Interview by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel with RND (RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland). Published in the “Märkische Allgemeine” newspaper and elsewhere on 14 August 2017.
Mr Gabriel, the US President is ready for combat in the conflict with North Korea. As Germany’s Foreign Minister, are your defences in place?
It’s bad enough that we now have this type of war rhetoric. We Europeans know that the First World War came about following the use of such mutually inflammatory war rhetoric. I can understand that the US President is appalled by the North Korean leader’s nuclear programme. We Europeans feel the same way. But instead of virtually sleepwalking one’s way into war, it is now time for diplomacy and not for warmongering. Former Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) once said that it’s better to negotiate for 100 days than to shoot for one minute – and that holds true more than ever.
Do you think fear of a possible nuclear war is exaggerated?
A nuclear war is a possibility. But a conventional war would also kill inconceivably vast numbers of people in Seoul and even as far away as Tokyo. That is exactly what the US Defence Secretary meant when he said that a war against North Korea would result in more deaths than in any other conflict seen since the end of the Second World War.
Is Trump responsible for this development?
First and foremost, the North Korean dictator is responsible. The wrong reaction by the US President is to invoke an inferno from his own golf club. Trump is on holiday and talks in passing about fire and fury. I openly admit that I am absolutely shocked by this irresponsible behaviour.
What would a practical step towards disarmament involve?
The military exercise that the US and South Korea are conducting can lead to North Korea using the opportunity for new provocations, such as firing a medium-range missile at Guam. The Americans would intercept this missile, and that would provide the North Korean dictatorship with an excuse to take the next step towards military escalation. This is how the spiral of violence can start turning. That must not be allowed to happen.
How can that be achieved?
The military exercise must be carried out in the least provocative way possible. And at the same time, China and Russia must increase the pressure on North Korea. It can’t be in China’s interests that countries in the region, such as Japan and South Korea, also arm themselves with nuclear weapons to protect themselves against North Korea’s madness. In the end, we will have a new part of the world with a stand‑off between nuclear powers. That does not only pose a threat to Southeast Asia, but also to the entire world, including us in Europe.
Germany has an embassy in Pyongyang and has good contacts with China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. Isn’t that the ideal indirect mediator role?
Martin Schulz,who is running for Chancellor for the SPD, has just called for the E3+3 format to be convened, that is, Germany, France and the UK plus the US, Russia and China, with EU involvement. This group of countries was able to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. I think this is an excellent suggestion.
Donald Trump became the Republicans’ presidential candidate a year ago. Say something positive about him.
I have had extremely good experiences with his State Secretary Rex Tillerson. He and his colleague, Defence Secretary James Mattis, are very rational ministers who were appointed by Trump. The problem is that they often have too little influence, as dreadful ideologists have the say in Trump’s circle of advisers. They want to turn the world into a battleground for the rule of the strong.
In which area has Trump had a more serious effect so far? The global climate or world peace?
The two things are interconnected. Climate change is one of the causes of violent battles for water and fertile ground and of the refugee movements we are facing here. However, the main problem is that under Donald Trump’s leadership, the Americans have lost sight of the idea of the West.
What idea do you mean?
The West has become weaker as a political idea. This idea is founded on democracy, freedom, human rights and, in particular, the absolute will to live in peace. With Trump in office, the international legal order is being called into question. More and more dictatorships will move into the vacuum he is creating. This means that we need the US, as otherwise the western democracies will become weaker. But it must be a US that truly shares western values.
Is there a real danger that people are simply getting used to Trumpism?
Yes. Some people are starting to say that we shouldn’t always criticise Trump, but instead go along with him. And if you look at Germany, you already see this attitude in the heart of the Government. The fact that the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) have more or less voluntarily bowed to pressure from Trump and promised to double Germany’s arms budget after the general election sends a clear message to him that they will give in to his pressure.
What does the Chancellor have to do with this?
Angela Merkel allowed this promise to be included in the CDU’s manifesto although NATO’s decision on this issue was far more cautious. She wants to spend over 70 billion euros per year on arms in the future. France, which is a nuclear power, only spends 40 billion euros per year. And because the money simply isn’t there, CDU financial expert Spahn has come up with a suggestion to cut social spending. That is exactly what Donald Trump is doing in the US. I see this as submission to the US President, the like of which I would not have thought possible only a short while ago. The CDU and CSU fail to see that this election will also decide on the militarisation and Trumpification of German and European policies as regards arms.
Should the election also become a referendum on German armament?
The general election is also a decision on whether or not Germany will submit to Trump’s policies. Ultimately, it is also a vote on whether Germany will remain a force for peace or go along with Trump’s crazy arms race. I think it’s insane to implement Trump’s goal of investing two percent of our wealth in arms every year. That would mean doubling our current expenditure. Apart from the fact that NATO did not agree this goal in such a dictatorial way as Trump and unfortunately now also Angela Merkel claim, there is no need whatsoever to implement such a goal. It would be better to double efficiency in arms projects, as that would actually enable us to save money. Europe spends about half of what the US spends on defence, but only achieves 15 percent of the Americans’ efficiency.
So your idea is to create peace without the military?
Any Bundeswehr soldier who is deployed to a crisis region in the world will tell you that we cannot create peace by military means alone. We only create peace and stability through sustainable development aid. People in Mali, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere will only stop fleeing to Europe or spreading death and terror at home when they have hope for a better future. Instead of doubling its defence budget, Europe should double its efforts in the fields of education, training, infrastructure and better governance in Africa.
Should all of the money go to development aid?
No, not all of it, but more. After all, we face an African century. Its population will double to three billion. No matter how high the walls at Europe’s borders are, it won’t be possible to stop people coming here if they don’t have better prospects in Africa.
Interview conducted by Dieter Wonka/RedaktionsNetzwerk Deutschland