SPIEGEL: Minister de Maizière, during his recent speech on the future of North Atlantic Treaty Organization, outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that there are two categories of NATO partners: those who fight and those who dig wells. Which category is Germany in?
Thomas De Maizière: In Afghanistan, we're demonstrating that the Bundeswehr (eds. note: the German military) is a fighting army whenever it has to be.
SPIEGEL: When it comes to NATO's mission in Libya, Gates recently said that Germany, among others, wasn't doing enough. What is your response?
De Maizière: Our decision to not participate in the military part of the Libya mission was based on carefully considered reasons. It remains correct. But that doesn't put us in the category of mere well-diggers, as you put it.
De Maizière: The Americans did ask us for military assistance again at the most recent NATO meeting. We turned them down. But we have made things easier for the alliance by allowing German AWACS planes to participate in the mission in Afghanistan. And there's one thing I'd like to add: When you start something, you of course always have to know how long you can keep it up.
SPIEGEL: On the eve of the first NATO airstrikes, you said on German public broadcaster ZDF: "Could the fact that we are suddenly intervening now have something to do with oil? We can't get rid of all the dictators in the world with an international military mission." Would you still say the same thing?
De Maizière: Yes. The "responsibility to protect" a country's civilian population if its government violates human rights is firmly anchored in international law. But does that mean we are allowed to intervene? Or does that mean we're actually required to? I believe that each military operation must be analyzed to determine whether its goals can be achieved with appropriate means and within an appropriate time frame as well as how one gets out at the end. Every one.
SPIEGEL: You are dodging the question. You have insinuated that Germany's NATO allies are only intervening in Libya because of oil.
De Maizière: No, I wasn't insinuating that at all. I strictly formulated that as a hypothetical.
SPIEGEL: But your formulation still implies it.
De Maizière: During the interview, I was pointing out that there have to be criteria for each and every decision about humanitarian intervention -- even if that presents me with a number of dilemmas. If I say yes once, then I'll have to justify why I say no the next time. Refraining from action is also a decision. One must make a decision, but one can't expect that -- no matter what the decision is -- one can always emerge from this kind of matter with clean hands. I have to live with that.
SPIEGEL: You have said that you would like to "constructively examine" whether German soldiers can be deployed as part of a peacekeeping force once the war is over. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle would like to look into this as well, but not "constructively." How much of a difference is there between you two?
De Maizière: There's no difference. Incidentally, I'm the type of person who always examines things constructively.
SPIEGEL: Westerwelle has also insisted that Germany will maintain its position of non-participation in the military mission in Libya. He speaks of providing "aid for a political fresh start as well as economic and social reconstruction."
De Maizière: I agree with that statement completely. Having international peacekeepers is a hypothetical matter that will only become necessary if Libya collapses and conflicting parties must be separated. In a country that is developing in a hopefully democratic direction, that would be neither necessary nor desirable.
SPIEGEL: So both you and Westerwelle oppose getting involved militarily even after Gadhafi is overthrown?
De Maizière: No. That is not our position. I hope that things don't come to that kind of military mission. Hopefully Libya will remain united and develop in a democratic direction.
SPIEGEL: You've been at the helm of Germany's Defense Ministry for three months. During that time, you've had to deliver condolences to the families of four German soldiers killed in Afghanistan. What are your thoughts and feelings in such a situation?
De Maizière: It is difficult, though nothing compared to the pain that the relatives feel themselves. It makes it clear just how directly I, at the top of the chain of command, bear personal responsibility for my soldiers. Furthermore, it has once again become clear to me how difficult it is to accept when parents must bury their children rather than the other way around.
SPIEGEL: Did these young people die in vain?
De Maizière: At first glance, their deaths are senseless. There is no political, military or moral sense to having someone who is trying to bring safety and development to a country be blown up by a small minority. At the same time, though, you can't send soldiers on dangerous missions and then call these missions off just because there are casualties. We have to accept and affirm the fact that killing and dying are part of it.
SPIEGEL: It's been almost a decade since the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, approved the country's involvement in Afghanistan. In retrospect, would you say it was the right decision?
De Maizière: Yes, the decision was correct. But the justification aimed too high. We not only said that we wanted no more terror to be exported from Afghanistan; we also promised a democratic Afghanistan, a place of stability and prosperity. We're still paying for these high expectations today.
SPIEGEL: A more modest goal may have never won approval.
De Maizière: That may be so. But if there is any lesson to be learned from Afghanistan, it would be this: You shouldn't promise the moon to guarantee a majority. Sooner or later, it will comes back to haunt you. Perhaps we should listen to military experts more when considering new missions. They tend to be more reserved in their recommendations, at least compared to many civilians. They know best what it means.
SPIEGEL: Apropos frankness, wouldn't it be more straightforward to tell people that there is going to be another eruption of chaos if NATO makes a swift withdrawal? And that we either have to live with that idea or stay in Afghanistan for decades to come?
'We Will Be Engaged in Afghanistan After 2014'
De Maizière: No. We want to avoid that by gradually handing security over to Afghan hands. I'd also like to add that significant progress must be made in Afghanistan when it comes to the political process.
SPIEGEL: The tactic of "partnering" -- the close cooperation between NATO troops and the Afghan army -- has led directly to the deaths of German soldiers at the hands of their Afghan comrades. Is the concept nevertheless good enough to justify sticking with it?
De Maizière: At the moment, this "friendly fire" issue is still my greatest concern. Slowly incorporating the Afghans is actually a very sensible path. And since it is so sensible, the Taliban is of course trying to bomb away the growing trust with Afghan soldiers and officials.
SPIEGEL: Let's just imagine for a moment a time when we are no longer in Afghanistan ...
De Maizière: … that will be a while! We are still going to be engaged in Afghanistan after 2014, even if it's just with trainers and military advisers.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, by that point, Berlin will no longer be able to reply to requests to engage in new missions by pointing to Germany's involvement in Afghanistan. Will there, at that point, be increased pressure to participate in additional operations?
De Maizière: That is difficult to predict, but I'm trying to prepare for the possibility. The plan is for the new Bundeswehr to be in a long-term and sustained position to maintain roughly 10,000 soldiers in up to two major and several minor multinational missions at the same time, should that be politically desired. Heaven knows we also need to make sure that we don't overtax the 10,000, so I argue for restraint and accountability. But we can't always say: "Let the others take on the missions."
SPIEGEL: You have said that prosperity carries with it a responsibility for others. Does that mean that we should send soldiers to Africa because we are doing well and many countries there are not?
De Maizière: That would be a bit too simplistic. The fact is that one of the basic principles of a social market economy is that ownership comes with obligations, and solidarity is a basic principle of international politics, as well. That means that those who have more also bear more responsibility, militarily as well. There will surely be more calls for richer states to play more of a role in UN missions.
SPIEGEL: You have stressed the NATO principle of "collective defense" more strongly than your predecessors. Are you expecting an attack on a NATO member state?
De Maizière: No. However, during the long period of NATO's existence, we have been the main beneficiaries of the collective defense obligation. That is no longer the case, but we need to give some serious thought to the fact that others might need our help. We Germans are surrounded by friends, but that's not true for all 28 NATO member states. Just take a look at the map.
SPIEGEL: We have. And we saw that Turkey, a NATO member, borders Syria, where things are currently seething. Could this conflict spill over into the territory of an alliance member?
De Maizière: The world can't tolerate the regime currently in place in Damascus. But we also have to frankly admit that having Syria disintegrate would be very difficult for the entire region. There's no doubt that we have put too much value on stability in the past and too little on democracy. But developments in the Middle East also show that the best thing would be if we had democracy and stability.
SPIEGEL: Perhaps you will soon have to face the question as to whether NATO should intervene in Syria.
De Maizière: No. The same thing applies in this case as for Libya: We will not get involved.
SPIEGEL: No matter what NATO decides?
De Maizière: It's not unimportant. Either way, I don't believe that there will be a similar type of UN Security Council resolution for Syria.
SPIEGEL: Have you been surprised by the positive response to your plans for reforming the German military? Or by the fact that it came without your having said anything about how things will be paid for, the future of military bases or about armaments programs? You have yourself admitted that your promise to accomplish more with fewer soldiers sounds a bit like "hocus-pocus." How do you explain all the endorsement?
De Maizière: I can't explain it, but I'm still delighted. However, your description is somewhat negative. The finance-related issues are more precisely specified than budget deliberations allow me to say. We can only deal with the military base and armament issues once some fundamental decisions have been made.
SPIEGEL: Defense Secretary Gates singled out certain NATO partners for praise, including Norway, Denmark and Belgium. Despite enjoying considerably fewer resources than the Germans, he views them as having made more of "a credible military contribution."
De Maizière: We also want to accomplish more with fewer resources. The problem with our budget is not its size but, rather, its structure. A major share or our total-budget investments -- or roughly 22 percent -- go toward armaments. That's high compared with other countries. But almost all of that is tied to old orders, including some that we no longer need as much. Budget commitments need to be designed in a more flexible way.
SPIEGEL: The Dutch are making due without entire weapon systems, such as main battle tanks. What are you having to do without?
De Maizière: Almost all of my colleagues in NATO and the EU -- the Dutch, the Poles, the French -- are in the process of adapting their militaries to changed conditions. All of them want more agility, more quality instead of quantity. As an alliance member, we have to pay attention to making sure that things still harmonize or there could suddenly be no more main battle tanks at all. But such coordination already exists.
SPIEGEL: Defense Secretary Gates believes that NATO is in danger of "the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance." Is that how you see things, as well?
De Maizière: No, I consider that overstated. However, his note about how the United States bears three-quarters of the alliance's costs today whereas it only bore half of them during the Cold War did make me stop and reflect.
SPIEGEL: Gates warns that future generations of American politicians might no longer make such high investments in the trans-Atlantic alliance. Wouldn't an American withdrawal from Europe be the largest threat to Germany's security?
De Maizière: It is in our vital interest to make sure that the United States remains a European power and that it doesn't look primarily westward. I am always telling the Americans: We Europeans are exhausting and sometimes even difficult and at odds with each other. But, compared with everyone else, we are still the most reliable partner in the world when it comes to stability, democracy and, ultimately, money, as well.
SPIEGEL: Minister de Maizière, thank you for speaking with us.
Interview conducted by Ralf Beste and Dirk Kurbjuweit