“The West’s attraction is far-reaching”

27.04.2015 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier talks to the Spiegel news magazine about Europe’s refugee policy as well as the international role of Germany’s foreign policy and the new challenges it faces. Published in edition 18/2015 of Der Spiegel on 24 April 2015.

Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier talks to the Spiegel news magazine about Europe’s refugee policy as well as the international role of Germany’s foreign policy and the new challenges it faces. Published in edition 18/2015 of Der Spiegel on 24 April 2015.


Minister, at the Munich Security Conference over a year ago, you announced that Germany was set to become more active in its foreign policy. To use the words of Federal President Joachim Gauck, Germany was going to “contribute earlier, more decisively and more substantially”.

On the day I took office in December 2013, I said that we would no longer make it through by simply repeating familiar tried and tested mantras. Germany is too big and too important to merely comment on foreign policy from the sidelines. That is the basis on which we are acting.

You and Mr Gauck mostly agreed on that, but what has come of your intentions? The huge numbers of migrants who have died in the Mediterranean suggest that the opposite has happened. Did you shoot your mouth off somewhat?

Neither the Federal President nor I expected to transform the world into a peaceful place or to end all suffering and distress with two speeches. Nevertheless, the events in Ukraine, Iraq, Syria and the current developments in and around the Mediterranean show that we must not let ourselves be blown off course. When over 900 people died last weekend, it was the tragic climax of an awful tragedy and one which, in truth, we cannot say whether we can fully end. Yet giving up our political approach or watching from the sidelines would be absurd.

Yet the catastrophe which just took place was foreseeable. When the rescue mission Mare Nostrum was abandoned it was clear that more people would die in the Mediterranean.

I admire Der Spiegel’s clairvoyance. Don’t forget that Mare Nostrum was not struck off without replacement, it was succeeded by a European mission.

With the catastrophic consequences that we’re seeing now.

Our European values task us with saving people who risk their lives on the perilous journey across the Mediterranean. I’m pleased that Europe agrees on this. That agreement is by no means a given, for there are still some in Europe who say that, arguably, better sea rescue operations increase the number of refugees and thus also the number of victims.

You don’t agree with this theory?

What are you implying with your question? Are you criticising that we didn’t save enough or saying that hopefully in the future we can’t save too many?

That we won’t have to save more, of course. In which case you have to honestly ask yourself the questions of whether you are expecting more refugees and whether you’re prepared to take them in.

If we want to stay true to ourselves and our values we must improve the means of saving people who run into difficulties at sea. But that by itself is not the whole answer. In the short term the flood of refugees heading to Europe will not abate. If Europeans agree that we cannot simply raise the drawbridge then we need to adopt a fairer distribution system within the EU. To date it has primarily been Germany, Sweden, Austria, Italy and Hungary who have been doing a lot. Too many are ducking their responsibility.

In 2011 you defended FDP Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Germany’s abstention from the UN Security Council vote on military intervention against Gaddafi in Libya. Do you think the developments have vindicated that position?

Libya is a country well on the way to becoming a failed state; therefore there is certainly a question mark over whether all the decisions taken in 2011 were correct. Not in order to be able to say I told you so but rather to learn for the future.

The aim was to prevent Gaddafi from carrying out a massacre.

Gaddafi ruled through a criminal regime. And I never doubted that the use of military force would successfully stop Gaddafi’s killing and put an end to his reign. But nothing was prepared at the political level. Who should power be transferred to in the country? Destroying the political order in Libya without thinking about the next step triggered many of the problems that we are grappling with today. The waves of refugees are only a part of this. The conflict between rival centres of power comprised of militias armed to the teeth is generating a power vacuum into which IS is increasingly making inroads.

Does that mean that there’ll be no end to the refugee problem without a solution in Libya?

The sea rescue operations must be improved immediately; that cannot wait. However we will only be able to improve the situation in the long term if we manage to stabilise Libya. The division of the country in two, something which some fatalistically expect to happen, is not an option. The number of contestants in the power play for Libya is much too high.

What is Germany doing to support this process?

Since our Embassy closed we have been working through the German envoy for Libya. Together with him we’re supporting the work of the United Nations and its Special Representative, who, it should be noted, managed to bring the competing political elites of Tripoli and Tobruk to the negotiating table. It is a very difficult process, but his efforts are not hopeless.

If we understand you correctly you mean that it would be better if Libya was still ruled by a predictable dictator who would keep the refugees away from us. It would be much more convenient for Europe if Gaddafi were still in power.

You can save your cynicism for other pages of your magazine.

In foreign policy are you actually often faced with choosing between being cynical or naive and idealistic?

I make the effort to be neither. And I advocate that we free ourselves from superficial, black-and-white thinking as well as simplistic friend-foe binaries. This kind of thinking led international relations and us all into a nightmare in the Middle East – the consequences of which we’re still struggling with today. Before I make decisions on foreign policy measures I have to analyse the causes of the conflict, the interests of the stakeholders and profiteers as well as the room for manoeuvre that we are left with. That generally leads to black and white merging into various shades of grey. That doesn’t make answers easier or solutions better, but it’s how you avoid being naive as you weigh up possible solutions.

But are the various shades of grey, as you so poetically put it, not simply a form of cynicism which, whilst sometimes difficult to bear, is part of your job? For example when it comes to dealing with autocrats and criminal regimes. A few weeks ago, Deputy Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel was in Saudi Arabia; now CSU Chair Horst Seehofer is visiting Riyadh. Do we need these kind of diplomatic visits to countries that trample on our values?

What would you like then? That we don’t maintain any relations with Saudi Arabia at all? Surely that can’t be what you’re asking for. Ever since the concept of statehood came into being, diplomacy has been the attempt to use peaceful means to mitigate conflicts of interest. Foreign policy has always had to deal with not only opposing interests but radically different political systems and societies. Naturally the end of the East-West conflict didn’t remove all conflicts over values from the world. Perhaps it even exacerbated them, because political interests are often enough and increasingly taking on religious overtones. Nevertheless, breaking off relations is not the right response when we disagree with the internal functioning of another state. That said, we must of course find ways to voice criticism, publicly as well as in talks.

If that’s the case, then would now not be the time for the German Foreign Minister to visit Tehran, given that the negotiations in Lausanne have seen some initial success. If we maintain relations with Saudi Arabia, why don’t we do the same with Iran?

I find the country very interesting. The nuclear dispute with Iran and the international sanctions meant that I couldn’t travel to Iran during my first term in office. I hope that we soon find ourselves in a situation which makes that possible, for I’ve had talks with many interlocutors from Iran over the past ten years. State Secretary Markus Ederer was in Iran last week, we’re in close contact with Tehran during these negotiations which will run to the end of June. In short, if the negotiations culminate in the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement which incorporates all cornerstones agreed upon in Lausanne, so hopefully after 30 June, then this could pave the way for a new future for German-Iranian relations.

Once again, where do you draw the line when it comes to maintaining relations? Is it possible that one day you’ll have to talk to Boko Haram or to IS?

Boko Haram and IS speak through public executions, machine guns and booby traps; you can’t respond to that with politics. That is why we made the exceptional decision to supply weapons to the Iraqi Kurds who are fighting IS. We’re working on driving back IS militarily and on eliminating their aura of invincibility. Of course that must be flanked by efforts towards a political solution.

You described Libya as being on the way to becoming a failed state. The number of failing and failed states is rising all around the world, from Pakistan to Iraq, Syria and Mali. What does this loss of state order mean for international politics?

It’s without a doubt the most significant and possibly the most dangerous change in the international landscape. All big conflicts, from Libya to Yemen, Syria and Iraq, are no longer conflicts between states. They are conflicts initiated or fomented by terrorists, in which the stakeholders feel no duty to respect any kind of rules, let alone international law or any form of voluntary commitments. Quite the opposite, they undermine all minimum standards of international humanitarian law of war – sometimes even on purpose.

In the past, German foreign policy was in a comparably comfortable position: the Americans got their hands dirty, if it came to it, making them the baddies and us the goodies. Is that changing as Germany increasingly takes on responsibility? Are we prepared to be the baddies?

Everyone who shoulders responsibility receives criticism. We Germans certainly don’t find that easy but we’ll have to get used to it whether we like it or not. And the conditions of conducting foreign policy have become harder for everyone, including the Americans and the French. The United States are grateful to us for how we are taking the lead in the Ukraine crisis and are fully aware of the risks we’re running. Our contribution in Iraq is also valued, as much as the efforts we have made over the years to help resolve the nuclear dispute with Iran.

Would you say that, under the leadership of the US, the West has somewhat overestimated its influence following the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Western values are not exactly widespread in the countries of the Arab Spring, or in Ukraine and Russia. Why?

Well, after 1990 the West’s attraction was big enough for it to expand far eastwards. After all, the EU did get a little bit bigger...

But that attraction didn’t extend beyond western Ukraine.

After the years I’ve spent in foreign policy I can assure you that Europe is generally valued much more outside the European Union than it is within it. We are a region in which 500 million inhabitants live in freedom, under the rule of law, in democracy and prosperity. In many parts of the world people have to demonstrate or fight to achieve such goals.

They are values which, in the past, the West has repeatedly defended with sometimes dubious means. That raises the question of credibility. We already mentioned the fact that in foreign policy, values and interests sometimes collide. The latest example of that is the debate over whether to call the genocide committed against the Armenians a genocide. Why shouldn’t one do that?

I’m tired of debates in which people expect me to jump through hoops despite the fact that everyone – those asking as well as those answering – know that complex memories can rarely be reduced to one term. We know that from our own past experiences. Moreover, I suspect that simply reducing the matter to the question of using or not using the word genocide does nothing to solve the actual problem, namely the lack of communication between the Turks and Armenians. I think that the words of the German Bundestag resolution were well chosen and strike the right tone: The fate of the Armenians exemplifies the history of mass annihilations, ethnic cleansing, deportation, even genocide, that marred the 20th century in such a terrible way. In this we’re aware of the fact that the Holocaust, for which Germany bears the blame and responsibility, is without parallel.

Why have you opposed the term genocide for so long? Is that not taking your realpolitik in the interests of good relations with Turkey a bit too far?

Our policy must focus on seeking ways to reconcile the peoples in question. I’ve been to Turkey and Armenia for that reason and, knowing that the 100th anniversary was coming up, have spoken to both governments, encouraging them to approach one another, with their own suggestions and mediated by Germany. Unfortunately neither side took me up on my offer. And, maybe more importantly, in Germany we have to be careful not to prove those right who pursue their own political agenda, saying that in actual fact the Holocaust started before 1933. If that this is too nuanced for certain media outlets then that is another issue.

The media got the impression that the Federal President had to lecture the Federal Foreign Office a bit.


Yes, apparently telephone calls were made in which the Office of the Federal President stipulated that the Federal Foreign Office use the term genocide.

I’m not aware of any such phone calls. What is correct is that a positive and very constructive exchange took place.

Do you sometimes envy the President for being able to speak in no uncertain terms about Armenia, Turkey, Russia. He doesn’t mince his words. On the other hand you always have to pay heed to complex diplomatic sensitivities so as not to endanger your negotiations.

I suspect that his position involves other difficulties. I respect everyone in their office and know that nothing is easy, including being Federal President.

Minister, thank you for your time.

Reproduced by kind permission of Der Spiegel. www.spiegel.de

Related content


Top of page