Staying out of things is not an option

22.10.2014 - Interview

When is it our duty to intervene ? – an interview with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the weekly newspaper “DIE ZEIT” on Germany’s role in a world that has come loose from its moorings. Published on 23 October 2014

Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Ebola – we’re seeing one crisis after another. On various occasions this year, you have said that the world has come “loose from its moorings”. Isn’t this making people even more frightened?

I think the expression sums up the way people are actually feeling. In all my years in politics, I can’t remember a situation when we had such a large number of profound crises and conflicts involving so many unpredictable players at the same time. Despite this, there is no need for alarmism. We need to prepare ourselves for the fact that crises as we are currently experiencing them will unfortunately tend to become a normal state of affairs in the coming years. This places high demands on foreign policy.

Do you think the situation is more dangerous today than it was during the Cold War era?

We really don’t have any reason to romanticise the Cold War era. After all, we Germans in particular should remember that not only was our country divided and many families torn apart by the decades of confrontation between East and West, but that every disagreement between the US and Russia had an impact on life in central Europe. We can be grateful that war didn’t break out in central Europe at the time. There were plenty of proxy wars all over the world and they claimed many lives.

But why do foreign policymakers seem to be struggling so much in comparison with the past?

One of the differences is clear: we are no longer able to predict what our opponents will do. Despite the huge antagonism between the communist and capitalist systems, and despite the animosity between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the other side’s interests, reactions and counter-reactions were fairly predictable. Now we have other types of opponents, such as non-state players and radicalised ethnic or religious groups. We have the ISIS terrorist militia with its pseudo-religious ideology combining the barbarity of the Middle Ages with the latest weapons technology, and sharia with the internet – a group that consciously acts outside any international systems whatsoever. Fear of dying doesn’t deter ISIS fighters, as jihadists want to die and regard death as an honour. Given the level of brutality and cynicism used by ISIS, it is not possible to negotiate with this terrorist militia. This changes the parameters for foreign policy.

Unlike the political elite, people in Germany are not keen on greater involvement in international affairs, let alone military interventions.

It’s true that we have a huge gap between the international community’s expectations of Germany and the actual willingness among large parts of the population to take on greater responsibility. But we shouldn’t just lament this state of affairs. We need to explain our policies more clearly and to address preconceptions and misunderstandings openly. I was reminded about how much other countries are looking to Germany when I was at the UN General Assembly in New York. One reason they are looking to us certainly stems from respect for our economic performance, but they also admire our stable democracy. The expectations are too big and they also go beyond what we can provide in some areas. Despite that, staying out of things is not an option. The idea that we can live in a kind of Paradise in Europe and be left in peace from the fury of the world won’t work.

This leaves the impression that you have failed in your endeavours to persuade Germans to become more involved in international affairs.

Why “failed”? Germans are dealing even more with international crises now than they were ten months ago. They are moved by what is happening in the world. Naturally, it’s difficult to find the right answers. But most people want to make the world a bit more peaceful than it is at the moment – and I know that I share the view of the vast majority as regards this aim.

The Germans are willing to provide humanitarian assistance, but they don’t want Germany to get involved in military intervention. There seems to be an unshakeable pacifism in Germany.

Looking at the 20th century, when Germany brought about two world wars that claimed at least 75 million lives, should a German foreign minister complain about the need to persuade people to agree to get involved in international missions such as the one in Afghanistan or to supply weapons to northern Iraq? I find it very reassuring that people need to be persuaded about the need for such decisions.

Air strikes have not been able to stop the jihadists in Syria so far. Aren’t the measures against ISIS too weak?

We need to be more patient in the fight against ISIS. It won’t work if we only use military means – but it certainly won’t work without them. Over the course of the last six weeks, we set up a broad international alliance and made difficult and game-changing political and military decisions. The air strikes did have an impact. The front lines in Iraq are now different to what they would have been if the Americans had not decided early on to use air strikes. I am not sure if the Kurdish part of Iraq could have held out without the air strikes.

If air strikes help, why are we not taking part in them?

With a dozen countries conducting air strikes, it doesn’t make sense to take part as the thirteenth country. The alliance against ISIS will only be successful once we divide up the tasks among the international community so that we are not all doing the same thing. This is why it is right and important that several Arab countries are also active in the alliance against ISIS and showing that this is primarily their own fight against those who are perverting their religion. Some of these countries are also taking part in the air strikes. We are doing our part and our partner countries respect that.

Katrin Göring-Eckhardt, chairperson of the parliamentary group of the Greens in the German Bundestag, advocated sending in German ground troops with a UN mandate.

I think what some Green politicians are suggesting is too obvious. We would all like the UN Security Council to be more capable of acting in the Syria crisis than it is at the moment. But everyone knows that we can’t expect the blockade to be resolved soon, in part because of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The joint operation to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons was a notable exception. We are taking our lead from that experience and trying to persuade the Security Council to undertake joint action on similar issues. I admit that it’s a tough call. But even leaving aside the question of a UN mandate, I don’t think that any country would be willing to deploy its ground troops in Syria. This is not about Germany being fearful. We don’t even know who’d be our friend or foe if we sent troops into Syria – ISIS or the PKK, Assad’s government troops or militia groups, various opposition groups. This would be a multi-front war on unfamiliar terrain. It would be a war with an unclear mandate. It would be completely irresponsible to deploy soldiers abroad under these conditions.

Kurdish people’s defence forces affiliated to the PKK are fighting against ISIS in northern Syria, while the national opposition has gained control over the northwest. Which of these groups should receive weapons, the same way Germany sent weapons to Iraq?

We’re concentrating on Iraq, while some Arab countries are supporting the moderate opposition in Syria. The big difficulty there is less a lack of weapons than the large number of different groups that are not following the same command. Syria’s Arab neighbouring countries are now helping to reorganise these opposition forces.

Don’t the PKK-affiliated groups in northern Syria deserve weapons?

The fact is that the decades-old unresolved conflicts in the region, be they between Turkey and the PKK or between the Shi’ites and the Sunnis, are playing right into ISIS’ hands. It’s no coincidence that ISIS has been able to spread in the very areas where these lines of conflict overlap and where mistrust between the groups is stronger than the belief that it will only be possible to combat an opponent like ISIS by acting in unison. Given the common threat from ISIS, it would be a major step forward if the PKK decided to renounce the armed fight against Turkey.

Moving on to another major conflict, Ukraine, do you think the situation will calm down now that Putin has announced a withdrawal of the troops?

The Ukraine crisis still has the potential to spread like wildfire if something unexpected sparks it off. I believe that the Minsk Protocol, which was signed by all of the conflict parties, is currently the only realistic chance of preventing further hostilities. This is why the international community should continue to push for the prompt implementation of all the points in the Minsk Protocol.

This mainly involves three aspects: firstly, removing troops and heavy artillery from the agreed buffer zone; secondly, securing the border effectively; and thirdly, looking at the regional elections unilaterally scheduled for December in the areas controlled by the separatists – Russia needs to help ensure that these elections do not put Ukraine to a severe test.

Former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and former Federal Chancellor Gerhard Schröder say that it is time to lift the economic sanctions against Russia.

Steinmeier: Even if it’s still too soon to lift the sanctions, we need to think about the future. When we decided to impose sanctions, we didn’t define any criteria on how we would deal with different sanctions ending at different times. We need to address this matter, as I informed the EU during the Foreign Affairs Council meeting earlier this week.

Interviewed by Matthias Nass and Michael Thumann. Reproduced by kind permission of “DIE ZEIT”.

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