In an interview with the Saarbrücker Zeitung, Foreign Minister Steinmeier spoke about German foreign policy in the context of current conflicts and the spying allegations against US secret services in Germany.
Looking back to 1914, we were in the middle of that fateful month between the assassination in Sarajevo and the outbreak of the First World War. Did diplomacy fail at the time?
It’s frightening to see how, within a matter of weeks, a combination of nationalist zeal, a desire for global power and the personal vanity of the rulers was able to transform a regional conflict in the Balkans into a military inferno that affected the entire world. And it’s particularly frightening when you think that there were unprecedented economic, cultural and social ties at the time, as well as personal relationships between the ruling dynasties. Because of those ties, most people also thought back then that war couldn’t break out in Europe. But that’s not how things turned out. Yes, this was also a failure of diplomacy.
Have Europeans now learned their lesson from history, for example as regards the crisis in Ukraine?
The younger generation is hardly able to imagine war and military conflicts in Europe. The crisis in Ukraine has reminded many people for the first time in decades that we can’t take peace for granted in Europe either, but rather that we need to keep working hard for it.
And what about politicians?
Many of them see the risk that the Ukraine conflict could spread and not only divide Europe once again, but also lead to violent clashes. There were different positions within the European Union, but in the end, we were always able to find a united stance. And many people also did everything in their power to exert a certain influence on the conflict parties. The aim was always to prevent further escalation and to leave a path open for a return to a political solution.
Eastern Ukraine is the current hotspot in the conflict. What needs to happen there?
The situation is constantly changing. In military terms, it has changed since the separatists were driven out of cities such as Slavyansk and Kramatorsk. Politically, it is changing as regards relations between the Ukrainian and Russian governments. We are emerging from an extremely dangerous situation where there was no communication whatsoever. With a lot of hard work by diplomats, we have now reached a stage where the two governments are speaking directly to each other. We have to keep up those efforts now.
But there is still shooting in Donbas.
The crisis is a long way from being over. It is important to hold further talks and to make use of the direct contacts between the two governments after the Foreign Ministers Conference in Berlin and the first meeting of the Contact Group in Kyiv in order to broker a ceasefire. There won’t be a purely military solution to the conflict. Unless there are talks and dialogue with the people in eastern Ukraine, there is no chance of defusing the situation over the long term. What might help is the fact that the part of the eastern Ukrainian population that sympathised with the separatists for a while is now also increasingly moving in a different direction.
Before this crisis, there was a strategic partnership with Russia. Is there any chance of finding a way back to that with Putin?
During the last NATO council meeting, some people already wanted an answer to the question of whether Russia will be a partner in the future, or if it will be an opponent or even an enemy. In our own interest, we shouldn’t be too hasty in answering this question, and we definitely shouldn’t define friend and enemy categories. I don’t see the attempts to isolate Russia as an appropriate answer to the foreign-policy challenges of the 21st century. But it’s true that the unlawful annexation of Crimea has damaged relations between Russia and Europe. It’s hard to imagine a return to “business as usual”. What will or will not be possible with Russia in the future will depend on how Russia behaves in the crisis in Ukraine.
Let’s move on to our best friend, the United States. How disappointed and angry are you about the allegations that the Americans are spying on Germany, and now even on the Bundestag?
The security authorities now need to find out quickly what really happened. It would be extremely alarming if the spying simply continued as before while we are investigating the NSA’s surveillance activities and have set up a committee of enquiry in the Bundestag for that purpose. Given our very close and open relations with the United States, it’s a mystery to me as to why such methods are used. We very often talk with each other, and no one makes a secret of their position. Not only are the attempts to discover something about Germany’s position using clandestine methods not the done thing, they are also completely unnecessary.
The US Embassy at the Brandenburg Gate seems to be the centre of the activities. As foreign minister, you can strip those involved of their diplomatic status. Are you going to do so?
Our response is not a matter of making noise, but rather of sequence. We hope to know soon if, how and to what extent the American services used clandestine methods to procure information illegally. And how we respond to such activities will depend on that information.
Published in the Saarbrücker Zeitung on 9 July 2014. Reproduced by kind permission of the publisher. Interview by Werner Kolhoff.