“I am looking forward to President Obama's visit”

19.06.2013 - Interview

In an interview with the Neue Ruhr Zeitung (NRZ), Foreign Minister Westerwelle talks about the US President’s visit to Berlin, the situation of Russian civil society and the situation in Turkey, Syria and Iran.

Are you disappointed by Barack Obama?

No. I am looking forward to his visit. It confirms that the United States sees Germany and Europe as key Alliance partners and partners with shared values. And I’m hoping it will create momentum for disarmament policy, for more economic cooperation and for free trade.

Under Obama’s Presidency, the Internet is being trawled for information about foreigners, even the facebook posts of young Germans wanting to work as an au pair in the United States are being read. Surely that is something that shocks an FDP Foreign Minister.

To my mind, we need to talk about these questions with the US Administration in a friendly but open manner. We need to find the right balance between legitimate security interests on the one hand and protection of privacy on the other. That isn’t something peculiar to Germans, it is actually an innately American concern.

Supposedly, Interior Minister Friedrich wants to follow in America’s footsteps with Internet surveillance and increase the budget here. Does that make your hair stand on end?

As a champion of civil rights, Justice Minister Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger will take great care to ensure we strike the right balance. Safeguarding privacy is an asset of great value in the German Basic Law.

Talking of civil rights, last week you tightened up travel advice for Russia because homosexuals are being persecuted.

I very much regret that the situation for civil society and non‑governmental organizations has deteriorated so much in Russia. It is incompatible with a free democratic society that people live in fear of permanent observation and even persecution only because they criticize the government, work with partner organizations abroad or are homosexual. This is a situation we criticize. That is why we unfortunately had to adjust our travel advice. I expressed our stance clearly to the Russian Government.

Why is liberalism having such a hard time?

This isn’t the first time that we as liberals are seeing the difficulties inherent in the fight for civil rights. But ultimately, freedom and liberal thinking will take hold in the world. The demonstrations in Turkey also express that Turkish society is maturing and modernizing, making the reaction of the Turkish Government all the more regrettable.

Has Turkey disqualified itself from EU accession?

New questions have certainly been raised as far as the technicalities are concerned. A call goes out to the Turkish Government to react to the situation by de‑escalating and engaging in dialogue and not by issuing hard‑line rhetoric and thereby actually escalating. So to my mind we should now widen our talks to include the spheres of the rule of law and justice.

Syria doesn’t give cause for hope either.

You’re right, the situation in Syria is depressing. I visited refugees in Jordan. It would break your heart. Yet, I can’t be led by emotions alone but must also bear in mind that we need to prevent the conflict engulfing the entire region. We Germans have decided not to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition. But, as one of the largest donors, we are helping with humanitarian aid and with reconstruction. If other partners want to supply weapons, they have to answer the question as to how to ensure these weapons do not end up in the hands of extremists and terrorists. That would create new, perhaps even incalculable risks.

Have these countries learnt nothing from the past?

If our partners take this decision after carefully weighing up the situation, then this is something we respect. Germany will not supply any weapons. We believe there will not be a military solution in Syria.

But can we be sure that the aid from Germany is not falling into the wrong hands?

We are doing everything to ensure that what we are doing helps the right people in the right place. For this reason we have set up a project office in Turkey at the Syrian border.

Good and evil: Are things actually that clear‑cut in Syria?

In Syria, the primary responsibility for the violence clearly lies with the Assad regime. But the other side is also committing atrocities that cannot be accepted. The fact that they are fighting Assad does not mean jihadists, extremists and terrorists somehow become our allies. After all, these people see Damascus merely as a staging post, for them it is actually about Jerusalem.

Something presumably positive to wind up. Are you optimistic about developments in Iran?

We will observe the new political situation in Tehran very carefully. I am one of the Western foreign ministers who stayed in direct talks with the Iranian leadership. But at the same time it is clear to us that we cannot accept Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Now we need to see whether the new Iranian President follows a reform path both within the country and in its external relations, or more to the point, whether he is able to follow such a path.

Published inter alia in the Neue Ruhr Zeitung (NRZ) on 19 June 2013. Reproduced by kind permission of the NRZ. Interview conducted by Martin Korte.

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