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"We need Russia on side"

08.03.2016 - Interview

Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier talked to the Bonner Generalanzeiger newspaper about Russia’s relationship with NATO, the conflict in Syria and the refugee situation in Europe (interview published on 8 March 2016). On the 20th anniversary of the UN Campus in Bonn being inaugurated, Steinmeier commends Bonn for its increasing importance to the United Nations.

Federal Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier talked to the Bonner Generalanzeiger newspaper about Russia’s relationship with NATO, the conflict in Syria and the refugee situation in Europe (interview published on 8 March 2016). On the 20th anniversary of the UN Campus in Bonn being inaugurated, Steinmeier commends Bonn for its increasing importance to the United Nations.

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Mr Steinmeier, you turned 60 in January. Has your accumulation of life experience and years in government reduced your hope that governments actually make policy for the people? Are rulers who abuse their power in the majority?

New crises and conflicts have flared up all over our neighbourhood. The world seems to be out of joint. Instead of the handful of familiar or at least predictable states and governments we knew in the past, foreign affairs these days means dealing with a plethora of new players who don’t stick to the old rules and ways of doing things.

It nonetheless remains important to keep working determinedly on ways to create a better world, in spite of all the setbacks and resistance we face. That takes a lot of effort, because there is never a quick fix. But in small victories as in major successes like the nuclear agreement with Iran, we see time and again that all the hard work is worthwhile.

Is Putin a gambler, or do you see his actions as highly rational? People keep saying that he might one day start something on NATO’s eastern flank on the Baltic. Do you think he would?

We have seen Russia in a vast range of roles in the last few years. During the negotiations about Iran’s nuclear programme, unlike the Ukraine conflict, Russia was consistently cooperative and constructive. Russia’s conduct in Syria has been different again, as it intervenes militarily in support of Assad while simultaneously working with the United States on laying the groundwork for political settlement.

What is clear, however, is that the rhetoric of nuclear rearmament that we are sometimes hearing from the Kremlin isn’t necessarily helping to increase trust. That’s why it is so important for us within NATO not just to refer to our defensive alliance – along the lines of ‘one for all and all for one’ – but also to show that we are willing to talk to and engage with others, so that lost trust can be rebuilt.

So the new Cold War that Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev spoke about at the Munich Security Conference – that’s actually just empty words from the Kremlin?

I had already countered that theory very clearly by the end of the Munich Security Conference. There was little to no communication between East and West during the Cold War; today, in contrast, we have a great number of forums in which we talk to one another. And we certainly need them, given the almost unprecedented accumulation of crises around the world. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that, without Russia, we would not make progress on the search for a political settlement in Syria, nor on the implementation of the Minsk agreements in Ukraine. And the nuclear agreement with Iran wouldn’t have been possible without Russia either. The lesson is, if we want solutions, we need Russia on side.

You have just come back from a trip to part of the Arab arc of crisis. Is peace, or at least a state of non‑war, really still possible in Iraq and Syria, two countries with many lines of conflict and ethnic boundaries?

Well, we definitely can’t accept the status quo of endless war and chaos with no viable future in sight – even just in our own interest. And all my talks in the region show me time and again that what the people in both those countries want more than anything is a society in which all the various groups can once more peacefully coexist. It’s true that we’re still a long way from that goal. But ethnic and religious diversity has been a familiar reality in the region for centuries. If the political conflicts can be put to rest, those divisions won’t prove insurmountable either.

Four weeks ago, you negotiated in Munich with the US, Russia, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura and others from the Syria contact group, discussing a ceasefire which has now begun. Do you really think that the different sides in the Syrian civil war are still capable of peace after all these years?

I certainly think that, one way or another, the various groups will have no choice. After nearly five years of civil war, it must be clear to everyone that no side has the capacity to win the conflict militarily and that the only possible settlement must be political. The ceasefire we negotiated in Munich, which has been holding to some extent for just over a week, is a long-awaited breathing space. It gives us the chance to finally bring urgently needed aid supplies to the areas under siege.

It is also clear, however, that the various parties’ conflicts of interests aren’t just going to disappear. We will continue to need all those who have any influence to keep up the pressure to ensure that peace talks are resumed between the regime and the opposition in Geneva in the coming days and progress can be made on the road towards a political transition process.

The wars in Iraq and Syria are driving millions of people to Europe, many of them to Germany. How can we direct flows of refugees? And if Austria agrees with eight Balkan countries at a conference to close its borders, what does that mean for European solidarity?

First of all, we in Europe will still have to give refuge to those who really need protection in future. Most Germans see it the same way: we give refuge to people fleeing violence and terrorism. At the same time though, it’s very clear that we need to stop the uncontrolled influx into Europe and ultimately Germany.

But we won’t manage that if countries do their own thing or break away into little groups with no consideration for their EU partners – as the last few weeks have demonstrated only too well.

That’s why our goal has always been to reach an agreement with all our European partners at the table: preserve Schengen, put the brakes on the influx of refugees and also support Greece to stop it slipping further into a humanitarian emergency.

The United States is in the middle of its presidential primaries. How afraid are you for peace around the world when you think about Donald Trump as US President? Would the lines drawn be familiar and diplomatic channels reliable under Hillary Clinton?

It is of course for the Americans to decide which President they elect in November. But let me say this much: in the current global conditions, marked by many crises, we particularly appreciate the efforts of the present US Administration that are based on cooperation rather than confrontation.

A global situation full of crises may tempt some people to look for quick fixes. Germany and Europe more broadly are witnessing a new and dangerous trend which I also sensed during my visit to New York and Washington last week, namely a politics based on mistrust, fear and rejection of everything that doesn’t fit into one’s own view of the world. There are politicians on both sides of the Atlantic who think we should shut ourselves off and block out the world. That can’t work, it won’t solve the current crises – and I hope the next US Administration recognises that fact.

You are celebrating 20 years of the UN having a base in Bonn today. What does that mean for Germany’s chief diplomat?

I am always glad to visit the UN Campus in Bonn and to witness its ever growing importance to the United Nations. Bonn has evolved stupendously as a UN base over the last 20 years. More than a thousand UN staff work here. Bonn is unparalleled throughout the world for the competence and density of the institutions it accommodates, their remits including the climate, environmental protection and sustainable development. The ‘Bonn subjects’ constitute the ultimate forward-looking agenda. The Paris Climate Agreement and the adoption of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development are a very direct boost to Bonn as a UN base, with the UNFCCC Secretariat and the other environmental secretariats. Plus of course, the banks of the Rhine are a lovely place to live.

Will the Federal Government be working to develop Bonn further as a UN base, and what new arrivals should the city expect?

We have been pushing Bonn for years. We regularly speak in Bonn’s favour during our talks with the United Nations – with quite some success, I might add. Bonn faces global competition for the right to host UN institutions. Infrastructure, costs, geographical location and quality of life are obviously important factors. Bonn has a lot to offer in those areas, and I am convinced that it will continue to grow as a result.

This interview was conducted by Holger Möhle.

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