Interview by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on transatlantic relations, the North Korea conflict, Turkey, his recent visit to South Sudan, and dealing with refugee and migration issues. Published in the Südkurier newspaper on 16 August 2017.
Mr Gabriel, should we be afraid there will be a war? A war of words has certainly already broken out between the US and North Korea.
It’s not easy for me to answer that question. I don’t want to scare people, but at the same time, I don’t want to play things down. We Europeans had an experience that cannot be underestimated. As historians say, we entered the First World War like sleepwalkers because governments had stopped talking to each other. Instead, you simply had warmongering everywhere. And you end up in a war because people no longer think about diplomacy and talks. Helmut Schmidt once said that it’s better to talk for 100 hours than to shoot for one minute. That has to be the line we take now. What is a cause for alarm in the conflict between the US and North Korea is that the war rhetoric is becoming increasingly heated. On the other hand, there are also reassuring signs. I think US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s strategy is intelligent – he said that we want a Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons, but not a regime change. That’s why I would answer your question by saying that there are currently no concerns about a war breaking out. But sometimes things happen unintentionally. That is what I fear most.
Aren’t Trump’s threats just talk?
I take the comments by the US President seriously. He had said that the US military is “locked and loaded” and that the US will rain “fire and fury” on the world. At the same time, the US Defence Secretary has rightfully said that a war would claim a vast number of lives, more than any other conflict since the Second World War. North Korea also has enough conventional weapons to launch a huge attack against Seoul. That’s why we say this is the time for diplomacy, not warmongering. Not only we Europeans, but also many other people around the world, have a responsibility for this. The key to a political solution lies in China and also in Russia.
How large is Beijing and Moscow’s influence on Pyongyang?
It is large, but has its limits. North Korea’s entire economic development ultimately depends on China. If the Chinese and Russians implement the sanctions adopted by the United Nations, this will be a huge problem for North Korea.
Who can keep Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un under control?
First and foremost, I would not equate Donald Trump with Kim Jong-un. The actual danger comes from the North Korean dictator, who has developed nuclear weapons and is threatening to attack other countries, including the US. One has to be careful here. Who else has influence? China, for one. But Europeans must also take on responsibility. I think Martin Schulz, who is running for Chancellor for the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), made a good suggestion when he said that we have a format which proved successful as regards preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. That format was the E3+3 – Europe, that is, Germany, France and the UK plus the US, Russia and China. It allowed us to de-escalate a conflict without resorting to armed force.
You say the main danger is from Pyongyang. Nevertheless, many people are most frightened by Trump’s choice of words. How do you see that?
I feel the same way.
Do you still trust US politics?
The problem with US politics is that very different messages are being communicated. On the one hand, you have the President’s tough war rhetoric, while on the other hand, you have the very rational and reasonable suggestions by the State Secretary and Defence Secretary. One always hopes that they will win through. But of course there are also real ideologues and some bad people in Donald Trump’s circle. And it’s sometimes difficult for us to see who has the final say.
As Foreign Minister, you have an insight into the global situation that the rest of us don’t have. You have two small children. Can you still sleep well?
I have to disappoint you. I’m not so sure that we know more than you do. Maybe we have access to better instruments to analyse the situation and can conduct face-to-face talks. But this problem of contradictory statements by the US Administration is also difficult for us to understand.
Statements are often overturned before the end of the day...
You’re right about that. However, I am a Social Democrat, and by definition that makes me an optimist. I think history is made by people – it doesn’t just happen by itself. But sure, my wife and I often talk about what sort of world our children our growing up in. I belong to the first generation that was born in a time of peace and will die in a time of peace. My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents all experienced the suffering of at least one war. We are a fortunate generation. But will our children have such good fortune? I think that we have always felt too secure. I no longer feel this sense of security. But one can do something to enhance it. Germany must remain a force for peace. We have an election campaign, so as a Social Democrat, it’s obvious that one will criticise the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU). But I was honestly horrified that the CDU, Christian Social Union (CSU) and Free Democratic Party (FDP) simply bowed down to Trump’s rearmament policy. I would not have thought that possible. They have redefined NATO’s goal, as if NATO ever decided to spend two percent of our budgets on arms. That would mean doubling our arms budget to over 70 billion euros. France is a nuclear power, but spends less than 40 billion euros on defence. Rearmament alone does not create more security. If you ask a German soldier deployed abroad if the military create more security, he or she will say that the military is sometimes important, but we never achieve stability and peace through the military, but only through better and sustainable development and by working to eradicate hunger and poverty. And that’s why I say that Germany must remain a force for peace.
But in view of partners who are becoming increasingly unpredictable, doesn’t Germany need a different foreign policy?
One cannot equate rearmament with foreign policy. It is actually a militarisation of foreign policy. That’s why the general election will also decide on whether or not foreign policy will be militarised. I have nothing against modernising the Bundeswehr. We had a Defence Minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who took about as much care with the Bundeswehr as he did with his dissertation. He wanted to save five billion euros. And another reason why I see no need for us to double our arms budget is that we in Europe spend half of what the US spends on defence, but only achieve 15 percent of its efficiency. It is regrettable that politicians are doing their utmost to provide clear figures for defence spending, but don’t even think of doing the same thing when it comes to education. We spend less than four percent on education. France spends over five percent. I say we should spend six percent on education rather than two percent on arms.
Not only is trust in the US fading, relations with Turkey are at a new low. How reliable is our cooperation with this NATO partner?
NATO did not exclude Turkey and Greece even when the two countries were ruled by military dictatorships. Why not? Because it didn’t want Turkey to go over to the Russian side, that is, to what was then the Soviet Union. The same still applies today. Nevertheless, I have to say that under Erdoğan, Turkey is moving dramatically away from our European values. That’s why our task now is to strengthen the liberal and democratic forces in Turkey and at the same time to take a clear stance towards the Government. President Erdoğan is imprisoning thousands of people. It seems like anyone who has a different opinion to him is regarded as a terrorist.
We journalists wouldn’t go on holiday to Turkey at the moment...
I think that is a wise decision. Unfortunately, the same applies to other Germans. Imagine that you’ve been going to the same hotel for the past ten years and you’re friends with the owner. Now he is suspected of being a Gülen supporter. What can happen is that as his friend you now find yourself accused of terrorism. That is the reason for our very clear travel advice.
Has Germany’s new policy on Turkey had any success? Did Turkey react?
Oh yes, Turkey actually reacted quickly. The Turkish Government had reported 680 German companies to INTERPOL, accusing them of having links to terrorists. These companies ranged from Daimler and BASF to small kebab shops. As a result, we had to warn firms against investing in Turkey. That led to huge protests against Erdoğan by the Turkish business sector. The result was that the Government said the issue had been a misunderstanding. However, it shows how far this insanity can go. I personally find this saddening, as German-Turkish relations are a huge asset. The people are fond of each other. And one must always remember that Erdoğan and Turkey are not synonymous.
Do politics only work if you exert pressure? It is certainly a difficult time for diplomacy...
Economic pressure is a part of diplomacy. But unfortunately, it’s difficult to talk with ideologues. If you have different interests, you can negotiate and find a balance of interests. But this becomes very difficult when policies are based on an ideology. Take the US President. His universe is like a sports arena. His motto is we fight against one another and help those who help us. But perhaps you will be our opponent tomorrow. Donald Trump apparently wants to replace the strength of the law with the law of the strong. The US is thus moving away from the West. That is a really huge danger. Dictatorships move into this type of vacuum.
You have just returned from Africa. One of the countries you visited was South Sudan. What news can you bring us from there?
I am pleased that the President of South Sudan has kept one of the promises he made me. He has released the first 30 political prisoners – opponents of the regime, who were imprisoned as rebels. That gives some grounds for hope that the dialogue on reconciliation is being taken seriously. But it is also very sad to see in what dreadful conditions people live there.
Are we looking at the next refugee crisis?
People from South Sudan tend to flee to Uganda and other neighbouring countries. But there is indeed a risk of another refugee crisis if we do not help Italy without delay. What is happening there is a disgrace for the European Union. That is also my criticism of the Chancellor. If we do not reach out to other European countries and help them when they are experiencing an economic crisis, they won’t help us in the refugee crisis. The two things go hand in hand. If we leave others in the lurch and simply keep telling them what to do, they will say “well, see how you cope with the refugees”.
That is already happening now.
That is one reason why I think we need to change our EU policy. That is one reason why I support Martin Schulz as a candidate for the chancellorship – because of Europe.
What will you do after 24 September?
Why don’t you ask me again on 25 September?
We’ll do that.
Interview conducted by Stefan Lutz and Margit Hufnagel.