“We are rightly expected to become involved”

30.01.2014 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier outlines his foreign policy. Published in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 30 January 2014.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier outlines his foreign policy. Published in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung, 30 January 2014.


Mr Steinmeier, you have returned to your office at the Federal Foreign Office after a four-year absence. What has changed?

My office is the same, but the world is not. I never expected to take up right where I left off four years ago. Just think of Syria, the Near and Middle East, and the trouble spots in Africa or Eastern Europe. Crises have moved closer to European borders.

That is nothing new. But the current Federal Government’s tone has changed. There is much talk of responsibility and engagement.

As right as a policy of military restraint may be, it must not be misinterpreted as a hands-off philosophy. Germany is too large to merely comment on global issues. It is all about taking foreign policy action: We are rightly expected to become involved and to do what we can to address conflicts as early as possible.

Germany is taking action” – many in Europe hearing this will roll their eyes.

Those who are quick to call for leadership then often find it hard to bear. My advice would be for us in Europe to not put on any hats that have little to do with European reality. This doesn’t mean that we are hiding, but that we want to make our own contribution, through joint, European action.

Does responsibility grow along with economic strength?

Within Europe, shifts in economic weight may have led to greater German influence. However, as I see it, this perspective is too Eurocentric. The big conflicts have moved closer to Europe, with direct effects also being felt in Germany. What is more: The old attitude that the Americans will take care of conflicts for us is simply no longer valid. The United States has not lost interest in Europe and the world. However, the US cannot, and no longer wishes, to be present everywhere. Whether we like it or not, we do need to bear greater responsibility for security in Europe.

What does this mean for the last resort of foreign policy, the use of armed force?

I will give you a straight answer: No foreign policy in the world can eliminate this last resort from its range of options. However, it is also a very German thing to only judge the quality of good foreign policy by how willing one is to take military action. I am firmly convinced that we spend far too little time thinking about how we can put together, and wisely use, a good toolbox for our diplomacy.

Can you give an example?

Libya is still a highly fragile state, following NATO's military intervention. How things go in Libya will have a strong effect on all of North Africa, as well as on us here in Europe. Arms originating from Libya threaten to also seriously destabilise neighbouring Tunisia, which is bravely fighting for its own democratic future. What do we do? Do we want to clear, secure or destroy the arms caches in Libya? What is the best way to go about this? How and with whom can we work to establish and pool sources of information, technical expertise, and political contacts with Tripoli, so that this will work?

What does this example mean in the wider context of your work?

Should we notfirst critically re-examine how we think about foreign policy? It is not hypocritical that we in Germany, too, honour and present awards to a giant of foreign policy like Henry Kissinger for his efforts to smooth the way for peaceful coexistence with, and openness towards, China – while at the same time we have a general suspicion against any interaction with states that do not conform to the basic order and societal patterns of Western European countries? This is not about sweeping anything under the rug. On the contrary: I am more concerned that we are increasingly losing our ability to communicate across national borders. The result would be less and less personal contacts and an increased risk of misunderstanding each other.

Kissinger is a controversial figure. His credo is that pure doctrine does not exist in foreign policy. Do you like that idea?

Is it only Kissinger, or foreign policy, that teach us there is no such thing as pure doctrine? There is a much bigger picture. What Kissinger points out is the old lesson in diplomacy that you are well-advised to take a look at a conflict from the other side's perspective before deciding on your own position. Particularly in Europe, we tend to pursue foreign policy by making bold statements. We are quick to pass judgment on events and developments, also in remote parts of the world. And we do so without first getting a clear idea of whether we are actually able to influence the situation. In my opinion, much more important than any debates about military intervention is discussing what political instruments can be employed and diplomatic pressure exerted, beyond public comments, to truly change the course of events. What can we do at an early stage, as opposed to nervously expressing our opinions when crises reach a peak?

What we do – is that commenting, or already passing moral judgment?

Where human rights are being trampled underfoot we must criticise and look for ways to resolve issues and help people. We must also support those who are brave enough to speak out against injustice in their countries and who demand involvement and participation. We have an absolute constitutional and ethical obligation to do so. However, foreign policy must not end once criticism has been expressed. Otherwise, we would only vent our indignation, which could quickly isolate us and end all discussion. I believe we need to add a bit of realism to our view of the world. What can, and what can’t, we influence? Many in Germany claim the high moral ground when making a judgment, knowing full well that they live in an exceptionally stable, democratic, free and prosperous country.

Syria demonstrates how foreign policy often has no option other than to choose the lesser evil. However, people in Germany often expect a perfect solution from Obama, or Putin, or Israel. Is there any room for realism considering the moral pressure?

Smart foreign policy that contains no realism often runs out of steam. My generation grew up during the antagonistic days of the Cold War. A world divided into two blocs, with cynical certainties, fostered a friend-or-foe mentality. After 1990, things were suddenly not so “cut and dried”. Conflicts were no longer driven only by differing worldviews, but rather by ethnicity or religion. This new complexity made conducting foreign policy more difficult, also because there was no longer a clear enemy.

But people expect orientation.

Orientation, yes, but not along the lines of oversimplified, and therefore false, categories of black and white. Hostile declarations such as the “axis of evil” have not brought us any closer to world peace. I am afraid other simplifications that ignore history, traditions and religion are also not helpful. The aim is not to justify oneself. Even though we may not like it, we cannot disregard the fact that there are regions in the world where guiding principles differ from those of Western democracy. Change in these places takes time.

So there will be no moreforeign policy based on values?

We demand that human rights be respected. Respect for human rights is enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations. Of course, we side with those people who are fighting injustice and repression. And of course we want our idea of democracy and our model of a welfare state that aims to maintain a balance, as well as our ideals of freedom and prosperity, to spread throughout as much of the world as possible. However, it must also be clear to us that in a world with millennium-old cultures and traditions such as in the case of China, our ideas will be challenged. Competition between systems only became relevant through globalisation. That is no reason for us to question our convictions or abandon our values – quite the opposite is true.

One need not look as far as China: The gap between morality and realism is already evident when looking at our relations with the United States.

The German-American friendship is beyond any doubt. My generation knows particularly well that we never could have attained democracy and prosperity without the support of the United States. As serious as the dispute over the NSA may be, we must not let it destroy our friendship and partnership, which have grown over the decades. Of course, we must have a serious conversation with Washington about how a new balance can be struck between freedom and security with a view to our concepts of democracy and civil rights. Ultimately, we may disagree. But I am convinced that the gaps between us will be bridged and that we will be much closer together than it might seem at present.

If your mobile phone is tapped, do you think this is normal?

Of course that strikes a chord with me. After all, it’s not only about the Chancellor's phone – whether it be that of Gerhard Schröder or of Angela Merkel. If we regularly reaffirm our friendship and partnership, then such things should be out of the question.

Until the Berlin Wall came down, Germany wasn’t really a foreign policy player. Then came Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. How do you tell a hesitant general public that we cannot always hold back?

Throughout the long years of the Cold War we lived on the most precarious faultline in international politics, but we were protected by alliances. We didn’t really have to take any risks of our own, even if German foreign policy always seized the opportunities for rapprochement across the Iron Curtain. After 1989, the reunited Germany had to grow up. It is still coming of age. I have not forgotten how difficult it was for us all to take the decisions on military involvement in the Balkan wars. Our refusal to participate in the war in Iraq has been remembered, our participation in Afghanistan, on the other hand, was conveniently forgotten. But neither of these two decisions should be viewed in isolation.

The United States is economically, militarily, and now also morally, on the defensive. How much will this weakness force Germany to assume responsibility?

Of course the Americans' operations abroad and the large number of casualties they have suffered in the past years have led to political, financial and psychological fatigue. Even within the US, doubts are increasingly being voiced as to whether the country is at the centre of a unipolar world, as it seemed to be in the Bush years. We therefore also have to hope that the American initiative in the Middle East will succeed. Its failure would tend to strengthen America's reluctance to be involved in the region. That would not be good news, not for the people there or for us.

Isn’t there a similar response in Germany, like in the US? People are giving up in the face of the problems.

I can well understand the feeling of being overwhelmed. Watch any international news programme on German TV and you could well fall prey to outrage and despair. We feel for the victims, for those fleeing or forced out. We expect immediate relief, justice and an immediate political reaction. It is the modern dilemma faced by foreign policy: it cannot match the pace set by the media. It took ten years of negotiations to defuse the conflict over Iran. And politicians have to explain why. If despite the public outrage and the expectations placed on us we can’t help , they have to say so. Explaining ourselves is also part of a grown up foreign policy.

Then they also have to explain why they refuse to negotiate with Assad, but are talking with his emissaries in Switzerland.

Foreign policy can and indeed has to live with contradictions. Dealing with Assad is one such contradiction. On the one hand, the aim is still a transitional government without Assad. But on the other hand, we have to talk to his people to gain humanitarian relief for the people of Homs and elsewhere. The stakes are high. If we don’t manage to calm the situation, all state order in Syria, Iraq and even Lebanon could disintegrate. Three failing states and an ensuing endless series of ethnic and religious civil wars would be a catastrophe whose effects would not be limited to the Near and Middle East.

So it is all about differentiation and communication. Will you become an itinerant preacher of foreign policy?

I don’t work in a pulpit. But yes, we who work in foreign policy must do much more to explain our work and not confine ourselves to talking to other diplomats. This is, by the way, one element of the review project I have just launched in the Federal Foreign Office. Are we still up to date in the ways we think and operate? Should we have a tighter focus? The idea is for the Federal Foreign Office to turn a critical eye on itself and its work. The project includes entering into dialogue with academia as well as the interested public using the social media and public events. Other foreign ministries, such as Norway's, have made more progress in this direction than we have. I think it will give us an opportunity to show people what foreign policy really is, away from Summit meetings and disasters.

Interview by Stefan Braun and Stefan Kornelius. Reproduced by kind permission of the Sueddeutsche Zeitung.

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