German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin.

Foto: Andreas Chudowski / DER SPIEGEL

Inteview with German Foreign Minister Baerbock "There Are Moments When I Am Also Unsure"

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party had been hoping to pursue a feminist foreign policy. Now, she has become a proponent of weapons deliveries to Ukraine. In an interview, she explains how those two things are not mutually exclusive.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Baerbock, how much feminist foreign policy  is possible in times of war?

Baerbock: The core of feminist foreign policy is to ensure that nobody is ignored. That’s not something that is only applicable in times of peace. Especially in wartime, it is important to go beyond merely counting tactical battalions, but also to consider the suffering of the civilian population. Children suffer from bombardments differently than do adults. The elderly can’t flee as easily as younger people. Women are also vulnerable to sexual violence. That’s not just talk, rather it leads to a more comprehensive and thus stronger security policy.

DER SPIEGEL: Weapons deliveries and rearmament are not generally part of the feminist foreign policy school of thought. How difficult was it for you personally to execute this change of course ?

Baerbock: I reject your proposition. Feminism doesn’t mean telling victims of violence: Don’t defend yourself! That would be like telling a woman being attacked at night: Don’t resist and don’t call for help. The military can only ever be the absolute last resort, but it can provide victims with the ability to defend themselves.

DER SPIEGEL 19/2022

The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 19/2022 (May 7th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.

SPIEGEL International

DER SPIEGEL: "Disarmament and demilitarization are a primary demand of feminist thought" – that’s not our position, but a statement made by Kristina Lunz of the Center for Feminist Foreign Policy.

Baerbock: And that is absolutely correct. NATO concepts also include disarmament as an important element of security. But that doesn’t override another fundamental principle: the existence of a right to self-defense, for people as well as for countries. The decision to deliver weapons is not an end in itself, and it doesn’t make everything new and different. It continues to be the case that security is not limited to the military. It includes development cooperation, with the aim of preventing crises from becoming wars. It includes the fact that wars aren’t just ended through military means, but also through negotiations. And studies have shown that peace agreements last longer when women are involved – not because women are better people but because otherwise, half of society isn’t represented. Putin’s apparatus represents the precise opposite of that. All of the powerful people in his orbit are men.

DER SPIEGEL: The Ukrainian side of the cease-fire negotiations is also entirely made up of men. Would you recommend to the Kyiv government that it should add women to the team?

Baerbock: I know a whole list of women in leadership positions in Ukrainian politics. But it’s not just an issue for countries at war. When half of society is adequately represented, that translates to a strengthening of democracy. It also means that better decisions are made.

"The cancellation of the president’s trip also influenced my travel plans."

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on her upcoming visit to Kyiv

DER SPIEGEL: Up until the Russian invasion, you were opposed to the delivery of weapons to Ukraine. Was that a mistake in hindsight?

Baerbock: We tried everything we could right up until the last day to prevent a Russian invasion. I, too, thought there was a last chance that Moscow could return to the negotiating table. In such a sensitive situation, you have to carefully consider whether your own actions will prevent or provoke something worse. German weapons deliveries would have given Mr. Putin yet another pretext to attack Ukraine. We didn’t want to grant him that favor. Instead, the Russian president was forced to resort to the absurd claim that he had to protect the people of Ukraine from Nazis.

DER SPIEGEL: Would lives have been saved had Ukraine been better armed?

Baerbock: Because we now know that Putin wanted to attack Ukraine no matter what, I do, of course, wonder with the benefit of hindsight whether German weapons deliveries would have made anything better. Nobody can say with any degree of certainty how much that might have changed. Others did provide weapons, and Ukraine was invaded anyway.

DER SPIEGEL: Will that influence your decision-making process in the future? If Russian threats against Moldova and Georgia increase, for example, will you be more likely to approve of arms deliveries?

Baerbock: There are no blueprints  when it comes to war. One consideration in future situations will, of course, be the fact that Putin broke his promise one day after claiming he wanted to negotiate. When reality shifts, politics must be able to adapt its coordinates. Anything else would be dogmatism.

Foreign Minister Baerbock during her interview with DER SPIEGEL: "We tried everything we could right up until the last day to prevent a Russian invasion."

Foreign Minister Baerbock during her interview with DER SPIEGEL: "We tried everything we could right up until the last day to prevent a Russian invasion."

Foto: Andreas Chudowski / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Robert Habeck, with whom you led the Green Party until earlier this year, demanded back in May 2021 that Ukraine be supplied with defensive weapons. Was he right?

Baerbock: The Green Party made clear that Ukraine must be in a position to defend itself. But Germany at the time, together with France, bore primary responsibility within the international community for the Minsk negotiation process.

DER SPIEGEL: But that wasn’t your argument at the time. You referred to your party’s traditional objection to delivering weapons to crisis regions. Is that not precisely the same dogmatism that you just rejected?

Baerbock: No. It is important to differentiate between a fundamental position that rejects supplying weapons to crisis regions – which isn’t just a Green idea, but is consistent with the German government’s political principles – and support for a country whose existence is threatened by a brutal war of aggression and which has a right to self-defense. It is a fine line. Which is why careful considerations  are necessary.

DER SPIEGEL: As the Green Party’s candidate for chancellor, you also rejected the NATO-defined goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. It has now become official government policy .

Baerbock: I always said that the capabilities of the Bundeswehr were the important thing and not some number. I continue to see it that way, and it is a position I promote with our NATO partners. Spending 2 percent of GDP on the military means that spending would drop in a recession. In such a situation, we may achieve the 2-percent goal, but wouldn’t have purchased a single helicopter. That is why we don’t want to anchor a meaningless 2-percent goal in the constitution, but the 100-billion-euro special military fund. In some years, that will add up to more than 2 percent of GDP, and in others it may be a bit less.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you in favor of spending the 100-billion-euro special fund solely on the military?

Baerbock: The 100 billion is there for our defensive capabilities and our alliance responsibilities, exclusively. That includes the purchase of F-35 jets, helicopters that actually fly, munitions in the two-figure billions, radios that are secure and compatible with our allies, and much more to provide our military with state-of-the-art equipment. But that also means that we will, for example, be protecting ourselves from cyberattacks. It used to be that critical infrastructure was attacked with missiles, but today, hospitals and power plants are attacked through the internet. Which is why investment in our cyber-defenses is a vital component of our defensive capabilities. I want to avoid a situation in which, five years from now, we realize that we are unable to fund our cyber-defense strategy because the special fund anchored in the constitution is limited to the military, which perhaps isn’t responsible for that task.

DER SPIEGEL: Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke of the danger of nuclear war in his recent DER SPIEGEL interview . Is that something that concerns you as well?

Baerbock: The Russian president has broken all of the agreements that we reached in Europe so that we may live in peace. A central element of the NATO-Russia Founding Act was that we would discuss nuclear disarmament together. Putin sharpened his rhetoric on the issue several years ago, but such threats must, of course, be taken more seriously in the current situation of a hot war.

Annalena Baerbock was the Green Party's candidate for chancellor before then being appointed foreign minister in the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Annalena Baerbock was the Green Party's candidate for chancellor before then being appointed foreign minister in the government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Foto: Andreas Chudowski / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Is there not a danger that the warnings of a nuclear war could paralyze German politics?

Baerbock: I understand that, in a country which has been blessed with peace for so long, people are worried. As am I. In many families, children are asking their parents: Is war coming here as well? What is a nuclear bomb? And it is always important to discuss the worst-case scenario. But as a government, we must avoid making decisions based on emotion. They must be based on our responsibility for our country’s future. That responsibility includes standing behind Ukraine, which is also defending our European security – even if I, too, find some decisions difficult. And I consider it to be a strength of our society that there is no triumphalism surrounding new tank deliveries. Because it is clear, these weapons are deadly.

DER SPIEGEL: Surveys have shown that 45 percent of Germans are opposed to the delivery of heavy weapons. How can you assuage their concerns?

Baerbock: A nuclear power is waging a war of aggression outside our front door. Those who aren’t concerned either aren’t being honest or haven’t understood the situation in which Europe has found itself since Feb. 24. I am convinced that the vast majority have a precise understanding of the considerations we are faced with. The aim of our policies is de-escalation. We want to prevent the war from spreading to other countries. Which is why we must make it clear to Putin that we will defend alliance territory with everything we have. And we are supporting Ukraine with weapons deliveries so that Putin’s troops can be pushed back and cannot continue to perpetrate massive war crimes  unhindered.

DER SPIEGEL: Weapons deliveries translate to de-escalation?

Baerbock: I wish from the bottom of my heart that we didn’t have to deliver weapons. But if we don’t help stop the Russian advance – with weapons, since Putin isn’t currently listening to words – we would carry partial responsibility for additional cities in Ukraine being transformed into a Mariupol  or Bucha.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you have to say to the around 200,000 people who signed prominent German feminist Alice Schwarzer’s open letter to Chancellor Scholz, calling on him to cease deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine?

Baerbock: I take advantage of every opportunity to engage in dialogue. To be honest: There are moments when I am also unsure as to whether we are doing too much or too little. I have encountered almost nobody in our country who is 100 percent for or against all kinds of weapons deliveries. At the same time, though, I always ask the counter-question: Do you think it would be tenable to simply stand aside as innocent people are murdered every day? I would find such a position irresponsible, both politically and from a human perspective.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you been frustrated by the chancellor’s lack of effective public communication?

Baerbock: We communicate as a complete government, each in accordance with their own responsibility or role. There is no such thing as the communication of the chancellor, of the foreign minister or of the economics minister. We persistently communicate in unison the specific steps we are taking.

DER SPIEGEL: From your perspective, what is the aim of this war?

Baerbock: That the people of Ukraine can once again live in peace. And we are doing everything, on a number of different levels, to achieve that aim: humanitarian, financial and also with economic sanctions.

DER SPIEGEL: Russia isn’t likely to withdraw from the territory it has thus far conquered. Will Kyiv ultimately be forced into a compromise?

Baerbock: Only Ukraine can make decisions about the future of Ukraine. But we can support them so that they have a chance to freely decide.

DER SPIEGEL: After Kyiv cancelled German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s visit to the Ukrainian capital at the last minute, neither the chancellor nor you were interested in traveling to Ukraine. Now, though, you are planning to head to Kyiv soon. What changed?

Baerbock: These trips are not ends in themselves. The focus is on helping Ukraine the best we can. Immediately after the horrific crimes of Bucha, I discussed a trip with my Ukrainian counterpart with the particular goal of supporting the work of the International Criminal Court. The cancellation of the president’s trip also influenced my travel plans. It’s good that that incident now lies in the past.

DER SPIEGEL: In early March, 141 UN member states condemned the Russian invasion. How great is your concern that this broad front could crumble in the face of rising prices for food and energy?

Baerbock: The effects of this war are impacting different countries to varying degrees. States like Somalia, Egypt and Lebanon are almost entirely dependent on wheat and corn from Russia and Ukraine. Now, Russia is blockading Ukrainian ports, where the badly needed cereals are stored, and fields cannot be planted because of the war. President Putin has plunged a number of countries into acute distress .

DER SPIEGEL: Are you concerned that poor countries might adopt Putin’s claims that Western sanctions against Russia are to blame for the situation in which they currently find themselves?

Baerbock: Yes, because Russia has been pursuing a hybrid strategy for quite some time. And one element of their war propaganda is the narrative that the sanctions aren’t targeted at the Russian regime at all, but at other countries. That is why I recently traveled to Mali and Niger, to make it clear: We are not going to abandon you. Rather, we are going to do all we can to ensure that the Russian war does not become a global food crisis that plunges millions of people into famine.

DER SPIEGEL: Germany currently holds the presidency of the G-7. Are you planning on doing something specific in that format?

Baerbock: Yes, we are, because as industrialized countries, we have a significant amount of responsibility. A focus of our leadership of the G-7 will be on establishing an alliance against this food crisis. And the Gulf states and other countries in the world, some of which have taken the position that the war has nothing to do with them, should see it as an invitation as well. Similar to the climate crisis, we can only address the fight against global hunger together. It is important to me that our country takes on responsibility in that effort.

DER SPIEGEL: It was recently announced that your husband has become a partner at the communications consultancy MSL. The organization LobbyControl views the development with concern. MSL, the organization notes, also provides consultancy to foreign governments and could seek to acquire new customers by highlighting the fact that the husband of the German foreign minister is part of the company.

Baerbock: My husband stayed at home for the entirety of my election campaign to take care of our two children. Now, he is restarting his career on a part-time basis.

DER SPIEGEL: But as a lobbyist, he is very close to political operations and to the German government. And to you.

Baerbock: Which is why we made sure that there would be no conflicts of interest.

DER SPIEGEL: Ms. Baerbock, thank you for this interview.