“Foreign policy characterized by moderation and restraint”

29.06.2013 - Interview

In an interview with the Aachener Zeitung Federal Foreign Minister Westerwelle talks, inter alia, about EU accession negotiations with Turkey, developments in Syria and relations with Russia. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the Aachener Zeitung. The questions were posed by Peter Pappert.


Question: The EU’s accession negotiations with Turkey are now not going to be resumed until the autumn. In these negotiations how great is the chance of strengthening those who want to see more democracy in Turkey?

Foreign Minister Westerwelle: On the one hand we recognize our long-term strategic interests. On the other hand, we cannot ignore the events of the past weeks. But our only chance to strengthen civil society structures is through dialogue.

Is the goal of these negotiations EU membership for Turkey with all the rights and obligations this entails?

The EU is conducting open-ended negotiations with Turkey. Nobody can know what the situation in Turkey or the state of the European Union will be in several years’ time.

Is Turkey a part of Europe then?

You can answer that from a geographical or a political perspective. I would advise us to adopt a pragmatic perspective. In the last ten years Turkey has become an impressive economic success story. It is in our interests for this young, up and coming country to move closer to Europe and not away from us.

Do you have a timeframe for the negotiations?

When the talks are resumed, we should get to the chapters on fundamental rights, the rule of law and civil liberties as soon as possible.

And they will play a decisive role?

There are dozens of chapters. We have to discuss everything calmly, rationally and respectfully. We mustn’t forget that Turkey is also our Alliance partner in NATO.

The NATO partners Britain, France and the United States are considering supplying weapons to the opposition in Syria in the light of the civil war in the country. You reject this option. Why?

Our concern is that ultra-modern arms systems could fall into the hands of extremists and terrorists. Radicals and jihadists fighting against Syria’s President Assad do not automatically become our allies.

So in Syria people are caught between a rock and a hard place: Assad has to go, but if you support the opposition, you could also be helping extremists.

Military support is not the only form of assistance we can provide. Germany is providing humanitarian aid in Syria and its neighbouring countries, to which millions of Syrians have fled. We are also helping to rebuild the infrastructure in the areas controlled by the moderate opposition. And we are also doing this because we know that the main responsibility for the violence lies with the Assad regime. We support the opposition forces who are committed to a democratic new beginning, pluralism and religious tolerance. At the planned Syria conference in Geneva we will appeal for a transitional government which can be accepted by all the different parties.

You continue to put your hopes in this conference. When is it going to start?

That is not yet clear. Its success is not certain. But it would be a mistake to sidestep even the slightest chance of a political solution.

Russian policy isn’t exactly boosting this chance. Moscow still supports Assad.

Of course we are unhappy with Russia’s policy towards Syria in the Security Council. But at the end of the day a solution for the people there, for the refugees and for peace can only be reached with Russia.

Moscow is always a difficult player in the international arena. What is Germany’s foreign policy strategy towards Russia?

In a nutshell: it is led by our interests and aligned to our values. In other words, we want to develop a strategic partnership with Russia – with regard to the economy but also in the area of civil society and the rule of law. At the same time we have to speak out plainly when the civil liberties of the people in Russia are not adequately respected.

Is a German Foreign Minister allowed to say that Russia is not a democratic state?

I have made a rule of formulating statements in such a way that we can still subsequently have a constructive influence.

So German foreign policy has no option other than to accept that autocracies and dictatorships exist?

No, we have to push for change, and that is a crucial aspect of our value-oriented foreign policy. But change and dialogue are not mutually exclusive. In our recent German history we have seen how change has occurred through trade. I believe it is wrong to fabricate a contradiction between economic interests and human rights considerations. Economic activity also generates cultural exchange and strengthens civil society.

Are you just as optimistic in the case of a country such as Saudi Arabia? Does it do German foreign policy any good to regard a dictatorship like the one in Saudi Arabia as an ally?

We don’t just cooperate with countries that are western-style democracies. That kind of foreign policy could hardly be successful. Only half of all countries worldwide are democracies according to our understanding of the term.

But do the others have to be our allies? Is Saudi Arabia one of Germany’s allies?

Even though our opinions differ on many issues, Saudi Arabia is our ally, for example in the fight against terrorism. In this area we have great joint responsibilities.

And for the sake of these joint responsibilities is the fact that this country is a terrible dictatorship irrelevant?

Of course the political situation is an important factor, simply because foreign policy is concerned with both aspects – values and interests. That is why the rule of law, human and civil rights, equality for women are always the issues at the top of my agenda on my visits to Riyadh.

So you are confident that the transfer of democracy is effective.

Not everywhere and not always as we in Western and Central Europe understand it, but yes I am, in the sense that it encourages normal people to engage in political, economic and social activity.

Can you describe the compass which former Chancellor Kohl said German foreign policy had lost last August?

I don’t remember Helmut Kohl saying it that way. I can easily describe the compass – it is set down in the preamble to the Basic Law: “to promote world peace in a united Europe”. That is why German foreign policy is peace policy. It promotes disarmament, arms control and conflict prevention, trade and exchange and above all international integration. To those who currently question the value of Europe, I say that Europe is not only the answer to many wars in history but also to the new challenges posed by the new centres of power in the world. Germany may be a giant in Europe, but in a world context it is much smaller.

Germany has a good reputation in the world and is regarded as powerful. This leads to expectations in some quarters that Germany should set the course and assume leadership. Meeting such expectations with restraint is an appealing characteristic of German foreign policy. Should and can it remain so?

We will continue to pursue a foreign policy characterized by moderation and restraint. In my view, leadership does not mean seeking to dictate or dominate, but rather engaging in cooperation and joint decision-making. That is the lesson we learn from our own history. In Europe the replacement of the principle of confrontation with one of cooperation is the greatest achievement of the last almost 70 years.

Is Germany a “reluctant hegemon”?

No. The culture of military restraint has nothing to do with reluctance, but with the best German tradition. To give that up would not be a sign of strength, but of weakness. We are fulfilling our responsibility in the world with more than 6000 Bundeswehr troops in operations abroad. However, we always focus on diplomatic rather than military solutions.

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