, Mariupol or Lysychansk to care for children or to provide winter relief in temperatures of minus ten, snow and ice. This shows that there is no lack of diplomatic efforts – rather, Putin wants to break or destroy the people of Ukraine. And that is exactly what we must prevent.

Question: Your coalition partner, in the form of Rolf Mützenich, head of the SPD parliamentary group, is calling for efforts towards a ceasefire.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Of course I too hope that Putin will come to his senses at some point. Half the world is doing nothing but beg him. But the principle of hope does not end wars; it just dooms people to death. And diplomacy does not only mean talking with aggressors, but also nurturing international relations, strengthening the United Nations, providing humanitarian assistance for women, men and children in need. It’s not impressive television addresses that are key here, but work behind the scenes, and that is what we have been doing non-stop since 24 February. In 2022, diplomacy meant holding together the alliance for freedom. From Europe to Japan, from Canada to Nigeria, from Palau to Mexico.

Question: How long will the solidarity of people in Germany and Europe with Ukraine and with the Federal Government’s line hold out?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: For as long as Ukraine needs us. The positive result of these dreadful developments is the humanity being shown in our country, in the whole of Europe. When people had to choose whether to stand on the side of the aggressor or the victim, on the side of humanity or brutality, not only the Federal Government, but the people of our country, opted for humanity. Thousands even threw open their homes. I have never experienced such solidarity.

Question: Will it last?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Yes. There are 89-year-olds who say “I know what war feels like – of course we have to stand by Ukraine, even if things get harder for us,” as well as 9-year-olds who have organised Christmas cookie sales at school to raise money for winter relief for Ukraine. Whether from 89-year-olds or 9-year-olds, notwithstanding the justified expectations of support to ease social hardship, I have been hearing the same message throughout the country – we are stronger than Putin’s war.

Question: New times call for a new foreign policy. You have announced a National Security Strategy. Why national?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Because what is at stake is the security of each and every one of us, and many people in our country are realising for the first time that security does not come free of charge, rather we have to do something for it. And security does not merely mean the absence of war. Security means being free enough to shape our lives, our democracy, our economy the way we want. Without any political pressure, without dangerous economic dependencies. At the same time, we are all more aware than ever before that we need to strengthen the Bundeswehr. I don’t think I had ever used the term “defensive capabilities” in my life before 24 February. Suddenly we were all forced to recognise that we need to be able to defend ourselves against military aggression.

Question: But still, why a national strategy?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Because, unlike other countries, we do not have a concept that looks in combination both at security in the face of threats from outside and at security within the country. Cyber attacks on hospitals, the pandemic and the energy price crisis – all these show that internal and external security can no longer be viewed separately. We must think about them as an ensemble, as integrated security. Day in, day out, our security depends on decisions made not only by the Foreign and Defence Ministries, but also by companies, local authorities, universities. And of course the Strategy is firmly anchored in Europe. Europe is our future; Europe is our life assurance. However, it is not enough to refer to the EU and then stop thinking any further. Germany must become aware of what is needed to protect our security and our freedom at the heart of Europe.

Question: Is our freedom really at such risk?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: We live in one of the safest countries in the world – that, too, is something we need to keep reminding ourselves of. I have just come back from Nigeria, from a place completely burnt down by the Boko Haram terrorist militia a few years ago, a place where hundreds of schoolgirls were kidnapped and enslaved. Protecting people against terrorism and crime, and ensuring social security, are also not things that can be taken for granted. And there is something else: security in the 21st century also means protecting the natural resources on which all life depends and getting the climate crisis under control. The disastrous flooding in the Ahr Valley showed us in the most terrible way that we in Germany are vulnerable, too. The climate crisis is the greatest global danger, claiming more lives from year to year.

Question: Parts of the new Strategy are already known, especially with respect to China. There is growing concern within the SPD that the harsher tone desired by the Federal Foreign Office and the Economic Affairs Ministry could severely damage relations with China and jeopardise prosperity. Do you understand this concern?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: In a completely interconnected world, it is impossible to detach oneself entirely from any region, and certainly not from one of the world’s biggest economies. That is why the strategy on China is not one of decoupling. But we have seen what can happen if we allow ourselves to become hugely dependent on a country that does not share our values, that as an autocratic regime is in competition with our democracy. It makes us vulnerable, and prevention is the best protection. I believe it is our responsibility as the Government to protect ourselves against such a scenario, by systematically tailoring our foreign, digital, infrastructure and energy policy to equip us and our economy in the best possible way to meet the global challenges.

Question: Do you equate Russia and China?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: No. But in recent years we have seen China distance itself more and more not only from our democratic values, but also from international law and the rules for fair competition. That’s why it is in our own fundamental economic interest not to make ourselves as dependent on China as we did on Russia. We really cannot afford to act as irresponsibly again, simply assuming that things won’t be all that bad. In relation to Russia, we are now paying a high price for that attitude, with countless billions in taxpayers’ money.

Question: But that will not be without consequences. How do you explain that to companies and employees fearing for their business and their jobs?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Generally I do not have to explain much. Many SMEs and family-run companies in particular are engaging in wise risk management in their dealings with China, cutting back investment in China in response to its harder actions in recent years, and diversifying within the Indo-Pacific region. With some DAX-listed companies, one has the impression that they are simply ignoring the economic risks, but also their company’s long-term interests, because all that matters for the directors’ bonuses is the next five years. A responsible Government, however, must focus on the national economic interest. For that reason, the Federation of German Industries policy paper of 2019 was widely regarded as a turning-point, and the desire to diversify has further increased in the wake of Russia’s war. That is why Robert Habeck and I together made proposals for security awareness in the promotion of foreign trade and investment. A foreign policy, and especially a foreign trade and investment policy, that endangers Germany as a location for business and investment and thus also our prosperity and social cohesion would not only be short-sighted, it would be a security risk.

Question: Has China become an adversary?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: No. If we did not at least try to maintain constructive relations with all countries, it would be akin to declaring diplomacy bankrupt. At the heart of our Security Strategy is our desire to cooperate and work closely with other countries in as many areas as possible – while at the same time remaining able to act with sovereignty and independently if others suddenly act to our detriment. That, I believe, is the definition of Europe’s strategic sovereignty. This applies not only to infrastructure or semi-conductors, but also to important medicines. And what’s more, this issue concerns not only us, but also our neighbours. If I stay silent in the face of serious violations of rules just because I am worried about poor relations with autocrats, then I am damaging relations with all the many other countries that are the victims of these violations and that we are then leaving to face their concerns alone. That is precisely what we have experienced in the case of Russia, and I do not want to see a repeat in the Indo-Pacific.
Question: Now to Iran. It is not difficult to sharply criticise the regime. But it is terribly difficult to do something to help the protesters right now. Does this helplessness bother you?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: It is not helplessness, because we have achieved a good deal in the EU and UN over the past three months to step up the pressure on the regime and support the people in Iran. But, yes, having to recognise the limits of my scope for action is frustrating. Bearing up in face of that and not giving in to feelings of resignation, but keeping on trying to explore the possibilities – that is the most important task of foreign policy. Because only the people, by virtue of their own energy, bring about regime change.

Question: That sounds resigned.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Absolutely not. It's realistic. The easiest thing would be to say we can’t do anything, and we wouldn’t achieve anything anyway. My job is to consider what we can do to help with the limited options open to us, and to get the support of the majority for such measures. It is worth fighting for every person we can save from execution. In the EU, we managed to freeze the accounts of those responsible for human rights violations, and have banned them from travelling to Europe. And we can support the people in Iran, just like those in Belarus, by publicising the human rights violations, by collecting evidence of the crimes. We have done that in the case of Iran with the Human Rights Council resolution.

Question: When does the moment come for a Foreign Minister to take a risk? To launch an initiative that at first sight looks very unlikely to succeed? For example, to try to talk to the regime in Iran, to persuade it to change its policy?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: The bulk of the work of foreign policy is the Sisyphean tasks that go on behind the scenes, phone calls to get majorities together – for example, in the Human Rights Council to get countries that always voted “no” on country resolutions, quoting “internal affairs”, to abstain, despite pressure from Peking and Moscow. Many advised against even trying that. In the end, there were 25 votes for our resolution and only six against. That, too, is a success. True, it does not immediately save lives, but it will mean that at some point in the future the perpetrators can be prosecuted, because the UN can now collect evidence. That was harder work than a phone call with the Iranian Foreign Minister.

Question: That sounds like just hoping for the best.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Clear words and quiet tones are not incompatible. In my view, strong diplomacy means being aware of when quiet tones will get you somewhere and when clear words are needed. To my mind, clear words are not an end in themselves. Choosing strong words just to feel stronger yourself will get you nowhere. That said, the opposite also holds true: sometimes silence can be more destructive than clear, unequivocal words.

Question: When is that the case?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Consider the scepticism felt by our Baltic friends about Germany. Not for nothing has it emerged; rather, it is rooted in the fact that their warnings, their concerns about Russia, were downplayed in the past, in the fact that people shied away from public conflict with Russia and that Nordstream 2 was declared a purely commercial project. For years the aim was to avoid causing damage in Moscow, but that just caused all the more damage in the Baltic. There is no getting around this balancing act.

Question: And when does one do the impossible?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: At the moment when action, whether in the case of Putin or the Iranian regime, might bring an end to the murdering and killing, without completely letting down those concerned – that’s when I would try it. But when talks are just for show and cost time, because they are only protracting the injustice, then there needs to be clarity in one’s stance.

Question: So, as things stand now, you will not be trying anything.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: It is a balancing act, and there is no blueprint, because every conflict is different and every regime acts differently. We have been trying for ten months now, through all possible channels of communication, to convince Putin to end the war. His response has always been more violence. All the diplomatic efforts by Germany, the United States and the UN Secretary-General could not prevent this bloody war of aggression – because Putin is pursuing an imperialistic approach in which international agreements only hold good for as long as they are useful to him.

Question: And in Iran?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Throughout all the efforts towards the nuclear agreement, the Iranian regime kept moving forward with its uranium enrichment programme, with no concern for the talks, and at the same time executed more and more people. I think making offers to the regime, particularly in this current situation, would be entirely the wrong strategy. It would be hugely letting down the people in Iran and would more likely encourage the regime to carry on. Furthermore, it would send a fatal signal to other countries that don’t take human rights very seriously, and it would be likely to discourage fledgling democracies working on the rule of law.

Question: During the World Cup, most people seemed simply to be celebrating. South Americans, Asians, Europeans and the entire Arab world. Only Germany was different. Is Germany too moralistic?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: My impression was really very different. Firstly, we really didn’t have much to celebrate, not in terms of football anyway, and if an Arab country like Morocco beats Spain and Portugal, then there’s bound to be great celebration. Secondly, I do not believe that human rights should be played off against football. FIFA is the one that didn’t do its job properly. Football lives from agreement on common rules. Even in the youth leagues, you learn that football can only be played if you allow diversity and respect fair play. The bad news from this World Cup was that that was precisely what FIFA failed to do. And the good news was that the fans made it clear that they were in favour of diversity.

Question: Nevertheless, there was euphoria in the Arab world that was largely ignored by the Germans. Do we sometimes feel too comfortable and fail to see how others are feeling?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: I was very much aware of Morocco’s delight, and shared it. You have to draw a clear line here. You cannot punish athletes for wrong decisions by an association or by politicians. If it is done right, football can be the best ambassador for universal, inalienable values. And if these values were not put into practice, if people were not given the opportunity to play, because of their identity, then we wouldn’t have superstars like Messi, Mbappé or Musiala on the pitch.

Question: How does one reconcile travelling to Qatar during the energy crisis to buy LNG and claiming a few months later that its actions make Qatar a poor host for the World Cup?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: There is no simple black or white when it comes to either countries or people; they are all complex. Democracies, too, are constantly in flux. But would it be better if we kept quiet when people’s lives are at risk, merely because a man loves another man? Would it be better if we kept quiet when workers die on constructions sites because of the lack of health and safety measures? No. On the contrary: the World Cup led to improvements in working conditions. You always have to weigh it up: if we were to feel that our purchase was supporting a system that violates every one of our own values, then we would not conclude this energy agreement. If we were to buy gas and then remain silent about human rights, for fear of not actually getting the gas delivered, then I would find that wrong.

Question: The world is dividing more and more into democracies and autocracies. Are we living through a new Cold War?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: No. Democracies are not a Western invention. Shortly before Christmas, I travelled to one of the world’s biggest democracies, Nigeria. The country has over 220 million inhabitants. There are a lot of problems there, but the current President is stepping down quite naturally after two terms in office, and there is a change in government. Or India, the biggest democracy in the world. We see that freedom, human security and the rule of law mean a great deal to many societies as essential elements of democracy. That is why I believe it is important to support countries that are working to strengthen human rights, offer their young people prospects and uphold international law, even if their institutions and electoral systems are still in great need of improvement. Especially if they are doing so under difficult conditions, under the threat, perhaps, of terrorism.

Question: That’s all well and good. But those very countries get the impression that in times of crisis Europe thinks of itself first. In the COVID-19 crisis: vaccines for us first; in the energy crisis: resources for us first, no matter what the cost.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Of course we need to put our own house in order first. That’s why my message at the United Nations, directed in particular at the countries of Africa, was: we see you and we hear you. That’s why I don’t travel round the world preaching and pointing the finger, but often above all asking what we ourselves can do better. We have made mistakes in the past. But we would like to shape the future together, as equals, not with Europe or the industrial countries telling others what to do. That is why the G7 has invested so massively in the World Health Organization, which helped to ensure that vaccines are now being manufactured worldwide, not least with German support.

Question: You gave that speech at the United Nations. Ought you not to say the same thing far more clearly still to people in Germany and Europe, because it will mean sharing and sacrifice? Not as a punishment, but as a bitter necessity?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: That is the aim of our German foreign policy, and I am trying to implement it, including within the context of the National Security Strategy. In the summer, I deliberately toured Germany with cabinet colleagues and Land ministers to talk about it. Foreign policy is global domestic policy.

Question: So you will tell the Germans that we need to share more with the world, otherwise there is no chance of peace in the world?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Yes. Sometimes I am asked in parliament as well why, if we are the fourth-largest economy, we are the second-largest donor. My answer is simple: because we are investing in our own security. Fortunately, we are not a nuclear power. Our strength comes from our economic clout, the trust we enjoy in the world as a reliable partner – and these two only work in tandem. And we must never forget how other countries were there for us over decades. Germany would never have become the fourth-largest economy if other countries had not put their all into supporting us after 1950.

Question: In the past year the Greens had to accept and shoulder responsibility for a lot of things they probably would never have conceived of. To what extent has the war changed your party for the long term?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: Very little, because the perception that we as Greens found it hard to support Ukraine was, in my view, completely erroneous. Our party went through the debates others have been having now back in the Bosnian war, and then again in relation to Afghanistan. For us – and this, by the way, is why I joined Alliance 90/The Greens – the “responsibility to protect” was one lesson learnt from all that happened in the Balkans. That human lives can be defended against the most severe human rights violations and against genocide only if one refuses to shy away from difficult decisions and stands up to protect people – if necessary, using military means. That is why, from the very first day of Russia’s war, we supported Ukraine in its right of self-defence. In order to save lives.

Question: Not only the arms supplies were controversial.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: That’s true. Of course the decisions to bring coal-fired power stations back online were not easy, even thinking of energy supplies. There, too, though, we had already asked ourselves lots of questions before. As chairs of The Greens, Robert Habeck and I had gone through this very process with our policy programme before assuming government responsibility: facing up to dilemmas. Making it clear that hiding your head in the sand is not an option when your own values collide, when you cannot say that one value is more important than the other. Climate action is more important than saving lives? Social justice is less important than climate action? It is not as simple as that, so you have to weigh things up. What is of more benefit to people? What saves more lives? And what protects the climate more effectively? Weighing up arguments and then having the courage to take decisions – that is the very essence of politics.

Question:: One very sensitive issue that needed to be weighed up was arms supplies to Saudi Arabia. The Greens were sharply criticised for those. What lay behind this controversial decision?

Foreign Minister Baerbock: The fact that you cannot pick and choose. If you say that you defend international rules and international law, you cannot suddenly ignore applicable rules just because they do not suit you. In this case there are old contracts, also with other European states with which we want to continue to cooperate in future. You cannot simply declare these contracts to be null and void.

Question: That’s the argument the old coalition always used as well.

Foreign Minister Baerbock: If, as it now appears, Saudi Arabia has stopped the bombing in Yemen, we will fulfil the old contracts, but with conditions. We are taking a different approach from the previous Government, which supplied arms even as the bombing continued, and which did not impose conditions. That said, this is anything but a simple or a satisfying decision. If I could have a wish, it would be that we had inserted an option to terminate deliveries in the old contracts years ago. That is precisely what we want to do for future contracts with the Military Equipment Export Control Act.

Interview: Stefan Braun


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