Interview with Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on the civil war in Syria and Germany’s arms exports policy. Published in Der Spiegel on 21 May 2013
Mr Westerwelle, what goes on inside your head when you see images of the massacres occurring almost daily in Syria?
I feel first and foremost sympathy for those who are suffering. For someone like me who’s been to a refugee camp, what we see and read about in the news strikes a very personal chord.
Probably every German feels sympathy in this situation. You’re our foreign minister, you could do something about it. Why is so little being done?
A great deal is being done, but what we’ve done so far has failed to bring peace. But as foreign minister I can’t allow myself to be led only by my feelings. It’s crucial to prevent a conflagration that could engulf the whole region.
What reason is there to believe your strategy will be any more successful in the future?
The United States and Russia have announced plans to jointly convene an international conference on Syria. That opens up new prospects for a political solution. No military solution will bring lasting peace and stability.
The West has been trying for two years to find a political solution – to no avail. The death toll has now reached 80,000. In foreign policy is there such a thing as sins of omission?
In Syria there’s no easy way forward. Yet the attempt must still be made to lay the basis for a political process that could bring stability and peace in the long term. Both in direct talks and in my public statements, by the way, I make clear how disappointed I am by the line taken by Russia and China in the UN Security Council.
Others have fewer scruples about supplying arms. Russia and Iran are supplying Assad and his allies with military equipment, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are supplying the Islamist rebels. Why is the West leaving the moderate opposition in the lurch?
We’re providing the moderate opposition with all kinds of assistance. We’re supporting their efforts to advance reconstruction in areas under their control. We’re flying out seriously wounded patients and treating them in German hospitals. Germany is one of the leading aid donors.
The opposition wants arms supplies.
There are two questions we must answer here. Firstly, will fewer people lose their lives if more arms are sent to Syria? Secondly, how can weapons be prevented from falling into the wrong hands, into the hands of extremists, terrorists and jihadis, for whom Damascus is just a staging post on the way to Jerusalem?
These groups are already armed.
Just suppose a modern air defence system ends up in the hands of anti‑Semitic jihadis or a terrorist faction like the Nusra brigades. What would that mean for civil aviation in the region, for Israel’s security? There are no easy answers to the arms supply question.
France and Britain now give an answer that’s different from ours.
I respect that, as I can understand their motives. If our friends stick to this position, the EU’s arms embargo will expire this month. In that case we’ll need to ensure that in other respects the sanctions against the regime remain in place.
Can you envisage agreeing to arms supplies if the situation in Syria continues to escalate? Do you have any red lines?
I don’t have any red lines. Nor do I say that all options are on the table. However, the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction by whatever party would require the international community to make an entirely new assessment of the situation.
Does that mean the German Government has no evidence indicating that chemical weapons have been used? Other countries have stated that they’re in possession of such evidence.
Up to the moment we’re speaking, we have no evidence of our own pointing to the use of chemical weapons of mass destruction. I’ve requested our partners who’ve reported having such evidence to pass on whatever facts and findings they have to the United Nations and also ourselves.
Back when you were in the opposition, you voted against Germany’s participation in the UNIFIL mission off the coast of Lebanon. You were against deploying the Bundeswehr in the fight against Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Under what – if any – circumstances would you be in favour of deploying German military personnel abroad?
The UNIFIL mission was something entirely different from a combat mission in Libya. And the situation in Syria is very different again from the situation in Libya. In other words, you have to have principles, but when it comes to deciding on specific cases, you always have to weigh up the pros and cons.
What are your principles?
We believe, first and foremost, in a culture of military restraint. That means we give political and diplomatic solutions priority. This doesn’t mean we don’t realize that sometimes political solutions need to be backed up or complemented by military force. Our commitment to a preventive security policy means that we also seek to promote disarmament and nuclear non‑proliferation. When I became foreign minister, this agenda was dismissed as an idealistic bee‑in‑my‑bonnet. Today everyone realizes how urgent it is.
So did the former Red-Green government act rashly when it participated in military operations in Kosovo or Afghanistan, for example?
I voted for both operations. But it’s important to learn the lessons of the past decade. In Afghanistan a political solution should probably have been attempted at a much earlier stage of the mission. And we need to go into such missions with realistic expectations. For quite a while one almost thought that the idea in Afghanistan was to create some kind of Central Asian Switzerland. That was unrealistic, of course.
So will we be deploying German forces also in future in situations where we know we can’t build stability and democracy?
Military deployments are not some kind of development-aid, democracy-building exercise. Their purpose is to guard against danger: dangers for our security, dangers for particular ethnic or religious groups in a country. Obviously our military deployments are intended to serve our own interests, too. To argue otherwise would be naive.
You hinted at one point that your commitment to a culture of military restraint has to do with your own life-story.
I was born in 1961. As a child World War II was still very present at home, it was something we talked about. My father had been too young to be called up, but he’d had to dig trenches. My uncle, a few years older, had been sent to the front. We occasionally looked together at photos from the war years. And I remember seeing my uncle, such a strong man, sitting there with tears in his eyes. That left a very strong impression on me.
Did it affect your outlook on life?
It’s something I could never forget. The fact that you didn’t experience the war yourself doesn’t mean you don’t understand the consequences.
How has that shaped your political views?
Military deployments must never be a normal policy instrument, they must remain the absolute exception. As a minister, I’d rather be criticized for scrupulously weighing up the pros and cons, at times even doubting the wisdom of a given course than be reproached for rashly sending German soldiers into action.
Especially abroad Germans are often criticized for using their past as an excuse for doing nothing. It’s high time they showed leadership also in the military sphere, it’s argued.
I sometimes read that Germany’s democracy must finally grow up. I for my part don’t see it as a sign of maturity to regard military deployments as something normal. That doesn’t mean I’m naive. I was never a peace activist or pacifist and I’ve never been carried away from a protest rally at a military barracks. Perhaps that’s why I don’t have to compensate today for anything in my past.
There’s also another lesson from World War II, of course. That Germany was liberated from dictatorship because others were prepared to fight and die.
Absolutely. “Never again” is something that works both ways. That’s why you can only ever spell out rules and principles. When a concrete situation arises, you then have to decide what action to take.
Deployments abroad are never popular at home. Is a culture of military restraint not some form of populism?
If that’s how you want to see it, then that’s the way it is. But given the consistent stand I’ve taken throughout my thirty years in politics, I think that criticism is unfounded. For military deployments abroad to be increasingly seen as normal is something I cannot and will not accept.
One way to avoid such deployments, Chancellor Merkel hopes, is for Germany to help its strategic partners in crisis regions to assume responsibility themselves for security. In other words, she wants to supply them with arms. Is this a good strategy in your view?
This so‑called Merkel doctrine doesn’t exist.
That was how the Chancellor herself put it.
We pursue a restrictive policy on arms exports and we strongly back disarmament. In 2011, for example, arms exports as a proportion of our total exports were the lowest they’d been for a decade.
Thanks to your restrictive arms exports policy, Germany is now the world’s third largest arms exporter.
You know these figures and rankings are by no means undisputed. And it’s important to look of course at what’s actually supplied. Take our arms exports to Saudi Arabia, for example. A considerable part is equipment for its border security system. We’re helping an important partner in the region to protect the country from terrorists infiltrating from Yemen.
Saudi Arabia provides funding for fundamentalist movements all over the world. Despite that, there are plans to sell them tanks. Qatar has already bought 62 Leopards and 24 self‑propelled howitzers. Are these countries so democratic that we should be supplying them with weapons?
We supply arms not just to democratic NATO countries. We also have to take the security situation of other partners and allies and the whole region into account. What I said before applies here, too. Every case must be considered on its own merits and a responsible decision taken.
Shouldn’t it be possible to have public debates on such matters? The Federal Security Council deliberates in secret.
And that’s how it must remain, for it deals with very sensitive security issues. But you’re right, the present situation is unsatisfactory. Occasionally something does leak out, about various companies, for example. Then the public and Parliament demand to be informed. However, we can’t openly argue our case, since we’re bound to secrecy in such matters.
And how do you propose to resolve this dilemma?
We have to become more transparent. This means in future that once decisions have been taken, the arms export reports should be published sooner than in the past.
That’s something we have to discuss with Parliament.
Parliament will still be confronted with a fait accompli.
We should set up a new parliamentary body, where MPs from the various parliamentary groups and government officials could discuss all these security matters. Since these matters are highly sensitive, the new body would have to meet in closed session, as the Parliamentary Control Panel does for the intelligence services. This is something we clearly need to develop further. That’s the conclusion I’ve reached in my nearly four years as foreign minister.
Mr Westerwelle, thank you for your time.
The questions were put by Christiane Hoffmann and Ralf Neukirch. Reproduced by kind permission of Der Spiegel.