Q&A: Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier

He was chief of staff to Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, the leading voice behind Germany's refusal to fight in Iraq. Now German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is the Social Democratic Party candidate for chancellor in next year's elections, running against the popular Christian Democrat incumbent, Angela Merkel. In his first major interview with the U.S. press, Steinmeier sat down with NEWSWEEK's Michael Levitin to discuss German troop engagements in Afghanistan, Russia's recent aggression, the global financial crisis and how Germany might work alongside the United States. Excerpts:

Levitin: The day after Barack Obama won the U.S. presidency, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev threatened to install missiles in Kaliningrad if Washington did not " rethink " its deployment of a NATO missile shield in Eastern Europe. Did Moscow ' s latest show of aggression shift the dynamic between Russia and Europe? How should you respond and what should Europe ' s response be?
Steinmeier: Medvedev's announcement the day after the elections was clearly the wrong signal at the wrong time. We have no illusions about Russia. In the last few years it has often proved itself a difficult partner. The question remains how to deal with this huge country in Europe's immediate neighborhood; having to choose between containment versus engagement, I advocate the latter. We must try to develop relations with Russia that go beyond economic interests and contribute to increased stability and security. After all, it is in our own interest to make sure that a Russia that is looking for its own identity is politically and culturally anchored in the West.

Do you see Germany as a middleman, acting as a buffer between Russia and the rest of Europe perhaps at the moment even Russia ' s closest EU ally?
Russia is aware of our uniquely close relationship with the United States. We are firmly embedded in NATO and the EU and thus we don't aspire to play the role of a middleman. Together with our European partners we showed a strong and outspoken response to Russia's role in the conflict in Georgia. I think Europe's united voice no doubt contributed to the military conflict ending. Now the stabilization of the region as a whole has to continue, and for genuine stability we need Russian cooperation. As for energy links between the EU and Russia, the answer depends on which European country you talk to. But in general, Russia depends as much on Europe and America buying its goods as we rely on Russia supplying us with natural gas and oil. As far as Germany is concerned, it is little known in the United States that we have worked successfully for decades to diversify our suppliers of various forms of energy and fuels, with Russia but also Norway and Africa being important suppliers.

You mentioned the conflict in Georgia. Should that country and Ukraine be invited to join NATO?
This is not a simple yes-or-no decision. With national elections looming, the domestic situation in Ukraine has changed, as has the situation in the Caucasus since the conflict broke out this summer. Yes, we remain committed to supporting and assisting these countries on the road ahead. But concerning the Membership Action Plan, Germany and other European governments continue to stand by their position.

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The most urgent U.S. foreign-policy question involving Germany, which Obama raised many times during his campaign, is Afghanistan and whether Germany will contribute more troops there to stabilize the south. How much is your country willing to sacrifice for this partnership, putting its soldiers into harm ' s way?
I have spoken to Barack Obama twice, and from these exchanges I know that he sees Afghanistan in a very nuanced way. I feel we see eye to eye in our assessment that we're facing a very difficult security situation, but that military means alone cannot bring about the necessary changes. Our approach has to be a comprehensive one, and contrary to what some people may say, Germany has played its part.

In the north, certainly. But it ' s in the south where the greatest violence has taken place, and where Obama ' s asking for greater German participation.
We have shouldered our share of the military responsibility and we have also enlarged our engagement. We are about to increase our troops by 30 percent, to 4,500. We are participating in aerial surveillance across the whole of Afghanistan, including the south, and German radio engineers are also stationed in Kandahar. The German Air Force runs flights for all NATO countries throughout Afghanistan, again including the south. We took over the lead of the Quick Reaction Force in the north. And let us not forget that circumstances there have also changed; the north, too, has seen its share of armed opposition activities increasing in the last month. But our engagement in Afghanistan is about much more than military action. We have always said that we will only be successful if we succeed in helping rebuild the country and its economy. Civil reconstruction is the second important pillar of our engagement on the ground, and we'll continue to increase our contribution in this area next year.

Given the turmoil in Pakistan, what do you think the next steps forward ought to be?
The security of the whole region strongly depends on Pakistan. If we want to combat terrorism in Afghanistan, we have to succeed in stabilizing Pakistan politically and economically. This calls for a strengthened Pakistani commitment to combat terrorism, but it also calls for international assistance for this country.

It needs a substantial loan from the IMF. We also need to be ready to help stabilize the country in a lasting way.

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On Iran, what realistic hopes do you see of bringing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the table and persuading him to give up Tehran ' s nuclear ambitions? And how far will you be willing to push?
No doubt there is hope in the international community that after 29 years of standstill, a new approach may be possible. We all remember the reasons for the break-off of relations between the U.S. and Iran. Since then, U.S.-Iranian relations have also been a story of missed opportunities: when Washington signaled openness, Tehran wasn't willing or able to respond in kind, and vice versa. I think it would be worthwhile trying to have direct talks, but the Iranians have to know it is up to them to prove they do not aspire to nuclear weapons—and that they're willing to play a constructive role in the region. I have to admit I am skeptical, and can only express my hope that the leaders in Iran seize this opportunity.

Turning to the financial crisis, the banks got a bailout. Now the automobile manufacturers are seeking the same thing. How do you see EU countries regaining their competition policy and their legitimacy after this?
I believe the politicians would have lost their legitimacy if they hadn't acted. What we're facing here is the very visible failure of the market. We had to make sure that the crisis in the financial markets does not lead to a total breakdown of the financial system as a whole. On both sides of the Atlantic, unconventional means were applied to manage the crisis. Honestly speaking, many of the measures taken in the U.S. seemed a bigger break with American tradition than can be said about European measures.

How important is it that developing countries play a greater decision-making role in the future? For example, we saw hints of the G8 expanding into a G20 several weeks ago in Washington.
What is the most fundamental challenge the world is facing today? To my mind, it consists of integrating the emerging powers of the 21st century into a system of shared global responsibility. I am talking about countries like China and India, but also Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia. Can any of the global challenges we face be tackled without them? I don't think so. That is why we have to make them stakeholders, and in that respect the recent financial summit in Washington was historic. To me it is obvious we cannot stop there.

Q&A: Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier | World