We must not discredit the tools of politics and diplomacy

30.07.2014 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has defended his dual Russia strategy – dialogue combined with sanctions – as effective. “There have already been economic ramifications, and for Russia they are distinctively negative,” the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs said in the “Interview der Woche” with Deutschlandfunk. Steinmeier also spoke of German‑US relations and the efforts to mediate in the Middle East. Broadcast on 27 July 2014.


Minister, first of all thank you for giving us the opportunity to have an in‑depth discussion with you in “Interview der Woche”. You’ve been in office for a good seven months now and since more or less day one you’ve had to deal with several crises simultaneously. We’ll get to the crises shortly, but you certainly didn’t have a 100 day period of grace, are you ready for a holiday?

I wish I had at least two weeks of uninterrupted holiday before me. I fear however that it will be a holiday full of disruptions, but nonetheless I’m still looking forward to spending a few days in South Tyrol.

No crisis has occupied you as much as one which probably no one could have seen coming when you took office, namely in Ukraine. It is a crisis which saw dramatic hours at the end of February in Kyiv, followed by images which none of us had imagined we would see. We’ll speak about the political implications in a minute but first I’m interested in whether you feel that this crisis has changed you as a person?

Well I don’t know if it has changed me personally, that’s something I may ask myself in one or two years’ time, but it has without a doubt considerably changed the way I view the resilience of Europe’s peaceful order. I did not anticipate that, seven decades after the end of the Second World War, another military confrontation would arise as a consequence of a redrawing of borders here in Europe. Without a shadow of a doubt, Russia triggered the full extent of this crisis when, in violation of international law, it annexed Crimea, this fact remains and should not be played down. Yet despite this, we must strive to ensure that this Ukraine crisis – as it’s known in media jargon – does not turn into a military confrontation which spirals entirely out of control.

From the outset you have argued for a dual strategy – to be willing to engage in dialogue on the one hand, but prepared to impose sanctions on the other. Your aim was de‑escalation, but the opposite has happened. If we’re honest do we have to say that this strategy has failed?

No, what we have to do is look at the other strategies that were put forward, and here I have to ask that we have a quick look back at what happened, as there is indeed evidence of a very different strategy. The other strategy involves ultimatums and limitless escalation of the situation. According to my philosophy, in foreign policy, ultimatums tie the hands not only of whoever they apply to but whoever delivers them as well. We’ve seen where this leads – in major conflicts such as in Iraq as well as more recently in Libya, for instance and if we look at a world map today, I can’t honestly say that they were felicitous solutions. In other words: we have to consider difficulties in their full complexity. There is no way of having 100 percent guarantees when dealing with such a conflict. That is why I am and remain in favour of striking a careful balance between, naturally, ramping up pressure on the one hand and repeatedly showing an openness to options for dialogue and negotiations on the other.

Do you think it’s possible that this patient stance towards Vladimir Putin has contributed to heavy weapons continuing to be delivered over the border, groups gaining strength, planes being felled from the sky and victims being treated in an undignified manner?

I don’t understand this talk of cautious treatment, because we have to be very clear about one thing: what exactly do we have in our tool kit? There may be some who advocate a military response to Russia’ policy. There may, in Germany, be someone or other who says that we should engage the Federal Armed Forces to strike back militarily at Russia’s plans. I don’t share this view, and neither, I believe, do the majority of people in Germany. Thus if we don’t have the option of resorting to military action then we must reach for political and military means. This is something we shouldn’t discredit, they are valuable tools which we really can work with.

I absolutely do not view these instruments as ineffective and neither does Russia for that matter. If you look at the cold hard figures you’ll see that even before sanctions against Russia were adopted, the country had lost 100 billion dollars. Why? Because the conditions for investing in the country are uncertain and so the West isn’t currently investing there, and because capital flight out of Russia is not letting up. In other words, oligarchs are taking their money out of the country. What I’m trying to say is that these are all effects of a policy which we devised and I see no weakness in it.

The tightening of sanctions shows that things are moving towards a substantial economic punishment. There comes a point when the 28 EU countries are pursuing very different interests. Are there sanctions to which Germany will say: stop, we can’t afford that.

Again, I think it’s rash to presume that we only start to see a negative economic impact when we start talking about a subsequent phase of sanctions. There have already been economic ramifications, and for Russia they are distinctively negative. A debate is taking place in the country about the issue. In fact in recent weeks, the former Finance Minister Kudrin – still a close advisor to Putin – gave an openly published interview, in which he warns Russia that its current policy could endanger the stability of the country’s economy. All of this goes to show that the effects of our policy have hit home in Russia. Of course, for as long as Russia continues to allow weapons and fighters to cross the border from Russia into eastern Ukraine, and thereby the separatists receive support, the pressure must continue to be ramped up. We have now created the conditions to make this possible. And you may then ask: are there sanctions which some countries are not collaborating on? Well it has become public knowledge that some, still deeply involved in armaments cooperation with Russia, are delivering military equipment, and are naturally much more reticent when it comes to sanctions on the arms industry than others.

Could you see yourself in a situation in which Germany is forced to say: no, we can’t go along with this demand because the consequences for us would simply be too drastic?

Of course I can imagine that. I can also imagine situations in which other European member states only propose sanctions which would entail consequences for Germany and a few others, that is something I wouldn’t agree with. If there are to be negative consequences then they should be borne by Europe as a whole, and the package of sanctions should be weighted in such a way that along with many others, the arms, finance and high‑tech industries are affected.

You’ve just mentioned the key topic of arms deals. Are you at all understanding when you get the impression that France wants to duck a possible blow from sanctions one last time in order to uphold an existing contract for a project worth billions?

That is the most publicly debated example and many people are making sure that this is and remains the only example to be discussed. However I can assure you that there are also other European countries who are continuing their arms cooperation with Russia in a similar way and who are glad to hide behind this example of France. If we’re serious about this, then the arms industry cannot be excluded from future sanctions.

Can you understand the French view that supply contracts must be honoured?

Whether or not I understand that is neither here nor there. What I have to recognise is that in any event, France will only collaborate on sanctions which will affect future contracts.

Have you tried to persuade your French counterpart to revise this position?

Believe me, not only myself, but many other Europeans have spoken about the issue of sanctions on the arms industry, including with the French. At the end of the day you have to accept the facts and avoid sugar‑coating reality.

Minister, to wrap up the complex issue of Ukraine – there has been a lot of talk about the effectiveness, possibilities and limits of sanctions as well as the tiers of sanctions. Does the demand to revoke the decision to hold the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia have a legitimate place in this discussion?

This is the biggest foreign policy crisis of the recent decades. Those who are responsible for hundreds of people dying in a plane which was in all likelihood shot down must be brought to justice. We take an equally serious tone when discussing how to overcome the current crisis and how to bring Russia round to a reasonable policy, one that takes responsibility for peace in Europe. Whether the whole debate over major sporting events belongs to this discussion is something I’ll leave open. I think that for the moment these are secondary issues.

The FIFA World Cup will take place in four years – I don’t know what the world will look like in one or two years, let alone in four. In this respect I view this debate as being somewhat far‑fetched. Incidentally, I’d like to say that we should perhaps consider whether major sporting events such as the Olympics or football world cups should take place in this way at all. If the choice of host nation, not only Russia but also Qatar, even Brazil recently, is controversial, then this begs the question – well where else then? I don’t think that repeatedly instrumentalising major sporting events like the FIFA World Cup is the right way to deal with extremely severe political crises and conflicts.

Let’s change topic Minister. If you agree, let’s speak about America for a few minutes. This is another case in which we often hear talk of values. In official discourse, attempts are often made to defuse tensions by saying that we share the same values yet have an important difference of opinion on one point. In the Brookings Institution in February, you gave a speech on transatlantic relations in which you warned that even so, this single point puts everything else at risk. How can these two statements be reconciled?

Well, Mr Remme, firstly I’d say that it’s not official discourse, I really believe that we should not play down the significance of transatlantic relations. But having said that, I strongly advocate us having an open and honest exchange with the Americans on what bothers us. For me there is no question that the activities of the US intelligence services in Germany were a breach of trust – not only concerning the public at large but also because evidently, many political decision‑makers in Germany were also spied on. This impression has been reinforced, as recently indications came to light that informers also appear to have been recruited. This is quite simply behaviour which has no place amongst friends and partners. It was therefore inevitable that, in no uncertain terms, we would state where we think that lines should be drawn. The difference however is that for my part, I can’t jump to the conclusion that this means we should be looking for some kind of replacement for the transatlantic relationship. Quite the opposite, we should take care to avoid the illusion that this transatlantic relationship, the partnership with America, can be replaced. I’m saying that in consideration of the many crises around the world which urgently require us to take steps towards de‑escalation or possibly political settlements. Many things won’t work without the Americans – a look at the Middle East may suffice to prove this. And therefore although some may find it difficult, we must make the effort to resolve our differences and to revive the relationship based on a new footing, by which I mean one of sincerity, candour and honesty.

Current figures from the Pew Research Centre show that the Germans have lost a great deal of trust in the American Government. What is striking is that this is not the case to the same extent in other western European countries. This prompts me to ask whether we, with our German thoroughness, have taken this controversy all too seriously?

That could be the case Mr Remme. I would rather focus on another reason. I rather think that the disappointment here in Germany was particularly great because the Germans saw themselves as a very close ally and partner of the Americans. And that was also possibly hyped up – as our children would say – after Obama took office, as already high hopes resting on America were raised to the skies. I can still remember sitting in a television programme when Obama was elected for the first time and telling your colleague: “I feel slightly sorry for Obama because the huge expectations which the whole world, including Europe, have piled on him are such that no single person could ever fulfil them.” And I believe that, to a certain extent, it has come back to haunt him that expectations were so high whilst the possibilities of any country, even one as big as America, the United States, are relatively limited in the face of existing conflicts.

So now we’re also getting down to placing friendly countries under surveillance. Is that the right conclusion to have drawn?

What does “placing under surveillance” mean? No one can fault what the Federal Minister of the Interior is quite rightly considering – whether we need to bolster our protection – by ascertaining whether we’re under surveillance.

Let’s look at the Middle East. John Kerry has invested a great deal and has shown the extent to which the US has lost influence in the region. If I remember rightly, in spring you were for a while relatively optimistic about the “Kerry mission”. What did you underestimate?

First of all, I’ll still say that in the situation as it stood then, following many failed missions in the Middle East, it took a lot of courage, indeed particularly for an American Secretary of State, to reopen the talks on a two‑state solution, placing the lion’s share of the responsibility for them on the United States’ shoulders. And in fact for a few weeks and months we had the impression that the momentum was strong enough and the pressure from the Americans high enough, for both sides – the Israelis and Palestinians – to be forced to budge and sign an agreement which would facilitate a second phase in which the details of a two‑state solution could be negotiated. We didn’t get that far. Now I don’t want to apportion blame. It was the same story as always, at the end of the day neither side was prepared to approach the American proposal with the necessary willingness to compromise. But you are right, international politics has also failed in this regard and I can assure you that no one was more disappointed that the American Secretary of State himself when both sides refused to sign or agree to the American proposal.

In this country, following the recent events in the Middle East people are talking about anti‑Semitism, something which you also spoke up about. Do you feel that we are lacking similarly clear statements from representatives of Islam?

I am pleased – and I think I’m not the only one who is – that the Central Council of Muslims clearly and openly renounced any form of racism and anti‑Semitism, especially in light of the latest developments in the Middle East. But in my view the problem runs deeper. In this Gaza conflict – the third within six years – commentary on the conflict has become practically ritualised. Nonetheless I would say that there have been some changes in the past six years, unfortunately though in the Middle East they have not been for the better. In particular the success, I’m sad to say, of radical Sunni groups such as ISIS has had ramifications on what is happening in the Gaza strip. Hamas itself is coming under pressure from even more radical and militarised groups and that partly explains the dynamic of the current conflict.

We must work to achieve a ceasefire as soon as possible. I am pleased that the Egyptians are involved again but things won’t work without other elements of the Arab League. Qatar must join in these efforts to bring Hamas to a ceasefire. The whole thing will only hold together if we manage to achieve two things: on the one hand, if we ensure that rockets and other heavy weapons are no longer stored in schools and hospitals in the Gaza Strip, the civilian population is no longer held hostage, so to speak, and that the process of demilitarising the Gaza Strip is initiated. However, the ceasefire will only last if on the other hand this is accompanied by a palpable improvement of the living conditions of people in the Gaza Strip. Israel has to be prepared to facilitate this.

Given the Chancellor’s dictum that Israel’s right to exist is one of Germany’s fundamental tenets of policy, how difficult is it for you as Foreign Minister to criticise Israel on this issue, for instance regarding settlement construction?

I think that the advantage of German foreign policy lies in the fact that in the Middle East, both sides – Israel and Palestine – listen to us, and this ultimately comes down to sincerity. We tell the Palestinians that due to the terrible history we share we have a special relationship with Israel and we feel a sense of responsibility. And to Israel we say that settlement construction has been anything other than helpful to the various attempts to bring peace to the Middle East. So our attitude is one which does not shy away from criticism when it’s necessary. But we must also understand that Israel cannot accept rockets being fired at it, as in recent weeks they have been from the Gaza Strip at a rate of 70 or 80 a day, not only at uninhabited or largely uninhabited areas but also at densely populated parts of Israel. And the fact that a country like Israel then has to resort to counter‑measures is something which I feel we Germans should understand. I’ll say again: civilian casualties must be avoided wherever and however possible, and that is why we urgently need a ceasefire as soon as possible. It is equally unacceptable however, for Hamas to use people in the Gaza Strip as human shields for the weapons and rockets which they store in the basements of schools, hospitals and apartment blocks. That is just as unacceptable.

When you entered office you announced a full self‑assessment of your ministry. If I’m not mistaken this is currently underway. Would you say that some of the results are already showing in the way you run the ministry or is it still too early for that?

No, it is still a bit early for that, but personally I’m learning a lot. What I still remember well from my first term in office, and what was partly the trigger for this so‑called self‑assessment, or to use the English name we’ve given it “review” of German foreign policy, what I still remember is that there was a huge rift between European and international expectations of Germany, of our foreign policy, and the significance and importance that we attach to foreign policy. We carried out a very interesting poll which included the question: “Are the Germans prepared to assume more responsibility in foreign policy or not?” What was most interesting was that more than 30 percent said that they could imagine doing so and that it should be on the agenda. But at the same time nearly 70 percent said: we absolutely shouldn’t do that and ideally it shouldn’t even come into question. So you see that there is a huge rift between public expectations and the willingness of the Germans to take on more responsibility. That is something that you need to know in order to identify the political task at hand. Quite simply, two aspects must be mentioned here: firstly, here in Germany, we may be doing better economically than many of those around us, but in terms of foreign and security policy we do not live on an island.

And secondly, we should finally stop equating the word responsibility with military intervention or foreign missions. That is not what my vote goes to, I say quite the opposite – anyone who doesn’t want us to be taking decisions about military operations must engage at an earlier stage, must be available when we need to use our own proposals, our own commitment, in situations which initially seem hopeless, to seek solutions, to avoid escalation or, where escalation and conflicts have already started or are in full swing, to help achieve de‑escalation. This is something you’re not always praised for – I experienced that myself – but this is part of what I understand as assuming responsibility in foreign policy, something which I think the Germans should indeed do.

Minister, thank you for your time.

Thank you.

Interview conducted by Klaus Remme. Reproduced here by kind permission of Deutschlandfunk.

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