Ex-Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel advises contact with Republicans in the USA, also under Joe Biden to keep. Before the US President’s visit to Europe, he also believes in an upcoming agreement in the conflict over Nord Stream 2.
Sigmar Gabriel was German Environment, Economics and Foreign Minister. The long-time SPD leader is today the chairman of the Atlantik-Brücke.
t-online: Joe Biden’s first trip abroad takes him to Europe: first the upcoming G7 summit in Cornwall, UK, then theres Born- und EU meeting in Brussels. To what extent do you see different priorities here than with Donald Trump, who first flew to the Middle East?
Sigmar Gabriel: I don’t think it makes any sense to keep asking questions about the differences between Joe Biden and Donald Trump – simply because the differences are so obvious. Both could not be more different personally, intellectually, politically, and culturally. Biden’s visit to Europe clearly serves to strengthen the transatlantic alliance and it corresponds to what he said when he took office: “America is back.”
You know Joe Biden. Which Chancellor would he be better suited to in terms of character: Armin Laschet, Olaf Scholz or Annalena Baerbock?
I am not a hobby psychologist. Joe Biden is the most experienced foreign policy president the US has had in a long time. He gets along with every German.
What will he talk about with the allies in Europe?
Biden wants to talk to the allies about the key challenges he sees for the world. First and foremost is the question: What is the next step in relation to China? Other priorities will of course also be climate and energy policy. But from the point of view of the Americans, China is the central global challenge and they want to talk about how the Western democracies are reacting to it.
Joe Biden will then meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva. In addition to the explosive issues of the Ukraine conflict, Nord Stream 2 and Belarus, does this encounter have to be seen against the background that Russia is increasingly drawing closer to China?
It is difficult these days to believe in a new beginning of the détente policy with Russia, because Russian policy is doing everything to make the situation more and more difficult. However, the increasing harshness of Russian foreign and domestic policy from the western perspective should not hide the fact that the country’s economic situation is probably worse than it has been since the 1990s. Perhaps that is why it is so important that this meeting take place. For the US, the relationship with Russia is not at the top of the foreign policy agenda. China, international climate policy and also the nuclear deal with Iran are much more decisive for the American president. But Russia plays a role in all of these issues and can develop a great potential for disruption. Conversely, for example, the fight against the trade in nuclear weapons technology cannot be achieved without the support of Russia. One shouldn’t expect too much from this meeting, but it is a start.
The time window with Joe Biden as US President may be small. Donald Trump can return in 2024. Republicans can radicalize themselves further and rule again. Should it come to that, with whom should German politicians best keep in contact so that the lines to Washington still work?
We are wisely advised to keep in touch with the Republicans now. By the way, not only to those who we perceive to be moderate. I will also meet people who are Trump supporters on an upcoming trip to the USA. Listening to them is important and interesting in order to understand what makes them tick. In foreign policy, you can’t choose who to talk to. It pays to establish communication with all those with whom you may have to deal with one day. This also applies now, even if the Lord God forbid that Trump II or something similar comes back to us.
During Trump’s presidency, the term “equidistance” appeared again and again. What was meant was that Germany and Europe would have to come to terms with themselves and establish a similar distance-proximity relationship with China, Russia and the USA. What do you think of this idea?
I don’t understand what that means. You just have to calmly close your eyes and think about which of these three countries you would rather move to if that were necessary. Almost 100 percent of Germans or Europeans would vote for the USA, even if Donald Trump were in government there. The USA is much closer to us politically, economically and culturally. A desirable equidistance is a chimera and is not taken into account in serious foreign policy debates. That becomes much clearer in questions of security policy.
Nonetheless, the question arises as to how the EU can confidently develop in foreign policy.
The EU has a problem. It was not founded to behave as a global actor outwardly. After two devastating world wars, Europeans should finally find peace within. In terms of security policy, we could rely a little on the French and British, but above all on the Americans. But the Pax Americana is coming to an end. Firstly, because the USA is no longer economically able to maintain the so-called Liberal Order all over the world. Second, they don’t even want it anymore. They want to concentrate fully on their great rival China and on the great trade and power axes in the Indo-Pacific. That still presents us in Europe with an unfamiliar situation. We have to learn to assert ourselves in our immediate neighborhood: against the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea as well as against Russia and Turkey. And we have to develop a common stance towards other regions in the world. This is still very difficult for us.
How could this goal be achieved?
We need a Europe that acts sovereignly, but not autonomously. That often gets mixed up. Sovereignty means deciding of your own free will what you want to do or not do. Autonomy would mean always making this decision independently of everyone else. I think we need a close alliance with the Americans. Because even a united Europe would be too weak in the world to really make a difference. It looks very different when we work with the US, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand and Australia. Europe should strive for an alliance with the democratic industrial nations of the world.
As an actor, the EU has already succeeded in setting standards: The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example Also taken over by the large digital companies for other regions. Are the Europeans perhaps not that insignificant after all?
Of course, the European single market is the largest in the world and the most interesting thing we have to offer. We are not popular because we are nice people or because we have certain values. But because we are an extremely interesting region economically. I would like Europe to become more attractive in defense and security policy too. But in fact Europe’s pound is its domestic market and its economic power. But that too has its dangers.
In what way?
We cannot rest on the laurels of our ancestors. We generate almost 50 percent of German prosperity through our exports. We are Master of the Universe when it comes to the manufacture of products, i.e. mechanical engineering. But two things are attacking our prosperity:
Firstly, an ever larger part of the added value is migrating from the product to the associated data platforms. These companies are located in the USA or in China. Second, anything that leads to deglobalization in the world is harmful to us. Whether protectionism or the relocation of productions required in the wake of the pandemic in order to become more resilient, it means shortening the value chain. That always affects Germany the most because we live from the international division of labor. Anyone who speaks the word about deglobalization should consider that. Also because it affects the poorest countries in the world. We are talking about low-wage countries, which is true. But it created prosperity for the first time in many of these countries.
Does the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline show how difficult it is to act confidently, but not autonomously, without annoying the USA, Russia or EU partners?
Being together in an alliance does not mean having common interests always and everywhere. Such situations have happened several times in history. Sanctions were imposed on a German-Russian pipeline project as early as 1962 in the course of the German-Soviet pipe and gas deals. The next sanctions then came at the Mannesmann tube stores. It was always about the same thing: raw material interests and geopolitics. In the end, the US always lifted the sanctions because the interest in working together with Europe and Germany was greater than its rejection of energy deals with Russia. And currently, the US is getting roughly the same amount of oil from Russia as we are getting gas from Nord Stream.
The acting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote his thesis on this topic and later published a book on it …
… yes, 1987 under the title “Ally Versus Ally: America, Europe, and the Siberian Pipeline Crisis”. Because such a conflict with allies cannot continue to escalate, the then US President Ronald Reagan, essentially a tough anti-communist, lifted the sanctions at some point. He said to himself: I have so much in common with Europe. I’m not going to let a pipeline spoil that. This is how it will go now.
A delegation from the German government traveled to the USA even before Biden’s trip to Europe. What can she offer the Americans?
There will certainly still be a whole series of conditions on the part of the Americans that have to be met. I suspect that the security of the trans-Ukrainian pipeline will have to be guaranteed for longer than just 2024. I suspect that Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin have already agreed on this. That way the pipeline problem will be dealt with through negotiation. By the way, this is an important difference: With Biden you can look for and find compromises. It was impossible with Trump.
The question of where our raw materials will come from in the course of the energy transition will continue to have a significant impact on German foreign and economic policy. Germany, for example, will have to import green hydrogen in order to remain an industrialized country. Are the next conflicts looming?
The coming end of the fossil fuel age has already made the US less interested in the Middle East and the most important oil supplier, Saudi Arabia. This brings new uncertainties to this region. That is why Russia, China or Turkey are trying to take advantage of these changes. Europe is often there as a spectator. When it comes to importing green hydrogen, Germany and its hydrogen economy should build a completely new relationship with the North African countries. That would also be in our interest in political stability in this region. Russia wants to produce so-called violet hydrogen from nuclear energy in the future. I would advise against securing the German energy transition with this raw material.
The Greens are talking about green hydrogen, which is generated with electricity from wind energy in Ukraine and could come to Germany via the existing pipeline. Is that advisable given the geopolitical situation?
Even during the worst of the Cold War, Germany always got its natural gas from the Soviet Union. There is no evidence that conflict situations lead to energy scarcity. Especially since the pipeline network in Europe is so intertwined that the failure of one segment could immediately be replaced elsewhere.