Frank-Walter Steinmeier

‘Sitting on the Sidelines Is not an Option’

Talking with the Americans. Source: DPA
Talking with the Americans.
  • 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.
  • Audio


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Serving his second stint as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s top diplomat, Frank-Walter Steinmeier has the German leader’s full trust on important foreign policy matters. This interview was conducted by the weekly newspaper Die Zeit.

Die Zeit: Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq, Syria, Ebola – the crises are coming fast and furious. You repeated again this year that the world is “failing apart.” Aren’t you making people more scared by saying that?

Frank-Walter Steinmeier: I think that the formulation touches on a feeling that people truly have. As long as I have been involved in politics, I cannot remember a time when there were so many profound crises and conflicts with unpredictable players at the same time. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to fall into the rhetoric of catastrophe. We must prepare ourselves for the fact that crises, such as those we are currently experiencing, will unfortunately become rather the norm over the next few years. That puts demands on foreign policy.

Do you consider the situation today more dangerous than during the Cold War?

We have really no reason to romanticize the Cold War era. Especially we Germans should remember that the decades of bipolar confrontation not only divided our country and tore many families apart, but that every irritation between the United States and Russia affected the living conditions at the center of Europe. We can be thankful that no large military conflict took place in Central Europe. There were many proxy wars around the world, and many people became victims!

But why does foreign policy today seem so overwhelmed in comparison?

One of the differences is certain: The calculability of our opponents has been lost. Despite the great antagonism between the ideologies of communism and capitalism, despite the conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, the interests, reactions and counter-reactions of the other side were predictable, at least up to a point. Today we have other opponents – non-state actors, radicalized ethnic or religious groups. We have the terrorist militia ISIS with a pseudo-religious ideology, which ties barbarism from the Middle Ages and the most modern weapons technology, Sharia and the Internet together, and it consciously operates completely outside any international system. ISIS cannot be impressed by the fear of death, because the jihadist seeks death and considers it an honor. Judging by the amount of brutality and cynicism with which ISIS acts, this terror militia cannot be a negotiating partner for anyone. That changes the conditions for foreign policy.

Unlike the political elite, German citizens want little to do with more international engagement, and almost nothing to do with military interventions.

It is true that there is a large gap between the expectations abroad of Germany and the actual readiness of a large portion of the German population to take more responsibility. That is no reason to complain openly. We must better explain policies and openly grapple with preconceptions and misunderstandings. At the U.N. General Assembly in New York it became quite clear to me again how much people are looking towards Germany, certainly with respect for our economic potential, but also at our stable democracy. The expectations are overly large and also overstretch our capabilities in some areas. Sitting on the sidelines is still not an option. The idea that we can live on our blissful island of Europe and be left alone from the woes of this world, will not work.

Mr. Steinmeier addressing the U.N. General Assembly in September. Source: DPA
Mr. Steinmeier addressing the U.N. General Assembly in September. Source: DPA


The impression remains that you have failed in your effort to convince the Germans to support greater engagement in foreign policy.

Failed, how? Germans are engaging themselves more in international crises than they did 10 months ago. They are moved by what is happening in the world. Naturally, it is difficult to find the right answers. But most have the hope of making the world a little more peaceful than it is – and I’m certain I’m in agreement with the overwhelming majority in this regard.

The Germans are ready to help with humanitarian aid, but not militarily. There appears to be an unshakable pacifism.

Should a German foreign minister, looking back at the 20th century in which two world wars originated from this country and at least 75 million people lost their lives, really complain about the fact that we have to convince people to agree with foreign engagement such as in Afghanistan or weapons deliveries to northern Iraq? I find it very reassuring that people want to be convinced about the necessity of such decisions.

In Syria, airstrikes have not yet been able to stop jihadists. Are these actions against the ISIS militia too weak?

We need perseverance against ISIS. And it will not be possible only militarily, but without the use of military resources it certainly won’t work. We have built a broad international alliance over the past six weeks and made difficult political and military decisions. The air operations have not been ineffective. The front lines in Iraq would have proceeded differently if there had not been an early decision by the Americans for airstrikes. I am not sure if the Kurdish territory in Iraq could have been held without the airstrikes.

If airstrikes help, why are we not taking part in them?

It is absurd to be the 13th country carrying out airstrikes, when there are already 12 other countries flying. The alliance against ISIS will only succeed if there is an international division of labor, in which not everyone does the same thing. It is therefore correct, and important, that a whole group of Arab countries has engaged against ISIS, and have made clear that it is especially their fight against those who pervert their religion. Some of them are also taking part in the air operations. We are doing our part, which our partners also recognize.

The parliamentary leader of the Greens, Katrin Göring-Eckardt, committed herself to German ground troops with a U.N. mandate.

I consider it to be too transparent, what some of the Greens have suggested. We all would like it if the U.N. Security Council were more capable of acting in the Syria crisis than it currently is. But everyone knows that, because of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, an end to the logjam cannot be expected in the short-term. A notable exception: the joint action on the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. This is where we come in and try, in related questions, to urge the Security Council to take joint action. I admit, it is a very challenging task. But independent of a U.N. mandate, I don’t see any country that would be ready to go into Syria with its own ground troops. That is not German trepidation. No one knows during an operation in Syria who is a friend or a foe – ISIS or the PKK, Assad’s government’s troops or militias of different opposition constellations. That would be a war on several fronts in unknown territory and with an unclear mission; under these conditions it would be completely irresponsible to deploy soldiers on such an assignment abroad.

The crisis in Ukraine still has the potential to have an unexpected spark break out into a wildfire

In northern Syria the PKK-linked Kurdish forces are fighting ISIS, in the northwest there is the national opposition. Which of these groups should be supplied with weapons, as the Germans are doing in Iraq?

We are concentrating on Iraq, and some Arab countries are supporting the moderate opposition in Syria. The great difficulty there is less a lack of weapons and much more the large number of different groupings, which follow no joint command. The Arab neighbors of Syria are now helping with the reorganization of these opposition forces.

Shouldn’t the PKK-linked groups in northern Syria receive weapons?

The decades-long unresolved conflicts in the region, whether they be between Turkey and the PKK or between Shiites and Sunnis, are playing into the hands of ISIS. It is no accident that ISIS has been able to proliferate in exactly those areas where the conflict lines overlap and the mistrust between the groups is stronger than the sense that one can only confront an opponent like this working together. If the PKK, in light of the common threat from ISIS, were to decide to foreswear its armed conflict against Turkey, then we would have taken a major step forward.

On to the other large conflict in Ukraine. Do you believe there has been an easing of tensions because of the troop withdrawal announced by Putin?

The crisis in Ukraine still has the potential to have an unexpected spark turn it into a wildfire. Currently, the only realistic chance to prevent that is, in my view, the Minsk Protocol, to which all parties involved have agreed. Therefore, we, as the international community, must persevere in pressing for a quick implementation of all points of the Minsk Protocol. The emphasis is primarily on three aspects: first, the clearing of fighters and heavy weapons from the agreed-upon buffer zone; second, the effective securing of the border; and third, the regional elections in the areas controlled by the separatists, which have be unilaterally called for December. Russia must help in making sure these elections do not threaten to tear Ukraine apart.

Former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder say it is time to lift the Western sanctions against Russia.

Neither of them said it so absolutely. But what is correct is even if it is not yet the right time to lift them, we should keep in mind how things should proceed.

When the sanctions were agreed to, there were no criteria defined for how we would deal with different sanctions, which would automatically expire at different times. We need to make up for that, and I expressed this expectation this week to E.U. foreign minister council.


This interview first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the authors: and

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