Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle on the NSA surveillance affair, the withdrawal of German troops from Afghanistan, the situation in Syria and the priorities of his foreign policy. This interview was published in the newspaper Welt am Sonntag on 10 November 2013.
Minister, would you have believed that your last few weeks in office would be so exciting?
No, I didn’t expect this turbulence between Germany and the United States. Nor do I want to deny that I, as a committed transatlanticist, am disappointed.
Has the surveillance affair changed how you communicate?
So you are using your mobile phone just as before?
When necessary, tap‑proof lines are used for conversations with foreign counterparts. Within the Federal Government, with the Federal Chancellor or the Defence Minister, we often talk briefly in person on an ad hoc basis.
Are you afraid of being bugged?
I presumably have to expect that some of my conversations are being bugged. But there was no reason to expect our closest allies to engage in such surveillance and this is very disturbing.
Some say bugging is simply part of intelligence work – whether friend or foe.
I am relying on the statements by the head of the Federal Intelligence Service that his service is not spying on the US Administration. It is not acceptable for international friends and partners to use such methods. Friendship is rooted in trust. Those who betray trust harm friendship. Or, as Prime Minister Jean‑Claude Juncker said this week in Gütersloh, friends listen to each other but don’t listen in.
On Tuesday, you summoned the British Ambassador, before the American Ambassador. Can you tell us how this summoning process works?
We told the British Ambassador in a matter‑of‑fact conversation that spying work based in an Embassy building was not compatible with international law. It seems this was the first time an American Ambassador was summoned by a German Foreign Minister. But it was a necessary, clear diplomatic signal. I would have been happy if we hadn’t had to. But the revelations are so concrete that this forceful diplomatic tool was appropriate.
How should we picture the atmosphere in such a conversation?
Extremely punctilious, resolute and insistent. I am very careful to do these things properly. The talks were appropriate in terms of tone and atmosphere. During four years’ work as Foreign Minister, you get to know how to strike the right tone and find the right words. There are no loud accusations or rebukes.
Were it not for the former secret service agent Snowden we would know very little about the spying activities. Now Christian Ströbele of the Green Party has met Snowden in Moscow. Would that not have also been an appointment for a member of the German Government?
Are you trying to suggest that the German Foreign Minister officially travels to Russia to conduct such talks? I travel to Russia often and am happy to do so but it is not exactly the cradle of data protection.
Do we not need to do justice to Snowden?
The question as to whether a committee of inquiry will be formed is one that can only be answered by the Members of the German Bundestag. And despite all the well‑founded outrage, the United States of America is a parliamentary democracy and a state based on the rule of law. The United States is and remains our most important partner outside Europe. What is important for me is that we draw the right conclusions and also take the right steps. A bilateral agreement with the United States on not spying on one another is not enough.
So what do we need?
The European Parliament and the Federal Minister of Justice have for example raised the question as to whether the SWIFT agreement on the transfer of data should be suspended for the time being. What we should do in our own strategic interest is continue with the negotiations on a comprehensive free trade agreement between the EU and the United States. What is more, we need a global agreement on data protection. Germany and Brazil have set the ball rolling by proposing a resolution in the United Nations. Influential countries, also in completely different regions of the world, for example Indonesia, are voicing their support.
What would such a global agreement mean for the work of intelligence services?
Such an agreement would adapt international law to the modern‑day technical reality. It would make life much more difficult for those intelligence services which simply cannot stem their curiosity and thus restrict individuals’ liberty rights. And it would help right the balance between protecting privacy and pursuing legitimate security interests. It would be naive to believe we could completely forego the findings intelligence services have to offer. Also in Germany, we are threatened by terrorist attacks. It is also due to the work performed by intelligence services that we have thus far not fallen victim to such attacks.
Your time as Foreign Minister also saw the decision to withdraw German combat troops from Afghanistan. Was it a mistake to intervene?
No, but we need to learn from Afghanistan. Our decision to withdraw combat troops was not based on pacifist ideology. At the end of the day, people simply realised that a military solution does not create lasting peace. Generally speaking, it is only political solutions which generate stability, peace and development, even if these solutions do sometimes need military support. In my time in office, Germany did not participate in any new wars. We were able to considerably reduce the number of German soldiers on missions abroad and put the focus on diplomatic and political solutions.
Is that your political legacy?
As a politician, I have often been criticised for being against German involvement in military interventions on several occasions. But how are things looking today in Iraq? Or in Libya? I cannot see why the reunified Germany gaining in political maturity has to go hand in hand with more military interventions. For me, political and diplomatic solutions have priority. We should stick to our culture of military restraint. German foreign policy is policy for peace. The pickelhaube doesn’t suit us.
Military interventions can be necessary on humanitarian grounds. The situation in Syria is horrific and the world is just standing by.
I don’t believe things would change for the better in Syria were there to be a military intervention now. That is why the German Government was against such an intervention. In Syria, there is no alternative to a negotiated solution.
As Foreign Minister, would you have liked to do more straight talking than you were allowed to?
I would have liked to on several occasions but as a Government Minister I managed to restrain myself.
Is one example perhaps the years of negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme?
An Iranian nuclear bomb would be an enormous threat stretching far beyond the Middle East and impacting the entire global security architecture. That is why the negotiations on a political, diplomatic solution are so important. In recent years, there were several occasions when everything was teetering on the brink. Now we are closer to a reasonable solution than we have been for many years. I hope we can find a path to reach agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme which rules out military use in a lasting, sustainable and verifiable manner. We want to take the first major steps in this direction here in Geneva.
How big a role does Germany play in the talks?
From the very outset, we Europeans have played a very important role. It is no secret that Germany managed to keep communication channels open also in difficult times. I have always maintained an exchange with my Iranian colleagues.
The Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu fears Iran is just double‑crossing the international community. Can you assuage his fears?
We very much understand Israel’s concerns about the Iranian nuclear programme. Transparency and controls are the key. We need regulations that make all the agreements and pledges made by Iran completely verifiable by the international community and the experts in the International Atomic Energy Agency.
When were your best political years?
(laughs) You are aware that I’m turning 52 not 82 in December ... It really is too early to think about such questions. But looking back over the last few years, there are so many memorable experiences which will stay with me forever. The time I visited Syrian refugees in a camp in Jordan was unforgettable, or the chat to two doctors in a slum in Bangladesh, conversations with young soldiers in Afghanistan where courageous men burst into tears describing what they had experienced. I am thinking also of the funerals of soldiers who lost their lives, of receiving the coffin of a police officer killed in Yemen. With its many trips and time zones and the need for permanent availability, the post of Foreign Minister is physically very demanding. But as Foreign Minister you meet so many people and hear so much about what they are going through. It is these stories that leave their mark.
Interview: Karsten Kammholz and Christian Malzahn. Reproduced by kind permission of the Welt am Sonntag.