In the Interregnum, an interview with Wolfgang Ischinger
My first series of questions concerns the French election and the European dynamics that could be impacted by it.
My first question is about the re-election of Emmanuel Macron. In your view, what could it mean for the prospect of Franco-German relations? You wrote in your book, World in Danger we have a common opportunity in the coming years to carry Europe forward with the stronger Franco-German duo, the Franco-Allemand couple as they call it in Paris. Is it more true today and which prospect does it open?
Wolfgang Ischinger: Let me start by saying that I think we in Germany should congratulate our French neighbors on the result of this election. The alternative would have been difficult to digest, to put it diplomatically. I am extremely happy and relieved to see that Emmanuel Macron has been re-elected. If – when I wrote my book – there was an opportunity for France and Germany to jointly lead the EU to a new level of respectability and capability, that opportunity is even greater today.
Unlike two years ago, there is now an urgent need to move forward. This need was not as obvious two years ago. But now, Europe is under threat and the French president, as commander of the armed forces and “supreme” foreign minister, has a unique ability to change the situation. Of course, the same is not true in Germany, but Scholz was elected last fall, so these two leaders are entering a period of stability of at least three and a half years before the next German elections. I believe that if they do not use this opportunity to move the EU forward, to transform the status quo, then an historic opportunity will have been missed.
Let me add that Germany missed an opportunity to adequately respond to the initiatives proposed by President Macron in 2017, in the famous Discours de la Sorbonne. I think now it is high time for these two to lead. But that doesn’t mean that Germany and France can lead the EU in the same way they did during the Mitterrand-Kohl era. The situation is more complicated because there are many more member states. However, Germany and France can take a joint leadership role by bringing others on board who are capable of being co-leaders, whether it is Italy, Spain, or Poland. It is a complex task, but an extremely urgent and important one. I hope it will be seized upon in the coming weeks and not in the coming years. In this extremely difficult crisis for European security, a first signal must come from Paris and Berlin.
One of the difficulties you describe concerning Franco-German relations over the past few months was the question of energy and a potential gas and oil embargo on Russia. The German Chancellor’s position on this is evolving quite quickly. Last week the Commission proposed an embargo on oil and gas within the next six months. Do you think this major issue of oil and gas will be resolved and how do you see the German position evolving on this specific matter?
In the field of energy, we have a particularly challenging task. French energy policy is substantially different from the German one. That has been the case for many years. To this day, France relies much more on nuclear power. We have abandoned nuclear power. I personally think it was a mistake, but the decision has been made. If France and Germany want to work together to build the EU into a credible foreign policy actor to the rest of the world, you cannot leave the field of energy supply and energy policy out of the EU’s common foreign and security policy concept. In the past, Germany insisted on conducting its own national energy policy. That was one of the reasons we started Nord Stream I and then Nord Stream II – against the warnings of many of our neighbors and partners, including France, the European Parliament and our eastern neighbors. Today, in hindsight, Germany made a huge strategic error. We are now trying to change this quickly. Germany has accepted the fact that energy needs to be part of a common concept of European foreign policy. First, the Nord Stream pipeline access is no longer under Germany’s regulation, but under EU regulation. I believe that the Nord Stream II pipeline is not going to become operational in our lifetime. This is not a real problem at the moment.
Second, Germany has just agreed with most of its partners to eliminate its imports of oil from Russia. This is now in the process of being translated into a formal decision in Brussels. It is, of course, not a complete embargo. Several countries are so dependent that they currently cannot totally eliminate imports of Russian oil. This is a much bolder step, as oil dependency is even more significant in our relations with Russia than gas dependency. In terms of the latter, the new German government is working extremely hard to reduce our level of dependency. In this matter, I am quite confident that we will come to an agreement within several months, not years. The goal is to entirely or very nearly stop paying rather large gas bills to Russia that allow Russia to finance its military adventurism through the sale of fossil fuels. The process of reaching a common position between Germany and France, which have very different energy situations, is now underway. We are in good shape in this process, and this is an important precondition for taking joint action in all the related fields regarding foreign policy, security, and also defense.
On the subject of defense that you just mentioned, you also said that we are entering a three-and-a-half year period of Macron/Scholz not facing new elections and so it opens a period of relative stability in Franco-German relations. Which defense project do you think France and Germany should focus on and which European defense project is the most likely to succeed? We have seen some tensions recently regarding the Future Combat Air System. Perhaps the atmosphere will now be more favorable to making progress on these projects.
First of all, it makes a huge difference whether defense expenditures are under financial stress — which was the case for many years. France has done its homework, and Germany is also on the right track. As you know, Scholz has announced an additional one hundred billion euros for defense purposes. I am glad that the financial foundation for more creative ideas and important projects now exists.
Second, I would like to come back to the two big projects which have been proposed and which are underway, namely FCAS, the fighter plane of the future as well as the MGCS, the tank of the future. Quite frankly if you leave such a project to national companies involved, it is obvious that problems will arise. Whether it is Thales, Dassault or Airbus, or Rheinmetall on the German side, they will try to get the largest piece of the pie if you let them do it themselves. This is an area that requires political leadership. I would propose that the next time Macron and Scholz meet, they dedicate a large part of their agenda to say “Come hell or high water, we will push these two projects through”. This must be a common decision and a common resolve by our two nations. I am sure that they will get parliamentary support if they come out strongly in favor of this. If we had not had this political support five decades ago, Airbus would never have taken off. It required a strong political determination in the initial period. I am hopeful that both projects, despite the tensions and difficulties that you mentioned, can now be taken up and accelerated given the urgent need.
I want to mention a third and perhaps more important point, which is the nuclear issue. France happens to be a nuclear power whereas Germany is not. We have seen commentary in the German debate claiming that if the threat from Russia is going to increase, going forward, maybe Germany should think about developing its own nuclear weapon. I am scared by this debate. I believe it is entirely wrong to even start such a debate. Of course, it would not only violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but also the 2 + 4 Treaty which France, Germany, the UK, and the US have all signed. So I think we must avoid going down this road. What is the solution? It is what Macron proposed when he spoke at the Ecole Militaire two years ago and later repeated more or less when he spoke at my conference in Munich in 2020. He offered to start a discussion about the French nuclear strategy at a level that has not been seen before. I believe that we, on the German side, should now take up this offer and should start a closed process, not a public discussion, of thinking through this option of how we, as Europeans, can strengthen deterrence in the nuclear age. We have France as the only nuclear power in the EU but, of course, the UK and the US bring additional nuclear power to NATO. In the past, Germany has been cautious about approaching France on nuclear issues. We feared that America might see this as Germany turning away and taking a different “French or European path”, thus damaging the cohesion in NATO or its article V guarantee. I don’t think that this is valid consideration anymore. I would hope that any serious leader in America would recognize and appreciate that strengthening deterrence on the European side doesn’t weaken or marginalize NATO, but rather allows NATO to be seen as an even stronger international nuclear power, a nuclear alliance, as Secretary-General Stoltenberg always emphasizes. The fact is that we will be a nuclear alliance as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world. I think that this could initiate a meaningful, serious and closed discussion on the question of how to protect not only French territory, but also the neighbors of France: to what extent is this possible? What would need to happen? How would it be financed? What kind of strategy and strategic considerations would need to be discussed? This is not something that can be settled overnight, but it is high time in my view to start a serious discussion about this.
Let me emphasize a fourth point: if we spend more money than in the past on such projects as the FCAS and tanks, we should always keep in mind that our ultimate goal is not to militarize Germany and to turn France into a great military power, but to strengthen the European Union. This is why I propose that at each turn in the road, whenever decisions need to be made about these weapon systems, we should always think about how we can enhance their European dimension. We have to wonder if we can include Spain, Italy, Poland or any other member of the EU that has capabilities in this type of industrial or developmental activity. Over the long term, we should keep in mind that our defense efforts are in the service of the EU’s ability to defend itself. It is a matter of having not only a national program, but one that serves the purpose of defending Europe and its interest.
Regarding the idea of strengthening nuclear deterrence, perhaps we can draw inspiration from the mutual deterrence between the UK and France following the Lancaster House Agreement and this quote: “Bearing in mind that [France and the United Kingdom] do not see situations arising in which the vital interests of either Party could be threatened without the vital interests of the other also being threatened”.
Germany and France are tied together by the Elysee Treaty from 1963. A few years ago this treaty was revised, modernized, and became formally known in Germany as the new Aachen Treaty — of Aix-la-Chapelle. This bilateral treaty refers in a very strong language to mutual military support. This gives us an extremely useful basis for demonstrating to the rest of the EU our determination to advance these issues together.
The strengthening of EU defense capabilities could, for instance, make it possible to act and support Ukraine in a more direct way, even from a military point of view. As the war in Donbass unfolds, the US Congress is about to vote on new aid to Ukraine which could amount to $20 billion in military aid. How can we be sure that the European and American objectives in Donbass in this new stage of the war are the same? Wouldn’t it be useful if Europe could help Ukraine without depending on massive American investment?
Let me start by making a political point. At this moment when Europe, when members of the EU, when members of NATO, are under a direct threat from Russian aggression, we can only say that we are extremely lucky to have a pro-transatlantic American leadership. I would have nightmares if I had to think about where we would be today, in May of 2022, if Donald Trump had been re-elected. Maybe he would have said to Vladimir Putin, “Go right ahead and take Ukraine, I don’t care”. I don’t think we, as Europeans, could have then taken action to help Ukraine in a meaningful way. The leadership in this current situation is extremely important and we should appreciate that.
Having said that, it is not good, and I totally agree with the sense of your question, if a situation continues where the USA takes the lead vis-à-vis Russia and helps Ukraine where the US alone offers more military and maybe also more non-military help to Ukraine than all the EU countries combined. I think that this is not the right balance. I think a stronger European defense capability would make a huge difference and it is important that we constantly remind ourselves that we are all, in global terms, small countries. Even France is a small one compared to China or the USA. And if it’s true that we are all small countries — whether we are talking about Estonia, Portugal, Germany, or France — we need to understand that if we don’t pool and share our military capabilities more systematically and more efficiently, we are wasting a lot of money. Why do we allow small EU countries to buy 12 expensive aircraft from the US or whoever? Why can we not imagine that we would buy together? If the EU bought thirty ships from the same shipbuilder, it would probably pay less per ship than if a country bought only one. With good negotiation, you could get a better deal. In other words, Europe has an enormous potential which we are using efficiently in trade and investment around the world. We are important negotiation partners to many other parts of the world. But we are totally failing to take advantage of our buying and negotiating power if, in the area of military and defense issues, we act as if we were still in the 19th century. Each country equips its own army without any regard for what its neighbors are doing. This is outdated, and not what we need to do in the 21st century. Here again, my answer will be: more Europe is better than less Europe and more Europe is urgently required if we want to have more fighting power for the same amount of euros that we are capable of spending.
It is almost drawing a parallel between the role of the Commission in buying the vaccine and collectively buying military equipment.
We have the defense fund and the security and defense compass. There are now important elements in place that can be used. We don’t need to start from zero, but we need to build on these existing decisions and programs and turn them into something that actually works and that is not only rhetoric but meaningful in strengthening military capacities. That’s what it’s all about.
On this point, I also want to say that if we want to take the EU forward to a new level of foreign policy capability and respectability, there are, in my opinion, two ways of doing this: one would be to overcome, step-by-step, the need for consensus. We need to go in the direction of majority decision making, even in the field of foreign policy. That is ambitious and difficult. Many member countries don’t want to go down this road. I think it is inevitable if we want to have a credible foreign policy decision-making process for 27 or more countries. The other way of doing this is the method of concentric circles. If Poland or Hungary are not interested in further developing the EU at this point, why not invite the member countries who share Franco-German beliefs to join this initiative? Why not invite them as we did with the Schengen system, or with the Euro? European treaties allow this. Why not create a foreign policy union with an inner circle that demonstrates that your role as a small country in Europe is going to be greatly enhanced if you participate in speaking with one voice to the rest of a world in turmoil and great power rivalry and competition? We need to address the challenge of how to best overcome the obstacles that prevent the EU from being a more credible, more competent, and more respected actor, whether through majority rule or concentric circles.
I also have a question related to your past when you were the political director of Auswartiges Amt in the 90s and you were in charge of the peace negotiations in Bosnia and during the Kosovo crisis. It was a very important moment in increasing awareness of the importance of EU foreign policy. I think now is a new fundamental moment of awareness. What are the differences and similarities between this new awareness you witnessed in the 90s and today, in terms of individual perceptions as well? I ask this question to you as a diplomat and as the organizer of the Munich conference for the past 14 years and, as such, someone who knows all the leaders and deciders on the international stage.
When I think of the situation in the 1990s, almost everything is different today. Firstly, in the 1990s, Russia was a country willing to work with the West. Today, some say that it was only true because Russia was financially and politically weak. But, indeed, we worked together on several issues including the issue of how to end the war in Bosnia and later, even on how to end the war with Kosovo. There were differences and conflicts, but we did manage to work together. Apart from that, what has totally changed is both the constitutionality of the EU and the global situation. Today, the international system which seemed to work quite well in the 1990s, including the Security Council of the UN, is not working at all for the moment. We cannot expect to have a meaningful Security Council Resolution ending the war in Ukraine unless Russia accepts the text. And I am sure that Russia would only accept a text which declares a Russian victory. So right now, in 2022, the UN Security Council is completely unable to act in certain areas, including European security, and this is extremely troubling. However, the Security Council is the only institution of its kind that we have. And we should not condemn the inability of the Security Council, but rather try to repair this inability whenever possible. This would, however, require a totally different approach by the Russian Federation.
The other difference – which is almost mind-boggling – is that in the 1990s, when we were finally able to end the war in the Balkans, European leaders proclaimed the hour of Europe. It was Europe’s task to intervene and to end the bloodshed in Bosnia. We failed miserably at the time. It required the active involvement and military leadership of the US to perform a miracle and end the war. Today we no longer have the same excuse we had when the European Union had no military mission at all.
In those days, Carl Bildt, who had been Prime Minister of Sweden, represented the European Community in the peace negotiations. But whenever a military issue came up in these discussions, either Russia or the US pointed out that Carl Bildt had no reason to be in the room because he had no mandate to discuss military issues. The European representative at the time had a huge handicap that is now gone. Monsieur Borrell or the president of the Council, Charles Michel, can speak if they decide to give us some authority. We now have a defense commitment. In the European treaties, we have article 42.7 which binds the members together in an extremely important way. I am sorry to say that most European citizens appear to have never heard of article 42. When I go to Finland or Sweden, they know exactly what’s in it because they are not members of NATO and the only support they can hope to have if they are ever under any kind of threat or attack is from their European Union partners. I hope that our citizens are aware that, even as we speak today, we have a political and, if it so happens, a military commitment to the other members which is spelled out in the European Union treaties. So there is now a very different basis for collective European action. This is the major difference between the 1990s and the situation today. I think that there is no excuse anymore for the European Union not to take and demand a role commensurate with our economic power and our political admission to defend human rights and our values. We cannot possibly leave that to the Americans or Canadians, or to our British friends who recently left the EU, for that matter.
You mentioned the UN Security Council and its inability to end the war in Ukraine. What strikes me quite strongly in the current situation is that, even though in 2014-15 we had strong tensions between the West and Russia over Syria, Crimea, and even sanctions, nevertheless, the JCPOA and the COP21 in Paris were signed and were symbolic of multilateral, strong, and ambitious agreements for security and the fight against climate change. As someone who contributed to a new form of multilateralism, do you think it is the end of international cooperation between great powers and if not, how could we heal international cooperation, at least with China and other main developing countries in the world?
I hope that the current situation is not an indication of the end of effective multilateralism. I believe the world needs effective multilateralism more than ever. One of the most important reasons for this is climate change. You mentioned Syria and JCPOA. The return to the JCPOA has not yet been finalized. I believe it is in the interest of the entire world not to do more damage to the international non-proliferation regime than has already been done. It is in the interest of all regional powers, even if they have some questions about it, to re-energize the JCPOA process. In other words, there are plenty of reasons why we should not abandon our efforts to use and strengthen international institutions.
The UN represents a lot more than just the Security Council. The UN family does a lot of things around the world. Think of food, health or crisis management. As members of the EU, we are called upon to continue our policies of trying to strengthen a liberal international order based on the rule of law. Based on the rule of law means based on strong institutions. So even if the UN system is currently under threat and incapable in some respects, it should not remain so indefinitely. If we don’t use all of our capabilities to bring others to the table again, we would be making a mistake. When I wrote my book a couple of years ago, we chose the title World in Danger because even then it was clear that the international system, the one France, the US, and others had created at the end of World War II and which Germany and Japan were later invited to join, had been weakened. Today, without any doubt, Germany is one of the strongest contributors to the UN system in various regards, including financial terms. We are very happy to support multilateralism through our financial support to the UN. But in terms of threats to multilateralism, we are currently experiencing the most challenging crisis that I have been aware of since the post-World War II era. We must do everything possible to make sure that China and Russia and others will not at all try to abandon this existing system by creating their own rival institutions and systems. It would divide the world. And I don’t think that it would serve the idea of world peace and global prosperity if we had an even more polarized global situation than we have right now. It must be our mission to reanimate and re-energize existing multilateral institutions, including the OSCE, which has been totally marginalized because of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, which of course is a pity.
The first chapter of your book is called “World out of joint”. It reminded me that with the Grand Continent we recently published “Politiques de l’interrègne”. We are trying to put forward this concept to think about the major crises: the US/ China rivalry, the ecological crisis that is currently having consequences in terms of energy in Europe, and lastly the transformation of politics with the emergence of new forms of parties — which is very clear in France today. Would you agree on the concept of interregnum or does it remind you of your own reflections in “World in danger”?
The idea reminds me of what the Italian philosopher Gramsci said: “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” We are in a period of transition. It is what you express with the word interregnum, which I fully understand. I hope that this interregnum will not lead to an end of the acquis which has been created since the end of World War II. Just think, for example, of international courts. The International Criminal Court is a major advancement in terms of global justice or preventing genocide. It doesn’t work as well as it should, but it is something that leaders could not have imagined a hundred years ago. We have actually made significant progress in the seventy years since World War II. I hope this interregnum will not lead us into an area where all of this will have to be recreated or to be abandoned in order to be replaced by something else. I hope we can retain those elements of globalization, of multilateralism which have helped to bring hundreds of millions of people out of extreme poverty. It has helped to eradicate many illnesses that have been ravaging African countries for many generations. Let’s not ignore the progress that has been made in terms of prosperity, in terms of health, and so on.
Unfortunately, the West is currently on the defensive, I am afraid to say. Authoritarianism has been on the rise. Look at the pride and self-confidence Vladimir Poutine presents himself with. I see the same kind of body language when I look at how Chinese leaders present themselves. They have no problem praising their authoritarian system which does not allow free speech, free press or the central issue of the dignity of individual human beings. Authoritarianism, anti-liberty, and anti-freedom have been on the rise. Democratic Western values-oriented systems have been on the decline and defensive. The American think-tank Freedom House published an annual report which lists quite precisely the countries that are moving towards a more democratic, more organized, more rule-of-law international system, and which countries are moving in the opposite direction. The authoritarian countries have become more numerous and the democratic countries have declined in terms of numbers over the last decade or more. We are on the defensive and this is why I believe that we have a particular mission and responsibility as members of the European Union. We represent one of the biggest economic blocs in the world; we are richer than many other parts of the world. This is the reason why we have a responsibility to demonstrate that our values and system bring prosperity, personal happiness, and well-being to individuals, families, and nations and that our system works. We need to defend democracy. Not in the sense of being missionaries. It is not our role to be missionaries around the whole world. We need to be self-confident enough to demonstrate to other states that we believe that our system works and that it is even superior to authoritarian or dictatorial regimes in the longer term. Because it does not ignore the urge which is in every single human being to do what he or she likes to do at the moment. Every human being hates the idea of being always told by somebody else what not to do and what to do. Freedom is part of the human element and I think we and our system represent freedom better than the rival system. I am an optimist. You have to be an optimist if you want to be a good practicing diplomat. I learned to be an optimist even at times that tended to be rather unfavorable.
Pierre Ramond, In the Interregnum, an interview with Wolfgang Ischinger, May 2022,
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