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New Wine in Old Bottles: Germany and Conflict Prevention at the UN


Germany’s defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, visiting the European Union training forces in Mali. Germany has troops in that contingent as well as in the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali. JORGE GUILLEN/EFE

BERLIN — Just as Germany’s run for a nonpermanent seat on the United Nations Security Council for the 2019-20 term is gathering steam, its government has published a new white paper, titled “Preventing Crises, Managing Conflicts, Building Peace.” In this release, Germany promises to become more active in the mostly civilian aspects of conflict prevention and crisis management.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, however, should not rush to pin his hopes on Germany as a new champion of his prevention agenda: the white paper is not the qualitative jump in strategic engagement with the UN that many had hoped for and that the world body needs right now.

Germany increasingly wants to pull its weight in international crisis management, partly as a response to the disruptive effects of humanitarian crises and intractable conflicts at home. At the same time, the expectations of Germany’s international partners are growing against the backdrop of contemporary diplomacy’s “permanent crisis mode,” as former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it last year.

As a result, four German ministries — foreign affairs, defense, development and interior — worked together for more than a year to draft the white paper, the government’s first conceptual statement on conflict prevention and crisis management in more than 10 years.

Focusing on internal conflicts and fragile states, the 73-page document prioritizes prevention over reaction and emphasizes a positive vision of peace with a strong focus on development, human rights and mediation. This approach resonates with the secretary-general’s prevention agenda and ties into the UN’s larger “sustaining peace” framework. In addition, engaging with the UN is a “strategic priority,” a clear step forward compared with previous official documents, such as the 2016 white paper on German security policy and future of the German armed forces.

Will Germany become Guterres’s closest ally in conflict prevention? Not quite. For one, while the white paper does a strong analytical job in identifying challenges to improve prevention, it largely lacks concrete steps to overcome them.

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Consider the issue of early warning and action. The tricky question is how to bridge the gap between the two to prevent the outbreak or escalation of crises. Although there is no silver bullet, engaging in political analysis, devising a course of action and conducting talks are certainly essential parts of the solution. This requires having people on the ground that can perform these tasks. Yet the dearth of diplomats, and what can be done about it, receives little attention in the paper. Preventive diplomacy, the buzz phrase of the day, risks amounting to nothing.

This is not to say that the white paper is stingy with commitments; it contains some 50 pledges. But a good deal are recycled and loosely worded promises. For example, Germany vows once again to increase its contributions to UN peacekeeping, in personnel and military matériel. This commitment reflects longstanding demands from UN advocates, and it is certainly encouraging that Germany has not written off such calls. On Sept. 7, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen offered a set of minor military capabilities to the UN Peacekeeping Capability Readiness System, including demining experts and mobile training teams.

But talk is cheap: the paper remains mute on how to achieve the objective of, say, deploying more police officers abroad. Vaguely referring to an employment pool, the government evades knotty technicalities, such as where these police officers will come from, and it fails to back up its statements with real figures or deadlines.

Overall, the concerned ministries do not outline a precise burden-sharing plan. As it faces severe peacekeeping budget cuts, the UN needs more than half-baked ideas from one of its most deep-pocketed member states about how it intends to deliver on such pledges.

What is even more regrettable is a lack of a strategic vision for Germany’s role in conflict prevention at the UN. Sure, it is great to pay lip service to the UN’s strategic value and norms. But resources are finite and the political goals that Germany seeks to pursue in New York, and how it wants to juggle its priorities, remain a mystery. This priority has a domestic dimension as well: defenseniks in Germany are usually wary of involving the UN in tougher conflict situations. Given the mixed results of many peace operations, they would rather rely on NATO or the European Union to do the job, or at least have the UN or the African Union do it without German participation.

One exception is the UN mission in Mali, called Minusma, where Germany has sent more than 600 troops and pledged to support the new West African counterterrorism unit, the G5 Sahel Force, which is backed by France and involves five regional countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger.

It will require extra work to convince skeptics of the UN’s potential use and to justify Germany’s devoting more resources to blue-helmet operations, political missions and other UN activities.

Building a solid domestic consensus on UN engagement will eventually pay off when heftier decisions come Germany’s way — at the latest when it sits on the Security Council again. Remember when Germany abstained from Resolution 1973 on the use of force in Libya in 2011? It created much turmoil for German foreign policy then.

The white paper tells us two things. First, Germany continues to become more aware of its global responsibilities. Second, however, Germany’s conflict prevention agenda at the UN remains very much a work in progress. The new document on prevention is a good place to start, even if some of the more demanding and controversial items have been postponed until the German elections take place on Sept. 24. The truth is, the country’s political and military commitments to the UN have been floundering.

In the increasingly heated campaign for an elected seat on the Security Council, Germany is running against Belgium and Israel, two strong competitors. Until the election occurs in mid-2018, Germany must double down its efforts if it wants to run on a credible prevention platform.

Aurelie Domisse is a research associate at the Global Public Policy Institute in Berlin, where she works on peace and security. She has a dual master’s degree in political science and international security from the Free University in Berlin and Sciences Po. She completed her undergraduate degree at Sciences Po and Oxford University.

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New Wine in Old Bottles: Germany and Conflict Prevention at the UN
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