Crisis Control

In World Aflame, Germany's Tireless Foreign Minister Trods On

Walter Steinmeier’s popularity in Germany is on par with Mrs. Merkel’s.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s economic clout has cemented its leadership role in Europe and increased demands for Berlin to play a greater role in solving geopolitical crisis around the globe.

  • Facts


    • Frank-Walter Steinmeier (58) studied law before working as a German civil servant in state and federal politics.
    • He has served as foreign minister twice under Chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he also failed to oust from office as the center-left Social Democratic Party’s chancellor candidate in 2008.
    • After his wife became ill in 2010, he donated a kidney for her. They have one daughter.
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Frank-Walter Steinmeier doesn’t do hectic. Germany’s top diplomat can be silent. He can ponder.

And there is a lot to think about right now. His job, said Mr. Steinmeier after becoming foreign minister again following a four-year break, hasn’t changed. But the world is completely different. It’s rougher. Louder. Is there still a chance for quiet contemplation?

There are so many global crises requiring attention at the moment. But Mr. Steinmeier doesn’t let himself get distracted. Though he often works into the night, he still manages to have breakfast at home – that is, when his wife and grown daughter don’t have their own appointments. But he relies on his family to keep himself grounded in a chaotic world.

Sitting in his office in central Berlin slightly tanned and relaxed, he certainly doesn’t appear stressed out. It’s hard to imagine him that way. He works hard, because it comes naturally to him. Mr. Steinmeier would be frustrated if he wasn’t busy. No one knows that better than his wife, and she wants him to be happy. But his relaxed appearance also glosses over his ambition.

Reaching his goals and climbing higher is in his blood. He would never say that. At most, he would think it, and then keep it to himself.

Mr. Steinmeier’s career path has always headed upwards. He was never deterred by the fact that the road to the top can be difficult. He has climbed higher and higher. Starting out as a press officer in the German state of Lower Saxony, his fortunes rose with those of former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. He would go on to become Mr. Schröder’s chief of staff in the Chancellery, and then eventually foreign minister – twice. Reaching his goals and climbing higher is in his blood. He would never say that. At most, he would think it, and then keep it to himself.

By his estimate, he devotes about 60 percent of his time to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, employing both small and grand diplomatic gestures. He travels constantly and when he’s not on the road, he’s speaking on the telephone, or sending text messages. He keeps in steady contact with the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers, the head of the Red Cross, as well as his colleagues from France, Poland and elsewhere.

By his estimate, he devotes about 60 percent of his time to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine

Mr. Steinmeier has been working determinedly to de-escalate the conflict since a deal he helped broker fell through in April. He and his staff are constantly thinking of ways to bring the adversaries together. And so he recently hosted his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and France at a Berlin guest house owned by the Germany foreign ministry.

At a time when calls are growing for more German leadership in international affairs, Mr. Steinmeier’s popularity in Germany is on par with Mrs. Merkel’s. The chancellor trusts him so much that she takes his turns of phrase and makes them her own, just as she did recently with another crisis, Iraq. On the issue of sending arms to the Kurds, both of them wanted to work in unison to go to the limits of what was possible politically and legally in Germany. And it is Mrs. Merkel’s highest form of praise, when she aligns herself with someone’s position on an important issue.

Mr. Steinmeier and his wife. Source: DPA.
Mr. Steinmeier and his wife, Elke Büdenbender. Source: DPA.



That registers with Mr. Steinmeier and it makes him happy. He can be annoyed by criticism, but he wants to be acknowledged – and have his good work recognized. But none of that helps when his diplomatic efforts don’t make progress. In everything he does, he is determined, practical and resolute. And when no other option is possible, he can even be unsentimental.

His sensitivity, which sometimes can suddenly turn into touchiness, also has to be hidden, because it could make him vulnerable. And that would be imprudent. It must annoy him how the German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, always pushes to the front, even when lacking something substantial to say. It must also annoy him that the E.U. politicians furthest removed from the Russia-Ukraine conflict often make the most provocative statements about it.

He has much in common with the coolly analytical Mrs. Merkel. That’s why much of what he does fits her style of leadership so well. It is a direct result of his legwork that the German chancellor recently travelled to Kiev. That, in turn, could even lead to a meeting of the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. Would the cautious Mrs. Merkel travel to such a high-stakes summit without Mr. Steinmeier’s thorough preparations?

But that isn’t the only part of the world requiring his attention. In the Middle East, everyone always looks to the United States to take the lead diplomatically. The Europeans, driven by the Germans, try to offer practical help. Which is why Berlin is prepared to help monitor the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip. Stopping the violence would help ease the suffering of the Palestinians and would also benefit Israel. And it goes without saying that Germany comes to Israel’s help. No one must tell Mr. Steinmeier as foreign minister what to do. He says it too, only in a friendlier fashion.

He has much in common with the coolly analytical Mrs. Merkel.

Iraq also remains an important issue for him, especially since Berlin under ex-Chancellor Schröder rejected former U.S. President George W. Bush’s invasion. But would Germany take part in an Iraq war for Barack Obama today? There are some experts who are calling for German participation in the air strikes against the fighters of the so-called Islamic State, rather than delivering weapons to the Kurds. That prompts Mr. Steinmeier to ask, “Why offer something that is not being asked for?” That is his diplomatic answer for: “It is out of the question.”

Mr. Steinmeier knows which weapons the Kurds want and he knows that the difference between lethal and non-lethal items is difficult to determine on a battlefield. An armored vehicle can offer protection, but can also be used for an attack.

Both outside of Germany and at home there are colleagues, both cabinet members and members of parliament, who think that someone like Mr. Steinmeier should be the next high representative for European foreign policy. They don’t want another Catherine Ashton, the outgoing top E.U. diplomat, and by that they mean not Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini. Of course, Mr. Steinmeier doesn’t have a bad word to say about Ms. Mogherini. Instead, he says: “I am glad to be the German foreign minister and passionate about it.”

And again there is a moment of silence. It is the sound of diplomacy.

This article first appeared in Der Tagesspiegel. It was translated by Mary Beth Warner.  To contact the author:

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