Interview with Norbert Röttgen

„Those who want to banish war must ensure its failure.“

 © Anne Hufnagl

The West's belief in Ukraine's victory seems to be fading. But it would be fatal to follow a path of fear rather than one of deterrence, says foreign policy expert and Member of German Parliament Dr. Norbert Röttgen, in an interview with Gabor Steingart.

Pioneer: The Pope says Ukraine should raise the white flag. Isn't he infallible for a Christian Democrat, Mr. Röttgen?

Norbert Röttgen: For a Catholic, the Pope is infallible in the most important matters of faith. However, this claim is tailored and limited only to essential matters of faith and not to predominantly political statements. This distinction now proves to be very sensible.

Pioneer: „I am ashamed as a Catholic“, said Chairwoman of the German Bundestag's Defence Committee Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann. How about you?

Röttgen: I am not ashamed to be Catholic. But it was a statement that I cannot understand, neither politically nor morally. It leaves one very perplexed.

„The only strength that Putin has left is the weakness of the West.“

Pioneer: Now, some contemporaries have lost faith that Ukraine can still win the war. The West is gradually withdrawing its support - contrary to all rhetoric. What's happening? 20 percent of the territory is already in Russian hands.

Röttgen: And the West is now counting the billions it has already given. But that’s just not sufficient. The West objectively does not deliver enough.

It does not deliver what it has got so that Ukraine can defend itself. And this is wrong not only because it essentially abandons Ukraine. We are dealing with the fate of Europe and the West. It’s about whether war will become a method of politics in the 21st century or whether we will succeed in banishing it. Those who want to banish war must ensure its failure.

Wladimir Putin © imago

Pioneer: In the past, there was the doctrine of deterrence. It was assumed that the other party would not be provoked, but rather encouraged, if one showed appeasement. Do you feel today that the West is possibly encouraging Putin to march on?

Röttgen: Of course, one must ask the question: Did our policy after 2014, of quickly returning to business as usual after Putin annexed Crimea, contribute to Putin's miscalculation: I can risk war, because this West shows that although it is briefly outraged, it then does business with me again. And it is the same now.

The only strength that Putin has left is the weakness of the West.

„This is a moral and historical turning point we are facing.“

Pioneer: And this weakness of the West might be stimulating for the warmongering Kremlin chief when the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says: no further?

Olaf Scholz © The Pioneer

Röttgen: Absolutely. It has an effect. This is evident in the USA, where Trump's enablers prevent a 60 billion package for supporting Ukraine from being passed. It is expressed in the European Union deciding in March 2023 to procure one million pieces of artillery ammunition within a year and failing to do so. It is expressed in our failure to increase the production of ammunition, our failure to deliver it. Therefore, Russia now has a multiple ammunition superiority, also through German omission.

Pioneer: The official government "no" to the Taurus cruise missile adds to this. Is the West morally and politically culpable here?

Röttgen: Yes, I would say so. This is a moral and historical turning point we are facing.

Morally, we are abandoning the attacked, innocent country. And it is historical because if this war is successful, it will shape our Europe for years, if not decades. The war will spread.

As soon as we follow the path of fear and forget the lesson of successful deterrence, of preventing war through credible deterrence, we are embarking on a historically dangerous path. Unfortunately, we in the West are undoubtedly on this downward slope.

Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on Khan Yunis on 03/11/2024. © imago

„It's not Netanyahu who decides whether this war takes place.“

Pioneer: All this takes place against the backdrop of a second war. What's your view on the war in the Middle East?

Röttgen: This war, in my view, is much more difficult. In my estimation, Israel is trapped in a tragic dilemma. And I would not know what advice to give on how to act differently. The entire violence of Hamas, the use of violence, and the public spread of violence were meant to force Israel to do what it is doing, namely launching an offensive in Gaza.

The war tactic of Hamas continues so that people form human shields against the Israeli offensive. Weapon facilities are also set up near civilian facilities like schools and hospitals. This means, the war tactic of Hamas includes that Israel, in its defense, inevitably kills innocent civilians, in large and larger numbers.

Pioneer: On this type of warfare - violence against violence, perhaps even surpassing the original violence - Joe Biden is very clear in the State of the Union - he speaks of a "red line." Netanyahu does more harm to his people than he benefits. Do you agree with that?

Röttgen: No, because it's not Netanyahu who decides whether this war takes place. Israel, as a state and society, has sworn to militarily destroy the attacker as much as possible, and that is Hamas.

Benjamin Netanjahu © The Pioneer

Israel is traumatized. Israel is the promise to Jews, finally, after the people's history of suffering, to offer a safe place in this world for all Jews. And this sense of security was there. Israel has managed to give this to its citizens.

Pioneer: But exactly this promise hasn't worked anymore. Neither the Iron Dome nor the separation area Gaza Strip has worked. The wall hasn't worked, the barbed wire hasn't worked. The secret service hasn't worked either.

„Israel is trapped in this role.“

Röttgen: From the perspective of most Israelis, the promise for which the state of Israel exists has not been kept, namely protection. Now there is a fundamental insecurity.

Pioneer: A trauma?

Röttgen: It's a terrible situation. And that's why Israeli society sees no other option than to eliminate the aggressor who has destroyed this basic and primal trust in its own state and its promise of protection. And from here, from Germany, I cannot tell anyone to deviate from this, to let Hamas as an aggressor survive, or Hezbollah. I believe we cannot give them this advice.

Pioneer: But Joe Biden has now distanced himself from the conduct of the war, not from the war goal of destroying Hamas, but from the way this goal is achieved. He clearly says: Another 30,000 dead, in the conquest of Rafah, the city in the south, are not acceptable to him.

Röttgen: The Palestinians are also traumatized. They now have 30,000 dead, maybe 10,000 terrorists, 20,000 civilians. That's roughly the estimate. 20,000 who have nothing to do with this war, who are not terrorists, who have become victims. That's terrible.

And that's the dilemma from which there is no way out. And the tragic thing is: It's still the war plan of Hamas and Iran that's happening now, and according to which Israel is still acting. That's the nearly diabolical, the tragic part.

Debris from buildings in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip. © imago

Pioneer: You mean to say that Israel is trapped in this role?

Röttgen: Yes, Israel is trapped in this role. And I must say, I can analyze it, but I have no advice.

Pioneer: German dramatist Bertolt Brecht says: Those who say A do not have to say B. They can also realize that A was wrong. A in this case would be to engage in Hamas' script.

Röttgen: Brecht's wisdom is true. But it does not apply to the situation. Because defending oneself was not wrong. Israel had and, in my estimation, does not have the option not to defend itself if it wants to survive. It must defend itself. It's a real dilemma.

For Joe Biden, it's a foreign policy matter, but it's also a domestic policy matter. Joe Biden is in a tough election campaign this year, and the voters of the Democrats, who are inwardly connected with the Palestinians, are significant. This election will probably be very, very close. And that's why he has to consider these, as well as the electorate of the Democrats, who are pro-Israeli or Jewish. He tries to maintain a balance between supporting Israel and at the same time improving the humanitarian situation of the Palestinians.

Pioneer: What's your prognosis for the outcome of this conflict?

„The willingness to really engage with risk does not exist so far.“

Röttgen: I only see how much new, unimaginable hatred has arisen on both sides. With traumas on both sides. I don't see a single Arab country, let alone all of them together, who want to take ownership of this conflict, who are really willing to solve it, including risks. I don't see it.

Pioneer: Does Germany have a role here?

Röttgen: No, because we lack the means. I even believe that we do not lack the will. But when it comes down to it, we play no role there. In the end, it is only the USA that has this capability, also severely hindered by domestic American disputes.

Pioneer: And the Arab countries?

Röttgen: They assess that it is too dangerous for themselves, also considering the fragility in many of the Arab societies, to bring the Palestinian problem into their own house. This can have unforeseeable consequences for the societal conflict situation in the individual Arab states, and that's why they are always very strong rhetorically. But the willingness to really engage with risk does not exist so far, and I don't see it developing.

Pioneer: I gather from your words that you look at this world in disorder not only with concern but also somewhat helplessly?

Röttgen: In this part of the world, certainly. For the European war, I would have advice and I fight for that advice to be heeded.

Pioneer: Thank you for the interview.

The interview was conducted by Gabor Steingart.