(translated from German)

Unlike Germany’s former foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, Steinmeier, the current foreign minister and also predecessor to Westerwelle, is considered a realpolitik advocate. For him, when it comes to defining his relationship with countries such as Russia and China, human rights play only a subordinate role. This could be fatal.

Many diplomats in Germany’s federal foreign office were very glad to hear that Frank-Walter Steinmeier would return to be their minister. Under his predecessor, Guido Westerwelle, many had been waxing nostalgic for Steinmeier’s first term in office: for a time when the ministry had still been led by an ‘expert’ with a certain capacity to get things done. As the tale goes, the relationship with Russia had been excellent and lucrative trade agreements had been achieved with the Gulf States. But it was not only diplomats who were reminiscent of the past; business representatives, too, traditionally CDU and FDP voters, yearned for the times when the social democrat Steinmeier had held the reins.

Currying favours and looking the other way

Steinmeier has impressive personal charisma. His calm and self-assured manner is suggestive of stability, credibility and expertise. But for courageous human rights activists around the globe, a repetition of his first term in office would not be good news. If one looks into the period stretching from 2005 through to 2009, as well as his statements on foreign policy since, there is definitely reason to be sceptical.

Whereas Westerwelle sought to base his foreign policy on ‘moral values’, Steinmeier follows a realpolitik approach. For Westerwelle, and mainly in his first two years in office, developing a clear policy approach and ensuring that words are actually followed by deeds certainly proved difficult. Nonetheless, Westerwelle was willing to accept that human rights should play a fundamental role in foreign policy. An approach based on realpolitik does the exact opposite. It assumes that an autocratic regime’s repression of its people is none of our business and should only be discussed behind closed doors. Steinmeier, during his first term in office, praised Putin’s efforts towards ‘stability’ in Russia, even though these efforts were based on intimidation, unfair political trials and harsh sentences for both those critical of the government and political adversaries. Faithful followers of realpolitik usually see themselves as ‘realists’: they take the world as it is and do not think too much about how it ought to be. Definitely, even for realists, human rights abuses remain unacceptable, but they do not believe that it is Germany’s role to internationally end such abuses. Consequentially, in his inaugural speech before his diplomats in December, Steinmeier did not once use the phrase ‘human rights’.

The so-called Ostpolitik, developed by the SPD and taken up by the FDP foreign minister Genscher, is closely linked to realpolitik and correspondingly has a certain tradition among German foreign policy experts. But precisely during the protests in Eastern Europe from the late 1970s onwards, pro-democracy movements and human rights activists were left without support so as not to annoy those in power. This was the case when talks with Polish government representatives began, whilst contact with the Solidarnosc movement was rejected. The former GDR dissident and now German President, Joachim Gauck, once said that he continued to feel disappointed that during the 1980s the SPD curried favours with the SED but showed no solidarity with those risking imprisonment and torture for defending precisely those values West German social democrats also claimed to hold. In the end, friendliness towards a dictatorial regime did not bring the wall down. Instead, it was brought down by hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators on the streets of the GDR, and thanks to Gorbachev, who prevented a blood bath.

Human rights as the basis for peace

Steinmeier strongly criticised the Ukrainian government when it began implementing repression policies resembling Putin’s system. Kiev has now withdrawn these laws. But why are we still waiting to hear similarly clear words directed at Russia? Steinmeier must understand that taking on responsibility for the human rights situation in Russia or China is in Germany’s best interest. Putin is blocking true reforms to the corrupt political system, be it independent civil society organisations, the rule of law or freedom of opinion. Notwithstanding, all of this is required to build a modern economy. Currently, Russia is not a stable or reliable partner for German business. Furthermore, Russia’s armaments exports to the Syrian dictator, Assad, whose troops are responsible for war crimes, cannot be in German interests.

Economically, China has come a long way. But the one-party-system that is responsible for human rights abuses is also extremely corrupt. How much easier would it be for German companies if they could do business with a country that respects the rule of law. Even without a focus on moral values, Germany should in its own best interest do more to promote human rights. Without human rights there can be no lasting stability and prosperity.

Even at a later point during his term, Westerwelle was unable to regain the ground lost due to his initial lack of leadership. There was simply not enough time to establish a foreign policy firmly grounded on human rights. Faced with a weak foreign minister, Merkel’s chancellery took control of many issues. But when the chancellor criticised Putin for his brutality towards civil society, she met with resistance. Steinmeier now has a second chance to show that he has understood that peace and prosperity can only be based on a respect for human rights. He should not limit himself to speaking with the rulers and their henchmen; but should also speak to human rights activists from all over the world, because it is they that can promote change. Some of them might yet leave their mark on history.

Steinmeier has the necessary expertise and recognition to become an exceptional minister who knows that it will not do to leave the question of human rights to the chancellor.

Wenzel Michalski is the Germany Director of Human Rights Watch.