Mr Maas, our last interview took place at the end of Donald Trump’s time in office, when you were hoping that a new US President – Joe Biden – would normalise German-US relations. Are these relations now normal?
No, they are excellent. Joe Biden has kept his word: “America is back.” That is more than just a slogan – we’re seeing tangible proof of it every day in foreign policy work. We are once again speaking with one voice on all major political issues, from the response to Russian provocation to the defence of human rights worldwide to the global fight against climate change. I feel as if I’ve already spoken more with Tony Blinken, the new Secretary of State, than I did with his predecessor during his entire term in office. And these are candid and constructive talks, even on the occasions when we don’t share the same opinion.
From a German perspective, what has been the most important decision in the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency?
Returning the US to the Paris Agreement. We now finally have a US administration which is leading the way on climate change again. John Kerry, a figure who commands worldwide respect, has been made Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. And the virtual climate summit which the US has just organised has already yielded its first tangible results. Several states have set more ambitious emissions targets – as has the EU.
The diplomatic tone has improved under President Biden. But aside from climate policy, what genuine substantial differences do you see from the Trump administration?
I hardly know where to start. Right now, we are holding extremely in-depth negotiations on the possibility of the US returning to the nuclear deal with Iran. But the renewed emphasis on multilateralism, on alliances and partners, is visible in every area of foreign policy. The US has joined the international vaccine alliance COVAX, it has renewed the New START Treaty with Russia – all of these are unequivocal steps forward which are also in the interests of Germany and Europe.
Many people in Germany hoped that Mr Biden would put an end to the Trump-era America First policy. But, de facto, the new US administration is still displaying protectionist behaviour – for example, it is not supplying any COVID vaccines to Europe. Did we in Germany expect too much of this administration?
I don’t think so. It’s clear, of course, that our interests aren’t always going to be identical even now. But the tenor is very different from “America First.” That goes for vaccines, too. The cooperation between BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer is an absolute success story. It is true that Europe is exporting large quantities of vaccines while the US is not. But the US is supplying the EU with important materials for these vaccines. And again – the Biden administration has also joined the vaccine platform COVAX, which has already supplied almost 120 poorer countries with vaccines. The US has become the largest donor to COVAX. Germany is now in second place.
Under Joe Biden, the US is once again taking on a role in global governance, which is exacerbating the conflicts with Russia and China. Does the US administration expect Germany to follow its lead in foreign policy and cede its position as a mediator between the major powers?
China is and remains the absolute priority of US foreign policy. And the US has correspondingly high expectations of its partners. But the Biden administration relies on cooperation, rather than blackmail. Our views on China have in any case come closer. The Biden administration has adopted a description that we have been using in the EU for a while now: China is at once a partner, a competitor and a systemic rival. On the one hand, we must cooperate on issues such as the climate or the fight against the pandemic which demand global solutions. At the same time, we must stand together and confront China on severe breaches of human rights such as in Xinjiang and on the developments in Hong Kong. And that is what we are doing, most recently in March with our coordinated sanctions against Chinese officials in Xinjiang.
Joe Biden, too, is threatening Germany with sanctions over Nord Stream 2. Why is the Federal Government damaging the process of reconciliation with the US by clinging on to the Baltic Sea pipeline, a project which is not in any way necessary for Germany’s gas supply?
Our assessment remains the same – Nord Stream 2 does make sense in terms of energy policy. Of course it’s impossible to look at the project without looking at Russia’s behaviour. But Nord Stream 2 is increasingly being elevated to a panacea that could be used to make Russia see reason. That’s at odds with reality, especially given that Europe is continuing to use Russian gas supplied via Ukraine and Turkey while the US buys large quantities of oil from Russia at the same time.
The US and NATO have signalled the start of the end for their involvement in Afghanistan, and the Bundeswehr is also looking to withdraw. When will the last German soldier have left Afghanistan?
Within NATO, we have mutually agreed on an orderly withdrawal by September. This decision forms the basis for the Bundeswehr’s planning. The exact day when the withdrawal will be complete depends on a number of factors. The Bundeswehr is liaising closely with our NATO partners and, of course, with the Afghan government and army on this point. Our top priority is to guarantee the safety of all soldiers and civilian staff at all times. The Bundeswehr is planning on the basis of this principle.
The Taliban are expected to move into the power vacuum left by the West after the withdrawal. Does Germany see it as an acceptable consequence that, after almost 20 years of reconstruction work, Islamists will regain strength and resume their discrimination against women, supporters of secularism, and minorities?
I don’t want to play down that danger. But the military withdrawal does not in any way mean the end of our commitment to Afghanistan. Germany is not only the second-largest military presence in the country, but also the second-largest civilian donor. We want to continue helping Afghanistan in the form of development cooperation. And we will continue to support the intra-Afghan peace process through our diplomatic efforts. Of course, after decades of conflict these talks are laborious and painful. There are no shortcuts.
When will you visit your counterpart Antony Blinken in Washington?
As soon as circumstances allow. We are in close contact and we met just recently in Brussels. I am sure that a visit to Washington will be on the agenda in a not-too-distant future.
Interview conducted by Florian Harms