Interview with Germany's Foreign Minister By Pulling Away, U.S. 'Does the Most Damage To Itself'

In an interview, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel discusses the consequences of the United States' withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate protection and his particularly tough stance against U.S. President Donald Trump. 

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel

Interview Conducted By

The tensions in the Arab world, the United States' withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change -- these have been eventful days, especially for German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel. On Thursday, the politician with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) landed in Libya, which has been plagued by terror and violence, for a visit that was kept secret right up until his arrival.

At the moment, however, it is Gabriel's criticism of U.S. President Donald Trump that has been drawing the most attention. "There are international political upheavals that are being set off by the United States' policies," Gabriel told SPIEGEL ONLINE, defending his approach.

You can read the entire interview here:

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Gabriel, you have said some very critical things about U.S. policies. Are you using the Foreign Ministry to conduct an SPD campaign directed at German voters?

Gabriel: Well, every politician is accused of doing that during an election year. And it would be almost comforting if the only thing causing CDU (the conservative Christian Democratic Union party) head Angela Merkel and me, as a Social Democrat, to be critical of the U.S. was the German election. Then all of us in Germany and Europe could sleep better at night. There are unfortunately many objective reasons for the current, critical discussion of U.S. government policies. It is obvious that in Washington, in many areas, policies are being set that contradict what we, in Germany and in Europe, believe is right.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your tone towards Donald Trump is noticeably tougher than that of your predecessor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Gabriel: My predecessor was lucky to have been dealing with a different U.S. president and, above all, different U.S. policies.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Shortly after the announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the climate protection program, you said that those who do not position themselves in opposition to U.S. policy are making themselves complicit. That's a pretty bold statement.

Gabriel: Of course, one didn't have to criticize U.S. President Barack Obama for pulling his country out of climate protection. To the contrary: After years of blockading under his predecessor George W. Bush, he turned the U.S. into an engaged partner in climate protection. And ask other countries where the desert is spreading at a furious pace. For them, climate protection is a question of life and death. And also a question of war and civil war over water and usable farmland.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And this is why you are taking a sharper tone?

Gabriel: It's not as if we are inventing reasons to pick a fight with Mr. Trump. There are international political upheavals that are being set off by the policies of the United States. We need to deal with them.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Anti-American currents exists in equal measure in both the right and left political spectrum in Germany. Do you worry you might be feuling them with your statements?

Gabriel: You are correct. These kinds of conflicts with the U.S. do harbor the danger of feuling anti-American sentiment. But the chancellor, Martin Schulz and I are concentrating on the content of the U.S. positions. We are not in ham-handed opposition to America, but we do have different opinions from the current U.S. administration on important questions. Still, despite all of our current differences, the United States continues to be the region of the world that is politically and culturally closer to us Germans and Europeans than any other.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Is the U.S. currently in the process of politically isolating itself from the world?

Gabriel: I hope not. And the U.S. has repeatedly demonstrated that its democracy is very robust. Much more robust, by the way, than ours. Most importantly, the U.S. has always been able to find its way back to equilibrium. There's always a chance for improvement. U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis just declared that "America First" doesn't mean "America Only."

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What do you fear?

Gabriel: When the U.S. removes itself from international contexts, it does the most damage to itself. In addition to the idea of democracy and human rights, the West is based on the idea that international cooperation is based on reliable agreements, on the strength of law and not might makes right. If the U.S. withdraws from this idea, and from now on only wants to be self-sufficient, then others will try to take the place of the United States.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: You mean China?

Gabriel: For example. That's why there are good reasons for the U.S. not to move in the direction of national strength and isolationism, because in the medium-term that will hurt it.

SPIEGEL: You were recently in St. Petersburg, where you spoke with President Vladimir Putin. Did you get the impression that Putin has been disillusioned by the current zigzag course of U.S. policies?

Gabriel: It is clear to the Russian state leadership that, ultimately, there is only one true partner capable of modernizing their economy -- and that is Europe. Based on my impression from the conversation, this view is growing.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: What is the state of the relationship between Moscow and Washington?

Gabriel: We have a large interest in there being sensible relations between Russia and the U.S. Just take the conflicts in Ukraine, in Syria, but also the most recent developments on the Arab Peninsula. We need both -- because the Europeans will not be able to resolve these conflicts alone.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States have broken off diplomatic relations with Qatar, accusing the country of supporting terrorism. Does this represent a new trouble spot in global politics?

Gabriel: I am already alarmed about the escalation of the situation and possible consequences for the entire region. A conflict among neighbors on the Arab Peninsula, carried out with all available means, is the last thing we need given the many crises and conflicts in the Near and Middle East.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In Saudi Arabia, Donald Trump signed one of the largest weapons deals in his nation's history and simultaneously sharply criticized Iran. Now Iran -- which has just been the target of a terror attack -- is on the side of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who is also backed by Russia.

Gabriel: In the long term, it cannot be in Russia's interest to bind itself to Iran. And it cannot be in Moscow's interest, at all, that Assad will one day become so strong with Iran's help that he no longer needs Moscow.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you have the impression that the Trump administration will continue to uphold the nuclear deal with Iran?

Gabriel: Luckily, the U.S. administration has not terminated the agreement. Thus far, Washington has adhered to the agreements, including those elements pertaining to the relaxation of sanctions on Tehran. But this can only happen if Iran completely abides by the agreement. The Americans will not tolerate a violation of the nuclear agreement by Tehran. And that is clearly in the interest of Germany as well.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Let's move on to the subject of Turkey. The decision has been made to withdraw German military forces from Incirlik, Turkey, with the surveillance aircraft stationed there to be moved to Jordan. Is this a new low point in the German-Turkish relationship?

Gabriel: No. The low-point was when we were insulted as Nazis. I hope the megaphone diplomacy has come to an end. That cannot be repeated. Beyond Incirlik, it is clear to me that we cannot station German soldiers in places where German parliamentarians do not have the right to visit them.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you see any progress in the case of journalist Deniz Yücel, the German-Turkish journalist who has been in solitary confinement for 100 days in Turkey on charges of espionage?

Gabriel: Not so far, unfortunately. We are relying on the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to make a rapid decision on the Yücel case, as it said it would. And that the Turkish side will also accept and implement this verdict.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why should President Erdogan, whom you also met in Ankara, do that?

Gabriel: Because thus far, Ankara has cooperated well with the court. Turkey and Europe need one another, President Erdogan knows that too. We can only hope that this realization will soon be translated into concrete policy once again. The Yücel case would be a good place to start.


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