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“We cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand.” 

08.06.2018 - Interview

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in an interview with the Sueddeutsche Zeitung on 6 June 2018.

Mr Maas, US President Donald Trump has buried the climate agreement and pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran. And he has started a trade war, with no one able to say how and where it will end. What remains of the world we used to know?
That is something we will have to see over the coming months, maybe even years. The decisions Donald Trump has taken are all, without exception, unilateral decisions. He has taken them knowing that the disadvantages will directly affect Europe. Ending the nuclear deal with Iran has a huge impact on our security interests. Iran is part of our extended neighbourhood. We were used to being able to rely on agreements that had been reached. That has changed completely.

Would you prefer now to disappear for a while, saying to yourself “Trump has arrived on the scene, but Trump will disappear again, and then all the fuss will be over”?
Precisely now is when we cannot afford to bury our heads in the sand. We cannot afford to avoid dealing with Russia, or the United States, or the various international conflicts. We are experiencing very far-reaching change which uniformly follows one principle: rejecting the multilateral order in favour of unilaterally defined interests. One country is placed above another. None of this will make the world better, safer or more peaceful. So I am pleased that the European Union’s response has been one of great unity. The only possible answer to “America first” is “Europe united”. The challenge is one facing Europe, not just Germany, and so we need a European response.

Even so, when Donald Trump was elected, Federal Chancellor Merkel, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and your predecessor, Sigmar Gabriel, all said Germany would have to stand more on its own two feet. What does that mean specifically?
We Germans need to be clear that we will have to devote more efforts in future to peace and security. For example, we are increasing expenditure on civic engagement and defence. And we are stepping up our engagement at international level. We are involved in a great number of UN peacekeeping missions. In addition, we want to – and we must – cooperate more closely in Europe on defence policy where we do not already do so. However, this cooperation must not be limited to the military. No conflict in the world can be resolved for good by military means alone.

What conclusion do you draw from that?
In the conflict with Iran, we are the ones who are looking with Europe, but also with Russia and China, for political ways to keep the deal alive. We do not want to submit to the sanctions regime the Americans have announced. Even if it isn’t going to be easy, we will do everything possible to uphold the agreement.

That sounds resolute, but also a little bit helpless. What can Berlin really do in such conflicts?
With regard to the conflict in Syria, we are once again sitting at the negotiating table, in part because I pushed for it. I made sure that we are not merely invited to the meetings about money. If we go about it the right way, we may be able to build a bridge between the Russians and Iranians on the one side and the Americans, Europeans and Saudis on the other. We want to implement the UN-led process successfully.

But so far without success. Those believing there will only be a political solution have so far not prevailed. It is the Russians, Syrians and Iranians who have gained ground – with war, death and displacement. 
Nonetheless, we will not stop looking for political settlements. In the Ukraine crisis, it is we who are making sure that the parties to the conflict return to the negotiating table. They have agreed to come to a meeting in Berlin on 11 June.

America used to be a factor of stability, providing us in Europe with considerable security. Today, through their actions, the Americans are endangering the security of Europe.
The political Atlantic has widened since Donald Trump assumed office. And so we in Europe need to stand even more closely together. Under this Administration, we can no longer rely unreservedly on America. If we are to maintain our partnership with the United States, we will need to tweak it. What is more, we need to consider in what formations we can still achieve something.

What do you mean by that?
The first response can only ever be a united Europe. Beyond that, we are now seeing how often we find ourselves in partnership with different countries on various different issues. Even outside the traditional alliances like NATO. When it comes to the nuclear deal, we Europeans are in an interest group with the Iranians, Russians and Chinese; on Syria, we are working towards a solution with the Americans, the Saudis and our European partners. Many of the certainties of the past few decades are no longer certainties today.

What does it mean for the UN Security Council and Berlin’s role if on Friday Germany is elected to a non-permanent seat for a two year period?
To me it means above all else that the UN Security Council and the United Nations must not lose any of their significance. Others are trying to ensure the opposite: the policy of exercising their veto various sides are pursuing is an example.

Given this obstructionism, isn’t the Security Council an instrument of the last century?
That is what we have to prevent. We need a functioning United Nations. Whether Syria, Iran or Ukraine – we want to resolve these crises through negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations. Competing formats like in the Syria conflict do not bring progress.

That sounds well and good. But the thing is, we have lost faith.
That is something I cannot understand. Let’s take Ukraine. We want to establish a UN peace mission there. The two sides are still a long way apart when it comes to the detail, but they are at least ready to talk to us about it. Surely that’s a good reason to keep at it. As a non-permanent member, we will be at the negotiating table, also if there are discussions about the nuclear deal with Iran. That increases the possibilities open to us. And we will make use of them.

Do you already have your Security Council agenda planned?
There are many ongoing crises and conflicts that we have been dragging around with us for far too long already and that need a lasting solution. So the list is actually longer. Besides, it is also a matter of ensuring that the UN retains its function. The less of an interest other states have in strengthening the UN, the more resolutely we need to stand up for a rules-based global order and for international cooperation. We need to form alliances, alliances for a multilateral world. Europe will play a very important role here. However, the question goes far beyond that.

So you want a new alliance of multilateralists?
Exactly. An alliance of those who want to preserve the multilateral global order. Countries like Canada, or some states in Latin America. We need more international cooperation, not less – including with states which do not find it so easy to get their voices heard. Before launching our candidature, for example, we coordinated closely with the African Union. The Africans are giving our candidature such broad support because we were able credibly to convince them that our reason for seeking election is not just to put our interests above those of others. The same is true of some Pacific island states. We have told them that we want to make the link between climate protection and security clearer. We need to be a voice for them, too.

As the representative of the small and weak? 
Clearly we need to take a new approach to finding alliance partners. That is one aspect of the overriding subject of taking on more responsibility.

Does Germany have to close the divides the Americans are opening up?
There’s no blanket answer to that. But of course we are seeing how the United States, a stabilising power on a grand scale, is withdrawing from the United Nations. If I look at how the funding for UNRWA is being cut, from 360 million dollars in previous years to 60 million this year, then it becomes clear that we are going to have to think very hard with other states about how we can offset America’s withdrawal.

Is it at all possible? 
I think it would be a bit too simplistic to say that someone else needs to assume America’s role. America has not disappeared. It will still be there, but will be asserting its interests in a very different way. 

A whole lot of damage has already been done to transatlantic relations.
The United States will remain our closest partner outside Europe. However, we will have to recalibrate this partnership. We can only do that in a self-confident Europe. To be honest, I would never have dreamed that as Foreign Minister I would find myself in the situation of having to explain that we Europeans need to respond to a US decision with countermeasures. What is more, given all the changes, and the resulting lack of transparency, we need clear language in diplomacy too: when talking to each other, but also so as to give people orientation. There are differences, and we can no longer brush them under the carpet. That is true looking west as well as looking east.

What do you mean by that? 
I mean it is true of the US just as it is of Russia. 

Your party has gone through a difficult phase; the subject was relations with Russia. The conclusion: we need to keep open many channels of communication, but clear criticism must also be possible. Are you going to be having the same debate about Trump?
These are important questions on which we absolutely need a public policy debate. We have a great interest in preserving the transatlantic partnership. But both sides have to do their bit. It is not the case that everyone in the United States is applauding everything Donald Trump is doing. The debates within the US involve much criticism too. We have to maintain a dialogue also with civil society in America.

When you are talking about the situation in the world, you like to talk about tectonic shifts. By that you are referring not only to the ruptures with the United States, but also to China. Beijing’s influence in the world is increasing dramatically, also on countries within the EU. How worried are you?
Very. These are huge changes, huge shifts in power. Old certainties have been swept aside. This has opened up scope. China has recognised that and is taking a very strategic approach. That really cannot be overestimated.

China is trying to draw individual eastern European states onto its side by investing billions. Is that undermining Europe’s unity?
This is interest-driven politics. Beijing does not usually try to talk to the EU as a whole, because if it did it would face much bigger problems and encounter a united EU. They have long realised that it might be much better to focus on individual states.

Does that not worry you?
We take a very sceptical view. Our goal must be to maintain Europe’s united stance. What we tell these EU states, very clearly, is this: you cannot expect to enjoy the advantages of the EU while at the same time closing bilateral deals with China that serve only your own isolated interests.

The Federal Government would like an EU members’ non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council to be developed into a European seat. So will Berlin feed in Europe’s interests if Germany becomes a member of the Council?
If we are elected, of course we will interpret our seat in an extremely European way. If we say we need European unity, then we cannot simply be the voice of Germany. We will have to be the voice of Germany in the European context.

Chancellor Merkel is apparently going even further. She is calling for a kind of European Security Council. Do you support this proposal?
The idea stems from one of my predecessors as Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and his French counterpart at the time, Jean-Marc Ayrault. I completely agree with it. UN Secretary-General António Guterres wants to reform not only the United Nations, but also the Security Council. He can count on our support, even if it won’t be easy to persuade the permanent members to share the rights they enjoy. It is equally urgent that we consider new forms of coordination in Europe. Especially as the structures in the UN Security Council generally no longer reflect the realities of power in today’s world. The Africans have joined together in the African Union. They, too, should have stronger representation in the Security Council.

You have described how important a stronger UN would be. And you have outlined how anachronistic the Security Council is. So are you backing an old nag with your candidature? Shouldn’t the strongest Europeans combine to try something new?
No and yes. No, because the Security Council is not futile; it is worth our wholehearted commitment. We must do everything possible to strengthen the UN again. At the same time, however, in response to this complex new world, we must start with us Europeans. With the principle of unanimity in foreign and security policy, for example. In future, majority decisions should be possible, too. So yes, we need to dare to do new things and to do more in Europe. The principle of unanimity should no longer be set in stone. If we retain it, then it will again and again lead to individual states preventing decisions. We need change here if we are to be able to act and if we are to be able to react much better and faster.

The historian Herfried Münkler has raised the idea of a German or European peace corps comprising not only soldiers but also development workers, lawyers, police officers and doctors. Might that be a possible way to give European foreign policy a completely new look?
In principle it is about exactly that; the current plans for a new joined-up foreign policy aim to strengthen not only defence-policy instruments, but also civil instruments.

You describe dramatic ruptures and call for clear responses. If you look at Trump and at China, how much time would you say we have to find an adequate response to the new situation?
Given what is happening and changing in the world just now, we have absolutely no time to lose. I believe we Europeans could, indeed should, agree on the political principles for our common future even before the European elections.

(Interview conducted by Stefan Braun and Mike Szymanski)