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The post-pandemic world that keeps Germany’s most influential diplomat at sleep

Many political leaders behave as if there is no tomorrow.

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Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, president of the prestigious Munich Security Conference, reveals in this conversation the threats that loom over the EU after the pandemic

In December 2003, Javier Solana proposed that the European Union guarantee peace on its borders by creating a “ring of friends” from Russia to North Africa. The document, entitled “European Security Strategy – A secure Europe in a better world”, was the EU’s first strategic ‘paper’ since the creation of the European External Action Service. Almost 20 years later, however, the scenario seems pure ‘wishful thinking’.

“When you look around the EU in 2021 you see … a ring of fire!” Explains Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, President of the Munich Security Conference (MSC). This event, considered as “the Davos of global security”, brings together the most important leaders of the West every year to discuss the direction of the world. In the last edition, Joe Biden, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson, Ursula Von der Leyen, and Angela Merkel spoke. For the last 13 years of his life as president of the MSC, Ischinger has stood alongside the most powerful men and women on the planet, earning him the title of “Germany’s most influential diplomat.”

In this exclusive interview El Confidencial, a few days before traveling to Mallorca, Ischinger brings up Solana’s idea to explain the challenges of the EU after the pandemic, to contrast how the world has changed in just 20 years and how it has become more chaotic, unpredictable and dangerous. Although he considers himself a born optimist, the German diplomat does not seem very confident about the future of international relations. 

“I see a pretty grim world and we are ill-prepared for what’s to come. That’s why I titled my book ‘World in Danger: Germany and Europe in an Uncertain Time.’

QUESTION. What is the main lesson we can learn from the pandemic?

ANSWER. So far, the pandemic has shown two possible paths. A year ago, in the spring of 2020, we saw our own governments revert to national solutions. They closed borders killing the idea of ​​the European Union! But we’ve also seen other options emerge. The European Union has managed to cope with some problems. It seems to be a triumph that almost 30 countries agree to buy vaccines together. On the other side of the Atlantic we had the ‘America First’. The UK has also gone on its own. The lesson the world is going to draw from this pandemic is that the way forward is not national, but multilateral. Am I too optimistic? I hope not. As a diplomat, you can only be successful if you are optimistic.

Q. Even if the multilateral solution is the best option in the long term, we are witnessing the failure of the EU in the vaccination plan if we compare ourselves with the United Kingdom, Israel or the United States. There are politicians even from their own country who are wondering what would have happened if each nation had gone it alone. Are you afraid that this disappointment in vaccination will increase anti-European sentiment?

R. You are right. It worries me a lot. Like other leaders in Europe, I am concerned about the performance of the European Commission when it comes to buying vaccines. And I am concerned that it will damage the reputation of the EU. But this does not change my fundamental belief that buying together was the right idea. Imagine the number of arguments we would have had if Germany had used its economic power to buy hundreds of millions of doses. Meanwhile, Spain, Portugal, or Estonia would have run out of vaccines. It would have been terrible. The decision was correct, but the execution was not good.

Health management is not one of the original responsibilities of the European Commission. It’s like you ask a soccer team to play volleyball! They will not be well trained, equipped, or prepared for this task. We have lacked being more courageous. Now it is easy to say that the EU should have bought hundreds of millions of doses from around the world and when they were leftover, give them away to other countries, make new friends and become a force for good. Maybe we weren’t too smart.

Q. Imagine that we get the pandemic under control in the next few months. What concerns you most in terms of international relations? Your book ‘The World in Danger’ is still current. The world seems pretty hectic.

A. I am extremely concerned. If we put aside how we should organize ourselves in the EU, when I look at the world out there I see a lot of worrying things. And when you look at what surrounds the EU, you don’t see the ring of friends that Javier Solana spoke of in 2003, you see … a ring of fire. Not at all a ring of friendly states! In other words, we have a problem. We have a problem in Ukraine, in Syria, in other Mediterranean countries, in Libya, in Mali, in other parts of the African continent. We are likely to face a massive immigration problem because one of the consequences of the pandemic is that the number of failed states in Africa and elsewhere is likely to increase. There will be more hunger and more disease.

The EU is going to face an accumulation of crises and is not well prepared for such a troubled world or for this ring of fire. Nor for a world of clashes between superpowers. If you look at what happened the other day in Alaska between China and the US … The tone of the conversation was not very reassuring, was it? When I listen to Vladimir Putin, he is not very encouraging either. One positive element that I see today is the renewal of the Transatlantic Alliance after the defeat of Donald Trump.

Q. What does the European Union have to do to deal with these problems? How to explain to a normal citizen what the European autonomy strategy means?

A. It is a very important question. We must not waste our energies discussing the concept of strategic autonomy for the EU. What matters is the answer to the question: can we defend our interests? We have to be able to defend our borders, our citizens, our way of life. Blackmailing and ‘bullying’. Imagine a nuclear threat [to the EU] from a superpower. Neither your country nor mine has nuclear weapons.

Q. What do you propose?

A. First, we should improve our military capabilities, which are ridiculous in the world we live in right now. We have not taken enough advantage of what it means to share the EU. We could share our military resources. Why do small European countries need 10 very expensive fighters? Why don’t we combine efforts and have a fleet of 200 fighters together, operated and repaired by the same operators? This would save us a lot of money.

Are our countries ready to leave life and death decisions in the hands of a European institution?

Q. Do you defend the idea of ​​a common European army?

R. With the idea of ​​a European army is the same as with the idea of ​​the European autonomous strategy. It’s a wonderful long-term vision. Perhaps in 20 or 30 years, we have been able to obtain complete strategic autonomy and Europe can defend its own interests alone. That is not the case today. A European army is a long-term vision, but it is not something we want to have now. Who would lead that army? Who would make the decisions? Who will be responsible if there are dead? Are our countries ready to leave life and death decisions in the hands of a European institution? I think we are not in that position yet. We must work step by step. 30 years ago, Germany and France created the Franco-German Brigade. It hasn’t worked very well because both armies have different rules, weapons, etc. The French eat ‘croissants’ for breakfast and the Germans prefer a full breakfast.

Q. You are very critical of the decision-making process on EU foreign policy issues.

A. In commerce our system is wonderful because it is based on a qualified majority. The Commission makes a proposal and a majority decides yes or no. In foreign policy, all countries have the right of veto. Even if the issue is not of vital importance to the EU. Some time ago, EU countries voted on whether they should support Guaidó or Maduro. All bet on the first except for one country. And, for this reason, no agreement was reached at first. Europe had no position on what had happened in Venezuela. That is not possible! That way you don’t generate respect for Europe as an international actor. We have to change and reform our decision system. If the majority system works in commerce, agriculture, and many other fields, why not also in foreign policy?

Q. You have criticized German immobility and say that your country has processed so much change in recent decades that you prefer to stay where you are. Do you think it is a burden on the changing world we live in? Are you afraid that no brave politician will be able to replace Angela Merkel in the September elections?

A. What worries me most is that the Germans, since the reunification of Germany 30 years ago, love the ‘status quo’. They have seen great changes in the last 100 years. They have lost two world wars, they have seen how the country was divided, how their own currency, the German mark, disappeared. Suddenly they have the euro and there are many crises. The Germans think that things are fine as they are. What are we going to change for? The problem is that the world out there is changing so fast that if we don’t adapt, we are going to be left behind. Germany is lagging behind in digital terms. For the autumn elections, it will be very important that the leader who comes out is able to explain to the citizens that seeing the world from the couch is no longer valid. We have to embrace change and digitize our public administration. We need a little revolution. Continuing to enjoy the ‘status quo’ is no longer an option.

Q. Are you surprised that Beijing is taking a more aggressive stance on foreign policy? He’s getting the EU to align itself with Biden.

A. Chinese foreign policy is decided by its leaders and its citizens. But in my opinion, I think China was very smart in the last few decades. It was already a powerful country, but it behaved in a very humble way. He wasn’t showing his muscles. And, today, it risks creating anxiety not only among European countries but also among its neighbors in the Asia Pacific region. An anti-Chinese alliance may end up being formed to avoid Beijing’s influence.

Q. What is your opinion on the European position on the rise of China? It seems like a difficult balance not to upset China and, at the same time, not to deviate from Washington’s path. It reminds the Goldilocks problem, according to which a planet must be far enough from the Sun for life to develop, but not very close either.

R. Our relationship with China cannot be the same as Washington’s with Beijing. The US has military alliances, commitments, and responsibilities in the Far East. We do not. Neither Spain, Germany nor the EU has a military commitment to Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea. The US does, and it is a fundamental difference. Of course, our approach cannot be based on equidistance. Our place in the world has to be, of course, in the West. Even after four years of Trump, the US remains a leading country. We share fundamental values, the dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and democracy. We need to better coordinate with our American partners. And that will not be easy because we have different interests.

The German auto industry relies heavily on Chinese imports, so it is not easy to argue in Germany about possible sanctions on China. But at the same time, we must coordinate with the US on issues such as human rights, Hong Kong, the situation of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the level of reciprocity. We have been unable to establish the principle of reciprocity with China. To be honest, I think the question of finding the right approach to dealing with China is going to be the biggest foreign policy challenge facing the EU and the US.

Q. During your long career as a diplomat, you have shared a room with the most powerful people on our planet. What continues to surprise you about political leaders?

R. If you are looking for an answer to the question “what is behind the great decisions in foreign policy?” or “what causes peace instead of war?” You always end up at the same point: trust. If there is no trust, the likelihood of people misunderstanding each other and going to war is higher. I am still amazed by many leaders in Europe and around the world who still do not understand how important trust is. They behave as if there is no tomorrow. The currency of diplomacy is trust. If you are confident, you can go anywhere. Bush Senior, Helmut Kohl, and Gorvachev trusted each other. If they had not, German reunification would have been impossible.

Many political leaders behave as if there is no tomorrow.

Q. Why do you think there is less and less trust? Perhaps because of the acceleration of our lives, social networks and the information cycle? Do you think today’s politicians think less in the long term?

A. Yes, for various reasons. One of them is the explosion of social networks. The second element is that we seem to be short of breath. We don’t think strategically about the long term. In Germany, everyone is thinking about how to win this election. But is anyone thinking about what our long-term relationship with the Russians should look like? Or our energy source? We have gotten rid of nuclear power, but how are we going to get rid of coal? As citizens, we have the right to demand leaders who think long term.

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