Mr Maas, you have been Foreign Minister for a year now. You have flown 300,000 kilometres and visited dozens of countries. You’re a triathlete – do you still find any time at all to train?
I still go running and cycling whenever my schedule allows. But I don’t have the time any more to train properly for triathlon competitions, because I am travelling so much. I do still do sport, though. I need to, to clear my head.
There are pictures of you in sports gear; once you went to a meeting of the SPD Executive Committee casually dressed in a leather jacket and trainers. Afterwards, you said suits were actually your dressing-up outfit. Is that still the case?
Yes. Quite simply because I definitely don’t go around at home or in my free time dressed the same way as in the office or on trips abroad. And that’s how it should stay.
And that coming from the man voted Germany’s Best Dressed Man in 2016. Australian singer Nick Cave once said that the suit he always wears for concerts is his work gear and his armour. Do you feel the same?
Nick Cave is one of the best singers around. As a matter of fact, he’s doing a concert in Berlin soon. The tickets sold out in a matter of minutes. We’ll see whether I manage to go. It depends where I am at the time.
So you’re a Nick Cave fan?
Have been for ages, since the days when he appeared with Blixa Bargeld and the Bad Seeds. “The Boatman’s Call” is a great album. His concerts are always an experience, I’ve often been to them.
And? What do you think about his comment about his suit?
Well, I certainly don’t regard a suit as armour. And I don’t feel uncomfortable in a suit. In my position, wearing a suit is to do with respect. Even in countries where it may be very hot, there is a justified expectation that you will dress for your hosts exactly as you would in the White House or the Kremlin. On the other hand, I do not demand the same. Someone coming to see me doesn’t necessarily need to turn up in a suit and tie.
You are very sporty, you’re slim, you take care of your appearance, like Emmanuel Macron, Christian Lindner or Justin Trudeau. Do you regard yourself as a representative of this new type of politician?
I don’t think in terms of categories like that. I am just the way I am. By the way, that Sunday night with the leather jacket wasn’t the first time I’d gone to an SPD event not dressed in a three-piece suit. People can think what they like about my clothes. Though I wonder whether there aren’t far more important things to be talking about.
Future is a good buzzword. Every Friday, the “Fridays for Future” movement sees school pupils taking to the streets to demand action against climate change. Would you have been among them?
I went on a lot of demonstrations when I was at school. I might very well have taken part in this one.
The school strike is taking place all around the world. Is this a topic you discuss with your colleagues?
Yes, of course. In fact, I was talking about it just a couple of days ago with Sweden’s Foreign Minister, for instance. And we have to discuss climate change much more in the UN Security Council as well. Climate change is becoming more and more of a danger to global peace and security. That is why it needs to be right at the top of the Security Council’s agenda. We will work hard to put it there during our Security Council membership.
Germany’s two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council began at the start of the year. In April it will hold the presidency. What can you achieve?
Having the presidency for four weeks does not mean that we can push through everything we would like. However, we will be able to define the priorities by putting issues on the agenda. Alongside climate change, we are particularly concerned with two others. Firstly, disarmament. Following the termination of the INF Treaty, there is a need for discussion, and action, and not just as regards nuclear weapons, but also regarding new, modern weapons systems: autonomous weapons, cyber weapons, killer robots. Disarmament has been off the international agenda for far too long, and that is something we want to change. The other matter of great importance to us is the role of women in armed conflicts.
In what respect?
Women are among the first to suffer in crises and conflicts. Rape is a brutal instrument of war. It is utterly unacceptable. I was recently in Sierra Leone, where a few weeks ago the President declared a state of emergency because of the flagrant spread of sexualised violence against women. In addition, we must involve women much more in bringing an end to crises. The more equal the role played by women in political conflicts, the greater the chance of peace.
When Germans are asked what their biggest fears are, one person is being named more and more often – Donald Trump. Do you share that view?
No. The fact that many people feel that way is alarming. Clearly, many of Donald Trump’s decisions annoy the Germans. In foreign policy, however, we can never equate one person with an entire country. The US is more than just the tweets from the White House. And we should be quite clear about this: we need the United States. Only if we work together with the US can we defend our values – democracy, liberty, human rights – in all competing systems across the world.
If the American Ambassador in Germany threatens to stop US cooperation with the German secret services because of the possible involvement of the Chinese in the development of Germany’s 5G mobile network, then this is a threat to Germany’s elementary security interests. Can the Federal Government stand for that? It’s blackmail, after all.
Germany can never be blackmailed, no matter who it is or what it’s about. The Federal Government has been looking very closely at the question of whether the Chinese company Huawei is involved in developing the 5G network for weeks now. Security-policy aspects are extremely important when it comes to infrastructure like this that will affect many areas of our life, and we cannot allow ourselves to make any lazy compromises here. We do not need any advice to know that, no matter who it comes from. We will make the decisions independently.
Are there any points where you think Donald Trump is right?
We still have a great many shared interests with the US. Often the specific disputes are not about the objectives, but about how to achieve them. We are firmly convinced that the major issues of the future – climate change, digitalization or migration – can only be tackled successfully if we improve our international cooperation. Our response to “Russia first”, “China first” or “America first” can only be: “EuropeUnited”.
When you assumed office, you said that the reason you entered politics was not Willy Brandt, the omnipresent father-figure for the SPD, but Auschwitz. How is that reflected in your active policymaking?
For me, the lesson to be learned from German history is that we must never look away, not anywhere. Part of the reason why National Socialism and the Holocaust were possible at all was because far too many people looked away. We can never allow that to happen ever again. We must not stay silent, if we encounter racism, anti-Semitism or extremism in everyday life – be it on the bus, on the football pitch or in the street. All this has to do with responsibility, also at international level. If we do not resolutely tackle the new nationalism, then we have to ask ourselves how much of the responsibility we bear for this phenomenon.
Does responsibility also mean become more active militarily? After all, for many years, the lesson for Germany from the Second World War and the Holocaust was not to let ourselves be drawn into military action in conflicts.
German foreign policy would do well to go around not with a wagging finger, but with an outstretched hand. But extending a hand always means shouldering responsibility too, with military involvement as a last resort. And that is what we are doing. Germany is one of the largest European troop providers and the second-largest contributor to the UN. I see on my trips abroad that people’s confidence in and expectations of Germany have grown – because we are regarded as a reliable partner when it comes to holding Europe together and defending multilateral cooperation.
Interview conducted by Stefan Kegel and Guido Bohsem