Munich Security Conference chief: ‘Germany only wants to do things without getting wet’

Wolfgang Ischinger, the Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, speaks during the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC), in Munich, Germany, 16 February 2018. [EPA-EFE/RONALD WITTEK]

The head of the Munich Security Conference, former diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, spoke to EURACTIV Germany’s media partner “Der Tagesspiegel” about US President Donald Trump, the German free-rider mentality and Europe’s lack of pride and self-respect.

Wolfgang Ischinger has been the head of the Munich Security Conference since 2008. Prior to that, he was a state secretary in the Foreign Office and German ambassador to Washington and London. 

Mr Ischinger, how is President Trump changing the transatlantic relationship?

The incision is significant. After Trump’s term, we will not return to the status quo before him. At the same time, I am convinced that anyone who uses Trump to demand that Europe finally has to fork off the US, is talking tosh. It is about German interests, especially about the economy and security. For the foreseeable future, the protection the US offers us with NATO cannot be replaced. Economically, the German and American economies are uniquely intertwined. There are no other states whose private companies have higher investments in the other country than the United States and Germany. No matter how disappointed we are about Trump, the US remains our core relationship for business and security.

Will the relationship with the US recover as soon as Trump is history?

Emotionally, yes, when a completely different character becomes president after him. But there remains a damage in the world of values and their symbols. The election of Trump has more tragic consequences for the identity of the German Federal Republic than for the British or the French.

After the war, whole generations of Germans have grown up with us heading West. We were proud to arrive in the West. As a German Ambassador to the United States, I liked to say that in history we Germans have often been on the wrong side.

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Now we will always be on the right side. For my generation, the US President was the symbol of this community of values. That was why more than 200,000 Germans wanted to see Barack Obama before he was elected. And also the reason why John F. Kennedy was almost hailed as a god. The British and French do not need that. They think of themselves as having invented the West: democracy and parliament.

The Germans have a different relationship with the US. I cannot explain to my 13-year-old daughter that in the current American president she should see the symbol of values: of human dignity, social justice, freedom. It is not that easy to fix this.

What can Germany do?

Regardless of practical issues such as European security policy and the 2% defence goal, our political task is now emancipation. But that cannot be an emancipation against America and no emancipation of the Germans alone. The Europeans must become more independent and fill the Code of Values with a content that an America after Trump can rejoin. It is not about liberation from America, but about more independence.

For this development, Trump – and also Putin – are in fact not that harmful. Politics is sluggish and changes only when it has to. Putin forces us to take a pragmatic view of European security. Trump forces us to realise that it is not possible for 500 million Europeans to “outsource” their security for more than 70 years, ignoring their dignity and pride. Europe’s citizens feel that the EU is repeatedly falling flat on its face with its global political efforts. It is not easy to be proud of this European Union as long as it does not work. That is a common feeling anyway.

Who initiates this process?

Emmanuel Macron speaks of a Europe that protects. He does not mean protectionism. The EU is meant to give us inner and outer security and preserve our prosperity. The EU must end the “outsourcing” of security. This is a particular challenge for us Germans.

In the US, but also in Europe, the impression emerges: The Germans are the world’s best free-riders. They have the trade surplus but do nothing for the security of the trade routes. They leave that to others. It would be nice if one of the German submarines could set sail. We have six, but none is operational. And how can Europe’s strongest economic power in conflicts like Syria dare to say: We only take photos from reconnaissance aircraft?

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That also violates the pride of the Bundeswehr soldiers. We only do things without getting wet. That is unworthy. At some point in your private life there comes a moment, where you can no longer say: I have had such a difficult childhood, no one may expect that I graduate from high school. The reference to our history goes far, but we cannot hide behind it.

I am not a militarist. Most of the military interventions of the past 30 years have gone awry. But you have to be able to use the military. It is a condition for successful diplomacy. If the others know that negotiations are not backed by military capabilities, then you will not get really far.

Why do you rarely hear that in the German public?

The Chancellor and her ministers say that we can no longer rely on others alone and have to take our fate into our own hands. But they do not say, what that means in concrete terms. The citizens have a right to know that. It is not just about defence spending, it is about the political ability to act. The EU will be respected as an actor only if it arrives at the point where it can decide by a qualified majority in foreign and security policy.

In 2017, the US Congress passed additional sanctions on Russia for allegations of influencing the US election. In Germany, one had the impression that this is also directed against the pipeline project Nord Stream 2. Then the German foreign minister goes to Washington and expresses his concerns. But most of his European counterparts do not join him, because they also find that this pipeline is not in the European interest. This shows that one cannot divide European foreign policy into pieces of cake: in the case of Iran, we have a common line, in the case of China and with the Nord Stream pipeline we have not. With this you get divided apart. Either we Europeans want to speak with one voice or not.

But Germany will not always be in the majority in Europe…

Under Helmut Kohl, it was generally successful that Germany had the majority of other countries on its side. If Europe wants to be respected in the world, there is no way around majority voting.

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In general, the German government must come clean with the citizens, how Europe can become more effective. Lately, Europe is almost only being discussed according to the criterion: hopefully, it will not cost more! When Maggie Thatcher demanded “I want my money back!”, we Germans complained that this is a Europe for small-minded persons and they lack any vision of the future.

But more Europe will cost more?

Yes. But I find that image of Europe, where the others just want to pull us over the table, rather disgusting. These prophecies of doom, on how terrible a transfer union is! Thankfully, there are conservatives like Jens Spahn, who say: We have nothing against a transfer union, which will have to come sooner or later. We should only clarify the liability risks in advance.

I would say: The more honestly we do that and the better we eliminate the bad banks and credits, the less likely we will be to suffer later. If we persuade others to behave as solidly as we do in Germany, then that becomes a problem that can be solved and is no longer a categorical obstacle, even if many Germans say so.

What kind of world order will emerge if US leaders abate, but Europe is unable to fill that gap?

The will of the Americans to carry the international system almost single-handedly is decreasing. This development is older than Trump. The US pays 20% of the UN budget, a high percentage of World Bank costs, aid to refugees, and so on. They invented the liberal system and for more than half a century had the political, economic and military power to sustain it.

This readiness is weakening. By contrast, America’s innovative strength is not waning. In the digital revolution, the US is way ahead. But global weights are gradually shifting. The “unipolar moment” is over. America still has a tremendous military preponderance for some time, but China will be number one in a few years, no longer just consuming, but dictating technical innovation. China has a thousand times more engineers than us. America’s special role will be relativised.

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What does this mean for us?

The European Union should be entitled to be the leading global player. It has more inhabitants than the USA. The American per capita income is not as much higher as it used to be. Is the EU in a position to turn power politics? In trade policy, it can and does. It depends on the will, on the political leadership and on personalities who are able to inspire 500 million Europeans. Europe also needs an Obama. We have too many old and tired characters and too few young rousing people. Where are the 40-year-olds who would be trusted to lead Europe in a few years? People with the energy of an Emmanuel Macron? We have a leadership problem in Europe, but also in Germany.

Many top politicians in the CDU/CSU and the SPD would not disagree. But they would not say it publicly. Do we experience a certain cowardice to explain the foreign and security policy?

Correct. But that will not become a sustainable policy. For the first time since World War II, Germany has sent troops to a NATO country, to Lithuania, to give this partner a sense of security against Russia. Of course, hardly anyone knows that in Germany outside of the expert circles. We take on risk liability, but without enlightening the citizens. The Chancellor bears a share of responsibility in that.

Another reflex in the public debate: Germans like to demand an emancipation against America instead of more ability to act within the alliance with America.

Unfortunately, in the Western community, we have always relied on the US in times of crisis. When US Secretary of Defence Bob Gates said in his farewell speech to NATO in 2011 that it could not go on like that, everyone agreed with him, including in the German government and in specialist circles.

But nothing has happened. Now we have the Trump shock. That is our own fault. We hope we can draw the right lessons right now: Do not run away from America, but work for ourselves. We in Europe belong to the West. We are even the larger part of the West.

Do we have the same picture of the West inside of Europe?

Our partners regard us in security policy as skilled free-riders. In the French elite, there are great reservations against creating common units with the Germans, because one does not know whether the German Bundestag votes for the operation in a crisis situation or not.

We cannot tilt the participation rights of the Bundestag, but in practice, a preference decision could be made that integrated units of Europeans or NATO, which would not be operational without the German soldiers, can be sent by the German government. The Bundestag should then have the right to bring them back if it does not fit the mission. So a veto right instead of the precondition of consent.

The allies need the feeling that we are reliable. The argument, the Bundestag has never rejected an application, is stupid, because the federal government ensures that only applications come into the Bundestag, which have a majority. It irons out everything that could meet with concern beforehand.

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What other expectations do other Europeans have of us Germans?

The EU needs a toolbox that allows it to perform in a closed manner. This also means that the German government has a clear position. The partners too often experience that ministers of a German coalition represent different opinions in Brussels, depending on which party they come from. That will not do.

We need a National Security Council or a coordinating body. In Brussels, they mock “The German Vote”. What is meant is that the Germans must abstain in a vote because the coalition partners in Berlin cannot agree. On the other hand, partners sometimes suspect that we are not telling them the truth. We formulate an alleged goal, but in reality pursue a different policy. Transparency is important.

The German government should, for example, publish a white paper on foreign and security policy every four years: What are our goals, what do we want in the medium term? Where should Europe be in ten years?

The Chinese are doing so very meticulously across many policy areas. I know, of course, plans are soon overtaken by events. But the process of planning is valuable because it forces bright people to deal with the issues and define goals. The German government also uses too little expert knowledge. Why does it not call a commission on the issue of what Germany can do to save the INF treaty? This agreement on the limitation of medium-range missiles is of enormous importance for our security. How can we get the Russians and Americans to respect it? If we do not do that as the largest country in the EU, who else is going to do it?

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