SPIEGEL: You have just returned from a lengthy meeting with your colleague Condoleezza Rice. Do you have the impression that there will be a change of course in America's Iraq policy?
Steinmeier: I am impressed by how openly and profoundly American foreign policy makers are dealing with the recognition that Iraq has not been a success. Now there is a real chance to make important corrections. Nonetheless, it became clear during the discussions in Washington that there was a great deal of skepticism towards some of the most important recommendations of the Baker Commission, for example establishing dialogue with Syria and Iran.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean that your hopes were dampened during the discussions?
Steinmeier: This issue is still being intensively discussed in Washington. No decision has yet been made on future policy. President (George W.) Bush has announced that he will make a statement on United States commitments abroad -- primarily with regard to Iraq -- by the end of the year.
SPIEGEL: There are growing calls in the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party for a stronger German engagement in Iraq. Have you offered additional assistance?
Steinmeier: We are staying with what was already decided by the previous (German) government. German soldiers will not be deployed in Iraq. But that doesnt mean we are just sitting here twiddling our thumbs. We have participated in providing debt relief for the country, we have helped with reconstruction efforts and we have trained police officers. Unfortunately it has not been possible to create more stability in this beleaguered country. The security situation there prevents us from sending civilians to assist in the reconstruction. For that reason, I dont at the moment see any possibility of how we can help more than we've been doing until now.
SPIEGEL: And politically? Are there any proposals from your side as to how the conflict could be resolved?
Steinmeier: For the time being, all efforts have to be focused on preventing Iraq from breaking apart. Diplomats like to talk about territorial integrity, which has to be preserved at all costs.
SPIEGEL: Why is that? Wouldnt the easiest solution simply be to split up the country into separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite territories?
Steinmeier: No, that would be the most dangerous solution because the borders of the individual territories would be hugely disputed. Does the oil-rich Kirkuk region belong to the Kurds or the Sunnis? And both Sunnis and Shiites live in the greater Baghdad area. I am convinced that splitting up the country would lead to terrible bloodshed. Also, it has to be taken into account that neighboring countries would get involved. There have already been warnings about this from Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
SPIEGEL: The Baker Commission has proposed the withdrawal of US troops by the spring of 2008. Is this a good idea?
Steinmeier: In Washington I got the impression that the US administration is aware of the large risks that an overly hasty withdrawal would entail. In order to end the civil war, the warring religious and ethnic groups have to be brought into a process of national reconciliation.
SPIEGEL: What sort of role could Germany play in such a political process?
Steinmeier: I assured that we would provide political and diplomatic assistance, to the extent that is possible and desired. But for the time being we have to wait and see what sort of national consensus emerges in the US. Indeed, my last trip to the Middle East demonstrated that a stronger American engagement would be welcomed everywhere.
SPIEGEL: In September Condoleezza Rice described your planned visit to Damascus as a mistake. Is she still of that opinion?
Steinmeier: Americas reservations towards Syria are well known. And we are in agreement, in terms of what Ms. Rice and I expect from Damascus. Still, in my opinion, a refusal to engage in dialogue should not become the standard method for dealing with difficult partners. I intentionally traveled to Syria before Germany took over the European Union presidency because, on the one hand, I didnt want to ask too much of the skeptical partners within the EU, but on the other hand I also wanted to be able to accommodate those who call for more dialogue with Syria. Our goal should be to formulate a coherent EU policy towards Syria.
SPIEGEL: Was the trip worthwhile?
Steinmeier: It was worth it to speak directly with the stakeholders in Syria and leave them with clear messages. Those who prefer to deal with these things by passing resolutions from a distance are taking the easy way out. We have to engage personally with those people whose behavior we are trying to influence.
SPIEGEL: Did you also receive any corresponding messages from Damascus?
Steinmeier: President (Bashar) Assad made it clear that Syria no longer wants to be part of the problem in the Middle East, but rather part of the solution. In return, I underlined that there is a need for concrete steps to be taken toward this goal. For example, Damascus must recognize Lebanons sovereignty and it must commit itself to not interfering there.
SPIEGEL: But Syria will hardly give any ground unless the US and Europe do too.
Steinmeier: That is why I traveled to Damascus. I wanted to personally make it clear to Assad that there is an alternative to Syrias current policies. If they put their money where their mouths are and Syria makes an active contribution to peace and stability in the Middle East, then that would create new opportunities for the country. I know that there are people in Syria who reflect in a self-critical manner about their countrys dependence on Iran. We need to support those people.
SPIEGEL: Is the government in Tehran the next unjust regime that can look forward to a visit from you?
Steinmeier: Iran is really the last country that can accuse us of not paying enough attention to them. If any country has been the subject of initiatives aimed at promoting dialogue in the past year, then it's Iran.
SPIEGEL: But without any success, unfortunately. That's why the United Nations Security Council is no longer considering talks, but rather sanctions. The only question is if it will come to that.
Steinmeier: I think so, and in fact, it will likely happen before Christmas. At the end of the day, it is also the international communitys credibility which is at stake. We hope that Tehran understands the signal and also realizes where its true interests lie.
SPIEGEL: The conflict in Iraq severely damaged German-US relations. Is everything back to normal?
Steinmeier: We argued for a different approach. There were reasons for that, and those reasons are still valid today. God knows there was no lack of openness. But for the last few years we have once again been working well together in an atmosphere of trust.
SPIEGEL: It doesnt exactly sound like a love affair.
Steinmeier: We all know very well that that isn't the point. Take the war on terror, for example. We work together, but at the same time we always state clearly where our positions differ, as is the case with Guantanamo. We make it clear to the Americans what we think is valid under international law, and what isnt. But both sides know that we will maybe have to rely on each other in the future even more than before.
Steinmeier: If you take a look at all the conflicts that are currently going on, it quickly becomes obvious that, although the bipolarity of the Cold War has now been over for more than 15 years, the world is still searching for a new order. There is no international policeman, but no single nation can take on this role. The Americans have also realized this. And you can see from the example of the Middle East that the Europeans are taking more and more responsibility.
SPIEGEL: That presupposes that Europeans and Americans can meet each other halfway in terms of agreeing on how a new world order should look. But that is hardly the case.
Steinmeier: That is exactly why we need to have intensive trans-Atlantic discussions. The world has become multipolar, and it will stay that way. For that reason Germany, as an important European nation, must address all existing conflicts. Whether we want to or not, we cannot shirk this responsibility, be it in the Congo, Afghanistan or Lebanon. Additionally, we must develop new visions of how the world is going to look in 25 years, which new players will be on the scene and which conflicts will have a formative influence on the world.
SPIEGEL: That sounds impressive, but how will the world look in 25 years?
Steinmeier: Regions such as Central Asia or the Maghreb states (of northern Africa), that I have visited, may not seem quite as challenging as Lebanon or Iraq. But they have tremendous significance for Europes future -- as neighbors, whose stability is of interest to us, but naturally also as suppliers of raw materials and as trading partners. That's what I call a forward-looking foreign policy.
SPIEGEL: On your trips, you seem to have shown a preference for visiting sinister despots whom the Americans abhor, such as Turkmenistans Saparmurat Niyazov or Libya's Moammar Gadhafi.
Steinmeier: As foreign minister I too would prefer to only have to deal with countries such as Luxembourg and Switzerland. But the United Nations has 192 members. Barely half of these countries fulfill our standards of democracy and the rule of law. Should we, for that reason, only talk to half of all the world's nation states, despite the fact that international problems originate precisely in the other countries?
SPIEGEL: The USA values democracy, freedom and human rights, while you talk more about the rule of law and stability. Is that a fundamental difference?
Steinmeier: The rule of law and democracy are not contradictions. But perhaps Europeans and Americans stress different things when putting their common values into practice in various regions of the world. America was founded in 1776 already as a democracy, whereas we Europeans first had the rule of law and then democracy came much later. This history shapes our respective policies. Because of our own historical experience, we place the emphasis on a process that establishes the structures required for the rule of law and then leads to democratization. The Americans, drawing on their own historical experience, want to establish both at the same time.
SPIEGEL: In Russia it appears that both the rule of law and democracy are on the wane.
Steinmeier: We urgently need to remove ideological concerns from our somewhat tense discussion about Russia. We have a fundamental interest in Russia irreversibly continuing on its path of coming closer to Europe, achieving greater plurality and establishing the rule of law. That will not be possible if we are not engaged there. For this reason, disengagement would be the wrong recommendation.
SPIEGEL: We also need Russian oil and gas, after all.
Steinmeier: There, too, I would also advise people to calm down. We are not a powerless and dependent buyer of energy from powerful Russia. The EU has a huge internal market with 500 million customers. Because of the size of this demand we have power that we can, and may, use in our international relationships. Sometimes I don't quite understand why we don't approach such negotiations with greater self-confidence. We have to make sure that the relationship is based on reliability, durability and transparency. That is why I would like to see us regulate these things through contracts.
SPIEGEL: But Russia refuses to ratify the Energy Charter Treaty, which regulates precisely this.
Steinmeier: Russia has refused, and it rightly points out that Norway has also refused to sign. It doesn't do any good to harp on about these different positions. Instead of this, we should negotiate comparable mechanisms which we can use to arbitrate delivery disputes as part of the next partnership and cooperation agreement between the EU and Russia.
SPIEGEL: You are putting forward very detached and pragmatic arguments, which completely lack the emotional component that the former chancellor (Gerhard Schröder) brought to relations with Russia.
Steinmeier: As head of the chancellery and later as foreign minister I was never a counterpart of Vladimir Putin.
SPIEGEL: Angela Merkel is more interested in America than Russia because our values correspond to a significantly greater degree with those of the Americans than with those of the Russians.
Steinmeier: I don't have a very high opinion of comparisons which give the impression that this is an either-or situation. The history of our relationship with the USA really cannot be compared to that with Russia. It should be our goal to bring our values and Russia's closer together through involvement and close cooperation. And that also includes pointing out deficits in the rule of law and democracy and talking about how to remedy those deficits.
SPIEGEL: More and more people are asking themselves if Russia is even still moving in the direction of the West.
Steinmeier: As is always the case in Russia, this is a contradictory process that you can't judge on a daily basis. For this reason I strongly support staying the course in our strategic engagement with Russia. We have to keep working at it so that Russia does not move away from us.
SPIEGEL: Does that also apply to Europe's other important neighbor, Turkey?
Steinmeier: We Europeans have a strong interest in integrating Turkey, which is a bridge between the Christian West and the Arab-Islamic world, into our system of values. We knew from the beginning that it would not be easy. That is why we have to make sure that this process is not interrupted.
SPIEGEL: The threat of that happening is very real at the moment since Turkey is still refusing to fully recognize Cyprus, which is an EU member state.
Steinmeier: Yes, but I am urging Europe to react with a sense of proportion and with an awareness of its responsibilities. We cannot overreact in such a way that this process of rapprochement, that has taken so many years, is destroyed in a week.
SPIEGEL: Angela Merkel has spoken in favor of taking a harder line towards Turkey.
Steinmeier: That is your assessment of the situation.
SPIEGEL: Have you discussed this issue with the chancellor in the last few days?
Steinmeier: Yes, and I argued that we should avoid over-reacting. If Turkey were to turn away from Europe, it would be a serious strategic setback for the EU.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Steinmeier, we thank you very much for this interview.
Interview conducted by the SPIEGEL editors Ralf Beste and Konstantin von Hammerstein.