In an interview with DER SPIEGEL, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer talks about the danger of war against Iran, the deterioration of trans-Atlantic relations under U.S. President Donald Trump and the serious need for Germany to invest massively in the European Union’s future.
Interview Conducted By Mathieu von Rohr and Christoph Schult
Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer
Maurice Haas / DER SPIEGEL
Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Fischer, you were — together with your French and British colleagues — among the first to embark on negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program in 2003. The 2015 agreement was to some extent your legacy. How did Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal affect you?
Fischer: I don’t take this personally, but I am very concerned about the disastrous consequences of Trump’s decision. They will be much more dramatic than portrayed in most of the comments so far. The aim of the agreement was to prevent a second disaster after the Iraq War, namely a large-scale land war in Iran. After the Iraq War, the Iranians tried in vain to divide Europe and the United States. Donald Trump has now managed to do just that.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you afraid that there will now be a war against Iran?
Fischer: I can’t imagine that Trump could want that. One of the reasons Trump came into power was the frustration over these unwinnable, endless wars.
DER SPIEGEL: His national security adviser John Bolton wrote …
Fischer: Enough with Bolton!
DER SPIEGEL: You remember Bolton from your time as foreign minister.
Fischer: I know him very well. He is one of the people responsible for the Iraq disaster.
DER SPIEGEL: Bolton once wrote: “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.”
Fischer: Bolton has only one answer to everything: bombing. I wouldn’t pay too much attention to that. But if Iran starts enriching uranium again, we would certainly be in a very dangerous situation. The confrontation between Iran and Israel has already begun militarily in Syria.
DER SPIEGEL: Back then, before the invasion of Iraq, you famously told the Americans: “I am not convinced.” Does the current crisis in trans-Atlantic relations remind you of 2003?
Fischer: The situation is much more dramatic today. The danger of a military clash between Israel and Iran in Syria is exacerbated by the U.S.’s withdrawal from the agreement. It is true that the current crisis is a result of the original sin of the invasion of Iraq. Iran’s rise to hegemony would not have been possible without the active help of George W. Bush and the American neocons. And without the collapse of Iraq, the rise of the “Islamic State” in Syria would not have come this far.
DER SPIEGEL: To what extent has Trump damaged the trans-Atlantic relationship?
Fischer: We are experiencing a new era. The trans-Atlantic relationship can no longer be taken for granted. But it would be foolish of us to give it up of our own accord.
DER SPIEGEL: German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that we can no longer truly rely on the U.S.
Fischer: It’s even worse than that. The American president is deliberately destroying the American world order. I was used to NATO being attacked by the left wing of the Green Party, but not by the American president! From an economic policy point of view, Trump is challenging Germany’s business model, which has been geared toward exports from the very beginning. Many are saying that we shouldn’t put up with that. I find this reaction understandable, but also kind of cute. What can we do? Given the current balance of power, sometimes all you can do is gnash your teeth..
DER SPIEGEL: You recently wrote a book in German with the dark title “The Descent of the West.” Is the West finished?
Fischer: There is every indication that this will happen. The West was the trans-Atlantic area, and its founding fathers were Britain and the United States. The West cannot survive without them, and certainly not with a weak, divided Europe. This is why Europeans must become stronger, much stronger.
DER SPIEGEL: Is the withdrawal from the Iran Agreement the moment in which Europe must finally decide to develop its own foreign policy?
Fischer: That is easy to say, but somebody has to actually do it. A few countries would have to take the lead. Germany and France play the key role in the EU, and without Germany it would be impossible. If we continue to believe that we must remain in the slipstream of world history, Europeans will not be able to act.
DER SPIEGEL: So, what should Germany do?
Fischer: The Federal Republic of Germany was probably the greatest success of American foreign policy. Since 1949, a stable, flourishing democracy has emerged under the patronage of the U.S. After two world wars, we Germans have recognized that we cannot do world politics. It almost destroyed us as a nation, both politically and morally. America was responsible for our protection, and we got used to it. Driving in this slipstream was comfortable and understandable from a historical point of view, but that is now over.
DER SPIEGEL: So, is Trump right when he asks the Germans to spend more on the military?
Fischer: It isn’t about Trump. Hillary Clinton would have been just as critical of this as president. We have to do it for ourselves. We have been investing too little in our security for years. What are the things I’ve read within the past week? German armed forces pilots are losing their licenses because they cannot fly enough hours due to helicopter deficiencies. Submarines cannot sail because spare parts are missing. We only have four combat-ready Eurofighters. What a shame! If you ask me whether we can defend ourselves, the clear answer is no.
DER SPIEGEL: The majority of Germans do not want to spend more money on the military.
Fischer: That’s a problem, but we have to do it. We must have a minimum of defense capacity, otherwise Europe will suffer. Do you think I find it appealing to say that we need to do more for our defense? We are too big and important to skimp on defense.
DER SPIEGEL: Proponents of trans-Atlantic ties have fallen into disrepute in certain circles. Some Germans want closer relations with Russia.
Fischer: That is palpable. The great achievement of Konrad Adenauer (the first postwar German chancellor) was that, against the background of his own biography, including the experience of two world wars, he drew the consequence that Germany had to abandon its position as an eternally shaky stalk in the middle of Europe. He said we belong to the West. This is the secret of Germany’s success. If we say goodbye to this, we will be saying goodbye to the greatest achievement made by West Germany after our major national disasters. It is completely incomprehensible to me that a party like the CSU (the Christian Social Union, the Bavaria sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party) is now starting to waver. The special relationship with Russia is an old dream of both the German conservatives and the German left, but it has never worked.
DER SPIEGEL: With Germany showing a lack of willingness to spend more money on defense and the United States withdrawing at the same time, some German politicians on the left and on the right are saying our only option is to come to terms with Russia.
Fischer: Submission instead of building a defensive capability? I do not share this view. Yes, we should strive for a good relationship with Russia. But not on our knees. That won’t impress anyone in Moscow. The question at the heart of the conflict over Ukraine is whether we are prepared to accept that Russia obtains its status as a superpower through zones of influence. If the nationalists in Europe define zones of influence again, we will end up in a vicious cycle. That would be the end of the European Union.
DER SPIEGEL: Is Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran agreement a wake-up call for Europe?
Fischer: My impression is that we are gradually realizing that the “black zero” (Germany’s balanced budget strategy) won’t save us.
DER SPIEGEL: The black zero presents a danger to Europe?
Fischer: It doesn’t endanger Europe, but it is holding up progress. We must transform our financial power into political power in the interest of Europe. It’s no use just managing savings accounts, beancounter style. In this respect, my advice is to invest massively in Europe.
DER SPIEGEL: In defense?
Fischer: In all areas, and above all politically. Sure, Germany has its interests, and won’t be writing any blank checks. But this notion that “they only want our money” is counterproductive.
DER SPIEGEL: “They only want our money,” is the answer Emmanuel Macron has received so far from Germany to his ideas for reforming the EU.
Fischer: Yes, this is the return to the German Michel (the 19th century caricature of the German national character). It’s a step forward, compared to the spiked helmet (of the Prussians) and the steel helmet (of the National Socialists), but it’s a mistake given the dramatic geopolitical situation.
DER SPIEGEL: What would be the right answer?
Fischer: Big, rich Germany — together with France — should pay. Why does the EU even exist? Because ever since Adenauer, all chancellors have made late-night compromises possible by putting money on the table. We must turn our economic strength into power in the interest of Europe.
DER SPIEGEL: Aren’t you afraid this will drive voters to the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party?
Fischer: Emmanuel Macron prevented Marine Le Pen from winning in France with explicitly pro-European political platforms. You can’t just keep quiet at such historical watershed moments — you have to explain them. This doesn’t just apply to the chancellor. All parties were silent on Europe in the election campaign for the German parliament — or did you hear something that I didn’t? The only people who talked about it were AfD politicians. That’s the problem! In Macron’s case, Europe comes from the heart. He knows that if Europe is not involved in shaping the new world order, not only in terms of power politics, but also in terms of technology, then it’s over.
DER SPIEGEL: How do you explain that Merkel still hasn’t responded to Macron’s proposals?
Fischer: She can’t do anything about the election result. The great tragedy of the federal election is that Christian Lindner (who allowed negotiations to form a government between Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats, his business-friendly Free Democratic Party and the Green Party to collapse, leading to months of delays in creating a new government) did not understand after the election that this is not just about saving the FDP, but that Germany needs a new constellation like the Jamaica coalition (named for the colors affiliated with the aforementioned parties). In view of his age and potential, Lindner should have pushed this forward. Then we would be in a very different position today. The Grand Coalition (the current government that includes Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats) creates the impression that it is already exhausted before it has really even gotten going. They are simply tired of each other.
DER SPIEGEL: This week, the Europeans and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif jointly announced their intention to preserve the Iran deal. How could that work?
Fischer: Probably not at all! I’d like it to happen, but I can’t imagine how. They cannot protect German companies in view of their close ties. Many have huge investments in the United States and are dependent on the U.S. market.
DER SPIEGEL: The EU has reactivated a law that could impose penalties on companies that comply with U.S. sanctions against Iran …
Fischer: A German automobile company that does not deliver to Iran because the U.S. market is too important for it is being punished again. How’s that supposed to work?
DER SPIEGEL: That would mean the deal is dead?
Fischer: It’s going to be difficult. I’m very skeptical about it.
DER SPIEGEL: In hindsight, was it a mistake to concentrate only on the nuclear program in the negotiations with Iran instead of including Tehran’s aggressive role in the Middle East and the missile program?
Fischer: The Iranian regime would never have agreed to that. It was right to concentrate on the nuclear program, because that posed the greatest threat of war, and now it’s coming back. We have never been under any illusions about the character and intentions of the Iranian regime. Our aim was to involve Iran peacefully while delaying and controlling the nuclear program.
DER SPIEGEL: Shortly before Trump’s decision, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented alleged evidence from the Mossad that Iran lied about its nuclear program.
Fischer: It didn’t tell me anything new. We knew that Iran wanted the nuclear bomb before the deal, which is precisely why we had started negotiations. I had meetings in Israel and the United States at the time. I asked those responsible: What do you want to achieve with a military attack? The answer was: We may not be able to destroy the program, but we can delay it. It is precisely this delay that the agreement had achieved on much better terms.
DER SPIEGEL: But Iran has not given up its nuclear ambitions.
Fischer: And the Iranians are not the only ones. Take Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for example. You can draw a map of the Middle East and indicate which country is pursuing a so-called civilian nuclear program. Of course, they also want to use it to produce electricity, but the real intention is a different one.
DER SPIEGEL: Iran’s expansionary role in the region has intensified since the agreement.
Fischer: Of course, Iran’s role in the region is highly problematic, but it was already expanding before the nuclear agreement. Do you think Tehran’s role in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria would be different without the Iran deal?
DER SPIEGEL: Sigmar Gabriel has outlined a scenario. After the end of the Iran agreement, nobody invests in Iran anymore, the nuclear program is restarted — and the United States and Israel respond with a military attack. Is that realistic?
Fischer: It’s not like a version of Iraq 2.0 is building up into a much bigger constellation. But Israel will not accept an Iranian military presence in Syria, regardless of the nuclear issue. In this respect, a hegemonic conflict is threatening to take shape there because of Iran’s ambitions, which can very easily be intertwined with the nuclear issue. All this cannot be of no consequence to us Europeans, not least after our experiences with the 2015 refugee crisis.
DER SPIEGEL: It all sounds very gloomy. As a former foreign minister, do you automatically have a pessimistic view of the world?
Fischer: I don’t think I have a pessimistic view. It makes me furious when people keep telling you that you are pessimistic when you are just realistic. When there’s a storm outside, what can I say? The sun is shining! I’m not about to make a fool of myself. When a thunderstorm threatens, the analyst must say: There is a threat of a thunderstorm, even at the risk of being called a dark prophet. This is an historic moment, and Europe must take a big leap. Either we act now or we do nothing. Then we will be outrun and we will no longer play a role in the world.
Translated from the German By Christopher Sultan