It’s growing. Many states are most concerned that the law of the strong will hold sway once again on the international stage.
What are you doing specifically?
Together with France and Canada, we have set the ball rolling and are now working on quite tangible issues. All those who have an interest in a reliable multilateral world order must do more to support this now. The alliance is an open network for all those who put their trust in the strength of the law and who feel committed to a rules-based order, to coordinate their efforts even more closely with each other in international organisations, at the UN, and in the Human Rights Council.
This alliance is barely visible at the moment though.
Diplomacy doesn’t always take place in the public eye. We’re liaising with many European partners and have talked to our Japanese colleagues about this. My Australian counterpart has telephoned me about this, South Africa is interested – to name but a few examples. The need is great, which is why we are now in the process of continuing to flesh out this alliance.
Is this an anti-Trump alliance?
No, but the focus will be on what we can do to oppose those who have declared war on the multilateral world order. In view of the growing tide of nationalism worldwide, we want to show what value and tangible benefits international cooperation continues to offer.
How realistic is a multilateral order that does not include the world’s most important countries in terms of their economy and the power that they wield, such as the US, Russia and China?
We’re not interested in multilateralism as an end in itself, but as the best way to respond to the immense challenges of the 21st century. The world’s major countries have a keen interest in this in many areas. We will endeavour to take concrete steps, to join forces and thereby bring pressure to bear, for instance to put our issues on the agenda in international organisations.
One example of where Trump has turned his back on multilateralism is in his policy on Iran. The US has withdrawn from the nuclear agreement and has imposed sanctions once again. In response, the EU now wants to establish a payment system independent of the dollar to facilitate further business with Iran. How far have you got with this payment system?
I hope we will be able to finalise this payment channel in the coming weeks. We’re working at full speed to clarify the final requirements – such as the country in which the mechanism is to be based. This isn’t easy in a confrontational situation with the US, which is, of course, also seeking to bring pressure to bear.
How reliable are the Americans as partners for Germany and Europe these days? Can we still count on the US to safeguard our external security?
What is for sure is that we can no longer count on being involved in decisions, on being consulted. The announcement that American troops will be withdrawn from Syria is the most recent example of this. We were not informed in advance about this abrupt change of tack. The UN was in the process of setting up a political process in Syria and we were in negotiations on a constitutional committee, and things were actually looking up. Trump couldn’t have chosen a worse time for this decision.
Might the US also withdraw from Europe?
For Trump, the US is no longer the leading power of liberal democracies. He prefers to take more of a national approach. This has long since become a reality that we have to get to grips with. Our response to this can only be a united and sovereign Europe. None of our countries is strong enough to face up to the current challenges alone. It’s in our genuine interest as Europeans to take on more responsibility for our security together.
Can Europe do that?
I strongly believe that we can. But this won’t happen overnight. It would be a fatal mistake to simply want to sit Trump out. Regardless of Trump, we need a new, balanced partnership with the US. We must strengthen the European pillar of the transatlantic alliance to this end.
What does that mean in practice?
We have continued to develop the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy and have taken important steps in the military field of permanent structured cooperation. For the first time, member states have declared their intention to take joint and coordinated action to enhance their military capabilities. The process is up and running and must continue. Moreover, we want to play a much stronger role in the area of crisis prevention and establish a European centre to this end in Germany. Security is by no means just a question of military power. That’s rather the point you reach when it’s too late.
Closer cooperation, for example with France, isn’t working because of different standards regarding arms exports. Shouldn’t Germany be more willing to compromise on this?
We must not abdicate all responsibility in joint projects and pass the buck. We cannot be indifferent to where arms are delivered. We have very restrictive standards, especially compared with other European countries. We want to hold firm to this approach, and this is one of the reasons why great trust is placed in us internationally.
Do you expect the French or other European countries to adapt to German standards?
No, but those who carry out projects with us will have to deal with the fact that, for good reasons, we will continue to take a very close look at these decisions and will not be able to completely relinquish the final decision-making authority.
The Americans have announced that they will rescind the INF Treaty banning land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles. What consequences will this have for Europe’s security?
First of all, we’re doing everything we can to preserve the agreement. But the odds are stacked against us. Russia has violated the Treaty for years, drawing criticism from Barack Obama while he was still in office. We officially declared at the latest NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting that Russia was in breach of the Treaty.
The US has given Russia until 2 February to resume compliance with the Treaty. What has Germany, and you personally, done to preserve this Treaty?
Over the course of weeks of negotiations, we ensured that this 60-day deadline was put in place, allowing us to hold further talks. And in the meantime Russia has also declared that it is ready to hold talks. The aim now is to persuade the Russian side to clarify the accusations and restore compliance with the Treaty. We will continue to insist on this course of action.
Would shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Moscow be necessary?
We’re engaged in dialogue with the US and Russia about this at all levels. I have already spoken to the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on several occasions. I will doubtlessly continue to talk to him about this matter. At the same time, we must develop new global regimes of control and transparency, irrespective of the INF’s future. Intermediate-range nuclear missiles are no longer just about the US and Russia, which is why we’re advocating a debate that also involves China and other countries.
If the INF Treaty is no longer fit for purpose today, then wouldn’t terminating it be a justifiable step?
We want to preserve the Treaty and at the same time use our seat in the UN Security Council to launch an initiative to create a new international arms control architecture. In recent decades, modern automated weapon systems have emerged that are rarely covered by international treaties. In this respect, the agreement on intermediate-range missiles is no longer sufficient.
Are you afraid that there could be a new debate about rearmament such as the one in the 1980s should your efforts fail?
The Cold War era is over. We don’t need a debate about rearmament, but about disarmament. We cannot respond to the security issues of today with the ideologies of deterrence from the previous century.
What’s the alternative?
All states that have nuclear deterrence capability, and not only the US and Russia, must get round the table and talk about how we can establish a new arms control architecture. At the end of the day, what we all want is a world without nuclear weapons.
Let’s be realistic and admit that that’s wishful thinking. To date, neither China nor the US have shown an interest in such a conference, let alone in a global arms control regime.
We will work persistently to ensure that the issue is on the agenda. Even if we don’t manage to preserve the INF Treaty, then the consequence of this cannot be that we enter into a new nuclear arms race. We will not create peace and security by opposing, but only by cooperating, with one another.
Should the West stand idly by if Russia has intermediate-range nuclear missiles?
Europe’s security is not enhanced by installing more intermediate-range nuclear missiles. I think that’s the wrong answer.
Eastern European NATO countries would probably take a different view.
We have always managed so far to reach an agreement in NATO as we all know that its unity is a precious asset. We should be careful not to allow ourselves to be drawn into phoney debates. Our Alliance has shown time and again that we take seriously the interests of the Eastern Europeans who feel more threatened by Russia than others. This is why we have bolstered our troop presence in Poland and the Baltic States following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Germany is particularly committed to this.
Interview conducted by Christiane Hoffmann and Christoph Schult.