Foreign policy must not be limited to countries with stable democracies, says Foreign Minister Frank‑Walter Steinmeier in an interview with the “Schwäbische Zeitung” (16 April 2016).
Mr Steinmeier, in the final declaration of the G7 in Hiroshima, Russia is criticised for its disinformation campaigns and harassment of opposition figures. These are strong words, what with the fact that Moscow’s return to the group is under discussion.
The G7 is not an end in itself! It must remain our objective to return to the G8 format once again. Many conflicts around the globe have shown that solutions are impossible or difficult to achieve without Russia. Russia played a positive role in the agreement on the Iranian nuclear programme and is also taking part in the talks on Syria in Geneva. However, Russia’s conduct with respect to Ukraine is the decisive issue, and here we are counting on Moscow’s willingness and commitment to implement the Minsk agreements as soon as possible. In addition to this, the Ukraine conflict has revealed the extent to which the instruments of social media are being used and abused to political ends nowadays. We must convince Russia to accept rules on the use of these new forms of communication.
These rules should also include refraining from this type of hybrid warfare. And shouldn’t your Russian counterpart Lavrov refrain from making political capital out of the case of a thirteen‑year‑old German of Russia descent?
The case is closed. However, as absurd as the story was, we cannot allow the public in Germany to be unsettled by misinformation about purported sexual offences perpetrated by migrants. And especially not when Russian authorities are involved in disseminating such information. I discussed this in all due openness with my Russian colleague.
Have you and the members of the Federal Government developed a heightened awareness of misinformation?
Certainly, and it goes without saying that you change your own behaviour and way of communicating and choose technical means and channels more cautiously. We have to assume that more than just the two people speaking to each other are party to conversations held on open lines.
Do you detect any uncertainty among voters and citizens with regard to campaigns in social media?
Younger people in particular, who use social media intensively, have probably already discovered that comments on the Internet are occasionally steered or develop their own dynamic. This is what gives rise to “hypes”, and some people have already seen what “shit storms” involve.
In a speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2014, President Gauck called for German foreign policy to stop standing on the sidelines. What progress have we made on this?
I said when I took office at the Federal Foreign Office in December 2013 that we are too big, too economically important and democratically stable for us to content ourselves with commenting on world affairs from the sidelines. The world expects more of us. However, equating this responsibility with military engagement would be a misreading of the situation.
Isn’t Germany always accused of only getting involved in negotiations?
What do you mean “only”? In the past, we also shied away from the political and diplomatic front line of political mediation in conflicts. But this is no longer the case for Ukraine and Syria. Besides which, if we analyse the course of conflicts over the past 15 years, then we can see that there was no lack of military activity. On the contrary, ill-considered military activities such as in Iraq and Libya have not helped to make those countries more stable, but have helped to worsen the situation there still further. The most up‑to‑date example is Libya. You can quickly decide on a military intervention and topple an autocrat such as Gaddafi. But when the next steps have not been thought through, then state structures and stability are lost, and it is very difficult to get them back. We are now trying laboriously and with the very smallest of steps to avoid the total collapse of the country.
You mentioned the citizens’ concern over the many conflicts. Is it now easier than during your first term in office from 2005 to 2009 for you to explain to them what you as Foreign Minister do?
Of course, I’m pleased that there is a greater interest in foreign policy. However, when people begin to develop an intense interest in foreign policy, then that is rarely a good sign for the state of the world. What we can try to make people understand is the fact that we cannot stay out or shy away from world events and that there are no longer any faraway conflicts that we can watch on television from the comfort of an armchair. The conflicts are reaching us, either in the form of refugee flows or terrorism. This is why many people understand that we shoulder responsibility for not getting involved just as often as for getting involved.
Does this heightened interest also entail more criticism? Does the Foreign Minister have to justify himself more often, for instance for the EU-Turkey pact in the area of refugee policy?
People are better informed these days. This represents a new challenge for politicians. We must explain why Germany must not limit its foreign policy relations to countries with stable democracies. We must also conduct policy with those that we need in order to end wars, even if they do not share our own values in such countries. We must explain that foreign policy is important especially with such countries whose conduct is rightly considered to be difficult by sections of our population. The debate about refugees and migration shows that we cannot pursue either refugee policy or foreign policy, but that everything hangs together, as is currently the case with Turkey. It goes without saying that we want to work with Turkey in a spirit of partnership to tackle the flows of refugees. At the same time, we must enter into a critical dialogue about the country’s conception of the rule of law, approach to the media and Kurdish policy.
You appear to enjoy the business of foreign policy. What is that fascinates you about it?
Foreign policy has become a great responsibility in a world that is coming out of joint. Enjoyment in the strict sense of the word does not feature all that often in this incessant work on crises and conflicts. But, over the many years I have increasingly come to discover – despite the apparent chaos and occasional setbacks – that you can actually get somewhere. My pleasure and passion for the job have rather increased because, alongside the experience, an international network of people to work with has emerged since the very beginning. This gives me considerably more leeway today than I enjoyed back in my first time of office. My principle is and remains that you must be modest about successes achieved in the short term. The realisation that you have to take the world as it is, but that, above all, you must not leave it as it is, is still important.
If you are trying to mediate a conflict situation that appears to be hopeless – or if your demeanour makes a rather stiff interlocutor suddenly open up, then does Frank‑Walter Steinmeier say to himself, yes, we’re getting somewhere here?
Yes, that happens. Experience also includes the realisation that you must not be afraid of failure. The Iran nuclear talks are a good example of this. How often did they come close to failure, how often did we stand on the brink of a new military conflict, and yet we found the strength to keep returning to the negotiating table. I believe that I am even better today at putting myself into my interlocutor’s shoes than I was during my first term of office. I know what constraints they are dogged by or, for instance, that open dialogue, which is taken for granted in Europe, does not just happen by itself in East Asia. It is not just a question of understanding the spoken word; you also have to learn to interpret facial expressions and body language.
In public, you mostly appear to be quite friendly, but above all relaxed.
It’s enough for everyone else to be on tenterhooks. (laughs)
How is it that you are so relaxed in your post? Do you go jogging, meditate or do yoga?
You cannot do this job, which also has its fair share of setbacks and failure, for so many years without strong nerves, an inner system of coordinates and a compass of values and objectives. If you do not have these qualities, then you will be so unnerved by fresh developments each day that you are unable to pursue long-term objectives. And no, I don’t do yoga. But I do go running once or twice a week. And in the late summer, I’m going to the Dolomites, as I do every year, and there are a few summits there that I have yet to conquer!
This interview was conducted by Christoph Plate.