“This is one of the cruellest weapons of mass destruction”
Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in an interview with “Der Spiegel”. Topics: poison gas attack in Syria, relations between the US and Russia, military engagement of the Bundeswehr abroad, relations between Poland and Hungary.
Mr Maas, in your first speech as Foreign Minister, you said that you went into politics because of Auschwitz. What do you mean by that?
I looked for explanations for how the Nazis managed to plunge Germany and the whole world into such a catastrophe. Much of what happened back then was so terrible that I simply couldn’t wrap my head round it. The upshot was a profound need to do my part to ensure that something like this never happens again. It was then that I decided to take political responsibility.
What does that mean for German foreign policy?
Foreign policy is based on values and interests. It is not always easy to reconcile both. Germany considered itself to be a force for peace after the Second World War. We worked to ensure that there are long-term trajectories in international policy for securing peace. I’d like to continue in this vein.
Joschka Fischer explained Germany’s involvement in the air strikes in Kosovo in 1999 thus: “Never again Auschwitz.”
Yes, I understood that very clearly at the time.
Would you also use that phrase today in your capacity as Foreign Minister?
It depends on what you’re referring to exactly.
Should Germany as a force for peace deploy military means in order to prevent mass murder?
I’m not a pacifist. I have concluded from our unique German history that we must always do everything to avoid armed conflicts – unfortunately, however, there can also be moments when military means must be used as a last resort.
In Syria, the West has been faced for years with the question of whether the use of military means is justified. What is your position?
I find it inappropriate to draw direct parallels between Auschwitz and Syria. Syria isn’t Auschwitz. The Nazis’ crimes defy any comparison in their cruelty.
Why was it right in the case of the former Yugoslavia to draw comparisons with Auschwitz, but not with regard to Syria?
Auschwitz cannot be compared with anything. At the time, Joschka Fischer merely intended to justify his motivation to react militarily as the very last response to genocide.
Shouldn’t hundreds of thousands of dead in Syria also have been grounds for intervention?
What we have witnessed in Syria over the past seven years is horrific. Chemical weapons have been used on repeated occasions and have caused immense suffering for innocent people. It is also intolerable that politicians have so far been unable to find a political solution to this conflict, which is the only pathway to lasting peace. The use of chemical weapons in Syria must stop and must have consequences. This is one of the cruellest weapons of mass destruction, one that has been banned at international level for decades. I supported the French initiative from early on to hold those responsible to account where chemical weapons have been used.
Who is more dangerous to world peace at the end of the day, Trump or Putin?
Verbal escalations are never helpful. What is equally clear is that we have seen in numerous votes that Security Council resolutions on the Syrian conflict have been blocked by Russia’s veto. The international community cannot and must not accept that the most important body of the United Nations be incapacitated.
How great is the danger that the war in Syria could escalate into a worldwide military conflict?
Despite all of the verbal attacks at the present, it won’t come to that. Finding a political solution to the Syrian conflict must remain the primary objective. We are liaising very closely with our partners to this end. Incidentally, a military contribution in Syria hasn’t been on the table here.
This isn’t the role that we intend to play in this conflict in consultation with our partners.
How does this sit with your announcement that Germany must assume greater responisbility?
Assuming a greater role doesn’t necessarily mean that we become involved in a military strike. On my visit to New York, I pointed out that we are now the second-biggest financier in the United Nations. We are involved in a great number of peacekeeping missions. While our focus is on humanitarian and civilian tasks, we don’t shy away from military responsibility. The Cabinet extended two Bundeswehr mandates this week alone.
That sounds like the old division of labour. Germany pays and tends to humanitarian matters. But when things get serious or morally difficult, then the Americans and the other allies have to take over.
No. I cannot understand the accusation that we are not taking on difficult tasks. We also know all too well how it feels when German soldiers are killed abroad.
Angela Merkel said last yeart that we can, to a certain extent, no longer rely on the US. Do you agree with her assesment?
The US under President Trump will not longer play the same role as in the past. This is a reality that we have to get to grips with. After all, international obligations aren’t the first priority for those pursuing an “America first” policy. Together with other partners, we must give some thought to how the withdrawal of the US can be compensated for and how we can redistribute tasks. The greatest challenge for German foreign policy is to preserve the multilateral world order in the form of the United Nations, the EU and NATO.
The US is no longer reliable in another sense, namely the fact that Trump is unpredictable.
I believe that reliability is one of the most important qualities in politics. This is especially the case in foreign policy. Despite everything, we continue to depend on this in transatlantic relations. It doesn’t get any easier when being confronted by new and surprising tweets each day.
Do you still see the US as a country that represents Western values?
Yes. Fortunately enough, transatlantic relations are far more than 280 Twitter characters. And it is still abundantly clear to us that we need the US. We will only be able to tackle major global challenges together. No other country outside Europe has such close personal ties to us; we intend to continue to preserve and nurture this bond.
You have adopted a noticeably more critical tone towards Russia than your two predecessors Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Sigmar Gabriel. Why?
We must let reality be our guide in our policy on Russia. Russia has increasingly defined itself in contrast and sometimes opposition to the West. Russia is, unfortunately, acting in an increasingly hostile manner – the poison gas attack in Salisbury, its role in Syria and eastern Ukraine, and hacker attacks, including against the Federal Foreign Office. However, despite everything we have done in recent weeks, I have stated time and again that we must remain in dialogue with Russia. We need Russia, and not only if we intend to resolve the conflict in Syria. However, I must acknowledge that most of our partners are now very critical of Russia and some doubt whether dialogue is possible. In the past, some were prepared to follow Germany’s lead. Now they’re asking: what was the point?
You're criticising Russia in order to save face among Western partners?
We are criticising Russia on specific issues. And it’s also true that had we not followed suit in expelling diplomats following the attack on Skripal, then this would have sent a signal that the West is divided on this matter. Involving Russia constructively will continue to be a major focus of international policy in the years to come.
Do you consider Russia to be a partner or a threat?
Russia has become a very difficult partner. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, banned chemical weapons have been used in the heart of Europe, cyber attacks appear to be a mainstay of Russian foreign policy, and in such a serious conflict as in Syria, Russia is blocking the UN Security Council – none of this is helping to build confidence.
Do you believe that adopting a harsher tone can help to get Russia to change course?
I don’t think anything will improve if we create the impression that we simply tacitly accept these difficult developments. The more complicated the relationship, the clearer the language we need. We need firm positions that we combine with clear offers.
Your two predecessors suggested that sanctions against Russia should be phased out if Moscow fulfils some of the provisions of the Minsk agreements with respect to eastern Ukraine.
There are clear agreements that stipulate that sanctions will only be lifted when Russia fulfils its obligations. Pacta sunt servanda – agreements must be kept – should be our watchword. We need Russia as Europe’s biggest neighbour. However, Russia also needs us, both politically and economically.
Can you envisage fresh sanctions if Russia continues such escalation?
We have no interest whatsoever in further escalation. By the way, sanctions are not an end in themselves or a threat, but a political instrument that Europe also uses against Russia in order to achieve tangible goals – in this instance the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Some are in favour of boycotting the FIFA World Cup in Russia as a way of punishing Moscow.
We should, as a rule, always try to make progress with political means before resorting to instrumentalising sport.
Will you attend the World Cup?
We aren’t currently planning such a trip.
You have already been to France, Israel, Italy, Ireland, the UK and Jordan. When are you going on your first official visit to Moscow?
We are first planning a trip to Kyiv. And together with my French counterpart Le Drian, I intend to revive the Normandy format at ministerial level as quickly as possible.
Can you envisage readmitting Russia to the G7 as Steinmeier has suggested?
That’s not very realistic at the moment. We must insist that Russia return to making constructive contributions to international politics. As Minister of Justice, my compass was the Basic Law, and in international politics I will stand up for our rules-based order in spite of all of the difficulties.
Do you believe that the West also shares responsibility for the fact that relations with Russia are so fractured? After the breakup of the Soviet Union, there was a strong will to promote rapprochement; President Boris Yeltsin wanted Russia to change along Western lines.
There were many who never believed that a country like Russia would develop into a democracy based on the Western model – that this was incompatible with its culture and tradition.
Are you saying that Russia isn't capable of being a democracy?
In hindsight, at least, it does not seem entirely certain to what extent Vladimir Putin wanted to develop Russia in this direction.
In 2001, Putin told the Bundestag that Russia was to become a modern market economy and democracy and therefore seek the partnership of the West.
It would have been nice if it had stayed that way. And while the West may not always have done everything right in this respect, in the end, of course, Russia alone decides which course to take.
The SPD has enjoyed a long tradition of dialogue with Russia. What lessons do you take from Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik?
For me, Ostpolitik is not only about Russia, but also the countries of Eastern Europe. We must do more to look after them than was sometimes the case in the past.
Countries such as Poland and Hungary appear to have chosen a different path and have turned their backs on certain European values. What do you intend to do about this?
First of all, the EU’s eastern enlargement is a success story. We have seen now in Hungary that it is possible to mobilise people with a strong anti-European election campaign. In a crucial phase for the future of Europe, it will be important to keep our Eastern European neighbours in the EU. We must not create the impression that there is a Europe of two classes in which some are left behind and no longer play a role. Otherwise we will fuel anti-European sentiment in these countries and make them increasingly susceptible to attempts to divide them from without.
Do you intend to keep the Eastern Europeans in the EU even if they distance themselves from European principles? Viktor Orban wants Hungary to have an “illiberal democracy”...
On my first official visit to Warsaw, I said quite candidly that I don’t want to have to discuss the fact that we will make payments from the EU budget contingent also on questions of the rule of law in the future. The EU’s foundation of values is not up for negotiation.
That sounds like a threat...
No. We must make it clear that certain things that fundamentally run counter to European values are not on. We need to have a clear policy.
Poland and Hungary also have a clear policy. Hungary has already announced that it will block sanctions against Poland come what may.
That doesn’t rule out the fact that we have to be in close contact. Only if the Eastern Europeans have the impression that we want to keep them in the EU will we be able to talk to them seriously about changes. We have to make it clear to them that we want them, that we need them. Much of what goes wrong between us and Eastern Europeans happens at an emotional level.
What style will you cultivate as Germany’s top diplomat? Your predecessor Sigmar Gabriel was criticised for serving tea to the Turkish Foreign Minister in order to free journalist Deniz Yücel from prison. Is such criticism justified?
No. The essence of diplomacy is not just about being photographed with the Macrons and Trudeaus of this world. It is about remaining in dialogue with difficult partners in particular. A German Foreign Minister will always have to deal with countries and politicians with whom we do not agree politically.
Mr Maas, thank you for talking to us today.