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interview: stefan kornelius

Kornelius is the editorial page editor of Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of Germany's most influential daily newspapers. In this interview with FRONTLINE, Kornelius talks about German perceptions of the U.S. administration and its decision to go to war with Iraq, plus why he thinks German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's outspoken criticism of the Bush administration is shortsighted and may ultimately damage his country's strategic position in Europe. This interview was conducted on March 11, 2003.

Can you characterize for me the reaction here in Germany to the events of Sept. 11 in New York?

The reaction was of shock and disbelief, as almost everywhere in the world. People rallied together. ... People swung American flags and waved in sympathy. There was a lot of grief and sorrowness.

These are very historical decisions [Schr–der] is making. He's ripping the foundations of this country's foreign policy apart and the public is not even noticing.

However, I remember one little poster, one little sign in the midst of that crowd, saying, "No War." There it was, this German sentiment that something is going wrong. ... In all that mix of feelings -- you could hear voices saying, "Well, they got too powerful, didn't they?" So I got a feeling right at the beginning that this expression of grief wasn't totally heartfelt. ... That little sign in the crowd, right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, reminded me of that deeply felt German pacifism. ...

 
 

Why is the pacifist tradition here in Germany so strong?

The pacifist tradition in Germany has deep roots. It basically goes back to World War Two, the horrors this nation went through and the process of nation-building it went through right afterwards. My parents were brought up in the belief that weapons shouldn't be allowed in this country.

A full generation was never used to the idea that a state should be legitimized to defend itself, to use force. The historians use a phrase called "the horizon of expectations" -- "What do you expect? What does a nation expect it should do?" This nation, Germany, always expected itself to care for the well-being of its people -- for economic well-being, for bettering of lives, basically -- but it never took responsibilities for its outer security, for its role in the world. It accepted that there was a threat at its eastern border, the Soviet threat, and that had to be fended off. But it was to be fended off with the help of the Americans. ...

German foreign policy was always in the shadow of American foreign policy; it was happy to be so.

It was never forced and own mind and own agenda and stand for that and this is why the German Bundeswehr [the German armed forces] ... were never trained for being out of area, never had the idea to go abroad. This nation never was brought up with the idea to use its force; it was basically there to defend itself. ...

Bush's "axis of evil" speech in January 2002. What are your own personal memories of hearing that speech, your reaction to it and your sense of how it would play in Germany?

My first reaction to the "axis of evil" was, "How could he use that word, 'axis'?" To the Germans, the word "axis" has a historical connotation; it is used in the Second World War, meaning the axis of Nazi Germany with ... Japan and being sort of the driving force behind World War Two. ...

However, I didn't give it too much credit at first. I thought, "Well, that's one of Bush's typical rhetorical slips." When it was ... argued that this has a huge meaning behind it -- it's almost sort of something like a doctrine -- I got wary. ... My fear was that Sept. 11 has led to a radicalization in American foreign policy, which I only knew before from American domestic policy. It's kind of hardcore politics, which I personally experienced when I was a correspondent in Washington during the Clinton impeachment period. That kind of hardcore politics now had taken hold of the foreign political field, and all that room for manuvering, all that gray shadowing, was lost.

What about the religious tone to so much of Bush's rhetoric? How does that play here in Germany?

I think the religious aspect of Bush political beliefs haven't really sunken in to the German public mind until recently. It is basically a product, I guess, from the American media, which likes to play that theme. Sure enough, one could see Bush as a very religious person, and he applies a lot of religion in his work. But then I see different forces at work, and religion is not the only driving force.

However, this religious part is frightening [to a] German audience. We have a very close relationship between church and state, even though publicly it's separated. The historic roots of the cultures here in Europe are deeply intertwined, intertwining religion and government. However, that now is thought to have been overcome, and religion never plays a political role here. It's on the sideline somewhere, and sure enough, not a single politician in Germany would dare to invoke God or to use religion as a justification for his work. ... Most politicians now abstain from using religious terminology when they give their oaths. ...

All kind of fundamentalism is bad politics in the German view. Fundamentalism is equal with radicalism, with extremism, and this country has quite a deal of experience with extremism which was not religiously founded. We had mix of political and narcissistic extremism which forbids us to invoke that into politics. I have very bad feelings hearing about deep religious belief. ... Politics is meant to be weighing of arguments, trying to find compromises, trying to argue in the open and not acting out of [religious] belief.

... The first meeting [between Bush and Schröder] in Washington in early 2001, how did that go?

Well, the first meeting in Washington was a teaser for both of them. Both were pretty new in office; both didn't know how to handle world politics properly. ... Bush and Schröder are, funny enough, very similar persons. Both have a very domestic background, politically. Both have a very provincial background. Bush is from Texas, where he was governor and where he was politically branded. Schröder is from Lower Saxony, where he was governor for, I guess, ten years. Both therefore have deep beliefs in how domestic politics should be driven. Both are not foreign politicians; they have no experience in foreign policy. ...

... They know how to deal with people. ... They know how to, well, make themselves loved. Schröder is a very popular type of guy. He's very outgoing, he's very well on television. Bush is the same. So they share these beliefs.

They come from totally different backgrounds personally. Schröder is from a very poor family background; ... Schröder's father died when he was very little, his mother raised him single-handedly. She made her money cleaning offices. Bush is from a wealthy background, East Coast. Schröder went through university in a phase where his peers basically rebelled against America and against the Vietnam War. His political roots come from a generation where anti-Americanism got fashionable. ... Ideologically, they're totally different people. ...

[And when they first met in the spring of 2001?]

They sat around a table. They had lunch, they shook hands afterwards; it was very friendly. I think they even called themselves on first-name basis. They seemed to get along. I remember Schröder coming back. It was his first time in the White House as a chancellor, and he was somehow on a higher level. For the first time, [Schröder] got the feeling of the power he probably had -- the German chancellor walking into the White House and talking eye to eye to the American president. ...

Before we move onto the Berlin meeting between the two of them, let's hop ahead in a way. What happens in the election here?

Schröder's election campaign went really bad. He trailed his challenger ... for months, and he was basically given up by his own party at that point, mid-summer. ... By the end of August, I remember this emergency meeting of the core Social Democrat Party -- all the big shots of the Social Democrats came together here in Berlin, had a meeting. "How should we go on? How should we get this campaign around?" At this point, late August, there was rumor that the United States would ask NATO members at a meeting in September, right before the elections, to provide a list with possible hardware they could send for a possible Iraq war, or what they could afford to [send].

There was very emotional debate in that meeting on how one should react to this. During the meeting, Schröder got up, walked out and gave an impromptu press conference. At that point, he invoked for the first time that his government would stand against the war and would stand against that kind of politics which was coming out of Washington.

That was the start. That was the beginning. Two weeks later, we had the speech of Vice President Cheney in Nashville, where he implied that America might go to war even without asking the United Nations. That caused a huge outcry, and obviously was not in the government's interest. I guess this was a sort of a teaser.

... Schröder went out on the campaign trail, basically on a daily basis. He never had his foreign political advisers on his side. ... He just went out and he experienced that, the further he went on that limb, the more applause you got -- the more he used that anti-American and anti-war rhetoric, the higher the applause rose for him, the more the people chanted and the more applause he got. This is why he went on and on and on. ...

Schröder -- with his back to the wall, fighting for every vote -- simply [didn't] give a damn on what he was saying on the foreign political level; he just wanted to win. It was, for him, "Either I'm back into office or I'm not," and he sensed with his very good political instinct that the German public, that the audience was prepared to take that argument on and give him credit for it. ...

But for all the criticism of Schröder, it worked. He clearly tapped into something in the German public. There's massive anti-war sentiment here. Emotionally, philosophically, culturally, what is driving the anti-war sentiment of the ordinary person in the street in Germany?

The anti-war sentiment in Germany is driven by a very honest, but also naïve belief that most of the world [will act as] we do -- that the world can be convinced by argument, probably by money, that your influence can be forced upon somebody by the sheer power of the goodness of your words.

This is naïve. ... We were always in the shadow of America, doing that kind of realpolitik for us or in the muggy, muggy atmosphere of the European Union, where compromising and coalition building is the core of that whole show.

The European idea is driven by one thing: to take away power from the too-powerful, to level it and to bring people together, bring nations together. Taking away power from the too-powerful means taking away power from Germany. Germany is the most powerful nation in Europe. We're the biggest nation, we're democratically the strongest nation, economically and probably even militarily; and Germany's role as a European hegemon was fateful in history.

Germany always was isolated and drawn into conflict and caused that conflict by itself because of its hegemonial situation in the core of Europe. That historical situation was overcome by the idea of forming Europe, of having Germany dissolve its power in this European body. ...

So this is the core foreign political belief of probably Germany and the German public -- that our power had to be dissolved, had to be taken away, to diminish the threat which comes from Germany or which is perceived [as a threat] by our neighbors, ... especially those in the east -- Poland, Czech Republic, Hungarians. They see Germany as a very powerful nation. They love to see Germany balanced, and we had the means to make them feel that we are not a threat to them anymore, and that mean was the European Union.

So the core belief of German foreign policy is to take away power and not to force power upon somebody. ... That military role was always taken over by the Americans for us. They pledged to defend this country during the Cold War; they even liberated us from the Nazi tyranny. So the force element in German foreign policy, especially after Second World War, was never developed.

It strikes me there are almost parallels here of a teenager trying to grow away from a parent, from a power which has dominated it. Does that parallel, that analogy work for you?

Probably now, yes. After the Cold War was over and the world was left with one superpower, the United States, there was an imbalance of power on the world and Germany couldn't hide on that balance anymore. ... There was a need to balance that power. What we see right now is basically that attempt to balance American power.

However, the German means and the way Schröder reacts clearly show that we don't know how to do this. Sure, that would be a good idea, to get America back into some kind of coalition, to impose our will on America, to make them understand, "Listen, you can't go to Iraq without probably having some international [agreement] for it."

However, the means Schröder invoked were wrong. He never had the tools to make the Americans understand that he is somebody who has to be [listened] to, and that Europe is a very powerful instrument which the Americans better should listen to more carefully. These means were never developed. So what Schröder did was very blocked, very simple, and almost counterproductive, because he used the same means he criticized. He went nationalistic; he went populistic and he didn't go into coalitions. He didn't talk, and this is the frightening part of that German story.

Sure enough, Germany should have its own stand. They probably should develop more power, because it has it and should yield it more carefully and more predictably. But the way Schröder is doing it is bringing up the old fears again. He's basically making our neighbors believe that the giant, the hegemon in the center of Europe is using its strength, without knowing where to hit. This is why Schröder was so isolated over the first months of that course. ...

Even though Jacques Chirac opposes the war, he's always stuck to the same line. But there's much more personal antagonism [between Bush and] Schröder. He feels Schröder betrayed him, and this goes back to the meeting here in Berlin of May 2002. What's your understanding of that situation?

It was always rumored when Bush and Schröder met in May 2002 here in Berlin, they agreed on one thing for the course of the next months. Schröder said, "I'm in a campaign," and Bush said, "I'm sort of at the situation that I might have to go to war," and both pledged to each other that they wouldn't used those themes against each other. So Schröder wouldn't use Iraq and the war during the campaign, and Bush wouldn't force Schröder to take any steps prior to his re-election; he wouldn't force him into true commitment or into political commitment in the Iraq case, and they would spare that issue for the time being.

That rumored understanding, this kind of pledge, seemed to be the reason why the president is so personally angry at Schröder, why he feels so betrayed. He thought he would have his word. Bush seems to be somebody who believes in the word of somebody when it is given to him, and the fact that Schröder turned around on him seemed to anger him extremely.

On the other side, Schröder argues that this pledge was broken from the American side, by the Pentagon hinting that Germany might have to commit itself to troop deployment and to an Iraq policy prior to the elections. There was rumor that the NATO meeting in early September in Warsaw was the time when NATO would have to take a position on Iraq, and Germany desperately wanted to avoid that. The German government, in having to take an Iraq position in early September, could have handed in its resignation immediately. Schröder wouldn't have had to stand up for re-election at that point. ...

This crisis sort of ramps up. The tension increases a great deal in January, around mid-January. Why do you think there is that change of tone in January? What changes then?

In mid-January, Schröder had a very difficult domestic situation once again. The German economy was in a slump. ... Two states had regional elections for their respective governments. ... He went out on the campaign again, and Schröder on a campaign is always a loose cannon. He proved to be so in September, and he proved again.

The second problem was that, in mid-January, there was a very public and important celebration of Germany and France having reconciled their animosities and celebrating 40 years of the [Elysee] Treaty, which basically is the foundation of the European Union and the German-Franco alliance. That commemoration, that event was highly publicized. ...

When Schröder and Chirac met in Versailles, they stood up, to the surprise of basically all sides, and took a very strong position on Iraq, basically saying that they would try to stop the American war machine and try to put a political stop to that path to war. This declaration was seen on the European level as a clear breach of behavior, because it was not communicated amongst all members of the European Union that the two political heavyweights, Schröder and Chirac, can take such a position. Their stand was unique and was dumbfounding for the Spanish and for the Italians, and for certainly the British, who had taken their positions publicly and agreed on the European level before that Versailles meeting they have a very low-level and un-confrontational declaration on principle on Iraq.

But nothing which would spark that kind of explosion. When Chirac and Schröder went out and stated their position, they caused a huge uproar in all these European countries, and certainly also in the to-be members in Eastern European, which all felt betrayed and not involved in that decision-making process. They felt confronted with a position they couldn't share. ...

So Versailles really has carried that virus deep into the heart of Europe. At that point, the second pillar of German foreign political belief was shattered. The first pillar was trans-Atlantic relation -- German-American friendship. How do we communicate, how do we get along? That was in shatters after the first campaign, the first election campaign. The European pillar, European integration, Germany melting into the European body -- that idea was in shatters after Versailles. ...

Schröder's foreign policy, it sounds like a bull in a china shop.

I don't know whether Schröder really wanted to have that all happen. He managed to destroy core foreign political beliefs in Germany within six months, and now he's trying to build a rationale for this. He's saying, "We have to find our German way. We have to find a counterbalance to the unipolar world. We have to balance the American weight."

But it's all happening circumstantially. It's all happening by chance, and it's not strategically driven. And these are very historical decisions he's making. He's ripping the foundations of this country's foreign policy apart, and the public is not even noticing, because they're used to these kind of arguments. They don't see the value in having strong trans-Atlantic relations and a strong European Union. ... Sure, the European Union might be too weak to form a unified position on Iraq versus the United States. But then the value of having somebody like the European Union is still very important to Germany than to be shattered over the course of Iraq. ...

Schröder doesn't seem to have the same value system. He, on the one side, has good argument in opposing this war. ... But the way he does it is certainly destructive for all other German foreign political interests. We have a strong interest not to be the bull in the china shop in Europe, but now we are.

You can even argue that Schröder is the initial spark who led that huge explosion which we now see around us happening in the course of the Iraq buildup. Without Schröder's strong opposition, without Schröder dragging Chirac into that boat, without him having taken that position that early, we might have found a way out of this. We might have found a middle ground. We probably would have allied with Colin Powell and found more time for inspections. We probably would have given a longer ultimatum for Saddam Hussein. We probably would have confronted Saddam with a stronger and a more credible threat shield, and he might have just bowed; he might just have gone away under that kind of pressure. But the pressure was taken away, and initially, that was Schröder's decision. ...

Now [Schröder] suddenly finds himself at the heart of a very broad and successful international coalition, whether by design or accident; by accident, by the sounds of it. But the key here is the Franco-German [alliance is strengthened].

... Chirac has a twofold gain from that whole situation. First, the old French dream comes true: America is no longer such a strong European power; America is forced out of Europe. Second, Germany is no longer the strong opponent of France. It's not the counterbalance on the European level. We rally behind France's veto; Schröder's position totally relies on Chirac's steadfastedness. If Chirac wouldn't go through with his veto, Schröder would be alone. So he had to rely totally on Chirac. His fate lies in Chirac's hands, and that's something Chirac must very much like.

It must be a huge relief for Schröder, because that Franco-German alliance is very useful because, up until that point, he's just boxed Germany in. It's in a corner. It's isolated.

At that point, Germany was isolated. But I guess I'm not sure whether it's more desirable to be totally in the French's hands. ... Schröder's isolation or Schröder's politics is only valid if Chirac backs it. So Chirac is in a very powerful position and he knows it. Schröder is depending on him. That can't be the interest of the German chancellor ... for one simple reason: the European idea lifts from two facts. First, Germany and France have to drive the whole ship forward. We are the engine of it. And second, we are not the same motor; there are two different entities. We are two different powers and they have to balance each other for the benefit of the small countries in Europe. And all those smaller ones view this new alignment between France and Germany with fear, because they see a huge power problem emerging, and that's not to their liking.

... You said something very interesting ... about the pacifist tendency and tradition in Germany for the last 50 years. The normal tradition has been that the government does not follow that. It's gone against public opinion and foreign policy. That's now turned around. ...

The German foreign policy was never driven very publicly. Helmut Kohl drove the whole process of European integration, of melting Germany into Europe, on an almost secretive level. The question on whether we should retain our currency, the German mark, yes or no, was never really debated publicly. The German heart was feeling very strong for that currency, and all of a sudden it disappears with the euro.

We never voted publicly whether we should give up sovereign rights from our parliament to the European parliament. There was never a debate whether Germany could give up its foreign policy and sovereignty to a European foreign policy. That was all taken for granted.

Also, this use of force was never debated publicly here or in parliament -- to what extent troops should be used, whether there is a right to intervene, whether one should have a right to topple dictators, whether German troops can be used even for the good after so much historically bad they did. So the German public attitude is very deprived of foreign policy. The German public doesn't debate foreign policy. ...

What we've got now is an inversion of traditional foreign policy: the street leading the government.

... Kosovo war, if you would have asked the public, they probably wouldn't like to go to that war and so the government just decided to go there. Or sending troops to Bosnia to stabilize Bosnia -- that wasn't very popular publicly. ...

The foreign political questions were decided mainly against the mainstream. And for the first time now, Schröder has revoked that principle. For the first time, he's the advocate of populace mood. He, for the first time, has used the German majority pacifist thinking for his policy, and for the first time, he is in step with the public's thinking, very simplistic thinking of black and white, good and evil, pacifist and warmonger types. He has aligned with this very soft heart of the German foreign policy soul. That's a clear distinction to his predecessors, which always went the hard road and didn't go the populist way. ...

With the rhetoric of Donald Rumsfeld over late January, early February, particularly the "old Europe" comment and the bracketing of Germany with Cuba and Libya, what was your personal reaction to those comments as a German?

Donald Rumsfeld was adding insult to injury. He was clearly personal in his comments and even though I like a tough exchange, personally, I instantly thought, on a diplomatic or a political level, you can't use it; you can't talk like that. ...

The comparison of Germany to Libya and Cuba was probably meant to be funny. Rumsfeld is somebody who ... is the darling of the [American press] and he's somebody who clearly enjoys this kind of public sympathy and this being sort of the clown. But it's perceived quite differently over here. He's seen as being very stealthy, as being very deliberate on what he says, and that comment really went over the top. ...

Rumsfeld then came to Germany in early February. We have this traditional security conference in Munich, where basically the top rank of international security scene -- military, diplomatic people, everybody -- is coming to convene and talk very freely and openly about issues. That year, the issue certainly was Iraq and the state of trans-Atlantic relations. Rumsfeld came. He was the keynote speaker. He was the most prominent guest and he gave a very strong address. He got a lot of applause. He was supposed to share the podium with Joschka Fischer, German foreign secretary.

I was in the audience and I was expecting Fischer to walk up to the podium [and] Rumsfeld [would] sit down after giving his speech and listen to Fischer. Fischer came up, they shook hands, and Rumsfeld walked down the podium. ... He didn't take his seat right in the middle of the audience, first row; he went to the side, funny enough, where all the Germans sat. I happened to sit next to him. And he ... got a pile of paper, did a lot of paperwork and he didn't listen to Fischer. He had his earphone sometimes plugged in, sometimes not, and that was a clear signal to Fischer, saying, "Listen, my mind is made up. Whatever you say, it doesn't make me change my mind."

Fischer must have realized that Rumsfeld at least didn't listen to all of his speech. ... At one point, Fischer decided to switch his speech from German into English just to make sure that Rumsfeld would understand, and he said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Secretary, but I'm not convinced." And that sentence basically is now at the heart of the whole argument between those in the pro-war camp and the anti-war camp: "I am not convinced. You didn't make the right case," or "Your case is flimsy and you changed your argument all the time. What's your case?"

This is probably the core to all of our misunderstandings right now.

Do you think that one of the problems in this whole crisis is that the diplomacy, the politics, have become personal?

The advantage of diplomacy usually is that it's not personal; that it's professional and that you deal with it like with an abstract thing, like a legal argument. Since Schröder got personal in the campaign, retaliation became personal, Rumsfeld was personal, everybody else was personal afterwards. So we are on a very sensitive level right now, and nobody has managed to tone it down. On both sides, we find so much superegos that they personally feel attacked. It seems to be very hard for them to retreat and to tone down and to agree that the common ground is still so big, and the necessity to help each other is still that strong that we have to get away from that insulting. ...

Which individuals are the great losers in this whole drama?

I think the great losers in this drama will be the Germans as a people and probably the Europeans, because if that whole trans-Atlantic alliance is now weakened or probably even shattered and we drift apart, I fear that Europe will face sort of a return of history. It's not a thing of a matter of weeks or months or years; it might take time. But European politics work best when America was part of it, when America had a foot in Europe and the foot was militarily, definitely. So America as a balancing power in Europe was not only welcomed, but a necessity. Since that belief doesn't seem to exist anymore in Washington, Europe is getting out of balance. ...

This is not the Europe I envision for the future. This is a Europe which reminds me of the Wilhelmian of the Prussian eras, the Bismarck eras -- power games, old nation power games. I thought we were over that. I guess we still have a chance to bind it together and avoid this, because it would be a catastrophe. Over the long run, it might even force the Americans to come back. But I don't want to wish them to come back on the terms they had to come in the 1940s.

So this is a historical decision which is made right now. I wish those who act there would be aware of what they do historically. ...

[All of the problems between the U.S. and Europe, does it basically boil down to the fact that Europeans simply don't like the American president? Schröder was able to "personalize" the debate for them?

It's not only Gerhard Schröder who got personal. The whole animosity also comes from the fact that Bush is not perceived as a very sympathetic person here. The whole George Bush being a very folksy guy, a very approachable guy, is not seen here. I happened to meet Bush in Texas during his last campaign, and was really amazed how sympathetic this guy was. I got really close to him. We got in conversation and he was a huge charmer. The picture we see now over here is totally different. ...

 

 

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posted april 3, 2003

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