“Harsh words don’t stop people dying”

05.03.2015 - Interview

In an interview with the “Handelsblatt” on 5 March 2015, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier advocates verbal disarmament in the conflict with Russia and calls on Moscow to take steps to stabilise Ukraine economically. Additional topics: the role of German foreign policy, the importance of close economic ties, Greece.

In an interview with the “Handelsblatt” on 5 March 2015, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier advocates verbal disarmament in the conflict with Russia and calls on Moscow to take steps to stabilise Ukraine economically. Additional topics: the role of German foreign policy, the importance of close economic ties, Greece.


Your daily work draws much inspiration from Willy Brandt. A portrait of the Former Federal Chancellor adorns the wall behind you and a sculpture depicting him stands to the right of your desk. What does Brandt’s policy of “change through rapprochement”, which was the rationale behind his Ostpolitik during the Cold War, mean to you today?

In 1963, at the height of the Cold War, Willy Brandt said that foreign policy should be the “attempt to solve problems peacefully without any illusions”. For us, it is clear that separation and isolation have yet to solve any serious crisis in the world. By the same token, this does not mean that we can merely rely on the economy and trade relations after the end of the Cold War and that everything else will fall into place on its own. We must react resolutely and with one accord wherever European peace principles are openly called into question, for example in the EU’s sanctions against Russia.

Trading is better than saber‑rattling?

Trade relations make an important contribution. However, a glance at the crises in the world make one thing increasingly clear: a globalised economy and closer links are, taken by themselves, no guarantee of a peaceful world.

What is the conclusion you draw from this analysis? Is Vladimir Putin the right man for shuttle diplomacy in the style of Willy Brandt? Or is Russia’s President just using pauses in negotiations to gain strategic advantage?

Russia’s actions are characterised by a contradiction between participating in a globalised economy and adhering to geopolitical modes of thought. Russia itself senses that, caught in the vice of this contradiction, it is difficult to achieve or even increase its own influence. Even without sanctions, the annexation of Crimea in contravention of international law shocked and alarmed the country’s neighbours and partners and also led to capital flight. One year later, the rouble has lost a large part of its value, the country’s currency reserves have shrunk by a third, and support purchases have failed to arrest the currency’s fall.

Putin has not changed course, however.

The conclusion that Russia ought to come to is anything but rosy. However, the situation in the neighbouring country of Ukraine, which after one year of crisis and war is struggling to preserve its political stability and is in urgent need of economic aid from its partners, is even more bitter. We have attempted to de‑escalate the crisis since the Ukraine conflict first began. The ceasefire seems more or less to have held in recent days. What we need now is a positive dynamic in order to avoid falling back into a deadly spiral of escalation.

That is a bitter conclusion for you too. There was a ceasefire on 12 February that was negotiated by Germany and France with Russia and Ukraine – which was broken immediately by the separatists.

We have a clear and resolute stance on Russia’s attempts to destabilise a neighbouring country – never mind the infringement of borders guaranteed under international law. And, in the long years that I have spent working in the area of foreign policy, I have found that ceasefires – let alone peace – cannot be brought about on a whim or with the force of sanctions.

What does that mean in practice?

It means, for example, that clear words are called for in conflict situations such as in eastern Ukraine. However, I have never been under the illusion that words or even sanctions are sufficient for solving conflicts. If you intend to find a solution, you must have the courage to seek a return to the negotiating table when the opportunity to do so arises. Harsh words don’t stop people dying. The Minsk agreements are anything but perfect. And I have always maintained that they are by no means a breakthrough. But if heavy weapons are now withdrawn, the ceasefire holds by and large and we are perhaps given access for humanitarian aid in the region, then that is far more than the non‑starter that many people believe the Minsk agreements to be.

Have the West and the Federal Government made mistakes in terms of their rapprochement with Ukraine?

A great deal has happened in the course of almost one and half decades since Putin’s speech in the Bundestag and his call to create a political sphere and a free trade zone between Lisbon and Vladivostok. The Ukraine crisis was not the start of a growing estrangement, however. Existing borders were infringed during the war in Georgia and during military activities in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008.

One really wonders what went wrong there.

No level of communication emerged that would have bridged the growing divide between EU and Russia during the EU’s talks on the Association Agreement with Ukraine. But that’s in the past. My task now as Foreign Minister is to de‑escalate the Ukraine conflict and, above all, to help Ukraine to get firmly back on its feet economically. Moscow should also have an interest in stabilising the country. How our relations with Russia develop will depend not least on Moscow’s behaviour.

You outlined a new German foreign policy very recently. You intend to pursue a path between military missions and “futile talk”, and sanctions play a key role in this regard. To what extent is the German economy prepared to go down this road?

I have not proposed any new third way, but rather I intend to demonstrate that the diplomatic toolbox contains a wider range of instruments that one might think. Take civilian crisis prevention, the establishment of the rule of law or peace mediation, for example. And foreign policy is also about building up pressure where it is required. However, pressure is never an end in itself and should not be abused as a means of currying favour with one’s own public.

So sanctions as an instrument to restrain Russia?

No, sanctions are never there to wear the other down, but rather to bring them back to the negotiations that they refused previously. The current developments demonstrate that our approach was not entirely off beam.

And how is the German business community reacting?

In different ways. The major business associations support this policy, which does not mean that individual businesses, above all companies for which Russia is the most important sales market, shy away from expressing their critical opinion. Our message to these companies is the same: “Let us all sing from the same song sheet. A de‑escalation of the conflict is also in your own interest!”

I detect a degree of disappointment in what you are saying.

No, I understand completely that a machine tool producer who sells two of every three appliances in Russia is not affected in the same way as the Federation of German Industries that tells us that trade with Russia accounts for just three percent of the overall total.

To what extent can functioning trade relations facilitate entering into political talks?

I do not believe that a permanent isolation of Europe from Russia is the answer. Even if a political solution may take many years, perhaps even decades, we must do everything in our power to resolve the conflict. Incidentally, Henry Kissinger, who is not famous for his pro‑Russian credentials, sees this in precisely the same way in defining a new world order. He too warns against a policy of deliberately isolating Russia.

To what extent is Germany prepared to do more for Ukraine – above and beyond the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and other organisations?

It is very difficult to estimate Ukraine’s financial needs. At the present time, we do not have any reliable figures on which an assessment of the state of the Ukrainian economy can be based. What is more, a great deal will depend on the extent to which Ukrainian politicians themselves have the energy to pursue the path of necessary reform. This includes the fight against corruption as well as administrative reform.

Will there be more money for Ukraine now?

Europe has declared its willingness to offer support as has the USA. For its part, Germany has earmarked half a billion euros in addition to its other multilateral commitments. We can be proud of this and Ukraine greatly values our contribution.

Foreign policy does not only rely on economic sanctions, but is also a facilitator for opening up new markets for business. What can German foreign policy do for the German economy?

During my most recent trips to South America and Africa, we were reminded that not only the German economy is interested in these regions. In the host countries, we are perceived as a politically strong and economically stable country that is well known for its high‑quality products. We do not impose ourselves on others. On the contrary, on the international stage it is virtually expected of us to make economic ties closer through our foreign policy.

Can you give us an example?

In Africa, we are not only helping to discover regions and markets, but also to gain a realistic picture of the productivity and investment conditions in the region. The aim behind this is to change people’s perceptions. Especially with regard to Africa, our traditional view of a continent beset by crises, wars and conflicts is no longer up to date. There are plenty of crises and conflicts to be sure, but surprisingly stable regions have also emerged alongside them.

Which countries are you thinking of?

The region of East Africa is certainly a case in point. I have just gained an overview of this development in Rwanda and Kenya. I was not alone in having the impression that these countries are at pains to achieve political and economic stability above and beyond their respective borders, but rather this was also registered by the business representatives who accompanied me.

Is China a role model in this regard? The People’s Republic is securing mineral deposits in Africa in return for investments in roads and airports.

China has a strong presence in Africa. To be frank, much of the infrastructure in some of Africa’s regions would not have been possible without China. However, the reason why Germany is so popular in Africa is not because we are just like the Chinese.

But rather?

German businesses in Africa have demonstrated that we invest in a different way and are not out to make a quick buck. German companies exercise greater caution: once they are there, they stay for the long term. They offer something that others don’t, namely a concern for future generations, for example, and the in‑company vocational training model, which is attractive for many countries. We can turn these assets to our advantage.

How are you turning them to your advantage?

We have agreed in the Federal Government to take steps to improve the Hermes guarantees for Africa. I am sure that more German companies will now want to take the plunge on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Are we really doing enough to open doors for business people in the region? Countries such as France appear to be more successful. For example, the Rafale fighter jet is now being sold in the Middle East and not the Eurofighter.

I think that we have something to show for our commitment to German business abroad. We are helping German companies especially when tapping into new markets, and these companies welcome our support. I experience this on my trips, during which I am almost always accompanied by high‑ranking business representatives.

How are they taking advantage of this?

It helps when German business people can say that they enjoy the support of the Federal Government. This is particularly helpful when the state and the economy are closely linked in our host countries, such as in China or in the Persian Gulf.

There are very different expectations of German foreign policy: the international community is calling for more leadership whereas Germans themselves, if surveys are anything to go by, would rather be left in peace. What are you doing to close this gap in expectations?

I never expected to be able to close the gap between the expectations of the international community and the willingness of the German people to become more involved within the space of one year. However, I am confident that the broad discussion on foreign policy in the public sphere with more over 60 large events has increased people’s awareness of the fact that Germany is simply too big to stay out of world affairs. It is clear that the dialogue on foreign policy will not end with a review process. We will continue to talk to the people in Germany about our foreign policy.

What message are you trying to communicate to the citizens?

As the strongest economic power at the heart of Europe, we cannot be indifferent to what is going on around us.

Does that mean, in other words, that Germany is confidently assuming the role of crisis manager in the world?

The world doesn’t need a loudmouthed approach, especially not from us. What it needs are countries around the globe that are committed to the cause.

What cause are you referring to?

No other country is as interconnected as Germany, and only very few nations have as strong an export economy and rely as much on trade and exchange. This is why we, even more than other nations, are dependent on international rules that are respected. We have a vested interest in international organisations such as the United Nations, IMF and the World Bank maintaining their authority. This is why we are committed to strengthening an international order that is based on rules. This applies to German core interests, especially those of business.

Europe is also about order and rules. How flexibly can we apply these rules to keep Europe together, for example in Greece?

For five years, we have been struggling with a crisis that has resulted in economic recession in part of Europe. When looking back, however, we often lose sight of the fact that many things have actually improved. Take Ireland and Portugal, for example, which have left their crises behind them. Spain is currently working to stabilise its banking sector while France is tackling its reforms with all its might. All of this is taking place in a framework in which there is flexibility that we should use. The framework itself must be clear and apply to all, however.

Should the Europeans make even more concessions to the Greeks here?

Greece’s European and international partners have signalled their willingness to listen to new ideas. The Greek Government now has an obligation to submit serious proposals. While we are sympathetic to Greece’s wish to shape future reforms in a more socially balanced way, consolidating the country’s budget remains essential.

Will Greece stay in the eurozone?

I am among those who want Greece to remain in the eurozone, and not only for economic reasons. Any other outcome would have serious consequences for European and foreign policy. It would be an enormous blow to the EU’s reputation if it were unable, despite its economic power and experience of brokering political compromises, to help a member state achieve success on its path towards economic and fiscal recovery.

Foreign Minister, thank you very much for talking to us today.

The interview was conducted in Berlin by Mathias Brüggmann, Hans-Jürgen Jakobs and Torsten Riecke. Reproduced by kind permission of the Handelsblatt. www.handelsblatt.com.

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