The following interview on foreign policy issues such as Afghanistan, the NATO Summit, Libya and Europe appeared in the Schwäbische Zeitung online on 25 May and an abridged version in the print edition on 26 May:
Federal Foreign Minister, we’re just flying back from Chicago after the NATO Summit. Are you happy with the outcome?
We managed to do what was possible at the Summit. But of course the hard slog is still to come.
And where will that be done? In Afghanistan or on disarmament?
We all know that we are not able and do not want to stay in Afghanistan forever. So we need to implement the transfer of security responsibility and the withdrawal which has commenced in a serious and responsible manner. Also in the field of disarmament it is going to be a long haul.
As you said today in the press conference, there was a hint of nervousness on the way here about what would happen with the French. Now a solution seems to have been found which enables everyone to save face, above all the French President towards his voters. How did that come about?
Everyone, including the French, know that we have to stick with our credo of “in together, out together”. I welcome the unequivocal statement by the French President that France will continue to shoulder responsibility in Afghanistan even after 2012/13.
But he hasn’t yet said how this French commitment will actually shape up?
That isn’t something he can say just a few days after taking office. What is important is the political commitment. Following the change of government in France, Franco-German cooperation at international level has continued to prove its worth.
You and the Federal Minister of Defence have said Germany will of course show responsibility for Afghanistan even after 2014. Do you think the German public knows this?
A vast majority of Germans is happy that this Federal Government has begun the withdrawal over the last two years. That is what I promised before the Bundestag election and I am pleased that the withdrawal is now being performed with broad agreement across the international community. It is of course obvious that the work of the last ten years must not have been in vain. We need to remain vigilant in the fight against terrorism. It also boils down to our own security. We must not allow states to fail and become safe havens for terrorists. After the state of Somalia collapsed, there was a dramatic increase in piracy. This does not just endanger our security but also harms our interests as Europe’s largest trading nation.
Over the last few days, you and the Federal Chancellor have repeatedly pointed out that criticism of Germany and its supposedly hesitant behaviour is not justified within NATO. You pointed out there are enough examples of Germany’s engagement, for instance in Afghanistan and Kosovo. But of course Germany’s failure to participate in the mission against Gaddafi in Libya is a recurring criticism, a failure for which you are the walking personification. Did anyone bring that up in Chicago?
No. Germany’s work in the international community is held in very high esteem. At the time, I discussed our decision not to send German soldiers to the mission in Libya with our partners in great detail. Most NATO and EU states didn’t send soldiers to Libya.
So that is to say you would take the same decision today?
I laid down extensive reasons both at home and abroad for the decision not to send German soldiers to Libya. It is not true that this harmed our international standing. People know what we are doing internationally. We have been engaged in Afghanistan for ten years and are the third largest troop contributor. We are also involved in combating piracy, are engaged in the Balkans and off the coast of Lebanon. That is respected.
Do people in Libya mention that you weren’t involved in chasing the dictator out of office?
I’ve been to Libya twice since, also with a business delegation. People were grateful for our practical support, for example through providing humanitarian aid, treating the injured or quickly making available a loan when the National Transitional Council was in considerable financial need.
Before you became Foreign Minister you also dealt with foreign policy questions but it was by no means the focus of your work. How do you find your feet in a job like this? People even said you were a bit shy of the task. How do you get into a role where you have to represent a new Germany?
In my days as chairman of the party and the parliamentary group, I worked intensively on foreign policy and regularly visited the United States, European partners and the world’s new powerhouses. I know many of my fellow foreign ministers from back then. I am a very passionate Foreign Minister.
How do you represent Germany abroad these days? Is there a keen awareness amongst partners of Germany’s past?
German foreign ministers must always have German history in mind. Often enough this creates a special responsibility. When I am working to promote human rights in the world, I am not doing so while pointing the finger of the lecturing schoolteacher from the West but I am doing so in the awareness that after the darkest chapter of German history we, too, had to work to ensure human rights were respected in our country. That, among other things, is why we attach so much importance to value-oriented foreign policy. Those wanting to shape a country’s future have to know its past and learn the right lessons. On European policy, I believe above all we Germans need to show enough sensitivity towards our partners in Europe. Precisely because our economy is strong, we should have a particular degree of respect towards other peoples and other countries. I simply cannot understand some of the things said in Germany in the Greece debate.
Because in a debt crisis, you can’t seriously suggest to a country that it sells its islands. That was a Teutonic club that always turns into a boomerang. It just isn’t appropriate.
When you represent Germany abroad you occasionally travel with your partner. I know many people in Germany appreciate how natural and normal it is for you to do so but I believe this is the first time a German foreign minister has done this. How do people react in countries in which same-sex partnerships are either ostracized or even forbidden?
There has been more talk about this as a “problem” in Germany than in other countries. The world has moved on, perhaps also because a foreign minister has for the first time not drawn a veil of silence over his same-sex partner. We recently had a meeting in the United States with representatives from the gay, lesbian and transgender communities. They were encouraged by the fact that I met with them so openly. We must not only represent our business, security and strategic interests in the world, we must always stand up for our values as well. These include human and civil rights, religious plurality, freedom of opinion and freedom to demonstrate and respect for minorities.
For you as Foreign Minister, what are the greatest challenges in the coming months?
First of all, the future of European unity. There are many centrifugal forces at work in Europe. Some believe parts of Europe could be reversed. But people forget that then other achievements we all cherish such as freedom of travel would also hang in the balance. My generation still knows this is all of incredible worth and not to be taken for granted.
And today you take the Eurocity train from Hamburg to Budapest without having your passport checked.
I hope we Germans are clever enough to see that Europe is not just the answer of peace following centuries of war but that it is also our economic life insurance in this age of globalization. In India alone the population will soon reach 1.5 billion, three times the number living in the entire European Union. We need to adapt to these competitors and partners. Europe has to want to make its mark as a community of shared culture.
For our citizens and our readers it is not always entirely clear where foreign policy happens. They see the Federal Chancellor at major conferences and meetings and they wonder whether it is the Foreign Office or the Chancellery doing foreign policy?
Can you tell our readers how the Foreign Office and the Chancellery coordinate here?
There is close coordination on all foreign policy issues. That is also true of the Defence, Development and other Ministers. Many Ministries have increasingly international tasks. I am thinking for example of important issues such as education, school partnerships or international research cooperation. This research and academic relations policy is just as important as the external economic policy performed by the Economics Ministry. The Foreign Minister has the job of drawing up the basic tenets and ensuring the various institutions show conviction in presenting a united front abroad.