“Burying our heads in the sand won’t help”

03.06.2015 - Interview

Foreign Minister Steinmeier in an interview on the upcoming G7 Summit and current crises. Published in the “Stuttgarter Nachrichten” newspaper (3 June 2015).

Foreign Minister Steinmeier in an interview on the upcoming G7 Summit and current crises. Published in the “Stuttgarter Nachrichten” newspaper (3 June 2015)


Mr Steinmeier, the G7 Summit is to take place at Schloss Elmau in Bavaria in just a few days from now. In view of the current geopolitical situation, the meeting is likely to be more important than ever this time. What are your expectations? What signal does the G7 need to send to the world?

Expectations of Germany are very high indeed. In recent days, I have visited Ukraine, Israel and Gaza, and attended the meeting of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL/Da’esh in Paris. This list alone shows that the number of urgent crises in our neighbourhood requiring our attention has never been greater. That is why it is so important that the seven largest democratic economies of the world send a clear signal at their summit in Germany, namely that we are all pulling in the same direction in our efforts to solve the problems of our age.

There’s certainly enough to talk about. Fresh tales of woe from the current crisis hotspots around the world – such as the Ukraine conflict, the war in Libya, the unrest in the Middle East or other countries – are reaching us more or less daily. It almost seems as if world peace as we know it is in peril. Just how volatile is the current situation?

It indeed seems as if crisis has become the norm in recent years. We see terrible pictures on the news every evening – of people fleeing war and terror, often only with the clothes on their backs. However, we must not allow ourselves to become paralysed by fear. Examples such as the fight against the Ebola epidemic and the nuclear negotiations with Iran show that even complex problems can be solved when the international community speaks with one voice. It pays dividends to work to achieve political solutions at an early stage, instead of reacting only when crises have broken out. This is what the G7 process is all about.

The attacks in Paris showed that the terrorists – such as Islamic State – no longer have any qualms about anything. How concerned are you about this? Has the international community, for years, failed to notice or perhaps underestimated developments taking place behind the wings?

Since the attacks in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005, we have known only too well that Europe is also a target of Islamist terrorist groups – even if we have so far managed to prevent attacks such as these in Germany. We must respond to this in three ways. We must stabilise countries such as Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq and Syria politically in order to stamp out terrorism. We are providing military support, for example to the Peshmerga for their fight against ISIS. And, above all, we must not allow ourselves to be blown off course in our commitment to peaceful coexistence in Europe by those who have nothing to offer but violence and hatred.

You have just returned from the meeting of the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL/Da’esh in Paris. In Syria and Iraq, it appears as if ISIS is advancing again on all fronts. Has the approach to pushing back ISIS – with air strikes and weapons supplies – failed?

Last year, we managed to forge an unparalleled alliance against ISIS. Arab states such as Jordan and the United Arab Emirates have assumed a leading role. ISIS’ advance was arrested – also with allied air strikes – in northern Iraq and Kobani. While this is important, it is true that ISIS is far from defeated. The deficits and conflicts that gave rise to ISIS in the first place, some of which built up over the course of decades, cannot be solved overnight. We must be prepared for a long haul. Above all, the Sunni population needs to have a political and economic future again to ensure that terrorism is deprived of its ideological nourishment. Prime Minister Haidar Al‑Abadi is working on this, and we are lending him our support.

The meeting of the most powerful and influential countries used to have eight members, and was therefore a G8 Summit. But that was before the fallout with Russia. Can or should this giant country not return to that format, or have relations been damaged irrevocably by the Ukraine conflict?

I have always said that the aim cannot be to isolate Russia permanently. On the contrary, we need Moscow’s help to solve the many crises and conflicts around the world. Our message to Russia is that the door to returning to the G8 fold is not closed. However, Moscow must itself work on the conditions for its return. The way back into the G8 requires Russia to acknowledge Ukraine’s unity and sovereignty and to implement its obligations emerging from the Minsk agreements.

Months after the Minsk agreements, the ceasefire is still being broken on a daily basis in Ukraine. Do you really still believe that Minsk is the key to solving this crisis?

The situation is indeed still fragile, and I sensed this keenly on my visit to eastern Ukraine on Friday. We cannot afford to relax our efforts, however – especially now. Progress has been made in the past few weeks at any rate. The working groups of the Contact Group have commenced their work and must now undertake the next steps towards a political process and a long‑term solution to the conflict. We will continue to support their work closely.

Both Chancellor Merkel and you in your capacity as Foreign Minister have often been travelling the international stage as mediators in recent months. Why has Germany’s importance in the international arena increased so significantly in recent times?

For one thing, Germany is Europe’s biggest country and we enjoy both economic and political stability. However, we are more globally interconnected in economic terms than just about any other country in the world. While this has garnered respect and credibility from our partners in many places around the world, it has also led to high expectations of us. That doesn’t mean that we should become involved everywhere. But we must be prepared to assume responsibility where we are needed and are able to make a difference.

Some people relish this new role for Germany and see it as a sign of appreciation while others are uneasy about this strength and the self‑confidence of Germans that it entails. What is your response to such critics?

While some of us wish it were otherwise, we simply cannot seal ourselves off from the crises and conflicts in our neighbourhood. Our security and prosperity depend on our network of political and economic ties to the whole world. We are affected wherever order breaks down, and so burying our heads in the sand won’t help. Of course this does not mean giving preference to military interventions. Instead, we must always try to understand the reality on the ground in all of its complexity and seek the best possible responses. Part and parcel of this is the principle of never going it alone. We closely coordinate our approach with the international community, and European integration is and remains the foundation of German foreign policy.

This interview was conducted by Frank Krause and is reproduced by kind permission of the “Stuttgarter Nachrichten”.

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