Relations between Germany and the United States suffered under President Trump. In an interview, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas discusses his hopes for an improved atmosphere under incoming President Joe Biden, but also the challenges posed by China, the Middle East and the Russian pipeline project.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Maas, have you ever spoken to Antony Blinken, your future counterpart in the United States?
Maas: No. The new team in Washington attaches great importance to strict adherence to all rules until Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, and that means no contacts with foreign governments before taking office.
DER SPIEGEL: Have you ever encountered Blinken?
Maas: Not yet in person, but I have of course followed what he has done during his time in the State Department and in other functions. Blinken is committed to international responsibility and cooperation. We have waited a long time for this.
DER SPIEGEL: Which explains why you and your counterpart in France have called for a trans-Atlantic “New Deal.” It sound good, but what exactly does it mean?
Maas: The return of the U.S. to the international stage will change a lot of things, because together we stand for a cooperative approach. Europe and the U.S. need to work together more closely again strategically. We cannot leave a vacuum again, as in Libya or Syria, for example, which is then filled by others, by Russia or Turkey. We can no longer give autocratic actors any room for their games. We Europeans are prepared to play our part in being a guarantor of peace, democracy and human rights in alliance with the U.S.
DER SPIEGEL: What concrete offers are you making to the new leadership in the U.S.?
Maas: Europe has developed joint capabilities. We want to further strengthen the European pillar in NATO. We have already taken responsibility for security policy in areas from the Sahel to the Mediterranean and the Near and Middle East. We must steadfastly continue down this path, both out of our own security interests and for a balanced partnership with the U.S. And we must clearly define our regional policy interests together with the U.S. What is our common stance towards China or Iran? How do we live up to our responsibilities in Afghanistan and Iraq? Hoping now for a return to old times would be illusory. The U.S. will not return to the role of global police force.
DER SPIEGEL: There is already a dispute brewing in Europe over future cooperation. The German defense minister has emphasized our dependence on the U.S., particularly in security matters. But the French president is calling for Europe sovereignty. Who’s right?
Maas: The debate is rather rhetorical. European sovereignty – or strategic autonomy, as the French call it – is currently a motto of our German EU presidency. It is a prerequisite for the trans-Atlantic relationship to function again, not a contradiction.
DER SPIEGEL: Is your party, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), prepared to resume cooperation with the U.S. on security policy? Rolf Mützenich, head of the SPD party group in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, has called for the end of technical nuclear sharing, meaning the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Germany.
Maas: The SPD has always acknowledged its international responsibility. We regularly approve or extend mandates for the German military in the Bundestag. At the moment, there are 10 such missions around the world. But for us, it is always important that there is a two-pronged approach. It has never been possible to resolve conflicts by military means alone such that sustainable peace is the result. Military and civil engagement always need to go hand in hand.
DER SPIEGEL: The problem of German security policy can be seen very clearly in Afghanistan. What happens if Donald Trump makes good on his announcement and brings half of the U.S. troops home before Jan. 20?
Maas: The United States assumes many functions in Afghanistan that enable the deployment of all the other soldiers. Specifically, for example, fighter jets for defending against attacks, or helicopters providing support to soldiers who are ambushed. If the U.S. unilaterally withdraws such essential troops, it could endanger the safety of all other soldiers in the country.
DER SPIEGEL: Would Germany’s military, the Bundeswehr, then have to pull out too?
Maas: We will not leave a single German soldier there if security cannot be guaranteed.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you hoping that the Americans will stay after all?
Maas: Peace talks are currently in process with the aim of reducing the international troop presence in Afghanistan starting in May. So, we are talking about a few months. A hasty withdrawal would destroy the achievements of the last 20 years. We are working on bringing this mission to an orderly conclusion.
DER SPIEGEL: You recently participated in a meeting with your fellow NATO foreign ministers in which you discussed proposals for reforming the alliance. One idea is to restrict the principle of unanimity. Do you think that’s the right way to go?
Maas: Militarily, NATO is well positioned, but as far as political decision-making is concerned, a lot needs to be done. NATO is about war and peace, life and death. As such, I doubt the veto will be abolished any time soon. But it could be that not all countries will be obliged to implement unanimous decisions in the future. That would strengthen NATO’s ability to act.
DER SPIEGEL: NATO sees itself as a community of values. How credible is that if the membership roster includes a country like Turkey under Erdoğan and countries like Poland and Hungary, which are not respecting rule-of-law principles?
Maas: That is precisely why it is so important to strengthen NATO in its role as a political organization. But there isn’t enough space given to the discussion about common values. We have to create that space.
DER SPIEGEL: We can see within the European Union just how difficult that dialogue is. Hungary and Poland are blocking the next EU budget, including the coronavirus aid package, because they are resisting the rule of law mechanism that has been built into it. Do you have a solution?
Maas: Even if I did, I couldn’t announce it here. But we definitely want to resolve this issue during the German presidency of the European Council.
DER SPIEGEL: Meaning by the end of this month.
Maas: There are many countries in Europe that are extremely dependent on the resources in the (corona) recovery fund. We have to facilitate a solution.
DER SPIEGEL: Would you be prepared to relax the rule of law mechanism?
Maas: We supported the rule of law mechanism for good reasons. It has been agreed upon. The European Parliament and many member states will not allow substantial changes. It can no longer be a question of “if.” At most, it can be a question of “how.”
DER SPIEGEL: The dominant theme in trans-Atlantic relations will be China. To what extent will competition between Beijing and Washington determine the future world order? And what place will Europe still have in it?
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 U.S. and Europe now come together again and develop a common strategy, this will open up completely different opportunities to talk to China not only about trade and economic issues, but also about human rights.
DER SPIEGEL: For that to happen, Joe Biden would have to abandon the U.S. strategy of “decoupling” from the Chinese economy. Will he do that?
Maas: In Europe, we have no interest in a complete decoupling. The world is far to globalized for that. We will not solve the problems of trade deficits or surpluses by simply imposing punitive tariffs on each other.
DER SPIEGEL: When talking about a new Cold War, America is referring directly to China. Europe, on the other hand, continues to rely on close cooperation with Beijing, despite the occasional criticism. How is this going to lead to a common strategy?
Maas: The closer the ties between the U.S. and Europe become, the greater the influence we can have on Beijing. Even if we do not agree on every point, we should coordinate closely. China is gradually expanding its political influence in the world through economic and trade policy activities. We urgently need a fundamental approach for dealing with this systemic rival.
DER SPIEGEL: Even if things change under Biden, the central conflicts remain – the dispute over Germany’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia, for example. To what extent does that cloud your hopes for a close partnership?
Maas: We have no illusions about that. There are very few differences of opinion between the Republicans and Democrats on that issue. But here too, a new tone and a different form of debate will help us make progress on the matter.
DER SPIEGEL: By demanding that the threat of U.S. sanctions against the European companies participating in the project be withdrawn?
Maas: We Europeans are of the opinion that these extraterritorial sanctions are not legal. That is not going to change.
DER SPIEGEL: Wouldn’t it send a strong signal to the new president if Germany simply abandoned the highly controversial project?
Maas: From a purely economic point of view, the U.S. is also interested in selling its own liquid natural gas. I don’t see any problem with improving Germany’s infrastructure for that purpose. Politically, we see the situation differently from the U.S.: Nord Stream 2 will not make us dependent on anyone.
DER SPIEGEL: You called for calm following the assassination of the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Is it possible to remain level-headed in the face of such a violation of international law?
Maas: I think it would be irresponsible, especially in a case like that, if we did not keep our calm. We have already seen where the strategy of maximum pressure from the U.S. has led. There has been no progress on any issue with Iran – on the contrary. We have seen how little the nuclear deal is worth when the U.S. fights against it from the sidelines – with sanctions against Iran and threats against European companies doing business in Iran.
DER SPIEGEL: The question is whether you consider such an attack to be a legitimate instrument.
Maas: No. In abstract terms, there may be situations where international law may allow for preventing persons from carrying out a specific action – to prevent imminent crimes such as attacks, for example. But the risk of this making the situation even more dangerous is obvious.
DER SPIEGEL: Following the attack, has a return of the U.S. and Iran to the negotiating table become a distant prospect?
Maas: A return to the previous agreement will not suffice anyway. There will have to be a kind of “nuclear agreement plus,” which is also in our interest. We have clear expectations of Iran: no nuclear weapons, but also no ballistic missile program that threatens the entire region. Iran also needs to play a different role in the region. We need this agreement precisely because we distrust Iran. I have already coordinated with my French and British counterparts on this.
DER SPIEGEL: And what must be offered to Iran?
Maas: There has to be a signal. The decisive factor will be whether the U.S. relaxes the economic sanctions against Iran. Both sides need to take steps toward each other. Time is running out because presidential elections are set to be held in Iran next year.
DER SPIEGEL: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas asked the Germans in 2017 to get more actively involved in the Middle East peace process. But his call obviously went unheard.
Maas: I don’t know where you get that impression. We have established a permanent discussion 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 at the Holocaust Memorial is just one example of the important role we play in the Middle East peace process.
DER SPIEGEL: The initiative for this rapprochement came from Donald Trump, not from Germany. The Palestinians don’t see it as progress – they see it as betrayal. Do you not have to admit that the two-state solution is simply no longer realistic?
Maas: What Trump did not reflect our position in this matter, because the two-state solution no longer made an appearance. It nevertheless generated movement. I do not have the impression that those who are now taking the helm in Washington will now quietly bury the negotiated two-state solution.
DER SPIEGEL: In your inaugural speech after taking office, you said that you initially 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 there. Recently, for example, I invited the Israeli foreign minister to the informal EU Council, Where he announced that Israel’s annexation plans are off the table. We agreed that the tense relationship between Israel and the EU needs to be improved. Similarly, I am striving for a sensible relationship with Poland. There is hardly any other country that I have visited more often.
DER SPIEGEL: A major Berlin newspaper recently profiled you and wrote that there is nothing about which you are particularly passionate. Did that bother you?
Maas: I haven’t read profiles about me for quite a while. They only cloud your view of yourself in one way or the other. It is simply an element of my job to be judged all the time. But sometimes the assessments say more about the writer than about the person being written about. It would also be politically ill-advised to try and please everyone. Sorry, I am staying as I am.
DER SPIEGEL: What will your political position be next fall, following the German election? Opposition leader in German parliament?
Maas: I will do my part to ensure that the SPD’s election result will be different from what the polls currently indicate. Plus: In light of the challenges we are facing in Germany, it would be silly to spend your time musing about your personal future.