WOLFGANG ISCHINGER knows German foreign policy. He was the country’s deputy foreign minister from 1998 to 2001. He was its ambassador to Washington from 2001 to 2006. Then he spent two years as its man in London. Since then he has been chair of the Munich Security Conference (MSC), the world’s most important independent gathering of foreign and security policy experts. Most major leaders of the recent years—Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Vladimir Putin, François Hollande, Ali Khamenei—have been his guest. Few people have a more expansive perspective on Germany’s role in the world.
I met Mr Ischinger in Berlin to talk about Germany’s global role. Britain’s vote for Brexit, the victory of Donald Trump in America and that of Emmanuel Macron in France have together made this a pressing subject. Like it or not, Mrs Merkel is the only major world leader who combines influence, experience and stability. So the instincts of her country’s foreign-policy establishment matter more than they have for years, and perhaps since the second world war. Mr Ischinger understands that foreign-policy establishment like few others.
So although it is long, I am publishing the transcript of our conversation. Among Mr Ischinger’s most striking points were his arguments that:
- Germany is increasingly open to military action
- Brexit makes EU defence integration easier
- Germany’s deployments in Afghanistan, Mali and Lithuania mark a real turning point
- NATO’s 2%-of-GDP target for defence spending is not sufficient on its own
- The 2% should be replaced with a 3% target encompassing defence, foreign policy and aid
- Mr Trump’s statements make it harder for European leaders to contribute more to NATO
- Germany should not contemplate its own nuclear weapon
- Mr Macron’s election is an “enormous and unique” opportunity to relaunch the Franco-German partnership as a model for the whole EU
- The Kohl-Mitterrand era of co-operation (in the 1980s) can be (partly) revived, starting with joint military procurement
- Mr Macron understands Germany “perfectly”
- Germany and France should consider a rewrite of the Elysée Treaty in 2018, codifying the alliance between the two countries
- Germany should consider backing EU majority voting on foreign and security affairs
- Germany and France might eventually share nuclear weapons and an army, but only in the very long term
- Notions of Germany as the new leader of the liberal world are “totally unhelpful”
- Russia’s current belligerence towards the West may not last
- Germany and the West must keep the door open to Mr Putin
- Europe and Canada cannot reform their relationship with Russia without America
- Mrs Merkel’s patience and Russian language skills give her unique advantages in talks with Mr Putin
- Germany must “engage, engage, engage” with Mr Trump
- Mr Trump has “good and experienced pros” in his team but “believes in unpredictability as a negotiating strategy”
For ease of reading I have divided up our talk into seven sections: Germany’s military role, Germany and the bomb, the Franco-German relationship, Germany and the EU, Germany’s relationship with change, Germany and Russia, Germany and America.
On Germany’s military role
The Economist: Germany is moving towards a bigger role in the world. Do you think that Berlin is ready for it?
Wolfgang Ischinger: Three or four years ago my answer would have been “no”. But things have been changing rapidly. Until recently you would not have found many speeches by Angela Merkel focusing on defence. That has changed. She has embraced NATO’s famous 2% [of GDP] goal for defence spending agreed at the Wales Summit in 2014. And our former federal president Gauck spoke at the MSC 2014 of the greater responsibility that Germany would need to assume in the future. So things have changed. Having now seen the outcome of the French elections and looking toward our own election I think we are at an interesting and potentially decisive point in the history of the EU as a security provider. Britain often blocked the EU from taking steps towards becoming a defence player. Now the EU can begin to plan more creatively. It makes no sense to think about security in German, French, Italian terms. We have to apply the principle of European integration to defence as we applied it to trade decades ago.
You mean a joint command centre, common procurement?
It starts with procurement. We buy six times more weapons systems than the Americans. This is the most inefficient way to spend your defense euro. The last time a member of the EU conducted a military operation alone was the Falklands war. So why would 28 countries want to maintain as many different national institutions to train their future generals? Why can’t we pool and share much more in terms of procurement, training and strategy? That does not lead directly to an EU army. That would be premature because decisions about life and death, about war and peace, can only be taken at the national level, for constitutional and obvious political reasons. But enormous gains in efficiency can be made even without an EU army proper. And I think we could score significant points in Moscow, Washington and elsewhere around the world if we took strategic decisions along these lines to demonstrate that we intend to become a credible actor who can defend and pursue the strategic interests of 500m EU citizens.
The move towards an EU army brings together countries with very different defence histories. Germany and France are brothers-in-arms in so many ways but are not both as willing to use military force. Do you think that forces Germany to think about its role differently?
Absolutely. Absolutely. There have been significant changes in German military and strategic thinking. But I am not so sure that the man in the street has had a chance to properly digest all this. I’ll give you two examples. One: five or ten years ago it would have been impossible to imagine the Bundestag sending German military contingents into Mali. There was a wide-spread assumption that if the UK or France lured us into Africa it would only be to help them defend their post-colonial interests. That has changed. For a couple of years now we have had hundreds of soldiers in Mali. That is now almost generally accepted. Two: ten years ago I would have thought the sight of German coffins coming back from Afghanistan would cause a hell of a political battle. And frankly, the government had the same fears.
About protests in the streets?
Yes. As in: “how can one claim that Germany’s interests be defended in the Hindu Kush?” But we have been one of the most loyal participants in the Afghanistan campaign since 2002. We may not have had the biggest contingent and may have been deployed in safer areas, but it produced a bitter debate here. And in the process Germans have learned to accept the deployment of their soldiers in foreign lands. That was new. There is one more example. Never before has Germany deployed soldiers to another NATO country with the objective of helping to defend it against a potential adversary.
You mean in the Baltic states?
There are now contingents led by the US, Canada, the UK, and Germany. And just one of them is a continental European power: Germany. This is a major departure. When Helmut Kohl was chancellor, the dominant thinking was that sending German troops abroad was a terrible idea because it would remind people of atrocities committed by other German soldiers in world war two. We have learned over the last 20 years that this concern was unfounded. German soldiers in Lithuania were greeted joyfully. They are also building stability in Kosovo and Mali. So there has been an evolution. Is this accepted by everybody? Not quite. It has been a silent defence revolution, somewhat under the public radar screen.
The election campaign is coming up. The SPD [Social Democratic Party] has said it won’t commit to the 2% goal. And foreign minister [Sigmar] Gabriel wants to combine military spending with aid and other things.
If we are demanding accountability, credibility and trust from Mr Trump, we need to apply that ourselves. A promise is a promise and if we said yes to 2% in Wales, it has to stand. But the Trump administration demands a significant acceleration of this process. That is nonsense. If you simply focus on the 2%, I bet that half of NATO members would raise the pensions of their generals, give their installations a paint job and buy new limos for their ministers. Because all that goes into the defence budget. If you are serious about this spending you will want to buy more jets, ammunition, hardware. But even then, you cannot simply buy military assets in the short term; orders take many years to fill. So instead of rushing to 2%, let’s start by pooling and sharing among EU members. Three years ago the MSC produced a study with McKinsey showing that integrated EU defence procurement could save between €10-20bn a year. Thus, smarter spending could increase capabilities while saving huge amounts of money
But by pushing so hard Trump is actually making it easy for those in Europe who believe they can score an election point or two by running on an anti-Trump ticket. And that is why I think 3% is a smarter approach. This would include the 2% for defence but also humanitarian relief operations, diplomatic conflict prevention, and development aid. It would be more acceptable.
To voters, especially those left of centre. Because it would include what we do for refugees and for those dying in South Sudan. It wraps the 2% debate into a larger strategic objective. The 3% approach makes more political sense: it includes non-military expenditures that increase stability and security. We call it the comprehensive approach.
On Germany and the bomb
Does Germany need a nuclear deterrent?
No. We rely on the US. It would be great if there were additional options. But there aren’t. There have been some in this country who believe that this is the time to cut the umbilical cord across the Atlantic because the Americans are the bad guys. That’s classic anti-Americanism. It goes back to the Vietnam war. But the truth of the matter is that there are no viable alternatives. We are married to the American nuclear security umbrella, whether we like it or not. Germany is legally and politically bound to remain a non-nuclear nation. Full stop.
There have occasionally been tentative discussions with the French about the nuclear deterrent, under Mitterrand, Chirac and Sarkozy. Do I think that the French nuclear force could evolve into a serious option for Germany? Well, one should never say never. But that would require fundamental changes in how the French think about their own role and their nuclear deterrent. So not only is there no way that would open the door for a German nuclear weapon, but there is also no sensible, meaningful, reasonable European nuclear option. We don’t have a European decision-maker—not even to send 1,000 soldiers to Mali.
“Who pushes the button?”
That’s it. Britain has its PM. France and the US have their presidents. But the there are no button-pushers at the EU or Franco-German levels. I don’t see it as an option. Do I think we should keep talking with the French about possible future options? Yes. And we should also talk about the vision of a European army as a long-term option. But this is a matter of decades.
On the Franco-German relationship
Emmanuel Macron was in Berlin the other day. Can German concessions on the euro zone be traded for French concessions on security and defence?
In terms of reinvigorating EU integration, this is a historic opportunity. We don’t yet know what the French parliament will look like. Will there be a clear and established parliamentary majority for Emmanuel Macron? Probably. And will there be a stable and pro-EU government in Germany? Most probably. If so, I think this could be an enormous and unique opportunity not just to reinvigorate “le couple franco-allemand”, as they say in Paris, but also to use it as a role model for the entire EU. In the 80s and early 90s Helmut Kohl and François Mitterand would write joint letters before each European Council meeting. This often opened the way to meaningful EU decision-making. Now, again, there will be great new opportunities for Berlin and Paris to take the EU forward. And I would not see these as a trade of German business for French defence. I would see them more as win-win situations. Macron and the next chancellor…
Let’s say it’s Mrs Merkel.
Let’s start with security and defense: the two could, for example, decide that every new military procurement project above a certain amount will be done jointly. If a general needs a new car, he can get a new car. But if we need new fighter jets, tanks, or frigates, we will do it jointly. And anyone in the EU who wants to join this process is invited to do so. That would be one clear signal we mean business.
So it is not a concession to the French?
It is not a concession. It is a step forward. Wolfgang Schäuble and others have made proposals on the euro zone. And Emmanuel Macron did not come to Berlin the other week to say the E-word. That was reassuring!
Eurobonds. If he had said “let’s start with Eurobonds”, I think the shutters would have gone down in our finance ministry, in the chancellery and in the political parties.
Even if he had wanted Eurobonds he would have been wise not to say so…
…extremely wise not to mention it, certainly not before the German elections.
He seems to understand Germany.
Perfectly! I am actually reassured, quite frankly.
He speaks German, as everyone is observing.
The new prime minister speaks German.
Yes, Mr Philippe. Do these things matter?
Yes they do. When a Frenchman like Ayrault [former French foreign minister, a German-speaker] comes over here it just helps the human relations. Bruno Le Maire [economy minister] speaks perfect German, practically with no accent, as does Sylvie Goulard, the new defence minister. The former French ambassador here, Philippe Étienne, has just been named Macron’s national security adviser. He is already in Paris. So that is reassuring, because Philippe knows every single German politician on the left, on the right and in the middle.
On Germany and the EU
An exciting time?
Yes, and great opportunities. Proposals of a euro-zone-finance ministry, a European finance minister, an emergency euro-zone fund for countries that miss the deficit limit…I think there are all kinds of ideas being floated, opportunities for the entire EU, but not involving a direct Franco-German trade-off between finance and defence. But I worry about Germany as the so-called new central power in the EU…
I believe the set phrase is “the new leader of the liberal world”.
Wow. The narrative is this: Germany is not only imposing austerity on the euro zone, but also throwing its weight around in foreign-policy terms, telling the rest of the EU how to behave, et cetera. I think this is dangerous and totally unhelpful. The founding principle of the EU is that even the smallest countries sit at the same table. And one of the better experiences we Germans had over the past decades was to treat the small EU states as equals. You know, to allow the foreign minister of Luxembourg the same number of minutes of speaking time as the UK or France.
In order to get rid of this negative narrative, we should put our growing economic stability, prosperity and foreign-policy credibility at the service of the EU’s own capacity to act. What would be a good signal? There are several options. Here is one example: the next German government might wish to start a debate about majority voting in the EU in foreign policy and security. It may, for all I know, never be accepted by all EU members. But the fact of Germans making this proposal could, in one stroke, eliminate this talk about Germany pushing the others around. It would be a marker for the future. It would start a discussion.
You talked about that time when Germany and France would write joint letters to set the agenda in the EU. Germany would represent one cluster of interests within the union and France another. And by reaching bilateral agreements they would balance out the different forces. Can that be the case today when the EU is so much bigger, with so many more conflicting interests?
You are absolutely right. I would not suggest that we try to go back to the 1990. The EU now has 28 members and Franco-German initiatives alone would not necessarily represent all interests. But even if we don’t write these “Kohl-Mitterrand letters” I think the Franco-German engine can once more provide impulse. This is a moment where people should start thinking outside the box. The other day I saw a proposal for reviving the Elysée Treaty between France and Germany. It goes back to the 1960s, plus some clauses added later. But what about coming up with a 2018 version of it for this new century, with some far-reaching, common Franco-German goals for the EU as a whole? Ideas like this are great because they show people understand something needs to be done. That the status quo is not an option. That the EU is a process, not a finished product.
On Germany’s relationship with change
One of the greatest challenges for German policymakers is that the country has had to digest so much change: losing a war; being readmitted post-Holocaust into the Western community of nations and accepted as a partner; establishing the German mark; overcoming the cold war and the Wall; digesting reunification with all its financial, cultural, social, and other implications; giving up the Mark for the euro. Lots of change, which is why many Germans today hate change. That’s why Merkel almost lost the 2005 election.
She proposed some quite bold tax reforms
The message was: she wants to change things. And that is why she almost lost. She learned that the lesson to voters has to be: “You know me, you know what I stand for, I am your mother, I will make sure you don’t freeze in the winter, things will be OK.” That is her recipe. The big challenge for Merkel and for other leaders is to try to educate the German voter that we need to embrace change much more. Standstill is no option.
Do you think Germany is too comfortable?
Yes, we are. And yet Germans have a sense of doom and gloom. They are still not happy. I think the only part of the German society that has understood that change needs to be permanent is our famous Mittelstand, the small- and medium-sized, family-owned businesses. They are impressive champions of change. I have a friend who owns a small company making packaging materials. He is my age, 70, and told me last year: “We just opened a plant in western China.” I said: “You don’t even know where China is! How did that happen?” He said: “We’ve got to go with the flow.” I tell my friends in the business community: you guys need to get involved in politics more. Where are those in the German Bundestag who are by training, tradition or experience entrepreneurs, business leaders? There is a small handful at most.
It is curious because one thinks of the Mittelstand as the very foundation of German stability, caution and incrementalism. The notion that it is a source of dynamism is counter-intuitive.
Yes, you would think that they would be conservative and resistant to change. But no, they are global champions in their niches because they understand how much they need to change and reach out.
On Germany and Russia
Germany is seen as a temperamentally Russia-friendly country, a sort of interpreter of Russia to the rest of the West. Is that changing? Is the German establishment becoming more sceptical of Mr Putin?
Yes, but the majority view in Germany remains that we should do whatever we can to keep the door open. There is a deep sense of obligation and gratitude here because of the political miracle of 1990. [Soviet Leader Mikhail] Gorbachev accepted reunification when he could have said “no”. Richard von Weizsäcker, our president back then, gave a speech saying: “We must avoid simply moving the wall we are now tearing down 1,000 kilometres to the east.” Creating ways to include Russia is still a relevant and important objective. That is mainstream thinking. So it was really quite courageous of Merkel to show leadership on sanctions in 2014. That was unpopular at the time and still is among businesses. Many people here think: “Why are we imposing sanctions? Who are the Ukrainians? Our important friends are the Russians.”
Putin came to power 17 years ago. For the first five years we had Putin 1. Then in around 2007, when he gave a big speech at the MSC, he changed into Putin 2. Putin 1 was a Russian leader who declared in private and in public that he wanted to take Russia westwards, that he was interested in the closest possible relationship with the EU. I was Staatssekretär in our foreign office, deputy foreign minister if you will, at the time and I participated in a number of discussions chancellor Schröder had with Putin. And we had really constructive meetings on how to get rid of obstacles to trade and investment, and on how to move the bilateral agenda forward. Putin 2 is different. He says: “I’m not going to be kicked around anymore. I’ve had it. I’ve told you over and over and over again that NATO must not approach our borders. You have decided not to listen to me, and I have decided to do whatever I need in order to defend my interests whether you like it or not.”
So what had changed?
NATO was at the core of it. The first steps of enlargement, in the 90s, were pre-consulted with Russia. Remember that Bill Clinton wrote letters to Boris Yeltsin in the early-mid 90s hinting at the possibility of eventual Russian membership in NATO. We created the NATO-Russia Founding Act saying we would not permanently deploy major combat troops to future NATO member countries. Now fast-forward ten years later to the spring of 2008. The Bush administration proposed giving Ukraine and Georgia “Membership Action Plan” status, a sort of pre-membership. Russia objected strongly. We disagreed with Bush.
“We” here being the Germans?
The French and a few others too. And there was a big tussle at the NATO summit in Bucharest in 2008, nine years ago, where Bush, Merkel and Sarkozy had to do their own drafting because the issue had not been resolved by the ambassadors beforehand. And at the end of the day the communiqué issued actually made things worse, not better. It reads, “Georgia and Ukraine will be members of NATO,” without a date given. That was the point, in my interpretation, when Putin decided: “Now I’ve had it. They’re not listening. I’ve told them 1,000 times that we need a buffer zone and here they go and take Ukraine, which we consider an integral part of our society and is woven into our economy. Same thing in Georgia.”
And have subsequent events altered Germany’s instinctive preference for harmonious relations with Russia?
I would say that we have been forced by the annexation of Crimea et cetera to return to a cold-war formula: as much defence as necessary and as much co-operation as possible. I think that is the currently accepted mainstream thinking in this country. In other words, we should not close the door to Russia. We should not abandon the NATO-Russia Founding Act. Others in the alliance said: “Let’s throw it out the window because the Russians have violated it themselves.” We defended it. We said: “We don’t want to cut all our relations with Russia. Let’s preserve what we have so that we can go back to it one day.” And God knows at what point, maybe, Putin will find a reason to change his policies again. But at this point, yes, we have changed our position. Most recently Germany took a major decision, to deploy a German battalion in Lithuania to defend it against Russia. That is a historic step for Germany.
If what happened in Ukraine plays out in the Baltic countries, you could have a situation where German soldiers are facing off against partisans loyal to Moscow. That must be almost unthinkable for the German public.
It is quite unthinkable. But our deployment decision is intended to deter exactly such scenarios from becoming reality. The last thing Putin needs is yet another, even bigger crisis with the West. Putin’s foreign policy has not really been a success story – it has diminished trust and created new enemies. I represented the OSCE in Ukraine a couple of years ago. Ukrainians used to think of the Russians as “our closest partner, our cousins”. Today 42m Ukrainians believe that the major threat to their national identity and security is Russia. How many foreign leaders attended world war two commemorations in Moscow on May 9th? Exactly one. They’re isolated. Has the Eurasian Economic Union taken shape in a meaningful way? Not really. So I think Russia foreign policy is like a New Years’ Eve rocket: brilliant fireworks, but little positive and lasting effect.
In my view, this Russian foreign policy is not sustainable in the long run. If Russia doesn’t do much more about reforming its economy, it can’t afford these foreign activities for very long. This is another reason why I think we should keep the door open. Our message to Moscow should be: “Look, you have nothing to fear from your Western partners. We have an interest in a prosperous, stable Russia. We’d like to go back to our investments. But we’ve got to have some commonly established rules first.” Will that happen? I can’t see Putin turning on a dime tomorrow. So I’m pessimistic in the short term. But I think the medium and the long term we must hold open the possibility of a more harmonious relationship. That’s also the advice I give to Ukrainians. I tell them: “You can’t live forever in this state of military alert and even war with Russia. You are always going to be neighbours. You need to think of benefits that could be gained, of compromises which could be offered, in order to obtain a diplomatic solution. Keep talking.”
Do you think it’s incumbent on Western countries, Germany and others, to try and reset the situation in Ukraine? Canada is pushing for another revision of the Minsk process. Is that realistic? Is the German foreign-policy establishment willing to countenance that?
What Putin really wants is not something Germany or France or the EU alone can offer. Maybe the White House can. If we want to take the Minsk process forward, it needs more direct involvement and participation by the US. I was quite hopeful when I heard about how Trump and Putin would want to get along in the future. That was five months ago. Now of course, Trump has his hands cuffed.
The Ukrainian issue will not be resolved between Russia and western Europe. America will need to be involved. And we can’t go back on the 2008 communiqué. Trump can’t say: “We didn’t mean that.” But he could, after discussing this with allies and with Kiev, tell the Russian president: “Look, let us both work to have a real cease sire. If you then get out of eastern Ukraine, we can implement the Minsk agreement together. So let’s get that out of the way, end the sanctions and start talking about real issues.”
I appreciate Canadian efforts, but Canada can’t do it either. Historically speaking, we have not had a single conflict in Europe since the Suez crisis of 1956 where the US did not insist on being in the driver’s seat. Barack Obama changed this in 2014 when he decided that the Ukrainian conflict was not something that should be on his plate: “Let’s leave it to Merkel”. I think that was wrong. It was probably meant to encourage Europeans to take things in their own hands, but it was just a step too much to ask of us at that point. So I would’ve preferred a Minsk arrangement led by the US, the EU, Germany, France and Britain, with Russia: the classic Contact Group arrangement.
Remember: Putin understands very well that there is a young urban population out there now that is not buying everything said by state propaganda. And these people who go out and demonstrate, it’s a new phenomenon. So I think there is this underlying worry in Moscow that if Ukraine happened to be turned into a model of prosperity and Western success story, Russians would increasingly ask the question: “Well, what about us? Why can’t we have the same thing?” So from the Kremlin point of view, it is not so bad that Ukraine is not doing so well for the time being.
On Germany and America
What should be Angela Merkel’s approach to Donald Trump?
Engage, engage, engage. Keep talking, talking, talking. Even if he does not like it. There are some in Germany who are so disenchanted with Trump that they believe we should actually disengage, cut the umbilical cord and decide that the US cannot be our partner any more. I disagree. I think, not only for reasons of nuclear strategy and dependence, that there’s not one international issue or challenge that we Europeans cannot face with greater hope of success if we do it together with the US rather than separately. I would imagine that’s also what folks in Britain think. And if that’s a correct analysis that means that, as we look at all the chaos going on now, we should engage, engage, engage.
At the same time, the chancellor is right: we Europeans have to take our fate in our own hands, as she said. We have to build an EU which can act, and defend her interests, globally. That is not at all an argument against strong transatlantic relations as some have interpreted it. It just means that we have to assume more responsibility for ourselves.
We should welcome the fact that Trump is coming to Germany in July. We should welcome the fact that he’s going to be meeting with Putin in Hamburg. It is highly desirable from a German point of view that the White House and the Kremlin speak to each other more than they did under Obama. So engage, engage, engage and don’t give up. And Merkel is very good at this. She has dealt with Putin for years and talks to him all the time, even if this is often quite frustrating.
She understands Russian but mostly speaks German. He understands German but speaks Russian. They have interpreters to be on the safe side. Merkel knows Putin. She is patient and does not get angry. I mean, she gets angry, but she doesn’t show it. Most men would probably throw a temper tantrum and say something nasty after six hours of useless status-quo discussion, but she is very good at it. She swallows it, then calls in again the next week and has yet another long discussion. I admire that. And if she can do this with Putin, she surely can do it with Trump. And she should.
We need the United States. And quite frankly, coming back from Washington a couple of weeks ago, I’m of two minds now. I saw a highly professional team. I met with John Kelly, the Homeland Security Secretary, with CIA Director Pompeo and with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. They’re all really good and experienced pros.
So the problem is the man in the White House.
Yes. A president who believes in unpredictability as a negotiating strategy. But what works in real estate may not work in the same way in diplomacy. In diplomacy, the major ingredient of success is trust. No trust, no deal.