“We must get involved if we want to be taken seriously”
Interview by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel with the “Bonner General Anzeiger”. Topics discussed: transatlantic relations, Europe, displacement and Migration.
You’re going to be visiting Bonn more regularly in the future, Mr Gabriel. Do you have any personal connections to the city?
Yes, my political career keeps on taking me back to Bonn. I often came to this city as a young man as the venerable SPD youth organisation Die Falken had its headquarters here in Kaiserstraße. We painted the building red once, and then there was a grassroots initiative against painting buildings in political colours (laughs). And then, later on, I attended my first session as Minister-President at the German Bundesrat in Bonn in 1999, which was also the last session of the Bundesrat in the old Bundeshaus – on folding chairs. And, of course, I protested along with many hundreds of thousands of people against nuclear rearmament in Bonn’s Hofgarten in the 1980s. Then I helped to expand the UN Campus as Federal Environment Minister. All roads seemed to lead to Bonn.
You’ve come a long way politically since that time.
If someone had told me back then that I would hold Henry Kissinger in high regard one day, I probably wouldn’t have believed it for a moment. Today, I think that the university can be proud to have a chair that bears his name.
You’re taking up a post as lecturer at the university in the summer semester…
… on a modest scale. It would sound a touch too bombastic otherwise.
What do you find appealing about this?
I have often given guest lectures at various universities. But it was always a case of just shooting in and out. When the University of Bonn asked me whether I could envisage working with them for a little longer against the backdrop of the establishment of a European research centre, I found that to be an exciting prospect.
Is this part of your preparations for a career after politics? Perhaps you won’t be Foreign Minister for much longer?
My work in Bonn is not too onerous and devised in such a way that I can manage it alongside my role as Foreign Minister. And, very importantly, it is voluntary and without any remuneration. If one day I’m no longer Foreign Minister, then time will no longer be the issue (laughs). I don’t want to make any predictions about this, however.
Are any other university projects in the pipeline?
Well, to the extent that I have time for them. I think that the university has an interest in having me on board as sort of debating partner. The discussions with students and the dialogue with academics at the University of Bonn are also, to a degree, part of my professional training. The learning process is certainly not a one way street.
Is there too little dialogue between academia and the political realm?
Yes, unfortunately. We don’t have a tradition of think tanks in this country. This has something to do with the fact that we didn’t strive to apply our policies in a strategic or even geostrategic manner after the Second World War. We left this to the British, French and Americans for good reasons. International challenges are now developing at a rapid pace, however. The US is recasting its role, the UK is leaving the EU, and a nation with genuinely strategic ambitions has entered international politics in the form of China. We will have to respond to this in Europe, and this is also a challenge for Germany. We must significantly strengthen our and Europe’s capacity to formulate strategies in international politics.
What conclusions can we draw from this? Do we have to assert ourselves more strongly in the world?
We live in a world in which we, as Germans and Europeans, must dare much more to define our economic and political interests and to gear our policies to our interests. This is what I mean by strategic capability. Exchanges with academia can help us in this regard.
What does this mean with a view to German-American relations, for example?
We have never had a US strategy as we never needed one. We have always been heavily involved in transatlantic relations. But now the US is in the process of withdrawing from the liberal world order that it helped to create. America no longer feels responsible for the architecture of the international community; China is probably the only country to have a genuine geopolitical strategy right now. You can’t blame them for this. But we do have to blame ourselves for not having come up with a response to this to date. Even though it is difficult, we must define European and German interests and develop strategies on how we deal with the world. Part of this includes a broad-based willingness in society to address foreign policy issues – and these issues are often uncomfortable.
In what way?
They are uncomfortable because we often encounter countries in the world that think very differently than us, or which are governed in a very different way compared with us – less democratic, more power-oriented and often far more ruthless. And yet we cannot avoid these countries in the world. So we won’t be able to retreat to our political morals and values as they will not prevail by themselves. A particularly difficult example is the question as to whether we should supply weapons to other countries and, if so, to whom?
A glance at Egypt shows how difficult this decision can be. Should we provide Egypt with technology to help it control its border with Libya to prevent weapons from being smuggled from there and to stop people from enduring war and civil war elsewhere? Or should we refuse to do this because military equipment could theoretically also be used against protesters? In both cases, you are at risk of incurring blame. And we cannot stay out of this either, as war and civil war always spells displacement and forced migration to Europe. These are issues that call for a mature and enlightened foreign policy debate.
Does society need greater pragmatism here?
Pragmatism certainly features here. What we need more of is a willingness on the part of politicians to talk to people about this. All too often, decisions are just taken without having engaged in sufficient discussions in the public sphere.
What is in store for Europe here?
Europe was, rightly, not conceived as a player on the global stage. Europe was founded to preserve peace domestically. Today, we have come to realise that this is no longer sufficient. Asia, Latin America and Africa are growing. We’re getting smaller. Our children will only have a voice in the world of tomorrow if it is a European voice.
Even Germany, as strong as it is, will no longer stand a chance of being heard. Getting involved in the world is not an easy task, however. It used to be easy to criticise the US as a global policeman when things went wrong. Now we’re seeing that wherever the US withdraws, this doesn’t result in a vacuum, but that new powers are entering the fray – with China in trade policy and Russia and Iran in Syria. And with quite different values than ours. We must get involved if we want to be taken seriously. This is in Germany’s interests. If we fail to do this, then our interests and our values will be ignored.
What does this mean for German foreign policy?
Germany would be well advised to incorporate its national strategies into a European strategy across the board. Germany and France should be the driving force behind integration in this regard.
Europe is, unfortunately, more divided than it has been for a long time, however.
There is, regrettably, not only a fault line between northern and southern Europe with regard to economic and financial issues, but also, to a certain extent, a divide between east and west, at least as far as the question of national sovereignty and the acceptance of the European rule of law is concerned.
How must we deal with countries such as Poland and Hungary?
The first step is for us to talk about these issues. I’m not in favour of us Germans behaving as if we had a monopoly on the truth. But I am in favour of adopting a clear position with respect to the rule of law. Nobody should be allowed to disregard the primacy of European law. I’m a bit more cautious on other issues. We Germans sometimes have a tendency to make our liberalism the yardstick for all the rest. We haven’t always been such a liberal country, however. When I was a child, my mother still needed my father’s permission to work and homosexuality was a criminal offence. We must remember that some people only had 25 years to achieve what we managed over the course of 70 years.
Does that also mean being a bit more relaxed about refugee policy?
I consider hosting refugees to be a pan European task. And that was also the judgement reached by the European Court of Justice. Above all, each and every member state must abide by this judgement, which was reached in accordance with European law. And yet, I’ll admit that I am somewhat more reluctant when it comes to pointing fingers at other member states. Forcing others into a corner has never helped us find solutions.
I want to talk to people and try to convince them, as hard as that is. In international politics and private life alike, you must first try to understand the other if you intend to reach agreement with someone. By the way, the Bonn Republic also took this lesson to heart. Sometimes I wish that more caution were exercised in dealings with others, of the sort that we witnessed in the Bonn Republic with Hans Dietrich Genscher and Helmut Kohl or with Helmut Schmidt and Willy Brandt, and that there were a little less of the omniscience of the Berlin Republic.
France’s President Macron has forged ahead on the issue of the future of the EU. He tabled proposals months ago, but is still waiting for a response from Berlin.
He has received a positive response from the Social Democrats. The problem is that Germany has not yet responded because efforts to form a coalition are still ongoing. Following Macron’s election, the Federal Chancellery refused to respond and said that he should first show what he’s made of. This is why France has made a lot more headway on the reform issue. It is time now to redress this balance.
How can a divided Europe stand united on the world stage?
There have already been numerous attempts to divide Europe from the outside – be it Russia in the Ukraine conflict, George W. Bush and the Iraq question or the financial markets in the euro crisis. They did not succeed. However, Europe must act more than react.
Is Europe still taken seriously? Our model of liberal democracy seems to be losing its appeal in the face of a growing number of authoritarian systems.
It may seem that way. However, I’m not so sure whether someone in Beijing or Shanghai, who does not have enough air to breathe and is constantly dealing with corruption, would concur with your description. On the contrary, Europe has become a place of hope for millions of people. We are indeed witnessing in a competition between liberal and authoritarian societies. We will therefore have to do more to defend our freedom once again, economically, politically and, unfortunately, also militarily from time to time.
Is this a way to convince people not to succumb to the temptation for an authoritarian state?
In their partnership with Europe, people must not only feel better placed in economic terms, but also safer. We still have more to do here. Take a look at Libya. We rightly deplore the conditions in the militia refugee camps. But who is actually prepared to fight these militias who are tormenting the people, with a government that will soon hopefully be strong and have democratic legitimacy? Are we? Or are we waiting for someone else to do this for us?
Should it be us?
But of course. Not as an intervening force, but in partnership with others and together with a Government of National Accord in Libya – just as we are seeking to protect the population in Mali from the rise of terrorism. These are most uncomfortable questions, but if we dodge them, then we will suffer the consequences in the end.