Former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel speaks to DER SPIEGEL about his call for the country to take on a new global role and why Germans are underestimating the dangers posed by the current geopolitical situation.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, do you wish you were still Germany’s foreign minister? In your book, it sounds like you were unable to fulfill many of your plans.
Gabriel: I am a political person and I can’t pretend politics don’t interest me anymore only because I no longer hold a position. The world is changing dramatically. We Germans are in danger of underestimating the consequences.
DER SPIEGEL: In what sense?
Gabriel: The big questions about Germany’s place in t he world remain unanswered. And I think that is negligent. I have often asked myself: Will my three daughters have the same opportunities for freedom and self-determination? Will they live in peace? That was more of a motivation for writing the book than the unfulfilled wishes of a former foreign minister.
DER SPIEGEL: You use dramatic words to describe the current global political situation. You compare it to 1989 or even 1945.
Gabriel: Yes, because with this U.S. president, the old West has broken apart. It is a drastic change from the past 70 years, when we could depend on the U.S. as a leading nation. We are going through a fight for European sovereignty in a completely changed world. I grew up on the former border with East Germany. The alliance with the U.S. was for me as natural as the belief that we would live here in peace. That is over.
DER SPIEGEL: Was there for you, as foreign minister, a moment when you thought the U.S. is no longer a dependable partner?
Gabriel: There were times when I thought, “For goodness’ sake, what exactly is happening here?” Take the crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar. When I spoke with then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, I had the impression he saw things like us and was trying to have a calming influence. Then you talk to Donald Trump and he says: “My secretary of state has a different opinion than me, we need to strengthen the Saudis. They have signed billions in weapons deals with us.”
DER SPIEGEL: When Tillerson told the Europeans during a G-7 meeting that Ukraine is your problem. Was that one of those moments?
Gabriel: Yes, I was completely flummoxed. I told him, you can’t mean that seriously. He responded by saying, I just wanted to prepare you for how my president thinks. He isn’t interested in Ukraine. It also has a good side, if we Europeans are forced to take our fate into our own hands.
DER SPIEGEL: The danger emanating from Germany, you write, isn’t military dominance, but the dominance of inaction. Weren’t you also partly responsible for that?
Gabriel: As a political actor, one is always partly responsible. We have for decades been used to the fact that the U.S. was responsible for taking care of the unpleasant things in the world. Now Trump is criticizing us for not spending enough money on our military. Part of the truth, however, is that the U.S. wanted exactly that for a very long time. They were worried that too much military power in Germany could provoke the next world war. I once told Tillerson, I don’t know what you are complaining about, you raised us for 70 years to be peaceniks. Now that’s what we are and you’re surprised. He laughed.
DER SPIEGEL: Most Germans don’t want Germany to become more active on the world stage.
Gabriel: Some people want Germany to be something like a large Switzerland, but we are simply too big. We can’t just stand on the sidelines. Because of the Assad regime’s bombs, almost a million refugees were standing in front of our door. It’s not just about military operations, but about crisis prevention, diplomacy, economic development. Germany shouldn’t transform from a geopolitical abstainer to an influential geo-strategist. I wish that we would return to once again having strategic debates — no matter the result. It is important to prepare the public for the fact that the world has changed.
DER SPIEGEL: Which debates do you mean?
Gabriel: Chiefly, we need to understand that moral rigorism can be just as wrong as ignoring morals. The political scientist Herfried Münkler says we Germans are still happy to focus on morals. It would be better if we admitted that we also have interests.
DER SPIEGEL: So less morality, more realpolitik?
Gabriel: Not less morality. But we need to weigh interests against values, and then decide. There is an example in which we were successful. When IS (Islamic State) overran the Yazidis in the Sinjar Mountains, we decided to deliver weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga in violation of applicable law. Otherwise the Yazidis would have been wiped out. The belief that one is on the moral safe side if one stays out of world politics can go just as wrong as overly aggressive intervention. Culpability is always a possible outcome.
DER SPIEGEL: For this, Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, actually needs to be functional. Why don’t you subscribe to NATO’s target of defense expenditures of 2 percent of gross domestic product?
Gabriel: We would be happy enough if the Bundeswehr were to use its current resources in a responsible manner. I understand that the U.S. doesn’t want to shoulder 70 percent of NATO’s defense burden. But the solution isn’t for us to put 80 billion euros every year into the Bundeswehr. It should be better equipped; as far as I am concerned, it could be 1.5 percent of GDP, but earmark the remaining 0.5 percent for European structures. That would allow us to take over some responsibility for the defense of Eastern Europe, which has thus far been taken care of by the U.S.
DER SPIEGEL: A central stipulation in your book is that you call for a common European foreign policy. What should that look like?
Gabriel: Ultimately, majority decisions on foreign policy in the EU must be made possible. But we are far away from that. It’s not even about changing structures, but about taking practical actions. It can only work if the important heads of state and government in Europe agree to it. We will need a phase of strong intergovernmental Europe.
DER SPIEGEL: Emmanuel Macron would like to establish a European intervention army.
Gabriel: I would take part in that. If, for example, Libya were to be successful in reestablishing state structures, the armed militias who are currently running torture centers won’t disappear on their own. It would require joint action by the Europeans.
DER SPIEGEL: You are critical about Germany having made many decisions autonomously, including in the refugee crisis and in the decision to turn away from nuclear power.
Gabriel: In the past several years, Germany has often been content with feeling like it’s in the right, for example in the euro crisis. We didn’t notice that our neighbors saw us as a country that believes in its good mission, but one that no longer understands those around it, even looks down on them. An example is our hysteria about the free-trade agreement, that everyone wanted except Germany. Our moral impulse in refugee policy was also seen completely differently by our neighbors.
DER SPIEGEL: In 2015, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who is no longer in office, asked you: “Do the Germans now also want to lead us morally as well?”
Gabriel: Yes, and that surprised me. Not that he didn’t agree with our policy, but the hardness with which he conveyed it to me. He was sick of having to morally justify his more restrictive policy to the Germans.
DER SPIEGEL: Did the German government, of which you were a part, make a mistake?
Gabriel: To this day, I believe Angela Merkel’s moral impulse to not close the borders was correct. I also think in hindsight that there wasn’t any alternative. Should we have sent the Bundeswehr to the border with Austria? Surely not. Still I ask myself if we should have addressed more seriously the question as to whether we sufficiently consulted the other European countries. We made a mistake there. We were so naïve as to believe that the others would also agree with our approach. We also underestimated the consequences the mass immigration would bring with it.
DER SPIEGEL: You write in your book how, as you were leaving the Chancellery with Angela Merkel one night in 2015, she extracted a promise from you.
Gabriel: She said to me, verbatim: “But promise me one thing, Mr. Gabriel, the two of us won’t build any fences.” We had just listened to presentations by Interior Minister (Thomas) de Maizière and the head of the Federal Police (Dieter) Romann about how quickly everything can be sealed off. I can still remember her shaking her head during these presentations. I remember thinking, this isn’t a superficial position, it was deep inside her.
DER SPIEGEL: There was a deep conviction?
Gabriel: I have great respect for her to this day for saying that sentence that night. For me, it was more than respectable — even though I today know that there were great difficulties afterwards. If we are honest, others later built other fences for us which saved us Germans from a further increase in the numbers of refugees. To this day, I am filled with contradictory feelings.
DER SPIEGEL: Another important issue for you is the treatment of Russia. You emphasize that you are “positively biased” to the country. What does that mean?
Gabriel: Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians experienced unfathomable suffering in World War II. We have a responsibility there. But I also know there were times in which we Germans cultivated our relationship with Russia at the expense of Poland. For this reason, I also argue against a special German path in the treatment of Russia.
DER SPIEGEL: Then we should also talk about the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. It is, despite resistance from several Eastern European countries and the U.S., to carry gas from Russia directly to Germany.
Gabriel: If that represents a special path, then why isn’t the European Commission banning it? The answer is simple: because it is all in accordance with European law. I am not in favor of twisting the law to punish Russia — and as long as it is in accordance with European rules, the German economy should decide whom it gets its gas from.
DER SPIEGEL: Just because something is legal doesn’t mean it is politically wise. Many Eastern Europeans and Americans see the pipeline as a geopolitical instrument of the Kremlin.
Gabriel: You might want to rethink that sentence. Because if the criterion for our actions is wisdom and not law, then we are not far from despotism. Contracts are binding. We accuse Vladimir Putin of laws being changed for the sake of political opportunity. We can’t behave like that.
DER SPIEGEL: As foreign minister, you suggested — without first running it past the chancellor — a gradual loosening of the Russia sanctions, combined with the deployment of UN troops in eastern Ukraine.
Gabriel: I expressly said that it was my personal suggestion and that it was not in accordance with official government position. But I would bet on exactly that happening. If Russia is willing to pull back heavy weapons and agrees to a blue-helmet mission, then the logical next step would be to dismantle the sanctions.
DER SPIEGEL: Shouldn’t such a dismantling be connected to the restitution of Ukraine’s territorial integrity?
Gabriel: That must remain our goal, but if you want too much at once, you are destined to fail.
DER SPIEGEL: With a blue-helmet mission, the conflict would merely be frozen in place.
Gabriel: I would consider that progress, because then at least there would be no more shooting, and reconstruction could start. Should we instead say, “We would like you to come to us on your knees and admit that you did everything wrong?” That is the moral rigor that I’m talking about. You can pat yourself on the back that you stayed strong, but the shooting in Ukraine will continue.
DER SPIEGEL: What kind of role should Germany play in the Ukraine conflict?
Gabriel: Once Germany takes on the temporary seat in the U.N. Security Council (at the beginning of 2019), it should be our focus to push through a blue-helmet mandate. The proposal for it is already on the table from President Petro Poroshenko and from Putin. They differ on the conditions. Negotiating those conditions, I believe, is the right thing to do.
DER SPIEGEL: Your successor, Heiko Maas, has had some tough words for Russia. What is your reaction?
Gabriel: It is not right to comment on one’s successor in a position. As before, I consider Heiko Maas an excellent Social Democratic politician.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you understand the anger many people in your party have that the Hans-Georg Maassen situation — in which the controversial head of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution was removed from his office and given a job in the Interior Ministry, displacing a Social Democrat?
Gabriel: Yes, of course. The worst thing is that the population has the impression that politicians are only focused on themselves. One can only hope that the coalition can perform a successful relaunch.
DER SPIEGEL: In hindsight, was it a bad idea for the SPD to once again join a coalition as the junior partner to Merkel’s conservatives?
Gabriel: Then as now, it is about having a stable government in Germany. We are the biggest economy in Europe. If we wobble, the continent quakes. If the grand coalition doesn’t achieve what people expect of it, which is to say, stability and the ability to act, then it has lost the justification for its existence. One will need to answer this question in the coming weeks.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, we thank you for this interview.