The military aircraft is now within range of Libyan militias and the soldiers on board tell all passengers to immediately put on bulletproof vests. That’s no easy task: They weigh about 20 kilograms. But everyone obeys. After all, it’s just a little dangerous.
Only one person onboard refuses: Sigmar Gabriel. But why not, Mr. Gabriel? He says that upon disembarking, he doesn’t want to be seen shaking hands of people who are not as well protected as he is. And after all, a German foreign minister doesn’t want to project a martial appearance. That is, despite being accompanied by heavily armed soldiers – even if, in this case, they look a bit like music students in disguise. The soldiers don’t display their weapons, they carry them in black violin bags. If danger arises, hopefully it won’t do so quickly.
When the news reached the German foreign ministry that Sigmar Gabriel would be the new boss, enthusiasm was muted. He was reputed - to put it diplomatically - to be quite undiplomatic. The ministry had come to believe that while Mr. Gabriel’s predecessor, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, didn’t have any particularly special, diplomatic style of his own, that this was the way German foreign policy was. Nothing else was possible. Certainly nothing was going to be any better. And now, here comes Mr. Gabriel.
But everything turned out differently. There was not just a new man in town. German foreign policy was changing, a little more every day. Additionally the language of diplomacy is changing throughout the world; it has gotten quicker, coarser, more direct and more "Twitter-y". The foundations of geopolitics are shifting at breathtaking speed, and that includes Germany’s role. The Americans are leaving, the refugees are coming and the Russians are amping up the pressure. Mr. Gabriel offers another perspective: "One thing unites the great powers of China, Russia and the US: They don’t take Europe seriously. And sometimes they try to divide the EU states."
He also cites a third aspect, perhaps the most complicated: "As German foreign minister, you wake up in the morning with a demand for leadership, and in the evening you go to bed with it." Mr. Gabriel sighs this, more than says it: What he is referring to is not something he expects from others. It is what they expect of him – and more than ever before.
This shift in mood actually started long before Mr. Gabriel assumed office. His predecessors concealed it with more traditional diplomacy. In a certain sense, Mr. Steinmeier was the last incarnation of an earlier German foreign minister, Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who was often calm and indirect and who often tended to look at what everyone else was doing before making a move, especially the big guys.
But those times are past. "Of course we could cover everything with our special diplomatic sauce," a leading official says. "But then we’re no longer in touch with reality." So it is better to enter new territory with a new man. Many at the foreign ministry feel liberated. A new China section is being built up, for example.
Foreign ministers work by traveling. Mr. Gabriel calls it collecting experiences.
Late in the evening of April 12, in a Belgrade hotel: The minister is being unusually patient. To a tired journalist who is afflicting him with vague questions, Mr. Gabriel responds with only a trace of irony: "And how would you answer your question?"
This is something new, this calm, this lack of bluster. Nothing puts more pressure on a Social Democrat than leading his party. This evening of nuts and Cola Light, Mr. Gabriel is freed of that. It’s also partly luck. Just when German diplomacy needs more directness, Mr. Gabriel is learning to be a bit more diplomatic, and the two have met in the middle. He still tells of his first meeting with the other NATO foreign ministers. While other senior politicians all acted subserviently toward the US Secretary of State, only Mr. Gabriel and his colleague from Luxembourg put up a little opposition.
There is a new catch phrase at the foreign ministry: self-assertive. Yes, indeed. And this is what it looks like. In Moscow, on March 9, at a press conference with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. The latter is perhaps the most sly, amusing and shadowy figure in international diplomacy. He knows every trick in the book, including the dirty ones. Facing the novices from Berlin, Mr. Lavrov seizes the opportunity and goes on the offensive with a diatribe against the West. Mr. Gabriel first reacts politely and congratulates his Russian colleague on the 13th anniversary of his taking office, which falls on that very day.