Those who follow German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Twitter and other social media can be excused for occasionally feeling a sense of displacement. Especially in the early months of his tenure, after taking office in March 2018, the man from the Saarland, Germany’s tiniest, western-most federal state, kept a high profile—when commenting on domestic politics.
Of course, it’s proper and laudable to condemn anti-Semitism and racism in Germany, to express sorrow about the Holocaust and World War II, and to warn against a resurgence of Nazism or Nazi thought. But observers couldn’t help feeling that Maas, who had previously served as Justice Minister, was focusing too much on home affairs. Germany’s place in Europe and the world? Not so much.
That’s not entirely his fault. His party, Germany’s center-left Social Democrats (SPD), having reluctantly entered into yet another “grand” coalition with Angela Merkel and her center-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) despite heavy losses, desperately wanted to get rid of his predecessor, erstwhile SPD leader Sigmar Gabriel, who actually quite enjoyed himself as “Germany’s chief diplomat.” After years of infighting and maneuvering, however, Gabriel had few friends left within the SPD leadership. So Maas, a lawyer by training who had happily run the justice ministry for the previous five years, was sent to head the Foreign Office.
Two-and-a-half years on, Maas has certainly grown into his role. The impression that he is somehow an imperfect fit has not disappeared, though. What’s more, Germany’s European Council presidency has propelled Maas into an uncomfortable spotlight. While much of Germany’s European policy is made by Merkel and the chancellery, as well as by fellow Social Democrat and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz—who is pushing the EU energetically toward the communalization of debt and, thus, fiscal union—there is space for an active German foreign minister taking on a European leadership role. Indeed, the various trouble spots that have popped up this summer in the EU’s immediate neighborhood—Belarus, Turkey, Lebanon—would have been good fits for the thinking-on-one’s-feet and deft troubleshooting of a Joschka Fischer or a Hans-Dietrich Genscher.
But that’s not Maas’ strong suit. He, and his SPD, are most comfortable in a world where all conflicts are solved by compromise and cooperation, within an EU that—by much-fabled “solidarity” or possibly voodoo politics—is getting ever stronger, and within multilateral formats. “The commitment to multilateral rules and procedures has been the foreign policy foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany since its foundation,” Maas told us in a recent interview with INTERNATIONALE POLITIK (September/October issue).
“It is based on the lessons we have learned as those responsible for World War II and the incomprehensible crimes committed by Germans at that time: that we must replace the law of the strongest with the strength of the law, that the protection of human rights is a responsibility of the entire world community, that openness based on common rules—and not compartmentalization and egotism—promotes prosperity and prevents conflicts.”
And he has certainly acted on this conviction. Together with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, Maas launched the Alliance for Multilateralism on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September 2019; 65 countries have since joined. “It was an important move at the time,” says Ronja Scheler, program director international affairs at Körber Stiftung and one of Germany’s leading experts on Berlin’s recent multilateralism offensive, pointing to the Trump administration’s manifold attempts at the time to sabotage the very order the United States had created. “What was missing from the start, however, was the geopolitical dimensions,” Scheler adds.
The Powerless Power
And that’s the rub. Maas, and by extension, Germany’s Social Democrats, don’t want to do power politics, or Machtpolitik, these days. While the usual EU chaos when it comes to forming common foreign policy positions plays a role (presently the German EU presidency, the European External Action Services headed by High Representative Josep Borrell, and the European Council President Charles Michel seem at loggerheads as to who takes the lead in which crisis), Germany’s foreign minister seems hesitant to take a stronger lead on any of the brewing troubles exactly because it would mean getting one’s hands dirty geopolitically.
And there might be a heavy price to pay, in particular with regard to Belarus. Maas’ visit to Belarus’ neighbor Ukraine on Monday was a reminder of that, but also that European inactivity, or complacency, has a cost. The following day, he was off—laudably—to Athens and Ankara, after having come under heavy pressure from Paris for trying to play a mediating role rather than clearly siding with EU member Greece in the escalating dispute about natural reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean. Germany will then host European foreign ministers on Thursday and Friday in Berlin with Borrell in the chair. However, hopes for a breakthrough, are low.
Simply demanding that “disputes need to be resolved,” as in Turkey’s confrontation with Greece, or generally declaring a state of affairs “unacceptable,” as Maas did in our interview regarding the fact that UN Security Council is too often deadlocked, doesn’t move any needles in international affairs these days, if it ever did. Without a readiness to deal with the world as it is, and getting into the mix, there is the risk of losing sight of the honorable principles and convictions clearly deeply held by Germany’s foreign minister.
Henning Hoff is executive editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.