In a DER SPIEGEL interview, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas discusses Germany’s position on Syria, criticizes U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter diplomacy and calls for a tougher approach to Russia.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, in your inauguration speech, you said you went into politics because of Auschwitz. What did you mean?
Maas: I was looking for explanations for how the Nazis were able to plunge Germany and the entire world into such a catastrophe. Much of what happened back then was so horrific that I simply couldn’t understand it. From that grew a deep need to make a contribution myself so that something like that never happens again. I then made the decision to take on political responsibility.
DER SPIEGEL: What does that mean for German foreign policy?
Maas: Foreign policy is rooted in values and interests. It’s not always easy to harmonize the two. But following World War II, Germany saw itself as a peaceful power. We have done our best to ensure that there is a long-term effort in international politics to secure peace. I would like to continue that focus.
DER SPIEGEL: In 1999, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer justified Germany’s participation in the airstrikes in Kosovo by saying: “Never again Auschwitz.”
Maas: Yes, and it was something I was able to understand quite well at the time.
DER SPIEGEL: In your current role as foreign minister, is it a sentence that you also would adopt?
Maas: It depends on what exactly you are referring to.
DER SPIEGEL: Should the peaceful power of Germany use military means to prevent mass murder?
Maas: I’m not a pacifist. From Germany’s unique history, I have drawn the conclusion that we always have to do everything we can to avoid armed conflict .- but that there can also unfortunately be moments when military means must be resorted to as an ultima ratio.
DER SPIEGEL: In Syria, the West has for years been facing the question as to whether the application of military means is justified. What do you think?
Maas: I don’t believe it is appropriate to draw a direct line from Auschwitz to Syria. Syria is not Auschwitz. The barbarity of the Nazis’ crimes makes it impossible to compare them with others.
DER SPIEGEL: Why was it correct to draw a comparison between the former Yugoslavia and Auschwitz but incorrect to do so for Syria?
Maas: Auschwitz cannot be compared with anything. Joschka Fischer was simply trying to clarify his motivation for resorting to military means as a final reaction to genocide.
DER SPIEGEL: Shouldn’t hundreds of thousands of dead in Syria also represent an adequate motivation for intervention?
Maas: What we have seen in the last seven years in Syria is horrifying. Chemical weapons have been deployed repeatedly and have created immeasurable suffering for innocent people. It is also intolerable that political leaders have thus far been unable to find a political solution to this conflict. But that is the prerequisite for lasting peace. The deployment of chemical weapons in Syria must come to an end and cannot remain without consequences. At issue is one of the most savage weapons of mass destruction. It has been internationally outlawed for decades. I was an early supporter of the French initiative to ensure that those who are responsible for the deployment of chemical weapons be punished.
DER SPIEGEL: Who do you see as being more dangerous to world peace, U.S. President Donald Trump or Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Maas: Verbal escalation is never helpful. But it is also clear that we have seen in numerous votes that United Nations Security Council resolutions on Syria are being blocked by Russia’s veto. The international community cannot and should not accept a situation in which the most important UN body is being rendered impotent.
DER SPIEGEL: How great is the danger that the war in Syria could escalate into a global military conflict?
Maas: Despite all of the verbal attacks these days, it won’t go that far. Finding a political solution to the conflict must continue to be the first priority. We are in extremely close contact with our partners on that search. A military contribution in Syria was never considered.
DER SPIEGEL: Why not?
Maas: In this conflict, that is not the role that we, in consultation with our partners, wish to play.
DER SPIEGEL: How does that fit with your proclamation that Germany has to take on more responsibility?
Maas: Taking on a larger role doesn’t have to mean that you participate in a military strike. During my visit to New York, I pointed out that we have become the second largest financer of the United Nations. We participate in a number of peacekeeping missions. We have placed our emphasis on humanitarian and civil society operations, but we are not hiding from military responsibility. Just this week, the cabinet again extended two military mandates.
DER SPIEGEL: That sounds like the old division of labor: Germany pays the bills and takes care of the humanitarian aspects. But when things get serious or morally complicated, then the Americans and other allies have to take the lead.
Maas: No. I can’t accept accusations that we don’t take on difficult tasks. Unfortunately, we also know only too well what it feels like when German soldiers are killed abroad.
DER SPIEGEL: Last year, Ms. Merkel said in reference to the United States: “The times in which we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent.” Do you agree?
Maas: The U.S. under Donald Trump will not play the same role that it has in the past. That is the reality that we must confront. Those who practice politics under the “America First” motto do not see international obligations as a priority. Together with others, we have to consider how to compensate for the American withdrawal and how to redistribute various tasks. The largest challenge facing German foreign policy is that of maintaining the multilateral global order: the United Nations, the European Union and NATO.
DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. is no longer reliable in another sense as well. Donald Trump is unpredictable.
Maas: For me, reliability is one of the most important political qualities, particularly in foreign policy. Despite everything, we are all dependent on that, including in the trans-Atlantic relationship. It doesn’t make it any easier when you find yourself confronted by surprising tweets every day.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you still see the U.S. as a country that represents Western values?
Maas: Yes. Luckily, the trans-Atlantic relationship is made up of much more than 280 characters in Twitter. It remains clear to us: We need the USA. Only together will we be able to meet the large international challenges facing us. We don’t have such close human relationships with any other country outside of Europe and we would like to retain and nurture that connection.
DER SPIEGEL: When it comes to Russia, you have struck a noticeably more critical tone then your two predecessors, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Sigmar Gabriel. Why?
Maas: Our Russia policy must be rooted in reality. Russia has increasingly defined itself in distinction to, and partly in opposition to, the West. Unfortunately, Russia has been acting in an increasingly hostile manner: the nerve agent attack in Salisbury, the role it is playing in Syria and eastern Ukraine, hacker attacks, including on the German Foreign Ministry. Still, during everything that we have done in recent weeks, I have continually noted that we have to remain in dialogue with Russia. We need Russia, and not just for the attempt to find a solution to the Syrian conflict. But I also have to take note of the fact that most of our partners now have an extremely critical view of Russia and harbor some doubts about the possibility of fruitful dialogue. In the past, they were willing to go along with Germany to a certain extent. Today, they are wondering: What did that serve?
DER SPIEGEL: You are criticizing Russia so as to retain credibility with our Western allies?
Maas: We criticize Russia on specific issues. And it is also true that, had we not, for example, participated in the expulsion of diplomats following the attack on Skripal, that would have been an indication that the West was divided on this issue. Constructively integrating Russia remains an immense challenge facing international politics in the coming years.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you see Russia more as a partner or more as a threat?
Maas: Russia has become an extremely difficult partner. For the first time since the end of World War II, outlawed chemical weapons were deployed in the heart of Europe. It seems as though cyber attacks have become an important element of Russian foreign policy and in such a crucial conflict as the one in Syria, Russia is blocking the UN Security Council. None of that contributes to confidence building.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you believe that it is possible to get Russia to change course by adopting a harsher tone?
Maas: What I don’t believe is that anything will get better if we give the impression that we will simply silently accept difficult developments. The more complicated the relationship, the clearer our language must be. We need solid positions that are combined with clear offers.
DER SPIEGEL: Your two predecessors raised the possibility of a step-by-step dismantling of the sanctions against Russia if Moscow fulfills some of its obligations on eastern Ukraine as outlined in the Minsk agreement.
Maas: There are clear agreements that sanctions will only then be dismantled when Russia fulfills its obligations. Pacta sunt servanda, we should adhere to those agreements. As Europe’s largest neighbor, we need Russia. But, Russia also needs us, both politically and, not least, economically.
DER SPIEGEL: Could you imagine new sanctions if Russian escalation were to continue?
Maas: We have no interest in further escalation. Plus, sanctions are not an end in themselves or a threat. They are a political instrument that Europe also deploys against Russia to achieve concrete targets — in this case, the implementation of the Minsk agreement.
DER SPIEGEL: There are some who support a boycott of the football World Cup in Russia as a way of punishing Moscow.
Maas: Generally, we should always try to move things forward politically before we exploit sports.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you planning on attending the World Cup?
Maas: Currently, we aren’t planning such a trip.
DER SPIEGEL: Since your swearing in on Dec. 17, you have already been to Poland, France, Israel, Italy, Ireland, Britain and Jordan. When will you be making your inaugural visit to Russia?
Maas: As soon as the new Russian government is assembled. First, we are planning a trip to Kiev. And together with my French counterpart (Jean-Yves) Le Drian, I want to revitalize the Normandy Format, which includes Germany, Russia, Russia and Ukraine, as rapidly as possible.
DER SPIEGEL: Can you imagine allowing Russia to rejoin the G-7 as Steinmeier proposed in 2016 back when he was still foreign minister?
Maas: That isn’t very realistic at the moment. We have demanded that Russia return to making constructive contributions to international politics. As justice minister, my compass was the German constitution. Despite all the difficulties, I will promote the so-called “rules-based order” when it comes to international politics.
DER SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the West shares some of the responsibility for the dire state of relations with Russia? Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was a great deal of desire for rapprochement and President Boris Yeltsin wanted to reform Russia in accordance with the Western paradigm.
Maas: There were many who never believed that a country like Russia could develop into a Western-style democracy. They said it wasn’t consistent with its culture or traditions.
DER SPIEGEL: You don’t think Russia is capable of democracy?
Maas: In hindsight, at least, it isn’t so clear how much Vladimir Putin wanted to develop Russia in that direction.
DER SPIEGEL: In 2001, Vladimir Putin said in the German parliament, the Bundestag, that he intended for Russia to become a modern market economy and a democracy and that he was eager to have the West as a partner in that project.
Maas: It would have been nice had he remained true to that path. And: It could be that the West didn’t always do everything right. But ultimately, Russia decides on its path completely on its own.
DER SPIEGEL: Your party, the Social Democrats (SPD), has a long tradition of dialogue with Russia. What do you think are the lessons of Ostpolitik, the policy of détente with the Soviet Union kicked off by Chancellor Willy Brandt, also of the SPD, in 1969?
Maas: For me, Ostpolitik doesn’t just include Russia, but all of the Eastern European countries. We have to pay more attention to them than has sometimes been the case in the past.
DER SPIEGEL: Countries like Poland and Hungary have diverged from some of our European values. What do you intend to do about that?
Maas: First of all, the eastward expansion of the European Union is a success story. We have now seen in Hungary that it is unfortunately possible to mobilize voters with a strongly anti-European campaign. In this phase, which is decisive for the future of Europe, it is crucial to keep our Eastern European neighbors in the EU. We cannot give the impression that there are two classes in Europe in which some are left behind and no longer play a role. Otherwise, we will be helping anti-European voices in these countries and making them more receptive to divisive attempts from the outside.
DER SPIEGEL: You want to keep the Eastern Europeans in the EU even if they turn their backs on European principles? Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán envisions an “illiberal democracy” for his country.
Maas: During my inaugural visit to Poland, I said something quite openly: I don’t want to have to be part of a discussion about making payments from the EU budget dependent on questions about the rule of law. The EU’s foundation of values is non-negotiable.
DER SPIEGEL: Is that a threat?
Maas: No. We have to make it clear that things that fundamentally contravene European values are unacceptable. We need a clear line.
DER SPIEGEL: Poland and Hungary also have clear lines. Hungary has already indicated that it will stand in the way of any attempt to censure Poland.
Maas: But that doesn’t preclude the need 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 hold a serious discussion with them about change. We have to make it clear to them: We want you, we need you. Much of what is going wrong between us and the Eastern Europeans is taking place on an emotional level.
DER SPIEGEL: What sort of a style will you cultivate as Germany’s top diplomat? Your predecessor Sigmar Gabriel was criticized for personally serving tea to the Turkish foreign minister during the effort to secure the release of German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel from Turkish prison. Rightly so?
Maas: No. The essence of diplomacy is not limited to being photographed with the Macrons and Trudeaus of the world. More than anything, it consists of maintaining dialogue with difficult partners as well. A German foreign minister will always have to deal with those countries and politicians with whom we disagree politically.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Foreign Minister, we thank you for this interview.