“A lot is expected of Germany.”

13.11.2021 - Interview

Interview with Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on current foreign policy issues and his term of office as a whole, published in the Rheinische Post, Bonner Generalanzeiger, Saarbrücker Zeitung and other associated newspapers.

Minister, your four years as Foreign Minister are drawing to a close. How much clout does Germany have in the world, and is it living up to its role?

A lot is expected of Germany. In international terms, we had four difficult years. The Western alliance has come loose from its moorings due to Donald Trump. COVID-19 has presented us with completely new challenges. Many countries have looked to us in this situation. During the last four years, I have seen that people talk about our country more positively abroad than they do here in Germany. I think there are also great expectations of the new German Government abroad, great expectations that it will play an important role on the international stage.

Should the next government continue to seek a permanent seat for Germany on the UN Security Council?

Yes, definitely.

Do you think they’ll succeed?

I hope so. After all, reform of the UN Security Council is still on the agenda...

It has been for many years but no progress has been made.

You’re quite right. That’s why Germany has joined together with Brazil, Japan and India to form the G4. If you look at the world as it is today, then it’s clear that these four countries most definitely belong on the Security Council. The African continent should also have two permanent seats. However, reform is more of a long-term project given the intransigence at the present time of the current permanent members. The Security Council must be adapted to the *power equation we now have in the world.

For some days now, a refugee crisis provoked by Alexander Lukashenko has been unfolding at the Belarusian-Polish border. The Chancellor has asked the Russian President to bring his influence to bear on Lukashenko. Do you think that this message will get through?

Vladimir Putin could put a stop to these cynical efforts to recruit refugees from Iraq or Afghanistan and encourage them to enter the EU. It’s therefore right that countries like Germany are seeking to ensure that Russia finally helps resolve this conflict.

Isn’t Lukashenko’s game in Putin’s interest because it could destabilise or divide the EU?

Well, it certainly doesn’t seem unlikely.

Isn’t Lukashenko the one with the leverage here?

He’s trying to convince the public of that. The situation these people find themselves in is terrible. Lives have been lost. However, we shouldn’t compare the situation at the Belarusian-Polish border with the wave of refugees in 2015. That was on a different scale.

What should the EU do now?

We have to ensure that this human trafficking chain is broken. At their meeting on Monday, the EU Foreign Ministers will expand the sanctions to cover people who are directly or indirectly supporting this people-smuggling. There will also very soon be a comprehensive list of individuals who are to be sanctioned. We have to start tackling this business at its root, in the countries of origin from which people are lured to Minsk. Germany is currently holding talks with these countries of origin. Iraq and Jordan have suspended all flights to Minsk. We’re now also speaking to all airlines which are transporting people there. This, too, is having an impact: Turkish Airlines is no longer accepting Iraqi, Syrian or Yemeni nationals on flights to Minsk. All airlines must be aware that anyone who is guilty of complicity in illegal people-smuggling must expect consequences, including sanctions affecting overflight rights or landing permits.

Why is Poland so reluctant to accept help from the EU?

Poland is not responsible for what’s happening at its border with Belarus. It’s clearly the doing of the regime in Minsk. There’s considerable concern in Poland that this refugee route via Belarus into the EU might be expanded. That’s why the Government in Warsaw is reacting so resolutely. We stand in complete solidarity with Poland, while also encouraging our partners in Warsaw to allow the UNHCR, for example, access to the people at the border in order to provide humanitarian support.

Aren’t you worried about the emergence of a Fortress Europe image?

The EU has a responsibility to secure its external borders. Nobody likes fences, walls or barbed wire. It would be good if the EU together with Poland could find ways of securing Poland’s external border without throwing overboard the principles of humanity.

In January 2020, you and the Chancellor brought an international conference on Libya to Berlin. Yet foreign powers are still pulling the strings in the country, which has been ripped apart by civil war. Does the country remain closer to war than peace?

The country now has good prospects for peace. There’s a ceasefire which is actually being respected. And there’s a process aimed at holding elections in Libya on 24 December. None of that is easy. Nobody imagined it was possible for us to come so far. Such a development wouldn’t have been possible without Germany’s commitment. Libya’s transitional government itself is now demanding unambiguously that foreign forces leave the country.

Imagine the clock was turned back six months in Afghanistan. What would you do differently there?

I don’t know whether six months would be enough. The mistakes that we, too, made in Afghanistan go back much further than that. One reason was certainly that the Trump Administration conducted negotiations with the Taliban without involving the Afghan Government, which we supported for 20 years. What’s more, the fact that the Trump Administration even named a fixed withdrawal date without subjecting it to conditions for the peace process gave the Taliban planning certainty.

The Bundeswehr subsequently flew out its own beer stocks but not those who helped us. Why?

We’ve brought to safety around 90 percent of those who helped us and who had applied to move to Germany before the withdrawal of the Bundeswehr. In particular, we flew out those who worked for the Bundeswehr, police and the Embassy until the last moment. This group is in Germany. However, there’s a much larger group of people, the majority of whom worked for development organisations. They’re still in the country. Finally, we had the problem that the Afghan Government had stopped issuing passports to many local employees.

Why didn’t Germany start chartering flights to fly out Afghan employees much earlier?

The Government at the time warned us against it. They said that such a move would have led to a mass exodus, thus triggering the collapse of state structures. So we didn’t do it for a long time because we didn’t want to further destabilise the government in Kabul.

You were in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan in late August to encourage those countries to open their borders to Afghans for whom Germany feels it has a responsibility. Whatever became of that?

The situation is not the same everywhere. It’s extremely difficult to cross the border into Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. However, we’ve now cooperated with the Government in Islamabad to get more than 2000 former local employees and human rights activists to safety via Pakistan. It’s even been possible to bring people to Germany via Iran. We’ve now begun using civilian charter flights, which will speed things up even more. We’re also talking to the Taliban because many thousands of Afghans who have been granted permission to enter Germany are waiting to leave the country.

What lessons have you learned from the Afghanistan mission for future operations abroad?

It may still be necessary to also engage militarily at international level in order to end wars and conflicts and to stop the systematic abuse of human rights. However, we must be honest about the goals we can achieve with a mission. Exporting our preferred form of government won’t always be one of them. Where there is no basis within a society for a Western-style democracy, we won’t be able to create one from the outside.

What lessons are you currently learning from the Afghanistan mission that could be applied to the mission in Mali?

I don’t think you can compare the two missions. We have a difficult situation in Mali at present. However, I believe it’s still possible to reach our goals there: we can stabilise state structures, ensure that the peace agreement continues to be implemented and prevent the region from developing into a hotspot for international terrorism. Military security and civilian reconstruction must go hand in hand. At the same time, those in positions of responsibility in Mali are aware that our engagement is very difficult to reconcile with their plans to obtain the support of mercenaries such as the Wagner Group. That’s a red line and we agree on that with our French friends.

Could there be a further parallel? The fact that Germany had to withdraw from Afghanistan when the United States withdrew its troops and now reservations about another mission in Mali are growing in France?

The debate in France is quite different. We’re working together to ensure that mercenaries are not deployed. The region is of such importance to France, the mission resulted in so many victims and incurred such high costs, that there won’t be a withdrawal as comprehensive as the one by the United States from Afghanistan.

Were you surprised that the Western intelligence agencies were unable to predict the quick Taliban victory?

It’s not just the Western intelligence agencies which judged the situation in this way. It’s worse than that: I know of countries such as Pakistan which are much closer and yet also assessed developments quite differently. They said that there was nothing to indicate the speed of either the Taliban advance or the collapse of the Afghan leadership.

Do you regard the Biden Administration’s view of Europe as a continuation of Trump’s course – with European security no longer taking precedence over interests in the Pacific?

I didn’t see any interest in Europe or any interest in cooperating with Europe during the Trump Administration. That’s different under Joe Biden. Of course, the Biden Administration’s priorities also lie in China and the Indo-Pacific region. And everyone knows that.

How dangerous is the Taiwan conflict for the world?

The United States reacted to China’s action unambiguously, making it very clear that an escalation in the Taiwan issue would have consequences internationally. That’s why it’s so important that the issue is addressed in all strategies on China and that we seek peaceful solutions. We must prevent this issue from triggering armed hostilities.

China is calling our system into question. Does the same apply to Russia? Does Moscow want to become the West’s systemic rival?

I don’t think you can make that comparison. China’s rise in power is mainly based on the appeal of its economic system. In the case of Russia, we still see military rather than economic dominance. In strategic terms, for us that means above all that we have to be careful not to ultimately drive Russia and China into each other’s arms. It’s certainly not Russia’s intention to become China’s junior partner. However, if that were to happen, an economic and military complex would emerge that wouldn’t be in the West’s interest.

Can the EU end sanctions as long as Putin holds on to Crimea? Is there any hope at all that he’ll reverse this step?

At the moment, at least, there’s no sign that this is imminent. We’re still confronted with the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. And that’s reason enough to agree to extend the sanctions every six months. There’s no reason to end them.

The construction of Nordstream 2 has been completed – what conditions are attached to its operation?

In purely formal terms, it’s up to the Federal Network Agency for Electricity, Gas, Telecommunications, Post and Railway, an independent body not subject to government control or direction, whether the licence to operate is issued. We’ve entered into a political undertaking that this pipeline cannot be used as a means of exerting pressure on Ukraine. That’s why we want reliable, contractually agreed long-term gas supplies and transit contracts for Ukraine. We’re now working to ensure that the existing contract between Russia and Ukraine is extended. I believe that Russia also has an interest in seeing Nordstream 2 going into operation.

Does the SPD have to agree to the deployment of armed drones to protect German soldiers?

Yes, it does and it will. I’m very pleased that there was an intensive discussion within the SPD about the conditions under which armed drones can be procured. I never understood how anyone could not have a problem with the fact that other countries’ drones were being used to protect German soldiers but that German soldiers themselves weren’t supposed to have any.

What will Heiko Maas be doing in a year’s time?

I can tell you that in a year’s time.

Is there life outside politics?

I certainly hope so.


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