Germany's Foreign Minister 'We Are Seeing What Happens When the U.S. Pulls Back'

In an interview, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel urges Germany to pay greater attention to the future of the EU. He warns that there are no vacuums in international politics and that when the U.S. withdraws, Russia or China step in.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel

Foto: Peter Rigaud / DER SPIEGEL

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, let's get the new year started with a couple of predictions. If you were to imagine a German foreign policy in 2028, what would it look like?

Gabriel: I hope that it will be part of a European foreign policy, because even the strong country of Germany won't really have a voice in the world if it is not part of a European voice.

DER SPIEGEL: What will the core issues of this European foreign policy be?

Gabriel: It is clear that we need a foreign policy in which we jointly define European interests. Thus far, we have often defined European values, but we have been much too weak in defining mutual interests. To preempt any possible misunderstandings: We cannot give short shrift to our values of freedom, democracy and human rights. On the contrary. But political scientist Herfried Münkler is right: If you only take normative positions, if your focus is solely on values, you won't find success in a world where others are relentlessly pursuing their interests. In a world full of meat-eaters, vegetarians have a tough time.

DER SPIEGEL: This political toughness is something Germany still hasn't learned.

Gabriel: In the past, we could rely on the French, the British and, especially, the Americans, to assert our interests in the world. We have always criticized the U.S. for being the global police, and it was often appropriate to do so. But we are now seeing what happens when the U.S. pulls back. There is no such thing as a vacuum in international politics. If the U.S. leaves the room, other powers immediately walk in. In Syria, it's Russia and Iran. In trade policy, it's China. These examples show that, ultimately, we are no longer achieving either -- neither the dissemination of our European values nor the advancement of our interests.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you actually certain that the U.S. still feels bound to NATO's collective defense principles as outlined in Article 5 of the alliance treaty?

Gabriel: We are pleased that Donald Trump and the U.S. have affirmed Article 5, but we should not test that trust too much. At the same time, Europe could not defend itself without the U.S., even if European structures were strengthened.

DER SPIEGEL: How do you view Germany's role in the world today?

Gabriel: We are a place many dream about today in the way the U.S. was a place all those looking for freedom, prosperity and democracy dreamed about from the 18th to the 20th century.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you mean Germany specifically or are you referring to Europe as a whole?

Gabriel: Surely the European Union as a whole stands for these dreams. But Germany, especially, because of its economic strength. Also because of its pacifism. When you think back today to a time more than 70 years ago when we were a terrible place, a place people were afraid of, it is a wonderful development that we have gone from being a terrible place to a place that people dream of.

DER SPIEGEL: You're describing a rather overly-idyllic present day.

Gabriel: I am also aware that it isn't easy for everyone in Germany to make ends meet through well-paid work in Germany. You have to have sufficient skills and work hard. And I also know that we have much too much poverty and inequality here. Still, our parents and grandparents built an incredibly prosperous and peaceful country. One shouldn't, of course, play down the degree to which this is dependent on our economic strength. The truth is that Moscow, Beijing and Washington have one thing in common: They don't value the European Union at all. They disregard it.

DER SPIEGEL: The fact of the matter is that Europe doesn't appear to be very robust.

Gabriel: With a few exceptions, that also applies to most authoritarian-led countries. Often, economically and socially weak countries are led by men who are only ostensibly strong. The assertion of power, the instigation of confrontations outside the country, often conceals even bigger domestic problems. There's a danger that this authoritarian style of politics is now making inroads into the Western world. And they all have in common the fact that they place their national interests over those of the international community. We Europeans do not do that. But that's also why we tend to be laughed at by these authoritarian-led countries. I am convinced that we are living in an era of competition between democratic countries and authoritarian countries. And the latter have already begun trying to gain influence in the European Union and to divide us. The first cracks are apparent in Europe. We will have to do far more to defend our freedom in the future than we have had to do in the past.

DER SPIEGEL: Because our liberal democracy isn't efficient?

Gabriel: Because there is a constant focus on output today. How does this or that contribute to prosperity? What does it contribute in terms of strength or technology, to political or military influence? Less and less is the question being asked as to whether developments are taking place in a democratic and free way. Europe is in a phase in which this output is no longer sufficiently visible or tangible. Youth unemployment is still far too high, we still haven't solved our currency problem and living conditions in Europe are drifting apart. That is one reason why critics say that our Europe is based on yesteryear's model. That's a major danger for us Europeans: We must demonstrate that those who have this view of us are mistaken, that we can come to agreement, that we as a community of democratic and free nations are economically successful and are gaining political influence. To do so, we must learn to project our power.

DER SPIEGEL: Is it necessary for Europe to be feared?

Gabriel: No, not feared. On the contrary. Countries that work with us should feel safer than they would if they worked with non-democratic regimes. Why isn't Europe building infrastructure in Africa instead of leaving it to the Chinese? Why haven't we succeeded in promoting the economic development of our neighbors in the Balkans, instead conceding these countries to growing Russian influence? In an uncomfortable world, we Europeans can no longer sit back and wait for the U.S.A.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you mean that democracy must be made more efficient?

Gabriel: We're a very efficient country. But this is not about efficiency -- it's about the long-term preservation of our European model of society. By the way, this claim that democracy and efficiency are contradictory is nonsense. That's evident in the history of democracy itself, because it is only democrats who were and continue to be capable of learning from mistakes. A more appropriate question is to ask whether a country like China, which has been so incredibly successful economically, is actually inefficient in light of its environmental destruction and its corruption. In China's perception, however, the democratic model is doubtlessly inferior.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you not also see Europe as being dysfunctional to a certain extent?

Gabriel: For years, we've been constantly hearing about a multi-speed Europe. It would be great if that were the case, because that would at least mean that we were all moving in the same direction, just at different speeds. The truth is that we have long had a multi-track Europe with very different objectives. The traditional differences between the north and the south in fiscal and economic policy are far less problematic than those that exist between Eastern and Western Europe. In the south and east, China is steadily gaining more influence, such that a few EU member states no longer dare to make decisions that run counter to Chinese interests. You see it everywhere: China is the only country in the world that has a real geopolitical strategy.

DER SPIEGEL: The strategy of dividing Europe?

Gabriel: No, but one of increasing China's influence.

DER SPIEGEL: Values and interests can collide. Are values destined to lose such a clash?

Gabriel: No, it doesn't have to mean that. For the time being, I am in favor of accepting this tension, of establishing it in the first place.

DER SPIEGEL: You have been accused of not being clear enough that you expect Iran to uphold values in light of the ongoing protests there. How do you view the situation? Are we currently seeing an Iranian spring?

Gabriel: That is difficult to gauge. The protests have so far been driven by very diverse groups. There is a lack of leadership figures and a joint political agenda. But it is also clear that there are reasons for discontent in Iran -- economic and political reasons. We have told the Iranian leadership repeatedly that the country's economic recovery can ultimately only succeed through greater international economic cooperation. And the precondition for that is not only that Iran refrain from developing nuclear weapons, but also that Iran's role in the region become far more peaceful. We have offered to finally hold true negotiations and talks on that issue.

DER SPIEGEL: Let's get back to the conflict between values and interests, which leads us to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Gabriel: I speak of honesty and perseverence. We have reduced our economic support of Turkey because of the arrests and human rights violations there.

DER SPIEGEL: Your Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Cavusoglu is hoping for quick improvement in German-Turkish relations. He calls you a "personal friend" and you also invited him to visit you at your home in Goslar. Is that not a bit much given that German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel, the Turkey correspondent for the German daily Die Welt, has been held in a Turkish jail without charge since February?

Gabriel: My Turkish colleague invited me to visit him a few weeks back. Much has happened in the time since -- a number of Germans have either been released from jail through decisions made by the Turkish judiciary or have been able to leave Turkey. And now I've invited him to visit me. The situation certainly won't get any better if we don't speak with each other -- neither for our countries or for the individuals who find themselves in jail. And the Yücel case, of course, is of paramount importance. We are now awaiting the charges against Yücel so that a response can finally be given. At least he's been taken out of solitary confinement. Here, too, the Turkish justice system has reacted to our requests.

DER SPIEGEL: Why is this case so complicated?

Gabriel: It is very, very public.

DER SPIEGEL: It has been alleged that Turkey has also received military equipment from Germany.

Gabriel: Turkey is a NATO partner and a partner in the battle against IS (Islamic State). That's actually a reason not to have the kind of restrictions in place on defense exports that we have, for example, against some countries in the Middle East. Despite this, the German federal government has refrained from authorizing a significant number of defense exports. That will remain the case for as long as the Yücel matter remains unresolved. But to get back to the tension between values and interests: The focus cannot just be on how German prisoners are doing right now in Turkey. We are interested more broadly in overall developments in Turkey. That doesn't just include the debate about democracy and human rights, but also very uncomfortable questions.

DER SPIEGEL: Which ones?

Gabriel: Turkey is currently seeking to make itself more independent from Europe and is turning to the east. Is that in our interest? Does it help us bolster Western values in Turkey, or at least here at home? Or are we making ourselves weaker overall? At the same time, Turkey is violating our European moral concepts. It's a difficult conflict to endure, and it leads to necessary disputes and debates. We need these debates -- the belief that we must only retreat to values to always be on the safe side is wrong. But what we do need is an open discussion of the issue. Constantly accusing each other of betraying values neither gets anyone out of jail nor does it stengthen us.

DER SPIEGEL: The German chancellor doesn't like those kinds of debates.

Gabriel: But there's no way around it: We have to discuss the challenges facing foreign and security policy with the German population. And without reverting to canned, fully formulated answers for everything. Unfortunately, we have no experience and no real structure for strategic considerations. We don't have a think tank culture. One of the tasks of foreign policy will be to develop these intellectual capabilities in Europe and Germany.

DER SPIEGEL: That would mean having a former foreign minister switch to a foundation, a think tank, rather than going into the private sector.

Gabriel: Yes, that certainly wouldn't be a bad idea. But it wasn't my intention to apply for such a position in this interview.

DER SPIEGEL: Are Germany's partners abroad more bemused by the current stalemate in Berlin, by Germany's ongoing lack of a government? Or are they seriously concerned?

Gabriel: I'm hearing different things, but there is concern that stable Germany is no longer quite so stable.

DER SPIEGEL: What is your view?

Gabriel: I don't share this concern because, economically and politically, our country is extremely stable. There are countries with functioning governments whose institutions don't work. But here, the opposite is true right now. My only concern is about Europe. There's a risk we will run out of time. We have been blessed with a pro-European French president, but we are also approaching the next elections for the European Parliament in 2019, and it will be important for pro-European parties present a credible answer to the anti-Europeans on the left and the right.

DER SPIEGEL: Chancellor Merkel has left Emmanuel Macron waiting for months now.

Gabriel: It is better to provide a good answer rather than the wrong one given by the FDP (Free Democratic Party). Macron's idea is that of a Europe that protects its citizens. That is underpinned by defense, the fight against terrorism, but also fair social standards and the battle against tax evasion by major corporations. It's a very good plan. I hope that we will have a clear decision on working together with France in the spring.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron

Foto: Virginia Mayo/ dpa

DER SPIEGEL: Which answer to Macron's proposals should the next government provide?

Gabriel: Madame Merkel knows very well that the CDU (Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union) and the CSU (the Bavarian sister party to the CDU, with which it shares power nationally) must change their European policies. The FDP's nationalist-liberal position on Europe is presumably one of the reasons the attempt failed to form a Jamaica coalition government (which would have seen the CDU, FDP and Green Party govern together). I don't know if a coalition agreement with the Social Democrats (SPD) will be reached. But if it is, it will be the first such coalition agreement in which Europe is the focus. If you were to ask me, in retrospect, what we did wrong in the last grand coalition ... …

DER SPIEGEL: … ... indeed an excellent question ... …

Gabriel: ...… then I would say that we paid too little attention to Europe. We wrote a chapter in European history in which the Germany-centric economic views of (then German Finance Minister) Wolfgang Schäuble played too great of a role. That was a mistake.

DER SPIEGEL: You have the opportunity to correct that.

Gabriel: We will see if the Christian Democrats want to join us in taking this step toward a new form of European cooperation. At the moment, the CSU is focused on other issues. Rather than investing in Europe, they want, in all seriousness, to double the defense budget. Right in line with Donald Trump. I am extremely certain that the SPD will not support such a thing.

DER SPIEGEL: But you yourself have said that Germany and Europe must command more respect militarily.

Gabriel: There is nothing wrong with a reasonable increase in defense spending. But doubling it? That would be more than 70 billion euros -- and that's per year! France, as a nuclear power, spends more than 40 billion euros. Do we truly believe that our European neighbors would be pleased to see an enormous central-European army arising in Germany in 10 years' time?

DER SPIEGEL: Are you suggesting that our European partners are afraid of a highly armed Germany?

Gabriel: The first French people have already asked me if we are really serious about it.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Gabriel, you told us not long ago that being chairman of the SPD party was the pinnacle of your career. But doesn't your current position as foreign minister trump that office?

Gabriel: You can't compare the two jobs.


Gabriel: When I was 15, I joined the Falcons, a children's and youth movement of the social democratic workers' movement. And I am familiar with a social democracy that hardly exists anymore today. The history of this party ...

DER SPIEGEL: … ... so romantic and glorious ...

Gabriel: … ... it's easy to make fun of if you lose sight of the battles fought by the Social Democrats, for which they have all too often had to pay with their lives to defend and establish freedom and democracy in Germany. Few of the things that we treasure in our country today would exist without this SPD. But I also admit that pretty much every chairman of this party, Germany's oldest democratic party, has had an extremely emotional relationship with the SPD.

DER SPIEGEL: Is foreign policy less emotional?

Gabriel: We should actually hope for foreign policy to become less interesting. "Banking has to be boring again" was one of the sentences you heard during the financial crisis. We can only wish that that will once again become true of foreign policy. But it appears it will take a while before it gets boring again, even though it would be better that way.

DER SPIEGEL: Have you also experienced great stress or had sleepless nights as a result of your current position as foreign minister?

Gabriel: Standing in a Somali refugee camp full of 150,000 refugees and not having a clue how to help them -- that's not the kind of thing you can just put out of your mind. There was a moving moment. I showed my five-year-old daughter pictures from Somalia in order to explain to her why I had been away. She then stood up, went to her room and retrieved her piggy bank. She said: You can take this with you for the children there.

DER SPIEGEL: Sounds like a future SPD member.…

Gabriel: The fact that she's otherwise unwilling to share anything at all actually speaks against future membership in the SPD. (laughs) But that's also why it was so touching.

DER SPIEGEL: What do you think is coming your way Mr. Gabriel? Do you think you will soon have to leave your office as foreign minister?

Gabriel: It's always better to assume so. After all, (former German Chancellor) Willy Brandt was right when he said that we are elected and not chosen.

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