Foreign Minister, the second coronavirus lockdown is starting on Monday. Can you guarantee that Germany will keep its borders to its neighbouring countries open during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Yes, the borders will remain open. We garnered enough experience in the spring as to how to put in place controls should they become necessary. I’m sure that we won’t see traffic jams stretching for miles and miles at the border.
After all, in the spring such traffic jams were not caused by Germany, but by Poland, for example. Are you liaising with your colleagues to ensure that this kind of thing doesn’t happen again?
I do that almost every day. In particular, we keep each other up to date about the decisions we have to make that affect others, such as the travel warnings. I’m not aware of any neighbouring country that wants to run the risk of us having to close borders. After all, 50 km traffic jams aren’t in Poland’s interest – neither socially nor economically.
Are open borders also something that apply to the Czech Republic with its enormous number of infections?
In the Czech Republic, the numbers have been higher than in Germany for quite some time. We’ve put in place clear-cut quarantine regulations with this in mind. Border traffic has already been reduced to what is absolutely essential. It’s true that those returning from trips after the summer contributed to the increase in the number of infections. We had to respond to this and have declared many regions in the EU to be risk areas, with the result that the proportion of infections caused by returning tourists has fallen significantly.
Will coronavirus change the world?
The pandemic already did that a long time ago. I hope that it won’t continue to do so forever.
Does foreign policy exclusively via videolink work?
I have never held a political office in which personal contacts and mutual trust are as important as in the field of foreign policy. I’m currently benefiting from the fact that I travelled a great deal in the first two years of my term of office and was able to establish so many trusting human relationships. Since I know many of my counterparts well today, we can also clarify many issues via videolink. Getting to know someone new and building a relationship of trust in a video conference is much more difficult, of course. If you had to start out now, it would be really difficult. In a video conference, you can simply join in and sign out again quickly. But if you fly 4000 km to get somewhere and can talk to someone in private, the host knows that I can’t just let my guest travel home as if he hadn’t been there. You achieve more under such circumstances.
Many have pointed the finger of blame at US President Trump during the crisis. The number of infections in the EU are now climbing at an even faster rate than in the US. Are we really getting everything right?
The responses I have heard from abroad have been more a mixture of admiration and the desire to do things similarly. Anyone who compares our situation with that of other countries comes to the same conclusion, namely that Germany isn’t doing so badly. The situation here is tense. We’ve been forced to impose a number of restrictions on members of the public. Many people in Germany have done sterling work in recent months, across the board – in hospitals and health authorities, in schools and childcare facilities, and in companies and families. It’s thanks to this dedication that we’ve got through the coronavirus crisis in better shape than others. But a tough winter lies ahead of us.
Donald Trump’s coronavirus policy is also on the ballot of the US presidential elections on Tuesday. In all honesty, how much are you rooting for Joe Biden?
It would be dangerous for me as Foreign Minister to express personal wishes as regards the outcome of elections in other countries. This isn’t our decision, but the democratic choice of the US people. I hope that what we have learned from the Americans will come to pass, namely that the rules of democracy are accepted by all. This includes not only having good winners, but also good losers. And this is also about a culture of civility among participants in the democratic process. We will have to deal with any election outcome.
Meaning what, exactly?
I very much hope that the transatlantic relationship improves.
There were already differences of opinion between the two sides under President Barack Obama. But back then we talked to each other, we held consultations with each other, especially when we had different opinions. Unfortunately, there are no such functioning consultation processes under the incumbent president. This undermines trust. And those who benefit from our differences are to be found in Moscow and Beijing at the end of the day. We therefore urgently need a fresh start in transatlantic relations.
When did you last speak to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo?
A few weeks ago. We both openly discuss all issues, even if we have different opinions. I’m thinking of the nuclear agreement with and the arms embargo against Iran. It’s the President’s tweets that give me the impression that not only we Europeans, but even parts of the US administration, are surprised by them. We weren’t the only ones who only found out from the press that President Trump wants to withdraw half of all US soldiers stationed in Germany. Such an approach to very sensitive issues is more than problematic in terms of our relationship.
Does this bother you at a personal level?
I care about this a great deal. The US is our most important partner outside Europe. We’re guided by the same values. We need the US if we want to defend these values around the world.
What will change if Joe Biden wins?
Even under a new president, the US will continue to pursue its policy of gradually withdrawing from certain spheres of interest. But we should play on the same team once again. Social divisions in our countries are increasing. Addressing the root causes of these developments is one of the key challenges facing Americans, Germans and Europeans. It will be easier to address these challenges if we work together, listening to each other and learning from each other. Like partners and friends do. We will approach Washington with proposals soon after the elections – and propose a transatlantic “new deal”. We need a new common understanding of the global “rules of play”. Trade and climate protection – and also the COVID-19 pandemic – are areas in which purely national responses are found wanting.
There are strong voices in the SPD that are calling for the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany because of Trump. Could the nuclear weapons stay put under a president Joe Biden?
The first priority is to ease German-US relations. Look at the polls. The Germans’ opinion of the US has deteriorated massively over the past four years. People have seen precisely how difficult cooperation with the Trump administration has become. We had to listen to Trump call China, Russia and the EU the biggest opponents of the US in one and the same breath. That has to stop.
Would you call the US a protecting power?
We need the security partnership with the US, both now and in the future – here in Europe and also beyond. However, we will continue to invest in European security in order to become more sovereign ourselves. This doesn’t mean turning our back on the transatlantic partnership. On the contrary, only by making credible efforts to independently safeguard its own security interests can Europe remain an attractive partner for the US.
If you look at the candidates from a foreign policy perspective, what conclusions do you draw?
They stand for different policy approaches. Joe Biden hails from the tradition that sees multilateral cooperation as America’s strength. This is underpinned by the insight that individual nations cannot deal with the major challenges of this world, such as globalisation, the digital transformation, climate change, migration and/or the pandemic, but that international solutions are needed. Everything we’re dealing with has become borderless.
If there’s one headline for your term in office so far, then it’s multilateralism…
Yes, because I’m convinced that if we want to solve the problems of our time, we can only do so through international cooperation. That’s why I believe that it’s so fatal to revert to a purely national approach. Unfortunately, this isn’t only a facet of the US. Anyone who wants to make people believe that the great challenges of our time can be shouldered by going it alone as a nation is very much mistaken. The future of the world will be abysmal if we don’t tackle the big issues of our age together.
Germany was long considered to be an economic giant but a diplomatic dwarf.
I beg to differ. Last week, for example, my South African counterpart Maite Emily Nkoana-Mashabane told me what I hear everywhere when I travel to other countries, namely that Germany enjoys great trust pretty much throughout the world. One of the main reasons for this is that no one assumes that we have a hidden agenda. That was the case when we assumed the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the summer. That was the case when we were elected to the UN Security Council as a non-permanent member two years ago. The way in which German diplomacy works is perhaps not as in your face as in other countries. But that doesn’t necessarily make it any less effective. That’s why the expectations of us to assume responsibility in the world are so high.
Where is Germany living up to this responsibility?
Together with our French partners, we prevented open warfare in Ukraine. We’re helping to ensure that the ceasefire holds. The negotiations on a ceasefire in Libya were initiated under our leadership. Now, finally, these efforts are beginning to bear fruit. The US Government is asking us to oversee the peace negotiations between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, which began in Qatar, and possibly to host them in Germany. These are just a few examples. We’re not biting off more than we can chew, rather we’re living up to our responsibility.
What does this mean in terms of dealing with an increasingly aggressive China?
The most important thing is that we have a European strategy vis-à-vis China. The Federal Government has realigned its China policy in recent months in close cooperation with the European Commission. Everyone has acknowledged that China isn’t just a trading partner, but also a systemic rival. We’re addressing these problems very candidly, such as the persecution of the Uighurs, the security issues in the South China Sea and the violation of the autonomy agreement for Hong Kong. The Chinese supplier Huawei is looking to expand our 5G network. We will establish rules for awarding contracts that not only take economic criteria into account, but which also take questions of our security very seriously.
Isn’t it time to put our foot down, excluding Huawei, for example?
We’re in the process of defining the security criteria. I believe that the global digital transformation per se will lead to more and more political power being distributed in the digital realm. And then it cannot be in our European interest to become too dependent on a company that’s associated with a country that I call a systemic rival.
Hasn’t Europe missed the boat here?
We’re holding the Presidency of the Council of the European Union right now, and one of our most important priorities is greater European sovereignty. We mustn’t become the plaything of the major powers, the US, Russia and China. This becomes most apparent in the digital transformation. Two digital poles are forming in the world. One of them is American. It is Silicon Valley, a model that seeks only to maximise profit. The Chinese model is one that also harnesses the digital transformation to exert widespread control. I think neither model is in line with what we perceive to be European values.
What’s the upshot of this?
From the router to the cloud, we need to be much more confident with our own solutions and companies and we must not become dependent, neither on the west nor on the east.
In the US, strong forces are pursuing a policy of “decoupling” vis-à-vis China; they want to disengage and put an end to mutual dependency. Is that an option for you?
That’s a fundamental question of diplomacy. China has become very powerful in recent years, politically, economically and militarily. Do we believe that we can tame this country by “decoupling” completely? I don’t think that’s going to get us very far.
As someone from the Saarland, you have a great affinity with France and are trying, together with Paris, to tackle the full range of issues in the foreign policy realm. Shouldn’t the political left in Germany be much more adamant in its opposition to Islamism, as Kevin Kühnert has called for since we’re witnessing a new wave of terrorism in our neighbouring country which is being spurred on by the Turkish President?
I think that it makes absolutely no difference whether you’re in the centre, on the left or on the right in the political spectrum. There’s only one response to this, namely zero tolerance. Islamist terrorism is an attack on our liberal democracies. This terrorism is not only bent on damaging, but also on destroying the way we live together here. That’s why we must take very, very rigorous action against it.
There wasn’t really much of a debate following teacher Samuel Paty’s decapitation, was there?
I’d say that it’s definitely appropriate to address this topic a little more intensively than was perhaps the case up until now.
Are we already in a culture war?
A term like this was coined a long time ago, at least in literature.
Do you mean Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations”?
Yes, I wouldn’t call it a clash of civilisations. But we live in a world in which completely different cultural values meet and in which we’ve not yet managed to strike the right balance between them. And this is a task that we can only tackle together. We must work together for greater freedom and respect in our societies, and also to ensure that people get along with each other, in spite of different cultural and religious contexts.
A dramatic conflict is under way between two NATO members. Can President Erdogan still be a reliable partner for us?
At the end of the day, this is something that President Erdogan must decide himself through his own behaviour. I don’t think it’s in Turkey’s interests to turn its back on Europe completely or on the values we have in Europe. The Turkish Government must also have an interest in safeguarding prosperity in its country. And this won’t be the case with an isolationist policy.
Interview conducted by Georg Ismar, Hans Monath and Mathias Müller von Blumencron