Donald Trump has been in office for two years now. Have people’s worst fears been realised, Mr Maas? Has the US President made the world less safe?
It goes without saying that Donald Trump’s “America first” policy is a particular challenge. Just take his withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement or his announcements about wanting to pull out of Syria and, to an extent, Afghanistan. But the US isn’t solely responsible for the state of the world. For years, global security has been undermined by Russia’s violation of the INF Treaty, a disarmament agreement which is of the utmost importance to Europe.
You went to Washington a few days ago to persuade the US not to terminate its treaty with Moscow. Did you seriously think you could change Trump’s mind?
When our security here in Europe is at stake, we need to do whatever we can to play our part. I pushed for arms control in Washington, and in Moscow before that, and proposed very concrete criteria against which to test Russian transparency proposals. Regrettably, everything Russia has so far offered falls far short of those benchmarks. Russia was already considered to be in breach of the INF Treaty during the Obama administration. Moscow has developed and tested an intermediate-range nuclear missile that violates the treaty.
Do you blame Moscow alone for the collapse of the arms-control treaty?
A treaty between two countries that one of the parties is violating is in practical terms no longer in force. Unfortunately, Russia is not prepared to create genuine transparency and restore compliance. We regret that. Losing the INF Treaty means a reduction in security; we need an international arms-control architecture that is stable and as far-reaching as possible.
You once said, “At the end of the day, what we all want is a world without nuclear weapons.” Isn’t that rather naive?
No. Arms control is pure realpolitik. My position on this is very clear: stationing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe now is not the answer. You can’t use oil to douse a fire. In the world as it is today, the old recipes from the seventies are not helpful. What we will do is generate fresh momentum for disarmament...
Disarmament needs to get back onto the international agenda. I’m not just talking about the US and Russia; countries like China need to be included too. Additionally, a lot of new weapon systems have been developed in recent decades – autonomous weapons, cyber weapons, killer robots. There are barely any international rules to cover them yet. The German Government will be working to establish some, not least in the UN Security Council. Our first move will be to hold an arms-control conference in Berlin in March, which will focus particularly on the new weapon systems. We need new rules to cover new technology.
Are you afraid there’s going to be a new Cold War?
The Cold War era is over. That said, nationalism and populism are on the rise around the world. International cooperation, multilateralism, is under fire. We need to push back. Climate change, the spread of digital technology, migration – solving the big issues of our time is going to require not less international cooperation but more. We are under no illusions. None of this is going to be easy. Nonetheless, we are pushing for international disarmament rules that will encompass as many countries as possible and will include the new weapon systems.
Would the West as we know it survive a second Trump term?
Absolutely. I see no reason for apocalyptic prognostications. The US is much more than just the White House.
Trump has targeted Germany for its comparatively small contribution to NATO, among other things. When is the German Government going to fulfil its obligations and spend 2% of GDP on defence?
Our government has established that Germany will raise its defence spending to 1.5% by 2024. That will include making sure the Bundeswehr is better equipped, which is an area where we have considerable deficiencies to address.
Trump won’t be satisfied with that.
The President has the right to call for whatever he sees fits.
When will it be time to normalise relations with Russia – and to lift the sanctions that were imposed following Russia’s aggression against Ukraine?
We are in dialogue with Russia, as Europe’s largest neighbour, about all conflicts that affect us both. The sanctions are not an end in themselves or a threat, but a political instrument employed to achieve tangible goals – in this instance the implementation of the Minsk agreements.
Should the Russia sanctions stay in place until Moscow gives back Crimea?
We can’t talk about easing the sanctions until progress is made under the terms of the Minsk peace accord. Regrettably, that is currently not the case.
There is growing criticism, particularly from the US, about Nord Stream 2, the planned Baltic Sea gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. You don’t have any doubts about the project yourself?
This is a project being run by several European companies. And my position remains clear: matters of European energy policy must be decided in Europe, not in the US. We want to build our energy security on broad foundations. And we will work to ensure that the existing gas transit through Ukraine is not cut off in future.
Interview conducted by Jochen Gaugele and Jörg Quoos