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Interview with Wolfgang Ischinger

'We Are Experiencing an Epochal Shift'

In a DER SPIEGEL interview, former German Ambassador to Washington Wolfgang Ischinger says that U.S. President Donald Trump is endangering the world order. For Germany, the epochal shift amounts to no less than a loss of identity.

Interview Conducted by Britta Sandberg and

Maurice Weiss/ DER SPIEGEL

Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference

Tuesday, 9/4/2018   12:04 PM

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DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Ischinger, was there a single moment when you realized that the old world order was slipping?

Ischinger: Absolutely. It was in February 2007, the year before I took over the chairmanship of the Munich Security Conference. Vladimir Putin was speaking in Munich and in an extremely aggressive tone, he called into question the U.S. claim to leadership. I was sitting in the audience and, behind me, a journalist said: This is going to change the world. It was a turning point, the beginning of something new.

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DER SPIEGEL: Was that clear to you at the time?

Ischinger: We didn't take it seriously enough. I'm not excluding myself. We tried to ignore the war in Georgia in 2008 and essentially tried to deny reality until March 2014, until the annexation of Crimea. Then, it wasn't possible any longer.

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DER SPIEGEL: "The World in Danger" ("Welt in Gefahr") is the title of your new book. How bad is the situation?

Ischinger: We are experiencing an epochal shift. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation has never been as dangerous as it is today. Primarily because mutual trust has vanished. We can only see the rough outlines of what the new political age will look like. There is Russia's new role, China's expansion, violent conflicts around the world such as the war in Syria, the consequences of which we in Europe have particularly felt. A once reliable partner like Turkey is faltering, and we have experienced significant instability even within the European Union. But no politician has unsettled the world to the degree Donald Trump has. Since he entered office in January 2017, the entire liberal world order seems to be in danger.

DER SPIEGEL: Why are these disruptions to global politics taking place now?

Ischinger: There are many reasons. America's unipolar hegemony after 1990 is approaching its end and China is rising at the same time. That begs the question: Who will guarantee the erstwhile global order once the U.S. is no longer prepared to do so? Relations between Russia and the West are extremely strained. In this new world, prognostications regarding what will happen next have become much more difficult to make. Uncertainty and uneasiness characterize the global political situation.

DER SPIEGEL: Is Trump destroying the West with his rhetoric?

Ischinger: If it were only actions that mattered in foreign policy, I would be more sanguine. Because the U.S. is still doing more for NATO than all the rest of us put together. Unfortunately, the current situation isn't the only thing that matters. Words do too. And Trump's words act like poison to the cohesion of the West. The West needs a symbol, and that is what we have lost under Trump. And because we Germans finally became embedded in the West after a long journey over the last 70 years, it is a particularly painful loss, almost a loss of identity - much worse than for the French or the British.

DER SPIEGEL: Can't we just wait until Trump is gone?

Ischinger: The scar that will result will be difficult to heal. Things will never be quite the same as they used to be.

DER SPIEGEL: Why not?

Ischinger: Because Trump isn't to blame for everything. Even Barack Obama was no longer willing to take care of everything. For decades, Germany was able to outsource its security. This relatively harmonious relationship between the superpower and its voluntarily subordinate European partners is coming to an end and will not return in its erstwhile form. And it's not a bad thing that a process of emancipation has begun. Trump is forcing us to grow up.

DER SPIEGEL: In your discussions with heads of state and government, can you sense concern over what is currently taking place?

Ischinger: Yes, the unease and uncertainty have increased. It was bad enough that the Crimea annexation forced us to realize that our belief that all territorial questions in Europe had been definitively resolved was no longer true. Other security policy certainties have likewise proven illusory. And it begins with things that I grew up with, like NATO's Article 5, which guarantees that an attack on any alliance member will be treated as an attack on the entire alliance.

DER SPIEGEL: Is Germany sufficiently prepared for this new situation?

Ischinger: No. The popular sentence, "Germany is now surrounded by friends," has had disastrous consequences, as has now become clear. Yeah, all of our neighbors, with the exception of Switzerland, are now in the EU or in NATO. We saw that as a free ticket to Paradise and overlooked the fact that the periphery of and neighbors to the European Union -- in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and North Africa -- in no way had the same feeling of lasting peace that we did.

DER SPIEGEL: But have the Germans understood that they must change their role in this new world?

Ischinger: A lot of what the German government is doing is correct, but it isn't enough. Ever since Konrad Adenauer (Germany's first postwar chancellor), there have been two cornerstones of German politics: The European project and the trans-Atlantic bond, the EU and NATO. It is imperative that we invest more in these two cornerstones. The EU will cost more if we expect it to protect its external borders. And if we want to preserve NATO, then it is misguided for us to act with gentlemanly nonchalance as though we never agreed to the 2-percent goal (of increasing defense spending to 2 percent annually). We have an example to set. We are the largest, most substantial and most prosperous country in Europe. The strategic challenges we currently face are so significant that it is misguided to treat the balanced budget as some sort of holy grail to which all else is secondary.

DER SPIEGEL: Many politicians have demanded that Germany take on more responsibility in the world and spend more money on defense. But the Germans themselves are deeply skeptical of such a course.

Ischinger: I don't share your view. There was a public opinion survey taken recently by (the pollster) Allensbach. It found that more Germans are prepared to accept greater defense spending than we had actually thought. The mood among voters is not such that the government would be punished were it to do more to protect Germany and fulfill its alliance obligations. But it is necessary to explain convincingly why such a step is in our interest and that we are not just doing it because Trump told us to.

DER SPIEGEL: It doesn't look as though anyone has much of an interest in doing so.

Ischinger: If you want to win elections in Germany, it isn't a good recipe to tell the Germans that we are facing permanent change. But you also can't constantly serve up sleeping pills to the German electorate. We have no choice but to reform when it comes to security policy. We have to make some decisions, we have to set European foreign policy goals. In the last several years, I have seen little courage to do so.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you really believe it is possible to convince the Germans to become a military power again?

Ischinger: It's not about Germany becoming a power, it's about whether and how to push through European interests. We have to learn the lessons of the Syrian conflict. The acceptance of the refugees has cost us many billions of euros and has permanently changed the political landscape -- and unfortunately not for the better. What did we actually do to contain this conflict when such a thing was still possible? What did we do when large numbers of refugees first began arriving in Italy? Not much! The German government looked away at the time and more than anything, did all it could to avoid getting involved. Such an accusation is unavoidable, and now we are paying for it in the form of our helplessness in the face of the current drama.

REUTERS

Damaged buildings in the Yarmouk district of Damascus: "What did we actually do to contain this conflict when such a thing was still possible?"

DER SPIEGEL: What should we have done?

Ischinger: The EU didn't even have the courage to start a peace initiative. Just like during the Cold War, we left it to America and Russia. Why don't 500 million Europeans have the courage to say: Let's invite the conflict parties to the table? Because we couldn't agree and because we as the EU have nothing to offer militarily.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you have to be militarily strong to organize peace conferences?

Ischinger: Crisis diplomacy is easier to exercise when it is militarily backed. In no way am I a supporter of military interventions. But there's one thing I've learned in 40 years: Diplomacy absent the ability to assert military pressure is nothing but political symbolism. A small European state might be able to afford such a thing, but not Germany.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you believe Germany is dodging its responsibility?

Ischinger: When the strongest country, namely Germany, limits itself in the fight against Islamic State to shooting a few photos over Syria with a reconnaissance plane while leaving it to Denmark, with a population of just 5 million, to send a few real warplanes, then something isn't right. Germany often only does the bare minimum. That is not a recipe for leadership.

DER SPIEGEL: France and Great Britain are more practiced in taking on a global role. Is Germany even able to practice global politics?

Ischinger: It's not about transforming Germany into a global political actor, but about developing the EU to the point where it can resolutely and credibly defend the interests of its more than 500 million citizens.

DER SPIEGEL: In your book, you demand that Germany's Federal Security Council, which includes the chancellor and a number of government ministers, be made more robust and propose a panel dedicated to the coordination of European foreign and security policy.

Ischinger: At a time when a chilly wind is blowing, we need a systematic procedure for making decisions on security issues. And I have another proposal: We could, as proposed by (retired conservative politician) Volker Rühe, treat German military units that are active in certain EU or NATO missions in such a way that the German parliament doesn't have to grant its approval prior to each and every mission. The parliament would retain its veto and could put a stop to missions at any time. It wouldn't be the end of parliamentary control of the military, but it would be a signal to our partners that we want to be a more reliable partner.

DER SPIEGEL: Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer recently told us: "If you ask me whether we are able to defend ourselves, my answer is: No!"

Ischinger: I agree. But it was never the intention for us to be able to defend ourselves. The idea has always been that we can defend ourselves collectively, as part of NATO or the EU. But we also have to invest in these systems. It's not about the 2 percent. The question is, what does Germany owe itself and its allies to be able to protect ourselves and to live up to our obligations?

DER SPIEGEL: So, NATO's 2-percent target isn't all that important after all?

Ischinger: The decisive point is how we transform European defense from the scattered regionalism of the 19th century into the integrated Europe of the 21st century. Does every small state really need its own mini-air force? We need a European defense union in which not every country is doing things on its own. Part of that is spending more, but not because it's written somewhere that we have to, but because we should do so out of our own interests. And we have to use the funds more intelligently -- for things like joint training, joint procurement and joint projects. EU states are very much capable of foreign policy and military credibility when they act together.

DER SPIEGEL: What steps should the EU take to increase its foreign policy credibility?

Ischinger: If we don't abandon the principle of consensus on European foreign policy decisions and finally move to majority decision-making in this area as well, the EU will never become a respected foreign policy actor. The best example for how we might be able to do that is what European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker recently achieved in Washington. Because of the European treaties, he has the say when it comes to European trade policy. He was able to tell Trump: I represent 500 million Europeans, we are a trade power, even larger than the U.S., so let's now make a deal.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you expect German Chancellor Angela Merkel to leave a legacy on this issue?

Ischinger: In Emmanuel Macron, she has a French partner who has called for joint progress on EU reform. If we don't take the initiative now to create a Europe that can protect itself from internal and external threats, then we will have missed a huge opportunity. One that won't come back right away. Macron is not a panacea, but I view him as a great opportunity because he has given us the chance to think boldly together.

DER SPIEGEL: We have become so focused on Trump and Russia. Are we not ignoring an even more important issue in China?

Ischinger: China, of course, represents a significant future challenge. But we should avoid demonizing China. The question for us must be: What contribution must we make to ensure that China's rise does not result in military conflict? That is the global political challenge. The ancient Greek historian Thucydides once said that war is unavoidable when an established power is challenged by a new power. In his era, it was Sparta and Athens. The challenge for us is to avoid stumbling into that trap.

DER SPIEGEL: Are we currently seeing the end of traditional diplomacy? Trump has met with Putin and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un with no preparation and heads of state are tussling on Twitter.

Ischinger: These Trumpian hip-shots are like fireworks. None of it is enduring. The North Koreans are apparently not thinking of abandoning their nuclear activities. Classic diplomacy has absolutely not outlived its usefulness. It is not a good idea to allow someone like Trump to negotiate on his own. Clever diplomacy requires a different tack. Such a strategy involves sending a diplomat in advance to negotiate something, so that the head of government can then say: Yeah, I like that, we can sign that -- or, that needs to be improved. The issues have become so complex that not only classic diplomats are necessary, but also experts.

DER SPIEGEL: Isn't it better when Trump and Putin speak directly to each other, even if nothing has been prepared?

Ischinger: Of course, it is important, correct and in our interest when they speak to each other. It would be even better if Trump's discussions were so carefully prepared that concrete results would come out of them. Unfortunately, that has not been the case thus far.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you think the German government should do in the face of Trump's frontal attacks on Germany?

Ischinger: I would double the number of German diplomats in Washington and in the German consulates in the U.S. Funding for public relations in the U.S. should be massively increased, together with the numerous German companies there. Far too rarely do Trump voters in Kansas or Idaho hear positive stories about the friendly and hard-working Germans who have created so many jobs in America.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Ischinger, we thank you for this interview.

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