As a Transall military aircraft from Germany made its descent towards the Libyan coastline earlier this month, soldiers on board informed passengers they were now within shooting range of warring militias and instructed them to put on bullet-proof vests. But unlike everybody else on board, Sigmar Gabriel refused to comply. The minister said he didn’t want to step out of the plane wearing this thing and shake the hands of people who themselves would be unprotected. A German foreign minister doesn’t want to project a martial appearance. Even the heavily-armed soldiers who protect him conceal their weapons in black violin bags, danger be damned.
A few months after taking up the role as Germany’s foreign minister, it seems that vice-chancellor Sigmar Gabriel has found his feet after all. Back in January, when the news reached the ministry that he would be the new boss, enthusiasm was muted. The then SPD chairman and economics minister in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government was reputed – to put it diplomatically – to be quite undiplomatic.
But Mr. Gabriel has so far exceeded expectations – which, granted, were quite low. And it’s not just the face of Germany’s diplomacy which has changed but foreign policy in its entirety, little by little, so that in the meantime it’s no longer clear what foreign policy actually is. The language of diplomacy is changing throughout the world: It has gotten quicker, coarser and more direct, while world leaders routinely indulge in rants on Twitter. The foundations of geopolitics are shifting at breathtaking speed – and with them, the role of Germany. The Americans are looking inwards, the refugees are coming, the Russians are amping up the pressure. Mr. Gabriel offers another perspective: “One thing unites the great powers of China, Russia and the United States: They don’t take Europe seriously. And sometimes they try to split EU member states outright.”