‘Trump Could Hardly Have Chosen a Worse Moment’

In a DER SPIEGEL interview, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas laments America’s rejection of multilateralism and says that Donald Trump does not view the U.S. as the leading power among liberal democracies. He’s hoping to save the INF.


German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas – January 7, 2019 in Berlin.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, United States President Donald Trump has turned against a global order based on international rules and agreements. In response, you called for the creation of an “Alliance of Multilateralists” last summer. How is that alliance coming along?

Maas: It’s growing. Many countries are seriously concerned that the principle of might makes right is once again being applied internationally.

DER SPIEGEL: What concrete steps are you taking?

Maas: We have taken initial steps together with France and Canada and are now working on specific issues. All those who have an interest in a reliable international world order must now do more for it. The alliance should be an open network for all those who value the power of law and who feel bound by a rules-based order so as to cooperate even more closely in international organizations, at the United Nations, in the Human Rights Council.

DER SPIEGEL: Thus far, the alliance has hardly been visible.

Maas: Diplomatic agreements don’t always take place in the public spotlight. We are in contact with many European partners, we have spoken about it with our Japanese counterparts, my Australian counterpart called me about it, South Africa is interested — to name just a few. The demand is significant, which is why we are currently in the process of flushing out the alliance.

DER SPIEGEL: Is it an anti-Trump alliance?

Maas: No, but our purpose is to stand in opposition to those who have declared war on the multilateral world. In the face of globally rising nationalism, we want to show the value and concrete benefit that international cooperation still has.

DER SPIEGEL: How realistic is a multilateral order that does not include the most economically and politically powerful countries — the U.S., Russia and China?

Maas: We aren’t interested in multilateralism as an end unto itself, but as the best way to address the huge challenges facing us in the 21st century. On many issues, that is something that the big countries also have an interest in. We will try to take the initiative and work together, so we can exert pressure and, for example, get our issues on the agenda of international organizations.

DER SPIEGEL: One issue where Trump has abandoned multilateralism is Iran policy. The U.S. has withdrawn from the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. In response, the EU would like to establish a payment system that is independent of the dollar, to enable continued economic cooperation with Iran. How far along is this payment system?

Maas: I am hopeful that we will be able to finalize the payment channel in the coming weeks. We are working urgently to clarify the final requirements — such as determining the country where the mechanism will be headquartered. That isn’t easy in a confrontative situation with the U.S. because it is, of course, trying to exert pressure.

DER SPIEGEL: How reliable are the Americans as a partner for Germany and Europe? Can we still depend on the U.S. when it comes to our external security?

Maas: We certainly can no longer assume that we will be involved in decisions, that we will be consulted. The most recent example is the announcement that American troops are to be withdrawn from Syria. We were not informed in advance of the abrupt change in course. The UN was in the process of establishing a political process for Syria, we were engaged in negotiations about a constitution committee and things were actually looking quite positive. Trump could hardly have chosen a worse moment.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you think the U.S. might also pull out of Europe?

Maas: For Trump, the U.S. is no longer the leading power among liberal democracies. He is more representative of unilateralism. That has long since become reality and it is something we have to deal with. Our response can only be that of a unified and sovereign Europe. None of our countries are strong enough on their own to tackle the current challenges. It is in our innate interests that we Europeans take on more responsibility for our own security.

DER SPIEGEL: Is that something Europe is able to do?

Maas: We have further developed the EU’s joint security and defense policy. Within Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), we have taken important steps in the military sphere. For the first time, member states have expressed their willingness to improve their military capabilities jointly and in cooperation. The process is underway and must continue. And we want to become more involved in crisis prevention and establish a center for that purpose in Germany. Security is not exclusively a military question. That tends to be where you end up when it is already too late.

DER SPIEGEL: Closer cooperation with countries like France has failed due to, for example, divergent standards for military exports. Does Germany have to be more prepared to compromise on such issues?

Maas: On joint projects, we can’t just transfer responsibility and act like we no longer have any accountability. We cannot be indifferent about where defense exports end up. Compared to others in Europe, our standards are very restrictive. And we want to keep it that way. That too is part of the large degree of trust we encounter internationally.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you expect the French or other European countries to conform to German standards?

Maas: No, but those who join us for projects will have to accept the fact there are good reasons we take a close look at such decisions and must retain a certain degree of authority over them.

DER SPIEGEL: The Americans have announced their intention to withdraw from the INF Treaty, which regulates ground-based, intermediate-range nuclear missiles. What consequence will that have for European security?

Maas: First of all, we are doing all we can to salvage the treaty. But unfortunately, the chances for doing so don’t look good. Russia has been violating the treaty for years, which is something Barack Obama also criticized. At the last meeting of NATO foreign ministers, we officially declared Russia in violation of the treaty.

DER SPIEGEL: The U.S. has given Russia until Feb. 2 to return to compliance. What has Germany, what have you personally, done to salvage the treaty?

Maas: In weeks of negotiations, we were able to secure this 60-day deadline. That has made further talks feasible. And Russia has since declared its willingness to talk. Now, the focus is on getting the Russian side to clarify the accusations and return to treaty compliance. That is something on which we will continue to insist.

DER SPIEGEL: Will shuttle diplomacy between Washington and Moscow become necessary?

Maas: We are in talks with the U.S. and Russia at all levels. I have already spoken with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about the issue on several occasions. And I will certainly continue talking with him about it. At the same time, it is also true that we must develop new, global rules for transparency and control, independent of the INF. The issue of medium-range missiles has long since expanded beyond just the U.S. and Russia. And that is why we are promoting a dialogue that also includes China and other countries.

DER SPIEGEL: If the INF no longer reflects current realities, isn’t withdrawal a legitimate response?

Maas: We would like to retain the treaty while at the same time using our seat on the United Nations Security Council to launch an initiative for a new international arms-control architecture. Modern, automated weapons systems have emerged in the last decades that are barely mentioned in international treaties. As such, the treaty focusing on medium-range missiles is no longer sufficient.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you not worried about a 1980s-style rearmament debate if the effort fails?

Maas: The Cold War times have passed. We don’t need an rearmament debate, we need a debate about disarming. We cannot answer today’s security questions with the deterrence ideologies from last century.

DER SPIEGEL: What is the alternative?

Maas: All countries that are in possession of nuclear deterrence, not just the U.S. and Russia, must sit down at the same table and talk about how we can establish a new arms-control architecture. After all, everyone ultimately wants a world without nuclear weapons.

DER SPIEGEL: Let’s be realistic: That’s completely illusory. Neither China nor the U.S. have thus far indicated any interest in such a conference, much less in global arms control.

Maas: We will doggedly ensure that the issue finds a place on the agenda. Even if we are unable to save the INF Treaty, we cannot allow the result to be a renewed arms race. We cannot establish peace and security against one another, only with one another.

DER SPIEGEL: If Russia is in possession of medium-range missiles, doesn’t the West have to respond?

Maas: European security will not be improved by deploying more nuclear-armed, medium-range missiles. I believe that is the wrong answer.

DER SPIEGEL: Other countries, particularly Eastern European members of NATO, are likely to have a different viewpoint.

Maas: Thus far, we in NATO have always managed to reach agreement because all of us know that unity is extremely valuable. We should resist being forced into sham debates. The alliance has continually shown that we take seriously the interests of Eastern Europeans, who feel more threatened by Russia than others. That is why we strengthened troop presence in Poland and the Baltic countries following Russia’s occupation of Crimea. Germany in particular is highly involved.

DER SPIEGEL: Could an arms debate lead to a conflict within Germany’s governing coalition, which pairs your center-left Social Democrats (SPD) with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU)?

Maas: That will depend on how the CDU positions itself. But the issue is too sensitive for tactical political games. It is about a solution, and my position is extremely clear: Germany must remain a power for peace.

DER SPIEGEL: Do you believe that the coalition will survive until the end of the legislative period?

Maas: Yes. The reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated. We must successfully emphasize what we are doing to provide concrete improvement to people’s lives. When it comes to labor and education, we have introduced a lot of different things. But there is still a lot to do.

DER SPIEGEL: The party is set to decide this summer if it wants to remain a part of the current coalition with the CDU or abandon it altogether. Do you think the party will choose to remain?

Maas: I will certainly fight for that. With an election result of 20 percent, we have step-by-step improved the situation of the people in Germany. In foreign policy, we have positioned Germany as a reliable partner in the world. It is a debate I look forward to. Simply abandoning the coalition is not a strategy.

DER SPIEGEL: Your popularity has risen since you became foreign minister. But support for your party continues to fall.

Maas: I wish it was the other way around.

DER SPIEGEL: You come from the tiny state of Saarland, as does the new head of the CDU, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Are you happy that she was chosen to lead the conservatives?

Maas: I have known Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer for a long time. Despite all of our political differences, I respect her personally and believe she is a reliable politician. And in politics, I consider reliability to be a valuable commodity.

DER SPIEGEL: Would you vote for Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer for chancellor?

Maas: I would really like to have the chance to vote for someone from the SPD for chancellor.


Maas: We’ll find someone good.

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Minister, we thank you for this interview.

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