Sep 06, 2022

“Strengthening Our Partners’ Capabilities Is Going to Be Key”

Crisis prevention has been a key aim of German foreign policy in recent years. But how successful have these efforts proven? And what lessons are being drawn from Russia’s war against Ukraine? An interview with Tobias Lindner, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office.

Minister of State Tobias Lindner, German Foreign Office
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Minister of State Lindner, crisis prevention is deemed something of a niche issue in Germany’s foreign policy debate. Just as in the COVID-19 pandemic, the adage is that “there’s no glory in prevention.” Do you believe things have changed since Russia’s attack on Ukraine?

Yes, this has changed fundamentally. The Russian war of aggression which started on February 24 has made plain to many people in our country the importance of our crisis prevention work around the world. Take, for example, the grain shortage caused by the Russian aggression and the resulting global food crisis. It illustrates how crucial it is to consider carefully in what regions we want to engage in crisis prevention in the coming weeks and months. This also holds true incidentally for anticipatory humanitarian assistance.

What does the build-up to the Ukraine war teach us about conflict prevention? And how does Europe’s security architecture need to change to be better prepared for such attacks?

Conflict prevention and stabilization traditionally focus on our world’s crisis regions—countries suffering from a lack of state authority, legitimacy, or capacity deficits. That wasn’t the case for Ukraine. The country was neither dysfunctional nor politically unstable when the Russians attacked in February. But certainly from 2014 with Russia annexing Crimea and instigating conflict in Donbas in eastern Ukraine, it was a country exposed to considerable security threats. Contrary to how it is often portrayed, the conflict in Donbas was anything but a frozen conflict in the eight years between 2014 and February 2022. The conflict was kept alive by Russia by design with the aim of weakening Ukraine, claiming a steady flow of victims and destroying infrastructure.

We were engaged in the Normandy format and the OSCE and tried to deescalate the conflict—for example by working on the implementation of the Minsk agreements. However, Russia had no interest in implementing them. This teaches us for the future that strengthening our partners’ capabilities should be an even more important component in our security efforts. Today, that means lending strong support to Ukraine in a spirit of solidarity so that it emerges victorious from this criminal war. Europe’s security architecture will obviously continue to adapt. A credible deterrence and defense capability is to play a more central role than in the past. We are also seeing that other European countries are attaching greater priority to reliable protection.

Germany’s federal government is committed to a feminist foreign policy, focusing on investing in peace. Yet, Berlin’s foreign policy agenda is currently dominated by rearmament and weapons supplies. Is there room for a feminist approach, and if so: what can it achieve against the backdrop of war?

Let me be very clear: feminist foreign policy and effective security policy are not diametrically opposed. On the contrary. This kind of thinking is rooted in stereotypes about gender roles where security policy is seen as a male topic and peace policy a female one. We believe this is outdated. The horrendous war in Ukraine exemplifies better than almost anything else that feminist foreign policy is not a sideshow but that it has become a vital part of our security policy. The dreadful reports of sexual violence also in this conflict, the images of women and girls who have fled their homes, and the immeasurable suffering this conflict is inflicting on the civilian population show in all clarity: feminist foreign policy with a clear focus on human security is a vital part of a contemporary diplomacy that upholds our values and interests in this new global constellation.

In the past you have on various occasions said that Germany and the world were spending too much money on defense and too little on diplomacy and crisis prevention. How do you want to prevent this gap increasing yet further in this new era?

We need to pay attention to both, which is why we anchored a parallel increase in the coalition agreement. The many years of financial neglect suffered by the Bundeswehr were brutally exposed by the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The special fund totaling €100 billion that the Bundestag has launched is thus a bitter necessity. But also in my ministry, in the Federal Foreign Office, we were able to achieve decent financial increases, particularly for humanitarian assistance. For the first time, the Foreign Office budget is now over €7 billion. Almost half of this sum has been earmarked for our Directorate-General for Crisis Prevention, Stabilization, Peacebuilding, and Humanitarian Assistance, in other words: for the weak and fragile states in our world and their people.

How can crisis prevention policies be made more sustainable? And what role does political communication play in this process?

To be sustainable, crisis prevention needs to start as early as possible. There are many good approaches now. But we can’t be active in every country. Also, in the future we will by definition not only be acting but also reacting—that is an unavoidable reality of crises. What’s more, time and again we are witnessing critical developments which simply can’t be predicted—take the murder of Haiti’s President Jovenel Moïse last year and the political unrest it triggered in the country. Political communication plays a key role here. After all, we could better communicate a lot of what we do in the prevention sphere. As the world’s second-largest humanitarian donor, Germany doesn’t need to sell itself short—it needs to bang its own drum, so to speak.

Early detection is crucial to prevent crises and violent conflicts as they emerge. Yet critics maintain that the transition from analysis to preventive action often doesn’t work. The Federal Government Commission on the Root Causes of Displacement, for example, laments the insufficient connectivity between early detection and strategy development, political decision-making processes, and personnel on the ground. What needs to be done?

We have also identified this problem; to a degree, it is one of the reasons we set up the new Directorate-General in the Federal Foreign Office in 2015. We have come on in leaps and bounds in analysis, also through our PREVIEW early crisis detection system. Now we need to use this to initiate political decision-making processes. That is why for example there are regular meetings of the early crisis detection working group at working level and the Coordinating Group on Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace of the Federal Government at Director-General level. They use a range of quantitative and qualitative country-specific analyses for early crisis detection to draw up recommendations for action and to accelerate political decision-making processes. In a next step, personnel on the ground have to implement these decisions. To this end we now have a broad-based network at our more than 220 missions abroad, in many countries suffering crisis also with colleagues specifically focusing on stabilization projects. But of course, much remains to be done. Most missions abroad in crisis regions unfortunately do not have the staffing levels we would like to see.

The German government has committed to two foreign policy goals that may occasionally contradict one another: stabilization and protecting human rights. We have supposedly stable regimes, such as that in Egypt, which are rooted in repression and inequality and blatantly abuse human rights. How can this contradiction be resolved?

Stabilization can only be a steppingstone on the road to positive peace: the absence of violence is not the only goal, but also political and social participation, systems based on the rule of law and respect of human rights. It is true that there are conflicting interests here that we continually need to weigh up. That is often difficult. Strengthening a government that does not share our goals and values cannot be our aim, yet without a degree of cooperation we can never bring about change. But there are limits. The Taliban in Afghanistan and the regime in Syria cannot expect any support from us bar humanitarian assistance at the current time. Also in Mali, we are looking very carefully at each and every project.

Looking at the crisis regions around the world, where do you expect the next major conflict to break out?

That’s not something I can predict. We’ve seen in recent years that conflicts often break out where we least expect them. In Myanmar for example, the civilian government had become firmly established over the years and had considerably extended its support among the population in the elections in autumn 2020. Then out of the blue, the military staged a coup in early February 2021. What is more, there are many crises that do not receive the attention they deserve, for instance the dreadful humanitarian situation in Yemen. The developments in Sudan connected to the global food crisis I mentioned earlier are another major worry. Yet one thing is absolutely clear: overarching issues such as the climate crisis exacerbate conflict potential worldwide. This is where we need to start.

The interview was conducted by Joachim Staron.