Question: Mr Maas, have you already spoken to Antony Blinken, your future counterpart in the US, on the telephone?
Foreign Minister Maas: No. Our new colleagues in Washington, DC set great store by strictly abiding by all of the rules until Joe Biden’s inauguration on 20 January, and that means having no contact with foreign governments prior to inauguration day.
Question: Have you met Blinken before?
Maas: I haven’t yet met him in person, but I have, of course, looked into what he stood for during his time at the State Department and in other roles. Blinken is committed to international responsibility and cooperation. We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.
Question: This is why, together with your French counterpart, you wasted no time in calling for a transatlantic “new deal”. That sounds nice, but what does this mean in practice?
Maas: A return to the international stage by the US will change a great deal, because we both stand for a cooperative approach. Europe and the US must cooperate more closely with one another in the strategic domain once again. We mustn’t leave a vacuum again such as in Libya or Syria that is filled by others, by Russia or Turkey. We can no longer afford to give autocratic actors an arena for their games. We Europeans are prepared to play our part in being a guarantor of peace, democracy and human rights in the Alliance with the US.
Question: What concrete offers are you making to the new leadership in the US?
Maas: Europe has developed joint capabilities. We want to continue to strengthen the European pillar of NATO. We’re assuming responsibility in security policy – from the Sahel to the Mediterranean to the Middle East. We must continue to consistently tread this path, for the sake of our fundamental security interests and with a balanced partnership with the US in mind. And we must clearly define our regional policy interests together with the US. What approach should we take vis-à-vis China or Iran? How can we live up to our responsibility in Afghanistan or in Iraq? Hoping for a return to the good old days would be a mistake as the US will not return to the role of the world’s policeman.
Question: There’s already disagreement about this new cooperation in Europe. The German Minister of Defence has emphasised our dependence on the US, particularly with respect to security issues. The French President has called for European sovereignty. Who’s right?
Maas: This disagreement is quite rhetorical in nature. European sovereignty – or strategic autonomy, as the French call it – is currently a focus of Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. It’s essential if the transatlantic relationship is to function again, and not an opposing concept.
Question: Is your party at all prepared to resume cooperation with the US in the security policy field? Your Chairman of the Parliamentary Group Rolf Mützenich called for an end to nuclear sharing, i.e. the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany.
Maas: The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) has always acknowledged its international responsibility. We regularly approve or extend Bundeswehr mandates in the Bundestag; there are ten of them around the world at the moment. For us, however, it’s always important to take a dual approach. Conflicts have never been resolved by military means alone in such a way that lasting peace has been achieved. Military and civilian engagement are always two sides of the same coin.
Question: The issue of German security policy is particularly apparent in Afghanistan. What happens if Donald Trump makes good on his announcement and brings half of the US troops home before 20 January?
Maas: The United States have assumed many tasks in Afghanistan that facilitate the deployment of all the other soldiers. In concrete terms, we’re talking about, for example, fighter jets that can be used to defend against attacks – and also about helicopters that support soldiers in the event of an ambush. If the US unilaterally withdraws such essential troops, the security of all other soldiers there could be jeopardised.
Question: So the Bundeswehr must also withdraw.
Maas: We won’t keep a single German soldier in the region if their security cannot be guaranteed.
Question: Are you banking on the Americans staying after all?
Maas: Peace talks are currently under way with the goal of reducing the international troop presence in Afghanistan from May. So we’re talking about several months. A hasty withdrawal would destroy what has been achieved over the past 20 years. We’re working to bring this mission to an orderly conclusion.
Question: You recently sat down with your NATO foreign minister counterparts and listened to the proposals for reforming the Alliance. One idea is to limit the principle of unanimity in the future. Do you think that’s right?
Maas: NATO is well positioned in military terms, but there’s a lot to do as regards political decision-making. NATO is about war and peace, life and death. Against this background, I doubt whether the veto will be abolished anytime soon. However, it could, in the future, be the case that NATO decides unanimously on something, but not all countries have to implement this decision. This would strengthen NATO’s ability to act.
Question: NATO sees itself as a community of values. How credible is that – with Turkey under Erdoğan as a member, or countries like Poland and Hungary where the rule of law is being undermined?
Maas: This is precisely why it’s so important to strengthen NATO in its capacity as a political organisation. But there’s too little scope for discussion about common values. We have to create that scope.
Question: We can see just how difficult the dialogue on this is in the EU at the moment. Hungary and Poland are blocking the financial framework including assistance for the coronavirus crisis because they’re opposed to the rule of law mechanism. Do you have a solution to this?
Maas: Even if I had one, I couldn’t trumpet it here. But we definitely want to resolve this issue during Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU.
Question: So before this month is out.
Maas: Many countries in Europe are extremely dependent on the recovery fund. We must make a solution possible.
Question: Would you be prepared to relax the rule of law mechanism?
Maas: We advocated the rule of law mechanism for good reasons. It has now been adopted. It won’t be possible to attack its substance in the face of the European Parliament and many member states. This can no longer be a question of “whether”, but at best of “how”.
Question: The dominant topic of transatlantic relations will be China. To what extent will the competition between Beijing and Washington determine the future world order? And what role does Europe still play in this regard?
Maas: For Europe, China is an economic partner on the one hand and a systemic rival on the other. Washington is a close partner with whom we share fundamental values. If the US and Europe now sing from the same song sheet once again and develop a common strategy, this will open up completely different opportunities for talking to China not only about trade and economic issues, but also about human rights.
Question: To do this, Joe Biden would have to move away from the US strategy of decoupling from the Chinese economy. Will he do that?
Maas: We in Europe have no interest in full-scale decoupling. The world is much too globalised for that. We won’t solve the problems of trade deficits or surpluses by simply imposing punitive tariffs on each other.
Question: America means China when it talks about a new Cold War. Europe, on the other hand, despite occasional criticism, is focused on close cooperation with Beijing. How can you come up with a common strategy here?
Maas: The closer the alliance between the US and Europe, the greater our influence over Beijing. Even if we don’t agree on every point, we should coordinate our efforts closely. China is gradually expanding its political influence in the world through economic and trade policy activities. We urgently need a basic line on how to deal with this systemic rival.
Question: Even if much is set to change under Biden, key conflicts will remain. The dispute over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, for example. To what extent is this putting a damper on your hopes for a close partnership?
Maas: We’re under no illusions about this. There are hardly any differences of opinion between the Republicans and the Democrats on this issue. But also here, a new tone and a different form of debate will help us to make progress here.
Question: By demanding that the sanctions threatened by the US against the European companies involved be withdrawn?
Maas: We Europeans are of the opinion that these extraterritorial sanctions aren’t legitimate. Nothing is going to change as far as that is concerned.
Question: Wouldn’t distancing ourselves from this highly controversial project send a strong signal to the new president?
Maas: From a purely economic point of view, the US is also interested in selling its own liquid gas. I don’t see any problem in improving the infrastructure in Germany to this end. Politically speaking, we see the situation differently than the US. We’re not making ourselves dependent on anyone as a result of Nord Stream 2.
Question: After the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, you called for calm. Is it possible to remain calm in the case of an alleged murder committed in violation of international law?
Maas: I think it would be irresponsible, especially in such a case, if we didn’t remain calm. After all, we have seen where the strategy of maximum pressure from the US has led. There has been no progress on any issue with Iran – on the contrary. We have seen how little the nuclear agreement is worth if the US fights it from the sidelines – with sanctions against Iran and threats against European companies doing business in Iran.
Question: Do you consider such an attack to be a legitimate means?
Maas: No. In abstract terms, there may be situations in which preventing people from carrying out activities in order to avert imminent crimes such as attacks falls under the remit of international law. But the risks of making the situation even more dangerous are obvious.
Question: After the attack, has a return by the US and Iran to the negotiating table become a distant prospect?
Maas: A return to the previous agreement will not suffice. There will have to be a kind of “nuclear agreement plus”, which is also in our interest. We have clear expectations of Iran, namely no nuclear weapons, but also no ballistic missile programme that threatens the entire region. Moreover, Iran must play a different role in the region. We need this agreement because we do not trust Iran. I am in close contact on this with my French and UK counterparts.
Question: And what offer must be made vis-à-vis Iran?
Maas: A signal must be sent here. The decisive factor will be whether the US relaxes the economic sanctions against Iran. Both sides have to reach out to each other. Time is running out because presidential elections are scheduled to be held in Iran next year.
Question: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked the Germans in 2017 to become more actively involved in the Middle East peace process. It seems that his call went unheard.
Maas: I don’t know what gives you that impression. We have put in place a permanent dialogue format with Germany, France, Jordan and Egypt that can also be used to bring Israel and the Palestinian representatives together. And the fact that the Israeli Foreign Minister recently met his counterpart from the United Arab Emirates for the first time here in Berlin, of all places, at the Holocaust Memorial is just one indication of the important role we play in the Middle East peace process.
Question: The initiative for this rapprochement didn’t come from Germany, but from Donald Trump. The Palestinians see this not as progress but as betrayal. Don’t you have to admit that the two-state solution is simply no longer realistic?
Maas: What Trump did wasn’t a reflection of our position, because for all practical purposes, the two-state solution was no longer an issue. It did set things in motion nevertheless. I don’t have the impression that those who are now taking the helm in Washington will quietly bury the negotiated two-state solution.
Question: In your first speech as Foreign Minister, you said that you went into politics because of Auschwitz. How concretely has this motivation been reflected in your foreign policy?
Maas: We have deepened our relations with Israel and have become a mediator in the region. For example, I recently invited the Israeli Foreign Minister to the informal Council of the European Union, where he announced that Israel’s annexation plans were off the table. We agreed that the more than tense relationship between Israel and the EU must be improved again. I’m likewise trying to promote good relations with Poland. There’s hardly any country that I’ve visited more often.
Question: Does it bother you when people write in portraits about you that you aren’t passionate about anything?
Maas: I have long since stopped reading portraits about myself. They only cloud your assessment of yourself in one way or the other. Being constantly judged is part of my job description. But sometimes these assessments say more about the person who writes them than about the person being described. Trying to be all things to all men is not a good idea for a politician. Sorry, but I’m not about to change.
Interview conducted by Christiane Hoffmann and Martin Knobbe