Mr. Fischer, did your idea of disarming Iraq by peaceful means fail irrevocably when the first bomb fell on Baghdad? How did it come to that?
Fischer: Because the two positions on our side, controlled disarmament, on their side, forceful regime change simply did not make compromise possible.
SPIEGEL: Was it ever conceivable?
Fischer: Certainly. The complete disarmament of Iraq could have been brought about by a combination of military pressure, inspections, and step-by-step measures.
SPIEGEL: A nice thought, but to get that done one would have had to avoid making loud noises in the [German] election campaign and to have entered into serious conversations with the Americans.
Fischer: I did that. Ever since September 18th or 19th, 2001, when Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz in Washington roughly outlined for me what he thought the answer to international terrorism had to be.
Fischer: His view was that the US had to liberate a whole string of countries from their terrorist rulers, if necessary by force. Ultimately a new world order would come out of this more democracy, peace, stability, and security for people.
SPIEGEL: A vision of the future that you presumably dont completely share?
Fischer: I cant and dont want to imagine that we are facing a series of disarmament wars. Rather we should be making sure that the instruments for peaceful solutions, above all the UN, are developed further. We must not end up having only the one set of alternatives: either allowing the continued existence of a terrible danger or being forced into a disarmament war. That must be avoided. This is the task of political policy makers, and it is what the majority in the Security Council wants. But so far there has been no genuine transatlantic dialogue about this.
SPIEGEL: Why not?
Fischer: Because the Europeans at their end started to hold strategic discussions too late. We have to catch up now. At stake are the great questions facing humanity: What kind of world order do we want? What are its essential elements? What are the new dangers and risks of our present policy of intervention? How do we confront them?
SPIEGEL: Isnt it more likely that the transatlantic dialogue didnt take place because the Germans were betting too one-sidedly, first on the French and later on the Russians?
THE SAME RULES MUST APPLY TO THE BIG AND THE SMALL NATIONS
SPIEGEL: And also because the German government committed itself too early and too unequivocally to be included in the American decision-making process?
Fischer: The decisive question is whether countries that now stand firmly on the side of the US can have or ever did have any influence at all. Should we really have fallen in line with the policy of the American government? After all, you cant justify a policy if you are not convinced it is right. This takes care, retrospectively, of the charge leveled against the German chancellor that he used the Iraq problem to aid his election campaign. Of course it was the central campaign question, just as it was in many other countries too. There, the governments that support the American position face so many serious problems that they are approaching democratic destabilization.
SPIEGEL: You mean countries like Great Britain and Spain?
Fischer: Yes, but there is something else that is surprising. Take Mexico, Chile, and Turkey all of them young democracies. In these countries you see the obstinacy of democracy. For democracy also means being able to have a different opinion about fundamental existential questions, certainly also vis-à-vis friendly governments. This is a very, very important experience which is valid beyond today. And it tells us: When others in Europe have a viewpoint different from ours, it is neither a cause for alarm or for rejection. Rather it is a sign of democratic maturity.
SPIEGEL: That almost sounds as though you see Germanys separation from the U.S. as a sign of a successful postwar democratization.
Fischer: No one here wants to separate. For us the transatlantic relationship remains of paramount importance. However, the question is, What do we do when loyalty to an alliance and the substance of an alliance contradict each other? And not because we want it that way, but because our most important partner is making decisions that we consider extremely dangerous, and because we are convinced that they are going off in the wrong direction.
SPIEGEL: A quick end to the Iraq campaign could encourage the Bush administration to further armed encounters. How can future disarmament wars that may be on the agenda be prevented?
Fischer: The discussion at the last session of the Security Council showed that on at least one point there is great unanimity among the Europeans, namely the need for international regulations and institutions that will be able to prevent the widespread dissemination of weapons of mass destruction, and to do it more effectively than before.
SPIEGEL: That sounds good, but the Iraq example shows that, as a rule, states which have weapons of mass destruction can only be forced to disarm by threats of military force.
Fischer: Objection. In the case of North Korea, for instance, Bushs predecessor Bill Clinton was for a long time successful in largely limiting the North Korean nuclear program without the public at large being aware of it. It only became problematic when the new administration in Washington did not continue the program. And the greatest successes in the dismantling of weapons of mass destruction were not obtained by military means but on a political level through the end of the Cold War.
SPIEGEL: The case of Iraq, for one, contradicts your thesis. Without the decision of the Americans to wage a war with some doubts but perhaps also no matter what Saddam Hussein would not have made any sort of concessions.
Fischer: There is of course a decisive difference between with doubts and as a last resort or no matter what. We must not forget this, and in this case it is not of inconsiderable significance. Certainly, the military threat scenario plays a role, but an extremely double-edged one, because today we have to admit that it was far more than a background scenario. Behind it the buildup of an invasion army took place. A threat scenario must issue a threat, and not produce the automatic behavior that, because of military imperatives and possible loss of face, makes a war unavoidable.
SPIEGEL: Germany consistently circumvented the buildup of a threat scenario.
Fischer: We had other priorities, which I continue to believe were the right ones. Moreover, we didnt circumvent anything, we only said that for good reasons we were not going to participate in any military actions.
SPIEGEL: The US ignored the UN even though the majority of member states were against an Iraq war. After this debacle does the United Nations still have a future?
Fischer: What would you suggest should take its place? I know of no serious alternative in practical politics nor in political theory that could achieve even a fraction of what the United Nations now achieves.
SPIEGEL: The United States?
Fischer: No, that would be expecting too much. Its military power is unmatched, but politically it would rapidly reach its limits because the U.S. approaches problems with its national interests in mind. The majority of UN members, as shown by the discussions that took place during these last weeks and months, are deeply convinced that war is only the very last resort and may only be employed among states when all other means have been exhausted.
SPIEGEL: Which doesnt change the fact that America is the only remaining political power that can act globally.
Fischer: The power of the US is a very decisive factor when it comes to peace and stability in the world. There is no need to argue with me about that; I have experienced this often enough in the most diverse regional conflicts, but also in connection with global security. But a world order cannot function when the national interest of the strongest power is the definitive criterion for the use of that countrys military power. In the end the same rules must apply to the big, the medium-size, and the small nations.
SPIEGEL: The neo-conservatives who are in charge in Washington will probably write off your constant insistence on international regulations and institutions as Old European thinking.
Fischer: The American political scientist Robert Kagan has developed a bizarre image: Europeans come from Venus and indulge in the dream of perpetual peace, while Americans are from Mars, and faced with the hard realities of the wolfs den of international politics, they stand and fight, all against all. Anyone who knows European history knows about the many wars weve had here. The Americans had no Verdun on their continent. In the US there is nothing comparable to Auschwitz or Stalingrad or any of the other terrible symbolic places in our history.
SPIEGEL: All of them were catastrophes in which the Americans were on the right side.
Fischer: Oh yes, and we are still grateful for that today. European integration is the answer to centuries of European wars and slaughter. But it is not a retreat to the illusion of perpetual peace. Acceding to the demand to solve conflicts peacefully whenever possible has nothing to do with cowardice or effusiveness.
SPIEGEL: Kagan does not speak of longing. He speaks of political weakness. There is no political unity in Europe, and militarily Europe is of no great significance. We are the ones who go through the forest unarmed, and that makes us timid, says Kagan.
Fischer: A look into American history shows how nonsensical this is. After the Second World War, when the US was really the only nuclear power with unique strength, one generation now called the Great Generation had the visionary strength not only to stop Soviet Communism but at the same time to make possible the reconstruction of Europe, on a basis of cooperation and alliances. The US was always strongest when it tied its military might to its ability to build coalitions and to set up international rules that were accepted by all.
SPIEGEL: Which doesnt change the fact that Europeans who set store by rules and institutions are extremely weak politically either despite all that or maybe because of it.
Fischer: We have to draw the necessary conclusions from that.
SPIEGEL: Which are?
Fischer: We must take on greater responsibility
SPIEGEL: and use the veto along with the French in the Security Council?
Fischer: Forget that. Those are mind games which cannot be implemented in the real world.
SPIEGEL: What do you suggest?
Fischer: We need stronger institutions, and that also requires the strengthening of European foreign policy. In other words, Europe has been weak wherever individual countries acted as national states. But Europe is strong wherever common institutions exist and function.
SPIEGEL: And specifically what does that mean?
Fischer: That we must strengthen and jointly expand our capabilities and that we need a strong European foreign minister who would combine the functions of Javier Solana as EU High Representative and Chris Patten as Commissioner in one person with one telephone number.
SPIEGEL: Right now such an idea seems far removed from reality.
Fischer: I consider this idea more urgent than ever before.
SPIEGEL: Would you be prepared to fill this job and all that it entails?
Fischer: Thats not the point. What is decisive is
SPIEGEL: who does it.
Fischer: No. What is decisive is whether the European nations are ready to understand that they need common institutions that are not directed against member states, but that will bring more of Europes capacity to act and its influence to bear on foreign and security policies. Only then will Europe be able to continue playing an important role.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Fischer, thank you for the interview.
Ralf Beste, Stefan Aust, Gabor Steingart
[translated from the German by Margot Bettauer Dembo]