“Those with a cosy idea of foreign policy will have to think again”

10.02.2016 - Interview

What can a Foreign Minister do about autocrats? In an interview, Steinmeier warns against arrogance and calls for realism: “I’ve decided not to howl at the moon.” Published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (10 February 2016).


SZ: You’re always diplomatic, you never utter a sharp word. Is it impossible for you to be otherwise?

That’s not the way I see it. Nowadays, foreign policy is increasingly about war and peace, about the lives of many people – in our immediate neighbourhood, in Ukraine, in the Middle East, in North Africa. Such matters shouldn’t be played out in the full glare of the media. When it comes to the big issues the discussions are heated. More heated than in the Bundestag, and all sides discuss with the same vigour.

Do you lead a double life? One in public where you’re always even-tempered and relaxed, and one in negotiations behind closed doors?

No. But things have changed drastically. Foreign policy is observed much more closely by the media today. In the past, negotiations always took place behind closed doors and only agreed communiqués were made public. Today, interim results are made known and half-truths are deliberately leaked in order to gain a tactical advantage. Negotiating partners can lose face more quickly if they indicate they are ready to make concessions or lose their temper. That’s why it’s necessary to always be self-controlled in public, and to ensure that even in heated conflicts you never cross a line which would make further talks impossible.

You deal with autocrats, dictators and tyrants who have no regard for human rights as we understand them. Do you sometimes curse this world?

I’m often speechless when I see to what extent common sense, a rare commodity in the first place, has disappeared from our world. And when I see how many sides are attacking the order created by the international community after their experiences in two world wars. In many regions, it doesn’t seem to be a problem for autocrats who have signed the UN Charter to pursue policies which violate the international community’s rules. Where I come from we say: anger eats the brain! However, I’ve decided not to howl at the moon but to try and use the means available to us to rescue what makes possible peaceful co-existence.

Do you sometimes have to put up a front?

Not any more. After so many years in foreign policy, everyone knows where I come from and what I stand for. I don’t have to tell my life story or quote the Basic Law (Germany’s constitution) to make it clear what our values are. However, values cannot prevail on their own. The superiority of our values alone, something which is maintained so often in Germany, won’t change the world. That’s why I have to focus my efforts on winning over people and governments with different values.

Are our values superior?

I don’t know any other region of the world in which life is so well worth living. We’ve never experienced such a long period of peace, freedom and justice in Europe. Human dignity, the welfare of every individual, are of the utmost importance to us. However, we don’t talk to ourselves in the world of foreign policy. Rather, we negotiate with others for whom the ideal situation is more likely to be when stability is imposed through violence and debate is prevented in order to guarantee peace and quiet, by which stifling silence is often meant. That’s very different to our notion of a good society. However, it’s a reality which we have to deal with.

Do Germans have to accept that good won’t necessarily prevail all over the world?

Those with a cosy idea of foreign policy will have to think again. As will those who believe that we could largely limit our relations to the part of the world which shares our values. That’s always been unrealistic. As the conflicts in our world move ever closer to us, whether it be due to terrorism or flows of refugees, more and more people are becoming aware that coalitions with Luxembourg or Switzerland will not be enough to contain such dangers. The only thing which sometimes unites us is our interest in ending a war and preventing the spread of terror. The road to these goals is anything but easy or free of disagreement.

There’s a lot of criticism in Germany of the countries involved in the Syria talks – whether it be Turkey or Saudi Arabia, Iran or Russia. It’s said they have no regard for human rights, are trying to curtail freedom of the media or are waging wars themselves. Aren’t these critics simply right?

I can understand why there was so much discussion about my last trip to Saudi Arabia. I followed the executions at the beginning of the year with the same concern, and with the same feelings, as many others. I immediately spoke on the phone to my Saudi colleague and spelled out to him our position on the death penalty. I, too, believe that we shouldn’t ignore what happened. But the question is: what conclusions should we draw from that? Many people see the world in black and white. The opposition can afford to see the world in black and white. They don’t have any responsibility and are trying to score points against the Government in a not so easy situation. There are others who annoy me more.

Who, for example?

Those who want us to believe that it’s possible to conduct Germany’s foreign policy from armchairs in a smoking-room in Berlin. Or those who are under the illusion that a sharply-worded statement in front of a microphone in Berlin really does influence political leaders in Tehran or Riyadh. You can think that way but, unfortunately, that’s not how foreign policy works – nor is it borne out by my own experience. Anyone who wants to make a difference needs credibility. They have to go to the conflicts and the parties involved in the conflicts and seek direct talks. I know that is more difficult and more time-consuming than a short statement in front of a microphone in Berlin.

The case of the blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi Arabia is one example of how some people openly express very harsh criticism while others, including you, avoid getting too strident. Isn’t it important to make a fuss so that people are not forgotten?

I believe it would be wrong to concentrate solely either on stridency or on discrete diplomacy. We need both, but at different times. Sometimes we have to make a big fuss, and sometimes we need to be discrete. Sometimes we need to talk in public to make cases known. And we need the option of negotiations which make possible face-saving solutions for states which carry out reprisals. In my experience, however, constant public attention or pressure from the media alone do not lead to success. Especially where freedom of expression and freedom of the press are suppressed, the media aren’t regarded as crucial players whose objections have to be taken into consideration. Most autocrats simply view that as a provocation to which they must not under any circumstances yield.

Isn’t it especially important in such cases to make known your principles?

Well, often our actions are only recognised when a humanitarian solution is achieved in cases such as that of the Palestinian Ashraf Fayadh in Saudi Arabia. I hope and believe that if we talk to Riyadh about Raif Badawi in the same way as we talked about Fayadh then we’ll have a good chance of achieving a good outcome in his case, too. If I thought that wouldn’t achieve anything then I would say: ok, then we have to do things differently. However, that’s not my impression.

Maybe you’ve been working on this or maybe you haven’t. We hear so little about it.

It doesn’t come to the attention of the public or media if we approach a government to tell it that although we’re not demanding wholesale change, there are concrete cases which should be resolved. We can’t do that with a fanfare.

How much morality does foreign policy need?

Politics cannot work without morality. But what does that mean? Politics without morality has no direction and no goal. And there’s always the risk that in accepting the status quo it’ll become cynical. Anyone who equates politics with morality will notice that they’re depriving themselves of the scope for action needed to change the world gradually, also through compromise. So, morality should be a compass which shows us what our goal should be. However, morality doesn’t produce the detailed map which already shows all the ways, short cuts and detours towards this goal.

Can there be compromises on human rights?

Not for us. However, it has to be said that I’m the German Foreign Minister, not the Russian, Egyptian or Iranian President. Therefore, the real question is: is the fear of discord a sufficient justification for doing nothing? Or isn’t the German Foreign Minister expected to have the courage to test out what is possible? And then to do what is responsible.

Have you changed?

My goals haven’t changed. What is perhaps different is my day-to-day life in politics. My foreign policy used to be more centred around papers, letters and documents. Now what matters are experience, trust, personal relations and reliability. And that creates political weight. At least I hope so.

Does Germany have enemies?

I could quite simply say that the friend/foe category has no place in foreign policy. However, that would be an idealistic view which doesn’t do justice to reality. After the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, a former colleague said in the North Atlantic Council that we had to make up our minds whether Russia was our friend or our foe. I found that very strange. I told him that this question could only be asked many thousands of kilometres away from Europe. We know that Russia – for better or worse – will always be a major and important partner for Europe. And in good and in bad ways it will influence Europe’s fate. That’s why I find it difficult to call Russia a foe.

With whom would you refuse to sit at a table?

That’s a question we face time and again. Should we negotiate with the IS? It’s not just a question of whether we should or one of morality. Terrorist organisations such as the IS have no interest in solutions. Their aim is to eliminate all those who stand between them and their goal of a caliphate with no borders. You can’t talk to people like that.

And Bashar al-Assad?

Well, we are talking to him. Not we Germans or Americans. However, the UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is doing so on behalf of the international community. Not constantly and not in Geneva. But he has talked to him. I think that’s enough.

This interview was conducted by Stefan Braun. Reproduced by kind permission of the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

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