The Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung interviewed Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier about transatlantic relations, the role of the Soviet Union in German reunification, the Ukraine conflict and the efforts to combat the terrorist organisation ISIS and the Ebola epidemic (1 November 2014).
Minister, 25 years after the Berlin Wall came down, you recently visited the Bernauer Strasse memorial in Berlin with US Secretary of State John Kerry. Have global crises pushed the disputes about American data spying into the background and made it vitally important to emphasise close partnership?
It was very important to John Kerry and myself to be together in Berlin and commemorate the Wall coming down nearly 25 years ago. And it was important to me to thank our American partners on that occasion for their unconditional support for German unity. Who knows what would have happened, if Washington hadn’t taken that clear line? Twenty-five years later too, it is clear that we need one another when it comes to tackling global crises and conflicts. No country is in a position to go it alone. We have assumed a leading role in international efforts to de-escalate the crisis in eastern Ukraine; the Americans have done the same thing in the Middle East. At the same time, we are continuing to deal with those issues where we have differences of opinion. Striking the right balance between security and freedom, the consequences of digitisation, rules to govern data-gathering by states or private enterprise, effective protection of the public from spying – these are all very important matters which will significantly affect our future. This is addressed and openly discussed in the German-US cyber dialogue that I instigated a couple of months ago, and we are looking for solutions together.
Twenty-five years ago, certain European neighbours, such as the UK and France, were worried that a reunified Germany could signify too great a concentration of power. The US and the Russians, on the other hand, supported unity. You have thanked the US for its “unconditional support”. Should Germany be grateful to Russia too?
German reunification could not have succeeded as it did without the goodwill, support and trust of our neighbours and the four Allied Powers. Our partner’s trust in a single, reunified Germany whose actions would remain peaceful and cooperative was something that we had worked hard for decades to establish, not least through Willy Brandt’s social-democratic Ostpolitik. It didn’t come from nothing that the idea of German reunification wasn’t met with a Soviet “nyet”. That was the result of countless confidence-building measures. When they gave their approval, the Soviet leaders of the time also committed themselves to the principles of the CSCE Final Act of 1975, which remain the cornerstones of our peaceful order in Europe today. Commitment to those principles opened the door not only to reunification of a Germany firmly embedded in the West but also to peaceful transition in Central and Eastern Europe. We long believed that this had put an end to division in Europe for good. That makes it all the more worrying to have the conflict in eastern Ukraine casting doubt on our peaceful order in Europe.
You see the Ukraine conflict as potentially explosive enough to jeopardise Europe’s peaceful order. Why didn’t we manage to build up a lasting partnership with Russia after the end of the Cold War?
For more than two decades, all of us in Europe have been enjoying the benefits of having peacefully resolved the division of our continent and established hard and fast rules for peaceful coexistence. Russia’s conduct in Ukraine has eroded that certainty. We will be dealing with the consequences of that for a long time. But one look at a map makes one thing clear, namely that Russia is and will remain a major neighbour in Europe. It is in all our interests to maintain the best, most constructive possible relations with that great eastern neighbour. In the end, the ball is in Russia’s court to decide what kind of a relationship it wants to have with us. One important step would be for Russia to show by its actions, not just words, that it recognises the unity of Ukraine; it should do what it can to bring about full implementation of the Minsk agreements. This weekend, that applies particularly to the way those involved treat the votes which are to be held by separatists in eastern Ukraine.
The German Government play a leading role in international crisis management. You have stated that Germany will not send in ground troops to fight the terrorist organisation ISIS. Will you be able to stand by that if pressure from our partners grows?
Nobody has put us under any pressure. On the contrary, we have gained a lot of respect with our early decision to supply arms to the Kurdish Peshmerga. Besides which, I don’t see anyone right now who would be willing to send their own ground troops into a war in Syria that’s so complicated you can hardly tell friend from foe.
One final question: Germany and France want to help train medical workers in West Africa for the fight against Ebola. Isn’t that jumping the gun a little, since the German Red Cross, for example, are struggling to find volunteers? They have said that hundreds more are needed.
Given the huge extent of this tragedy, every well-trained helping hand is urgently needed. The Red Cross and the Bundeswehr are already working as fast as possible to train volunteers so that they can go to the affected countries help treat the infected and stop the spread of the virus. I am confident that they will be able to start doing so soon and that we will have enough qualified volunteers to provide the extra treatment places and beds we have planned for a longer period. The Franco-German partnership with Nigeria goes one step further and is intended to teach Nigerian care staff skills they can then use in the affected countries. We will thus be improving help on the ground and at the same time boosting the region’s healthcare systems.
Reproduced by kind permission of the Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung