Why can't helicopters travel transatlantic?

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Question: Mr. Maas, have you already called Antony Blinken, your future counterpart in the USA?

Foreign Minister Maas: No. It is important to the new colleagues in Washington to strictly adhere to all rules until Joe Biden takes office on January 20, which means: no contact with foreign governments before taking office.

Question: Have you ever come across Blinken?

Maas: Not yet personally, but of course I followed what he represented during his time in the State Department or in other functions. Blinken stands for international responsibility and cooperation. We have waited a long time for this.

Question: That is why you and your French colleague immediately called for a transatlantic “New Deal”. Sounds good, but what does that mean exactly?

Maas: A return of the USA to the international stage will change a lot, because together we stand for a cooperative approach. Europe and the USA must again work more closely together strategically. We must not 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 offer autocratic actors space for their games. We Europeans are ready to do our part to guarantee peace, democracy and human rights in alliance with the USA.

Question: What specific offers are you making to the new leadership in the USA?

Maas: Europe has developed common skills. We want to further strengthen the European pillar in NATO. We take responsibility for security policy - from the Sahel to the Mediterranean Sea to the Near and Middle East. We must consistently continue on this path, out of our own security interests and for a balanced partnership with the USA. And we have to clearly define our regional political interests together with the USA. How do we act together towards China or Iran? How do we live up to our responsibilities in Afghanistan or Iraq? To hope now for the return of the old days would be deceptive. The US will not return to the role of world policeman.

Question: There is already a dispute in Europe about the new cooperation. The German defense minister emphasizes our dependence on the USA, especially when it comes to security issues. The French President calls for European sovereignty. Who is right?

Maas: The argument is very rhetorical. European sovereignty - or strategic autonomy, as the French call it - is currently a motto of our German EU Council Presidency. It is a prerequisite for the transatlantic relationship to function again, and not a contradiction in terms.

Question: Is your party even ready to resume security cooperation with the USA? Your parliamentary group leader, Rolf Mützenich, has called for an end to nuclear participation, i.e. the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Germany.

Maas: The SPD has always acknowledged its international responsibility. In the Bundestag, we regularly decide or extend Bundeswehr mandates; at the moment there are ten all over the world. For us, however, it is always important that there is a double approach. Conflicts have never been resolved militarily in such a way that there is lasting peace. Military and civil engagement must always go hand in hand.

Question: In Afghanistan you can see the problem of German security policy very clearly. What if Donald Trump makes his announcement come true and brings half of the US troops home before January 20?

Maas: The United States takes on many functions in Afghanistan that enable all other soldiers to be deployed. Specifically, it is about fighter jets that can be used to defend against attacks. About helicopters that assist soldiers when they are ambushed. If the US unilaterally withdraws such essential troops, it could endanger the safety of all other soldiers there.

Question: So the Bundeswehr must then also withdraw.

Maas: We won't leave a single German soldier there if security cannot be guaranteed.

Question: Are you speculating that the Americans will stay after all?

Maas: At the moment there are peace talks with the aim of reducing the international troop presence in Afghanistan from May onwards. So it's about a few months. A hasty retreat would destroy what has been achieved over the past 20 years. We are working to ensure that this mission is brought to an orderly conclusion.

Question: You have just sat down with your fellow foreign ministers at NATO and listened to the proposals for reforming the alliance. One idea is to restrict the principle of unanimity in the future. Do you think that's right?

Maas: NATO is well positioned militarily, but there is a lot to be done when it comes to political decision-making. NATO is about war and peace, life and death. I doubt whether the veto will be abolished quickly. But in the future it could be the case that NATO will unanimously decide on something, but not all countries will have to implement this decision. This would strengthen NATO's ability to act.

Question: NATO sees itself as a community of values. How credible is that - with Turkey under Erdoğan as a member or countries like Poland and Hungary in which the rule of law is being damaged?

Maas: That is exactly why it is so important to strengthen NATO in its role as a political organization. But there is not enough space for discussing common values. We have to create it.

Question: We are currently seeing in the EU how difficult the dialogue about this is. Hungary and Poland are blocking the financial framework, including Corona aid, because they are defending themselves against the so-called rule of law mechanism. Do you have a solution?

Maas: Even if I had it, I couldn't publish it here. But we definitely want to resolve the issue during the German Council Presidency.

Question: So this month.

Maas: There are many countries in Europe that are extremely dependent on the means of the reconstruction fund. We have to make a solution possible.

Question: Would you be prepared to relax the rule of law mechanism?

Maas: We advocated the rule of law mechanism for good reasons. Now it's decided. With the EU Parliament and many member states, it will not be possible to attack it in substance. It can no longer be a question of "whether", at most the "how".

Question: The dominant theme in transatlantic relations will be China. How much does the competition between Beijing and Washington determine the future world order? And what place does Europe still have there?

Maas: For Europe, China is on the one hand an economic partner and on the other a systemic rival. Washington is a close partner with whom we share core values. If the US and Europe come together again and develop a common strategy, it will open up completely different opportunities to talk to China not only about trade and economic issues, but also about human rights.

Question: To do this, Joe Biden would have to move away from the US strategy of “decoupling”, that is, of disconnecting from the Chinese economy. Will he do that?

Maas: We in Europe are not interested in a complete decoupling, the world is far too globalized for that. We will not solve the problems of trade deficits or surpluses by just imposing punitive tariffs on each other.

Question: America means China when it speaks of a new Cold War. Europe, on the other hand, relies on close cooperation with Beijing despite occasional criticism. How is this supposed to turn into a common strategy?

Maas: The closer the alliance between the US and Europe, the greater our influence 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. Having a basic line on how to deal with this systemic rival is urgently needed.

Question: Even if a lot will change under Biden, central conflicts will remain. For example the dispute over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. How much does that spoil your hopes for a close partnership?

Maas: We have no illusions about that. There is little difference of opinion between the Republicans and the Democrats. But even there, a new tone and a different form of discussion will help us make progress in the matter.

Question: By calling for the threatened US sanctions against the European companies involved to be withdrawn?

Maas: We Europeans are of the opinion that these extraterritorial sanctions are not lawful. Nothing will change about that.

Question: Wouldn't it be a strong signal for the new president to simply distance himself from the highly controversial project?

Maas: From a purely economic point of view, the US is also concerned with selling its own liquefied gas. I don't see any problem in improving the infrastructure in Germany for this. Politically, we see the situation differently than the USA: With Nord Stream 2, we do not make ourselves dependent on anyone.

Question: After the assassination attempt on the Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, you called for prudence. Can one remain prudent in the event of a murder that is allegedly illegal under international law?

Maas: In such a case, I would find it irresponsible if we did not remain prudent. We have seen where the US strategy of maximum pressure has led. There was no progress whatsoever with Iran on any subject - on the contrary. We have seen how little the nuclear deal is worth if the US fights it from the sidelines - with sanctions against Iran and threats against European companies doing business in Iran.

Question: The question is: Do you consider such an attack to be a legitimate means?

Maas: No. In the abstract, there may be situations in which it can be covered by international law to prevent people from carrying out an action in order to avert concretely imminent criminal offenses such as attacks. But the risks that this will make the situation even more dangerous are obvious.

Question: Has a return of the USA and Iran to the negotiating table been a long way off after the attack?

Maas: A return to the previous agreement will not be enough anyway. There will have to be a kind of “Nuclear Plus Agreement”, 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 has a different role to play in the region. We need this agreement precisely because we distrust Iran. I have already coordinated this with my French and British colleagues.

Question: And what offer do you have to make to Iran?

Maas: There has to be a signal that the decisive factor will be whether the USA relaxes economic sanctions against Iran. Both sides have to come together. Time is running out because Iran will have presidential elections next year.

Question: Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas asked the Germans in 2017 to become more actively involved in the Middle East peace process. His call apparently went unheard.

Maas: I don't know how you got that impression. We have established a fixed 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 and his colleague from the United Arab Emirates recently met for the first time here in Berlin at the Holocaust Memorial is just one sign of the important role we play in the Middle East peace process.

Question: The initiative for this rapprochement did not come from Germany, but from Donald Trump. It is seen by the Palestinians not as progress but as betrayal. Don't you have to admit that the two-state solution is simply no longer realistic?

Maas: What Trump did was not our position on the matter because the two-state solution in fact no longer emerged. Still, it caused movement. I do not have the impression that those who are now taking the helm in Washington will silently bury the negotiated two-state solution.

Question: In your inaugural address you said that you went into politics because of Auschwitz. How specifically has this motivation been reflected in your foreign policy?

Maas: We have deepened our relations with Israel and have become a mediator there. For example, I recently invited the Israeli Foreign Minister to the informal Council of the European Union. There he announced that the annexation plans of Israel are off the table. We agreed that the more than tense relationship between Israel and the EU must be improved again. I also try to maintain a reasonable relationship with Poland. There is hardly a country that I have visited more often.

Question: Does it affect you when a portrait says that you are burned for nothing?

Maas: I haven't read portraits of myself for a long time. They only cloud the self-assessment in one direction or the other. It is part of my job that you constantly have to be judged. Sometimes the assessments say more about whoever writes them than who they are being described. It would also be fatal to orient politics towards doing justice to everyone. Sorry, I'll stay the way I am.


Interview: Christiane Hoffmann, Martin Knobbe