German Diplomacy

The Travel and Travails of a New Foreign Minister

German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel in Jerusalem, where Israeli PM Netanyahu declined to meet him
So Bibi’s angry, huh? Big deal! Source: Bernd von Jutrczenka/DPA.

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.”

“One thing unites the great powers of China, Russia and the United States: They don’t take Europe seriously.”

Sigmar Gabriel, German foreign minister

This shift began long before he assumed office, but his predecessors doubled down on traditional diplomacy. In a certain sense, Mr. Gabriel’s popular predecessor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was the last incarnation of an earlier foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who embodied calmness, vagueness, the habit of first looking at what the big guys are doing. But those times are past. “Of course we can coat everything in diplomatic icing,” says a leading official, “but then we’re out of touch with reality.” So just as German diplomacy realized it badly needed more directness, a new guy turned up. Many diplomats feel liberated.

There’s this new buzzword at the foreign ministry: assertiveness. Here’s what it looks like. Early March, at a joint press meeting in Moscow with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov – himself a veteran of international diplomacy–, Mr. Gabriel first politely listened as his Russian counterpart gloated over what he called the new “post-West world order.” But then Mr. Gabriel did something very unusual in such circumstances: He actually replied. “We don’t understand ‘Western’ to be a geographical term,” he said, and added that even though Western ideals may lose some battles, “that doesn’t make them wrong.”

Almost imperceptibly, a new pattern of geopolitics is emerging: Now that the US has abandoned values-oriented foreign policy, autocratic governments feel encouraged to make verbal attacks while German – and now once again French – politicians take over the defense of values.

Six weeks after the Moscow trip, Mr. Gabriel faced another difficult interlocutor, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Or, rather, he ended up not facing him at all. Amid the exchanges regarding protocol, Mr. Gabriel hadn’t realized that Mr. Netanyahu wanted to prevent him from meeting with two Israeli NGOs critical of the government: Breaking the Silence und B’Tselem. It remains unclear who didn’t speak clearly enough and who didn’t listen with sufficient attention, but a few hours before the visit, Mr. Netanyahu said on TV in no uncertain terms that he was only willing to receive Mr. Gabriel if he refused to meet the NGOs.

Rex Tillerson, Sigmar Gabriel
One American statesman who gets along fine with his German counterpart: Sigmar Garbiel meets US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson. Source: AP.

The German foreign minister went on the offensive. He invited Israeli journalists and explained why he wanted to meet Breaking the Silence und B’Tselem. And he promised to come back to Israel some day and to see Mr. Netanyahu then. “For us as democrats, it’s quite normal to meet non-governmental organizations,” he said. Maintaining principles in the face of blackmail, facing the conflict head on and then assuming a conciliatory tone: See you soon, Bibi. That’s the new Mr. Gabriel. And perhaps that’s a basic principle of current German foreign policy as well.

Of course, the vacuum that the US and Britain are leaving in Europe and in its dangerous neighboring region is much larger than the volume to which Germany should or could inflate itself — even together with France. So the foreign minister of the most powerful country that still believes in the West is repeatedly afflicted with somber thoughts. Referring to a book by the historian Christopher Clark, he fears we might sleepwalk into the next disaster, in the same way Europe slid obliviously into the World War 1. Indeed, the analogies are unsettling: In the Thirty Years’ War four centuries ago, Germany became the site of unfettered power games; at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was the Balkans. Now it almost seems as if the Middle East is inviting a large part of the world to the next great folly. “Europe lacks any projection of power,” the foreign minister often complains.

So back in Tripoli last week, at the press conference with his Libyan counterpart, Mohamed Taha Siala, Mr. Gabriel’s countenance betrayed nothing of any thoughts he might have on the dismal situation of the North African country, which can barely pretend it is a functioning state at all, if toilets in the government buildings is any evidence to go by.

“We shouldn’t do that simply because we hope to have fewer refugees, but because we have a heart.”

Sigmar Gabriel, German foreign minister

“Germany is quite popular in Libya because we have no interests to defend,” he said afterwards. “Except limiting immigration.” That’s actually a powerful interest though. How does he deal with the responsibility that comes from it? “I feel responsible for assuring that we help wherever and however we can. But we shouldn’t do that simply because we hope to have fewer refugees, but because we have a heart.” Regardless, he is adamant that the Libyans bear the main responsibility. “We shouldn’t have a paternalistic attitude,” he emphasized. It seems as if something is breaking out of Mr. Gabriel. The travels of a German foreign minister are almost always journeys into claims, demands and expectations, sometimes far too many of them. Germany’s moral projection tends to surpass its capabilities.

On a recent visit to a refugee camp, Mr. Gabriel was accompanied by the UN representative to Libya, Martin Kobler. The short, delicate man in a fine suit seems bizarrely out of place between the hirelings of the warlords and clan chiefs. Yet for almost two years now, the German official has been tirelessly talking to these men, striving to create a structure. The endeavor seems hopeless, but Mr. Kobler has a weapon: patience. This is nation-building, he said. Libya has never had a state; even Gaddafi just simulated one. Now the efforts will take time. Patience is perhaps the other side of the German projection of power, with all its shortcomings. Whoever has less power needs more patience. And impatience has already caused enough destruction in this region.


This article was initially published in Die Zeit, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To reach the authors:

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