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“We live in historic times”

27.08.2013 - Interview

Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on the alleged use of poison gas in Syria, the upheavals in the Arab world and stricter anti‑gay legislation in Russia. Published in the newspaper Südkurier on 27 August 2013.

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Mr Westerwelle, as we sit here in Stockach people have just been killed, allegedly by poison gas, in Syria and the morgues in Egypt are overflowing. What is going on in the Arab world?

We live in a time of sweeping historic changes. These are the first minutes of a historic hour. Unfortunately this brings with it great danger for the region’s peace and stability, and thus also for us in Europe, as it is in our neighbourhood.

That means that Germany can not only issue admonitions and warnings. But what options are open to us?

The power of language and dialogue should not be underestimated. Language is still the most important tool of foreign policy and diplomacy. Even when our influence is limited – which when think of the violence in Egypt, it is – then it is quite right to leave no stone unturned. The fact that the Europeans have agreed not only to re‑examine all cooperation projects, but also to suspend delivery of goods that could be used for repression in the country, shows that we are not only talking, but are also acting resolutely.

What is the atmosphere like when you meet with your counterparts in the EU to discuss such issues? How palpable is the feeling of helplessness?

Everyone is concerned. If we think of the terrible images coming out of Syria, this is not only political concern but also heartfelt sympathy and often deep horror at the brutality that we are forced to witness there. The use of chemical weapons would be a crime against civilisation. The international community must act should the use of such weapons be confirmed. In this case, Germany will be among those who consider that some consequences will have to be drawn. We are working closely with the United Nations and our allies on this.

Can you exclude the possibility of military intervention?

Lasting stability in Syria will only be achieved through a political solution. The regime in Syria is still being supported by Russia. To date the obstructive stance of Russia and China within the United Nations Security Council has been a source of the international community’s lack of options.

Is that not exactly why it is time to restructure the Security Council? Surely it cannot be acceptable for old East‑West animosity to obstruct solutions to every conflict that arises?

We are going to have to get used to a world order in which the West does not hold sway alone, but one in which many new players, who also have their own political beliefs, are rising to prominence. That is in fact why I advocate a reform of the Security Council. Not because of the current situation in Syria and the impasse in the Security Council, but because in its current composition, the Security Council reflects the balance of power as it stood after the Second World War, but not as it stands in the world we live in today.

Germany itself attracted harsh criticism for abstaining in the Security Council vote on intervention in Libya. Would you act differently today?

I did not want to send any German soldiers to Libya and this is exactly what would have happened. Time will tell how this will be judged in the history books of the future.

Not long ago you were in Egypt yourself, and recently you were also in Tunisia. What was your impression, has the Arab spring given way to an Arab winter?

I am not convinced that the term Arab spring is appropriate – or Arab winter. In truth “Arab seasons” come and go. The situation is extremely different from one country to the next. In fact, to liken Libya to Syria in no way does justice to the realities on the ground. In Syria there is ultimately also fraught religious and ethnic conflict, which is spilling over into neighbouring countries. For example here I am thinking of the ongoing trouble in Iraq, the danger of contagion in Lebanon, the destabilising effect of waves of refugees entering Jordan and the tensions along the Turkish border as well as the security interests of our democratic ally, Israel.

You spoke of a historic hour, but is the clock not in fact being turned back? In Egypt former power brokers are regaining control.

That danger does exist. As Europeans we are sending a clear message: we oppose a return to the pre‑revolution era, by which I mean the restoration of an old, autocratic regime propped up by the military. That is definitely not what the Egyptian people want, let alone what is in their interest. But Egypt’s course will be chartered in Egypt. Not in Brussels, not in Washington and not in Berlin. Neither Europe nor the West should overreach themselves. We can only help.

What impression do you have of the people? What is the impetus for change for them? Are they motivated by religion, a desire for prosperity or indeed the yearning for democracy that we so hope to see in them?

It’s a bit of everything and more. I have never shared the idealistic view that colours public debate in the West. I was thrilled by the spirit of a fresh start in Tahrir Square directly after the revolution, however after my visit to Cairo two and a half years ago I immediately said: no one should be mistaken, the people there were not just calling for a more democratic society in which their voices would be heard, but more for social and economic opportunities. I recommend that we bear this differentiation in mind when we assess the situation in the Arab world.

What do you mean by that?

From Morocco to Jordan to Oman, there are countries evolving. There are countries which have experienced traumatic periods, like Algeria. And there are revolutions such as those in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. As you can see, developments in these countries vary greatly.

That is not always easy to grasp from a German point of view.

That is due to the fact that discussions are sometimes superficial, because we treat too many things as one and the same. We talk about Islam without considering the differences and conflicts within Islam. We talk about the Arab world and overlook the fact that the Arab world is not a monolithic block. We talk about the Arab spring and yet, that revolutions evolve very differently and are sometimes susceptible to setbacks is something that we as Europeans should be aware of, especially since 1989. Although I by no means think that what is taking place in countries currently undergoing transformation can be so easily compared to what happened in 1989/90 in Europe.

There is not only conflict in the Arab world, Russia has taken a step back by modern standards by ramping up anti‑gay legislation. At the World Athletics Championships in Moscow two female athletes protested with painted fingernails.

I take my hat off to these two sportswomen. I also think that the treatment of homosexuals in Russia is unacceptable.

As German Foreign Minister, do you have the chance to support people?

Yes, for example we are doing so by strengthening civil society in Russia, and by pointedly holding many meetings with members of the opposition. And of course you can imagine how even at my first press conference in Moscow, the fact that a German Foreign Minister, who lives with a man, was sitting there set some people on the sidelines chattering.

How did you gather that?

You can often observe it when I visit countries in which homosexuality suffers discrimination or persecution. It is an encouragement to civil society and at the same time fuels spirited debate on the part of the host and reporting media.

Do you have the nerve to address them about it directly?

Yes, I’ve done several times.

Even negative things?

I’ll never forget how, after I called on him, during my visit together with the Polish Foreign Minister, to respect human rights and stop oppressing the opposition, the Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko said it was “better to be a dictator than gay”.

[…]

Looking back, what would you say has most marked your time in office?

Three things: Europe and the task of steering our ship through stormy seas – something which to date we have managed to do. The seismic changes in our southern neighbourhood, so in North Africa, the Middle East and in the Arab world. And then something which probably few political observers will have noticed over the past four years, but which I nonetheless consider to be the largest and most important challenge. That is how can we safeguard our liberal and economically successful way of life in the face of rising new centres of power in Asia, Latin America and also in Africa. We must be careful not to let ourselves be sidelined in this new world order.

When you work are you aware that you’re playing an active role in historic moments?

I’m very aware that as I carry out my duties as Foreign Minister, we are in the midst of historic times. But most of the time working in this post is so demanding that one has no time for moments of reflection. That’s not a complaint, as I’m very glad to do my job. But it is hard to imagine just how challenging the post of Foreign Minister is at the moment. You need the stamina of a horse. After all, horses can sleep standing up.

Recently the magazine Focus declared you best travelled of all German Foreign Ministers – over 300 trips to 107 countries. Is there anything that particularly impressed you?

I was in a slum in Bangladesh, amid the kind of poverty and hardship that we cannot even conceive of in Germany. There I visited a school which was in reality one small room and a health clinic which would more aptly be called a sparse treatment room. I met two young women, perhaps in their mid‑twenties, who had dedicated a year of their lives to working as doctors there as if it were a given. I have rarely been so proud of my country. For me, they are the real heroes of our age.

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Interview conducted by Margit Hufnagel. Reproduced by kind permission of the newspaper Südkurier.

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