Gerhard Schröder, the charismatic, combative, larger-than-life chancellor of Germany from 1998 to 2005, frequently visits the Middle East as honorary chairman of NUMOV, a Berlin organization that seeks to boost trade between the region and Germany.
It is one of the roles played by Mr. Schröder, a Social Democrat who led a coalition with the Greens before losing to Ms. Merkel in a close reelection bid. One of Mr. Schröder’s legacies is his “Agenda 2010” reform, which loosened restrictions in Germany’s labor market and slashed welfare benefits for thousands. The cuts, which potentially cost him reelection, are widely credited with putting Germany on course for sustained economic growth. Mr. Schröder also kept Germany out of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
After his election defeat, Mr. Schröder retreated from public life, becoming supervisory board chairman of Switzerland-based Nord Stream, a joint venture between Russia’s Gazprom and German investors to deliver natural gas from Siberia to Germany. Mr. Schröder has appeared regularly with Russian President Vladimir Putin and a few years ago adopted a Russian child.
His relationship with Ms. Merkel has been testy, especially in the wake of his narrow defeat a decade ago. However last year, Ms. Merkel made a rare public appearance with Mr. Schröder to help him promote a book about his legacy.
Handelsblatt: Mr. Schröder, you spent three days in Iran this week, meeting the president and six of his ministers and you were accompanied by a big business delegation. What was your impression about the situation in the Middle East?
Gerhard Schröder: I had a very interesting discussion with President Rouhani of Iran. One thing he made clear was that he has no interest in further escalation of tensions with Saudi Arabia. On the contrary, he is actively looking for ways to improve diplomatic relations. That is a hugely important signal in these troubled times. President Rouhani also called the refugee problem in the Middle East the major challenge for all states, and warned that the catastrophic situation in refugee camps has to improve. Europe and Iran would have to work more closely together so that fewer refugees embark on the dangerous route to Europe.
The warring factions in the Middle East are all talking about peace, but only on their terms. How credible is Iran’s offer?
I have no reason to doubt President Rouhani’s word. It is my impression that Iran is genuinely interested in a solution to the war in Syria – and that is a serious message. Mr. Rouhani is particularly interested in obtaining peace in the region, because that is the prerequisite for better economic development of the Middle East.
There have been many peace initiatives in the Middle East, and they all ended unsuccessfully. What is your impression? Is it primarily about religion, or is it about power?
It is about both. The real problem is that claims to power are being overshadowed by religious issues. That’s what also makes it so complicated to find a solution for the region. It was a big mistake by the West to believe initially that it could find a solution for Syria by removing its president, Bashar al-Assad, right at the start. It is my impression that you can’t talk about a new start in terms of personalities until the end of the diplomatic process. You first have to approach Mr. Assad with an offer of talks. Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, also hinted at such a strategy in a recent interview.
Weren’t the West’s mistakes made much earlier, that is, with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?
You have to differentiate. Afghanistan was a classical article 5 case of NATO. America was attacked by the Taliban, which was ruling Afghanistan. It invoked article 5 of the NATO treaty which requires all members to go to the aid of any member state that is attacked. That was not the case in Iraq. I am convinced that the Iraq War was one reason – not the only one – but a major reason for today’s tensions in the Middle East and the founding of the Islamic State, or IS. Not just that the intervention was wrong, but in particular the one-sided involvement of the Shiite ethnic groups by the United States.
Is America responsible for the emergence of Islamic State?
It’s not the only factor, but it is clear that the mistakes made in the way Iraq was dealt with led to so so many Sunnis joining IS in recent years. In that respect, the intervention in 2003 certainly led to the escalation of a conflict that had been smoldering in the Middle East for a long time.
The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, recently admitted exactly these mistakes. He said that the situation in 2015 could not be explained without the Iraq invasion.
I found Mr. Blair’s comments remarkable and courageous. No politician likes to admit mistakes, especially when they are so far-reaching as in the case of the Iraq war. I have great respect for Mr. Blair’s admission.
Looking back, your decision at the time to keep Germany out of the Iraq War can only be described as wise and beneficial for our country. How great was the external political pressure, especially from the United States, to join the coalition of nations participating in the war?
The media in particular put a lot of pressure on Germany. However, the majority of the population was not prepared to send soldiers to Iraq. As federal chancellor, you cannot simply ignore such a mood, especially when it is so obvious.
Do you support the current government’s decision to get military involved in the Syrian war with 1,200 soldiers?
There’s one thing you cannot forget in the context of the stability of Europe – the German-French relationship is of enormous importance. When there are fundamental differences between Berlin and Paris, like during times during the euro crisis, then Europe’s ability to act on anything is severely restricted. Following the terror attacks in Paris, the government had no choice but to express solidarity with France, militarily if needed. Despite any doubts you may have about the rationality of this decision, you have to understand the federal government’s position there.
The pressure after 9/11 was also great – that was also about the solidarity of Western powers.
Germany demonstrated its solidarity in Afghanistan. In terms of the Iraq invasion, that gave us more room to maneuver. The main problem here was that the reasons for the Iraq invasion kept changing. First it was about Al Qaeda, which hardly existed in Iraq, then it was about weapons of mass destruction – there weren’t any – and finally it was about a regime change.
Refugees have to be made familiar with our values. That includes accepting the equality of men and women. It means we have hard work in store for us, and again, Germany needs a plan.
But again: Is the German-French relationship a good enough reason to abandon existing and proven principles of German foreign policy? In the final analysis, military action has to lead to a result.
I never thought it would be possible to establish a Westminster-type democracy in Afghanistan within a short period, but I decided to focus on NATO alliance policy and secure the trans-Atlantic relationship. And showing this solidarity with America in the Afghanistan operation gave Germany the political freedom to say ‘no’ to the Iraq intervention. In that respect, you have to see both operations in context. But if you look back on the decisions which were made at the time, it is clear the Iraq operation certainly led to an exacerbation of the Middle East situation.
What lessons are there for German foreign policy?
The search for diplomatic solutions must always have priority. The fact that Iran has just given an assurance that it has ended its atomic program can be attributed above all to the diplomatic skill and patience of German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. And that is acknowledged by all government heads in the Middle East. It has the positive learning effect for the West that things can be settled peacefully, even in difficult times and complex situations.
Such a diplomatic solution is hardly feasible with the leaders of IS. They focus on the use of brute force to achieve territorial gains and promote the recruitment of new fighters.
There is no question that IS also has to be engaged militarily. That is why the government made certain decisions even before deploying Tornados in the Syrian war, like arming Kurdish fighters in Iraq to combat the IS.
But doubts still remain whether these military interventions inside Islamic cultural circles will be successful. There is an intensive debate in America – also among Republicans – about why foreign political objectives have not been achieved, despite numerous military operations. There is talk of America being less secure, more isolated and with fewer foreign policy perspectives than before the series of interventions, ranging from Iraq to Pakistan, Syria, Libya and Afghanistan.
That is why the foreign policy strategy of Mr. Steinmeier is so important to keep trying diplomatic solutions. It is right that he is traveling to Saudi Arabia. When there is political tension, you have to talk – not isolate the other side.
In the case of Russia, diplomatic efforts haven’t even achieved their desired objective. Sanctions were only extended by half a year because the chancellor agreed to it – indeed, it was at her instigation.
I can understand that the West reacted politically to the Crimea being annexed by Russia. Imposing sanctions on a country would not be my way of dealing with the situation, but I understand the decision. What I do criticize – and the German government is to blame here, is that sanctions are not only being maintained but are being extended, even though Russia is making demonstrable progress in implementing the Minsk agreement. That is absurd.
What would you have done?
I would have given a signal to the Russian leadership that their progress had been noticed and appreciated, and that we would begin to lift economic sanctions. Surely it is sensible to make gradual concessions to a political partner which is keeping its word and not continue to isolate it. After all, Western government leaders know full well how much they need the support of Russia to solve the Syrian conflict.
What are the possible negative consequences of extended sanctions?
It makes a solution of the Ukraine crisis more difficult. But if the civil war in Syria is resolved, I still expect Russia to cooperate further.
Are you disappointed by American policies, which have been presented as a foreign and security policy alternative to the interventionism of Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld?
We have every right to be disappointed. To be fair, you have to concede that Obama has had much less room to manoeuvre than many of his predecessors in office, due to the Republican majority in Congress. What concerns me is the fact that the political parties in America have apparently lost any will to form a consensus. That does not augur well for a solution to the great challenges facing the United States, like the growing inequality of income distribution and the reduction of the budget deficit.
Which political achievement will be considered significant at the end of Obama’s presidency?
In foreign policy it will certainly be the solution of the atomic weapon dispute with Iran. Without the support of the U.S. president there would never have been an agreement on dismantling the Iranian atomic program. That was a rational decision despite a completely irrational Congress and therefore without any question, a particular achievement of Barack Obama.
The shrill tones we are hearing from the U.S. primaries make it difficult to believe that a return to rational politics is possible. Should Europe be concerned about this development?
I think it is nothing short of negligent how foreign policy is dealt with in American election campaigns. On the other hand, many U.S. electioneers rediscovered rationality once they were in office as president, for example Ronald Reagan. And if the Republicans are really crazy enough to nominate Donald Trump, then Hillary Clinton will become president, I’m quite sure.
There are increasing numbers of dangerous populists in European parties, like the French National Front and the German Alternative for Germany, which are intentionally creating anxieties about cultural infiltration by Muslims.
The strengthening of these parties is not just due to the West’s relatively unsuccessful fight against the terror of the Islamic state. There are a number of crises at the same time: the euro crisis, the Greek crisis and the Ukraine crisis. On the other hand, we can consider ourselves fortunate in Germany that the AfD is not yet as strong as any of the established popular parties.
For the AfD to lose votes we would need a different refugee policy. Above all, the numbers of refugees have to be reduced considerably.
Yes, a change in the refugee policy is certainly a prerequisite for weakening the right wing populist AfD. The government has to make it clear that at times of exceptional circumstances, like the refugee crisis of last September, politicians can take exceptional measures. But invoking an emergency situation has to remain the exception and cannot be a reason to produce new laws. Ms. Merkel’s decision to allow refugees on the Balkan route into Germany was understandable in this special situation, for humanitarian reasons. But she gave the impression that the Dublin Protocol, which requires asylum seekers to seek refuge in the first E.U. country they land in, had been abandoned overnight, and that the chancellor had no alternative solution for distributing the refugees. You could get the impression that national borders have no more meaning. That is dangerous, and it is not right.
Last year more than 1 million refugees came to Germany, and this year, the government expects a similar number to come in. Can Germany, as Ms. Merkel has said, really “manage” this?
First of all, the federal government has to guarantee to states and local governments that they will receive the financial support they need to handle this. That doesn’t seem to have happened yet in my opinion. More directly to your question: The capacity to take in, care for and integrate refugees in Germany is limited, not unlimited. Anything else is an illusion.
So Germany should set its own limit for the acceptance of refugees as soon as possible?
In terms of the asylum procedure, you cannot set an upper limit. What we have to do within Europe is come to an agreement on refugee quotas. And if countries like Poland declare that they are only prepared to take 400 refugees, they must be told that this will be taken into account when the next financial negotiations in the European Union take place. That is the only way it can be, because solidarity is not a one-way street. After all, Poland is one of the biggest recipients of E.U. subsidies.
What alternatives does Ms. Merkel have, if there is no change in the willingness of E.U. states to accept refugees?
It is important to protect Europe’s external borders. It will cost a great deal of money to make it possible for the countries affected to secure their borders. And then the absolutely inhumane situation of refugees in Lebanese and Jordanian camps has to be tangibly improved.
Do you think the Social Democrats are on the right track with its refugee policy?
Ms. Merkel made a decision for which she is being severely criticized in Germany, but internationally praised. So it is difficult for Social Democrat ministers in the grand coalition to openly oppose the policy. Yes, there are certainly reservations in the party about the government’s refugee policy, because a number of unpleasant decisions will have to be taken by individual federal states about the deportation of criminal immigrants.
The New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne mark a turning point in the refugee crisis, because ordinary citizens were the direct targets of violent excesses. Surely criminal immigrants have to be dealt with more severely?
We can only hope that the perpetrators of these crimes are clearly identified. And such violent criminals have to be deported. However, the chancellor has to make sure that the countries from which these people are coming from take their countrymen back. These people have no place in Germany. We just have to be careful it does not lead to all refugees being stigmatized.
But don’t the incidents in Cologne also show how difficult it is to integrate people from a completely different cultural background?
I am not as sure as Angela Merkel that “we can manage.” Germany may be able to rise to his historic challenge. So I would put it this way: “We could do it”. There is a difference. For it to work, the state will have to provide a great deal of money for language courses, vocational training, and the provision of decent living accommodation. And above all, the refugees have to be made familiar with our values. That includes accepting the equality of men and women. It means we have hard work in store for us, and again, Germany needs a plan.
Aren’t you worried about a return to national self-interest, now apparent in the European Union? The centrifugal forces sometimes appear greater than the wish to forge ahead with political union. This year, the British prime minister will be holding a referendum about a possible exit of his country from the European Union.
That is indeed a dangerous discussion. But I’m not that pessimistic about the chances of finding a joint solution with David Cameron. It should be possible to compromise with the British prime minister on the conditions an E.U. citizen has to fulfill to obtain social benefits in another country. But there can be no question of a compromise at any price. The freedom of movement within the E.U. is not up for discussion. That is a fundamental principle of the European Union which has to remain in place under all circumstances.
Gabor Steingart is publisher of Handelsblatt and Handelsblatt Global Edition. Sven Afhüppe is editor in chief of Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org