BERLIN — At the start of Germany’s sixth two-year term in the United Nations Security Council, the media attention in Germany is unusually high: numerous journalists on TV and radio are asking diplomats, politicians and foreign policy experts about their views on Germany’s role in the Council, as well as its goals and prospects for reaching them.
Such media interest is a rare but important exception, given the rather low interest in the UN by German media, reflecting the minimal significance of the government’s foreign policy toward the UN overall.
As the author of numerous publications on the Security Council, I was invited to express my views on the topic in a radio talk with a Berlin journalist on the Berlin public broadcasting system. Here is a brief overview of the challenges and opportunities posed by Germany’s current UN policy, as I sketched them on the radio.
• The expectations placed on Germany’s term in the Council are high, as evidenced in the number of votes (184 of 193) it received in the election held in the General Assembly for a Council seat last June. UN member states apparently hope that Germany can act as an honest broker between the superpowers, the United States on one side and Russia and China on the other, as all three are now completely unable to come to viable compromises in the current dangerous political conflicts. That includes Ukraine and Syria.
• The German government is willing to take on a mediatory role, as Foreign Minister Heiko Maas underlined recently, saying, “We will focus on helping to resolve the crises.” In fact, the prospects for success are relatively good for Germany: it has no geopolitical vested interests in the conflict areas as a military power but instead aims for a civil power, as foreign policy experts refer to it. In this way, it has effectively contributed in the past to diverse multilateral mediation efforts; for instance, in Ukraine and the negotiations of the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US, plus Germany) leading to the deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Yet the current tension between the German government and the Trump administration might impede Germany in fulfilling a mediation role. Let’s hope for the best.
• As for thematic Security Council debates, Germany will take up its past initiatives, as Maas emphasized in his Jan. 1 statement: the relationship between climate change and international security, the role of women in preventing and managing conflicts, the protection of women and girls from sexual violence in conflicts and the protection of humanitarian aid workers. Moreover, Germany aims to provide fresh impetus to negotiations in disarmament and arms control.
It’s an impressive to-do list, but Germany has proven that it has the political stamina to achieve progress in the above-mentioned issues. To increase its political weight and credibility, Germany has recently raised its voluntary contributions to the UN system considerably. For instance, it increased its contribution to the UN Development Program 60 percent in the last year, making it the largest government donor. (Achim Steiner, a Brazilian-German, runs the agency.)
In addition, Germany is well prepared for its tasks on the Council: it has at its disposal a well-staffed permanent mission at the UN in New York, basing its work on high-quality information from the network of German embassies worldwide. This solid diplomatic base stands ready to assist the permanent representative at the UN, Christoph Heusgen, a former security adviser to Angela Merkel, giving him good contacts to the chancellor.
The latter fact is important as German chancellors and foreign ministers have often given UN policy low priority, focusing on other multilateral negotiation forums such as the G7 and G20. But because Merkel instructed Sigmar Gabriel, her foreign minister at the time, to appoint Heusgen the ambassador in New York, she signaled that UN policy had become a high priority for her. (Maas became foreign minister in March 2018.)
Yet some of the expected success for Germany might be hindered or even undone by unresolved structural problems in the political decision-making process in Germany: in contrast to its policies on the European Union, where decisions are coordinated on a high level by a standing cabinet committee, there is no such interministerial coordination in policymaking on the UN.
The diplomats in New York normally receive detailed instructions from the German Foreign Office, which they have to follow in their talks and negotiations with little room to maneuver. Yet before the Foreign Office can formulate an instruction, it has to discuss the matter with the chief administrators of other government departments whose interests are involved in UN decisions (Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Finance, etc.). This process often results in complex instructions transmitted to the UN mission in New York.
Without routine high-level coordination, Heusgen will be unable to react quickly in the Council, on such topics as peacekeeping missions, since the ad hoc coordination among the ministers is time-consuming.
What about the hopes for Germany to achieve a permanent seat in the Council? As Maas revealed in the annual General Assembly debate on UN reform in September, the government has not given up its efforts. The Security Council, Maas said, “must become more representative and inclusive. . . . We should start real negotiations on Security Council reform.” Apparently, the government ignored that such negotiations have reached no substantial progress since 2005.
Instead of nourishing these unrealistic hopes, Germany should instead join those nations — such as Japan and Switzerland — fighting successfully for improvements on the working methods of the Council.
To sum up: chances are good that Germany will achieve progress in its new term in the Council if it remains realistic and credible in its work.
This essay was updated.
Helmut Volger has written and edited several books about the UN, including A Concise Encyclopedia of the United Nations, of which the second revised edition was published by Brill Academic Publishers in 2010. He is also a co-founder of the German UN Research Network (www.forschungskreis-vereinte-nationen.de).