Editor's note: This SPIEGEL interview was conducted before the beginning of the Western military operation against Moammar Gadhafi's forces on Saturday.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, a nuclear disaster is currently unfolding in Japan. Is the nuclear age coming to an end?
Guido Westerwelle: Some events represent such a decisive turning point that afterwards nothing is the same as it was before. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were such a turning point -- and the disaster in Japan is one as well.
SPIEGEL: Do you view nuclear energy differently now than you did before?
Westerwelle: In the situation room of the German Foreign Ministry, I witnessed first-hand how the crisis grew increasingly dire in Fukushima. There were harrowing, heart-rending scenes. I immediately realized that it was simply impossible to return to business as usual. That was why I agreed on the nuclear moratorium with the chancellor. Everything now has to be reviewed.
SPIEGEL: Critics suspect that an election campaign maneuver relating to important upcoming state elections is behind the moratorium, which involves temporarily shutting down seven older nuclear power plants and subjecting all of Germany's 17 plants to strict safety reviews.
Westerwelle: China intends to review its nuclear policy, and the US wants to rethink its safety standards. India and Russia have announced similar plans. Countries around the world are starting to re-evaluate their policies. This alone shows that it is inappropriate to accuse the German government of election campaign tactics.
SPIEGEL: Half a year ago, you said that the government's energy strategy was ushering in a new era. It appears to have been a very short era.
Westerwelle: We in the government have decided to build a bridge to the age of renewable energies. This is what I meant by a new era, and that is still valid.
SPIEGEL: This bridge had already been built for you by former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's center-left coalition government of the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party, which passed a law to phase out nuclear power.
Westerwelle: It is not a solution to take the safest nuclear power plants offline only to turn around the next day and purchase nuclear power from abroad. In our energy strategy, we have decided on a responsible phasing-out of nuclear power. That is what differentiates it from the SPD-Green approach.
SPIEGEL: If it was so responsible, why does everything now have to be checked again?
Westerwelle: After an event like the one in Japan, it would be negligent if we said that we were simply going to continue as before. Until now, our risk scenarios have assumed that there could be human or technical failure. Now we are confronted with a natural phenomenon of unfathomable force. We now have to re-examine this issue from a new perspective.
SPIEGEL: The concept of "residual risk" -- the risk that cannot be ruled out despite all the safety precautions -- has been much discussed in Germany in relation to nuclear power. Before Fukushima, the general public understood residual risk to mean that the chances of something going wrong in reality were basically zero. What does residual risk mean today?
Westerwelle: This is a key question that we have to ask ourselves. I can't yet give you the final answer to this question. For instance, the main problem in Fukushima was that the cooling systems failed. This naturally begs the question: Could this also happen in Germany? This is why we need this moratorium to assess what we can learn from these incidents.
SPIEGEL: Since last week, at the very latest, we have known that situations can occur in which nuclear technology can no longer be controlled. Are we now talking about shutting down seven reactors and introducing better cooling systems? Or are we talking about whether we are still even prepared to take this risk?
Westerwelle: We decided long ago that we wanted to phase out nuclear energy. Now we have to admit that today we cannot yet meet our energy demands with solar, wind and hydropower. We can, of course, burn more coal and gas, but that is also not entirely without risk. Don't forget how this affects climate change. The moratorium is no mere postponement. Things will look different afterwards.
SPIEGEL: Does this mean that German nuclear power plants will not remain in operation as long as was planned?
Westerwelle: I would be cautious about making concrete conclusions. So soon after the event, I don't claim to have a comprehensive answer about everything that will need to be done.
SPIEGEL: Chancellor Angela Merkel is not so cautious. Based on her government statement, it can be concluded that she wants to phase out nuclear energy more quickly than the coalition had decided last fall.
Westerwelle: I will not interpret the government statement made by the German chancellor. I have told you my opinion. And this reflects the decision that we made in the German government.
SPIEGEL: Are you afraid of a legal conflict with the energy companies? Even within the ranks of your own Free Democratic Party, people are questioning whether the moratorium has a legal basis.
Westerwelle: My father, who was a dedicated lawyer, would call that typical: In the wake of an unprecedented disaster, the government made a swift, determined and necessary decision -- and now we are discussing the question of legal clauses.
SPIEGEL: Even in difficult situations, we do expect our government not to flout the law.
Westerwelle: And there is also no question of doing so. The German environment minister, who is responsible for this issue, has announced that Article 19, Paragraph 3, Section 3 of the Atomic Energy Act provides a sufficient legal foundation (for the decision). The debate appears to me to be a diversionary tactic. After all, our critics can hardly claim that the moratorium was the wrong decision.
SPIEGEL: The disaster in Japan has overshadowed another event on the global political stage. Last Thursday, the United Nations Security Council approved a no-fly zone over Libya. Germany, which is currently a member of the Security Council, abstained from the vote. Why do you so vehemently oppose a no-fly zone?
Westerwelle: We want to stop the dictator. Indeed, right from the very beginning, we have spearheaded international and European efforts to impose sanctions. But military missions and air strikes are something else. I don't want us to venture onto a slippery slope that would lead to German troops participating in a war in Libya.
SPIEGEL: Doesn't inaction make us just as guilty as military intervention?
Westerwelle: The alternative to military operations is hardly inaction. After examining the repercussions of a military mission, with all of its uncertainties, which could possibly go as far as deploying ground troops and maintaining a military presence for years, I came to the following conclusion: No, we will not take part with German troops, no matter how honorable the motives of our partners who have decided differently.
SPIEGEL: Germany is the only Western country to abstain from voting on the Security Council resolution, siding with less democratic countries like Russia and China. Is this company that we should feel comfortable with?
Westerwelle: Don't forget Brazil and India. We abstained from voting because there was a major part of the resolution -- military intervention -- that we won't go along with. This was not an easy decision for us to make. It was preceded by a difficult evaluation process. I am convinced that it was the right decision.
SPIEGEL: You have regarded it as a personal success that Germany was elected to the Security Council. Now we are abstaining from a key international policy resolution. Is Germany simply out of its depth on the international political stage?
Westerwelle: With the 7,000 soldiers of the Bundeswehr who are currently on missions abroad, Germany is fulfilling its international responsibilities. We are the third-largest donor of development aid. Our efforts to promote peace and freedom are recognized worldwide.
SPIEGEL: The Arab League called for a no-fly zone. Two Arab countries -- Qatar and the United Arab Emirates -- appeared willing to help enforce the no-fly zone. This means that the conditions which you yourself stipulated have been met. Why don't you at least want to take part in AWACS reconnaissance flights over Libya in the fight against Moammar Gadhafi?
Westerwelle: We will not participate in military operations in Libya with German troops. I repeat: We have very carefully considered this and come to a fundamental decision. That decision still applies. We shall see how the countries in the region act in reality. I have noticed that those people in Germany who are currently shouting "Go into Libya!" are, of all people, the same ones who otherwise shout "Get out of Afghanistan!"
'A No-Fly Zone Is Not a Traffic Regulation'
SPIEGEL: For the time being, we are only talking about a no-fly zone. Nobody wants to send ground troops to Libya, after all.
Westerwelle: The UN resolution authorized air strikes. And a no-fly zone is not a traffic regulation but a military intervention, because it involves, for example, destroying air defense positions. When it comes to military operations, I see myself as part of a tradition of restraint. The most important thing now is to protect people and provide humanitarian aid. We have to give the rebels an opportunity to live in safety. Gadhafi must go, there's no question about that. And I wish that my concerns with regard to the military mission were unfounded.
SPIEGEL: How do you intend to achieve this goal of toppling Gadhafi? The Libyan leader just laughs at sanctions.
Westerwelle: The options relating to sanctions have not yet been exhausted. Sanctions can and must be intensified even more. Indeed, we were the first to propose such initiatives. I remember very well that there were also reservations among a number of allies in the beginning. But an incredible amount has been achieved in the meantime: The International Criminal Court is investigating the dictator, there is a travel ban on him and his clan, there is an arms embargo and cash flows have been stopped. Everything must be done to prevent Gadhafi from acquiring fresh sources of revenue to hire new mercenary forces -- including no cash flows from additional sales of oil.
SPIEGEL: You have tried to place Libya's National Oil Corporation (NOC) on the blacklist. This has not yet succeeded in the EU, primarily due to resistance from Italy.
Westerwelle: Resolution 1973 lists the NOC. This means a freezing of bank accounts, which now quickly needs to be implemented. We are specifically targeting the oil industry with these measures.
SPIEGEL: But is the sanctions policy credible? Saif al-Islam, one of Gadhafi's sons, recently cynically said: You will see soon enough that the West will be standing in line for our oil and gas; we know this game. And his father has pledged large deliveries to the Russians and the Chinese, apparently convinced that he can split the international community.
Westerwelle: He has not succeeded in doing so. We also have to make it clear to Gadhafi's supporters that the international community cannot simply go back to doing business with the dictator. This is why we have pushed for the International Criminal Court to investigate him.
SPIEGEL: At the same time, Libya's desperate opposition has imploringly asked the international community for help. If the West does nothing, couldn't it actually have the opposite effect? The rebels would say: You congratulate us when we call for freedom and rebel against the dictator but, when push comes to shove, you leave us in the lurch.
Westerwelle: It is understandable that the rebels have asked for support. But why is it the West that is primarily responsible and not the countries of the region, above all the Arab League? Incidentally, we Germans have already had discussions with the Libyan opposition.
SPIEGEL: What was your impression?
Westerwelle: We assured them of our support, but we also asked them if they were looking to introduce a clan-based society or a democratic society with free and fair elections. These are justified questions.
SPIEGEL: Do you really think it's surprising that, given such a repressive system, there is no flawless democrat who has risen up to lead the opposition?
Westerwelle: You are right, that is understandable. And yet as democrats, we also support democratic development. I have great respect for what is happening in Libya, and the risks that people in the Libyan rebellion are taking, and I share the people's concerns. By the way, I also empathize with people struggling for their freedom in Yemen, Bahrain, Iran, the Ivory Coast and many other countries that are not currently the focus of attention.
SPIEGEL: Don't you have the impression that all of the very promising democratic movements throughout the Middle East have come to a standstill, and the Arab spring could now become frozen?
Westerwelle: What began 10 weeks ago with the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia is an amazing thing with more opportunities than risks. Three weeks ago, I stood on Tahrir Square in Cairo. It was an impressive, moving experience when the people rejoiced and shouted "freedom" and, time and again, celebrated German-Egyptian friendship. Tahrir Square has now become a totally different place for the people, just as the significance of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate for us Germans changed in 1990, when it became a symbol of freedom.
SPIEGEL: Only last year, however, before Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was toppled, you called him a "man of enormous experience and great wisdom." Was the West too gullible with regard to Arab dictators?
Westerwelle: At the time, this concerned the issue of whether to resume the Middle East peace talks. We were thankful for many years that the Egyptian government played a constructive role with Israel. That is what my assessment was referring to. I trust that this constructive role will be pursued under a new democratic government.
SPIEGEL: This hope is not shared by many in Israel.
Westerwelle: The Israelis are extremely concerned, that is true. I try to tell my political contacts in Israel that this is precisely the right time to launch a new peace initiative. In our opinion, there is only one convincing way to achieve this, and that is the two-state solution. As a result, we are not just calling on the Palestinian side to refrain from violence against Israel. With our vote in the UN Security Council, we have also made it clear that we reject the Israeli government's decision to resume building settlements.
SPIEGEL: You have called Egypt an important partner in the Middle East peace process. The same holds true for Saudi Arabia. Would you also say this after armored vehicles from Saudi Arabia rolled into the small neighboring kingdom of Bahrain to help put down the popular rebellion there?
Westerwelle: In Bahrain there is a Shiite majority that is ruled by a Sunni minority. This is a conflict that can only be solved through a national dialogue, and not by foreign countries.
SPIEGEL: The uproar in the West over the Saudis' actions was very quiet, and no clear criticism could be heard from you, either, let alone indignation. Saudi Arabia is being treated with kid gloves because it is simply too important. Aren't we still applying a double standard?
Westerwelle: I have made clear remarks about Bahrain in both government statements this week. And during my first official visit to Saudi Arabia, I did not mince my words on the issue of freedom of religion and freedom of expression. I can assure you that this did not lead to a deterioration in our relationship.
SPIEGEL: You have compared the events in the Middle East with the collapse of communism in 1989. When we look at Libya, Bahrain or Yemen, however, it looks as if it could end like the Prague Spring in 1968, when the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies invaded Czechoslovakia to stop the country's liberalization.
Westerwelle: You are unfortunately correct: It is not yet clear how this chapter in history will end. In 1989, there was not only the peaceful revolution in Leipzig (eds. note: the center of pro-democracy protests in communist East Germany), but also violence on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I have never said that it is already clear that this story will have a happy ending. But I see these developments in the Arab world as a great opportunity that no one could have imagined just a short while ago. Furthermore, the development of freedom in Central Europe did not occur uniformly or without any setbacks.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, thank you for this interview.