Germany Is Not Quite Ready for Prime Time on the UN Security Council

Rotmann 2018 Germany Is Not Quite Ready For Prime Time On The Unsc Compr

Source: UN Photo

On January 1, 2019, Germany will begin a two-year term as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. Hans Monath, editor at German daily Der Tagesspiegel, spoke to GPPi’s Philipp Rotmann about the German government’s agenda at the highest decision-making body of the United Nations. 


Tagesspiegel: The Federal Government has high expectations for its term in the UN Security Council. Rightly so?

Rotmann: The last few years have been the bloodiest in a long time, not least because the world powers in the Security Council have not found common solutions for the many wars. On the contrary: Putin’s Russia is itself a party to the wars in Syria and Ukraine, and it is playing with fire in many other places. The régime in China is just as unwilling as the Trump administration in the United States to submit to international law. Nevertheless, the Security Council is the best place to find ways out of violence and organize political solutions to conflicts. For example, the negotiations in Sweden to end the war in Yemen are making better progress than many had expected. Germany, too, can help because it enjoys great trust among the actors in the conflict region.

Tagesspiegel: How well is the Federal Government prepared for its task? 

Rotmann: I’m afraid the Federal Government underestimates the task. A little negotiation, a little mediation, a little money for civilian reconstruction projects will not be enough. Germany will also have to face difficult decisions, similar to the question of military intervention in Libya in 2011, when tens of thousands of people were in danger of their lives and Germany abstained from the crucial vote. All the governing parties, CDU/​CSU and SPD, are hardly better prepared for such decisions today than they were seven years ago.

Tagesspiegel: What is the UN’s record as a global peacemaker? 

Rotmann: In none of the major wars and conflicts of the last years has the United Nations been able to create peace, set limits for the aggressors or enforce compliance with international law. In Syria, one of the veto powers – Russia – stands directly on the side of the mass murderer Assad, while China also partly provides cover to the Assad régime; and the US is in no easy position due to its close relations with Saudi Arabia. In Ukraine, Russia is the main aggressor. As a result, the Security Council has been blocked most of the time, and the underlying disputes and motives behind these cases also impact other conflicts. 

Tagesspiegel: So the overall balance is negative? 

Rotmann: Not at all. In recent years, the UN has made important, if not decisive, contributions to preventing the outbreak of additional wars. Just one example: At the turn of 201617, when the president of the Gambia refused to retire after he was democratically defeated, the West African country was on the brink of civil war. And saber-rattling by the country’s large neighbor Senegal was about to turn a local political crisis into a regional blaze within just a few weeks. Had that not been stopped, millions more people would have been displaced. Without the silent shuttle diplomacy of the UN special envoy and the good cooperation between the UN and the governments of the region, we would have heard much more about it. Even the Security Council found common ground on the Gambia crisis and managed to take action! 

Tagesspiegel: Which major military conflict has the UN ever resolved? 

Rotmann: None – and that’s not its job either. If one or more of the UN’s key actors, the five permanent members of the Security Council – China, Russia, the US, Great Britain, and France – are either warring parties or closely associated with one of the parties, the UN is either blocked or in danger of becoming a party itself. Only the conflict parties themselves are capable of solving their problems with each other – the UN can only help. Above all, it can play a decisive role in ensuring that new conflicts do not escalate and that existing solutions to conflicts actually hold. And it has achieved that time and again in recent decades. 

Tagesspiegel: By what means? 

Rotmann: One of the UN’s most important instruments are peace operations. With over 120,000 conflict specialists, soldiers and police officers in 14 blue helmet missions, the United Nations operates the second largest army” in the world, after the United States. The difference is that these are not purely military, but peace operations under civilian political leadership, tasked with creating trust and preventing violence so that peace has a chance to grow. 

Tagesspiegel: The German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, hopes that Germany can help the UN save the rule-based, liberal world order from its disintegration. Is that a realistic goal? 

Rotmann: We have no other choice: Germany’s and Europe’s freedom and prosperity are completely dependent on a world order that is not only predictable – that is, rule-based – but also guarantees personal and economic freedoms. At the moment, however, the Foreign Minister seems to be very risk-averse in his approach and appears to want to defend as much of the existing order as possible in fierce retreat battles. The prospects for this strategy are not good, which is obvious from the balance of power: China and Russia are actively working to weaken the liberal order, and the position of most other non-Western states is at least divided. The existing order and the Western supremacy underlying it paved the way for the economic advancement of many, but it is also perceived as arbitrary and unfair. Maintaining US and European dominance as well as the economic and political benefits it brings for as long as possible is not a goal for which Maas will find majorities in New York. 

Tagesspiegel: What should Germany aspire to instead? 

Rotmann: What is missing are compelling offers to those who share Germany’s primary interest in avoiding an authoritarian, state-capitalist world order. The question is: How can we create a robust order that, under the new technological conditions, prevents violence and war better than before, enables democratic self-determination, and promotes fair trade? And how can we work together with countries like India, Japan and South Korea, with Latin America and African states such as South Africa and Ethiopia to do so?

Tagesspiegel: Now that the United States under Trump are failing to uphold the global order, is it reasonable to proclaim an Alliance of Multilateralists”? 

Rotmann: Quite reasonable. Under the present conditions, Germany can develop such ideas and organize sustainable majorities only in cooperation with other multilateralists. 

Tagesspiegel: Is this alliance, which neither the US nor China or Russia belong to, power-politically equipped for its goals? 

Rotmann: It would be a huge mistake to paint the United States with the same brush as China or Russia, let’s not do that. The US benefits enormously from the existing order, and even the Trump administration does not want to do away with all its rules and values. That is why it is not a question of fundamental opposition to Trump or the big powers,” but of protecting our common interests with the other multilateralists and developing initiatives that, as a joint offer by the multilateralists, are also attractive to the Trump people, for example. There are many small countries that are even more dependent on multilateral rules than Germany. Together, they make for a huge block of votes in the United Nations – they can certainly move things forward, as the agreement at the climate summit in Katowice has just shown.

Tagesspiegel: Has Germany set the right priorities for its two years on the Security Council? 

Rotmann: The German Ambassador to the United Nations, Christoph Heusgen, is pursuing important goals when he says that he wants to focus on security policy and represent not only Germany, but – as far as possible – the EU as a whole. In detail, however, it appears that the final word has not yet been spoken in the Federal Government. In 201112, the last time that Germany was on the Security Council, it wasn’t all just a series of fabulous successes. A number of problems became apparent as well. 

Tagesspiegel: What are these problems? 

Rotmann: Overall, these problems are still the same today: not one of the last three German foreign ministers has taken care of hiring the necessary diplomats to staff Germany’s emaciated mini-embassies in many fragile and violent countries. Neither the minister of defense nor the minister of the interior or the chancellor have made it a priority to supply the necessary capabilities for UN missions. And the work on how to effectively and legitimately represent the European Union is being blocked by the working level, despite the fact that Merkel and Maas have set the right goals on this question months ago – what’s lacking is the practical implementation.

Tagesspiegel: In the summer, the coalition majority in the German Bundestag called on the government to use the seat in the Security Council to improve the cooperation between the Council and the Peacebuilding Commission as well as the Human Rights Council, and to strengthen inter-institutional cooperation for conflict prevention, resolution and peacebuilding in the UN system. Is this just rhetoric – or are improvements in these areas truly important and decisive for the world? 

Rotmann: That sounds quite wonderful, and those are indeed important tasks. But the problems of cooperation between institutions are so complicated that one can spend a lot of time on them without asking whether Germany actually only wants to pay its dues and be a smart mouth – or whether, beyond Mali, we are also prepared to share the risk and responsibility for the major and difficult conflicts on which we, as one of the 15 members of the Council, will be making important decisions. This Bundestag resolution reflects a lowest common denominator, because it is precisely in the coalition parties where people are lacking a broad understanding of how serious the gaps resulting from Germany’s absence from most peace operations really are, and what a positive contribution we could make. The 192 other UN member states will not be eternally grateful just because Germany, as a rich country, pays quite a lot of money; above all, they see what the growing German army and police force could be doing with comparatively little effort to make the UN’s barely functioning peace operations more effective. This is the area where Germany could make decisive – and globally visible – contributions.

Tagesspiegel: Do you see any regional conflicts in which the Security Council could exert important influence from next year onward? 

Rotmann: Yes, and Syria is at the top of the list. As soon as Russia begins to seek a face-saving way out of Syria, the Security Council will once again play a decisive role. Then Yemen, either to promote the negotiations or, if they are successful, to implement and enforce the outcome. In South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic, the Security Council is crucial anyway. Above all, the Council has a critical role in dealing with the risk of new conflict and in trying to prevent escalation into war. It is precisely where the veto powers have not yet wedged themselves into a mutual blockade that a country like Germany can make constructive and effective contributions.

Tagesspiegel: Is the issue of Security Council reform, which Japan, Brazil, India, and Germany have promoted, still relevant? 

Rotmann: The Security Council still primarily represents the victorious powers of the Second World War – Western states are over-represented and others under-represented. In this respect, the Council remains one of the least legitimate elements of this rule-based world order that Merkel and Maas want to defend in New York. Still, the G4 reform proposal, which Germany has long promoted with Brazil, India and Japan, is not realistic for the next two years: an additional permanent seat for Germany would only exacerbate the problem of Western supremacy, China does not want to see Japan or India on the Council, and Bolsonaro’s election has put Brazil’s claim to leadership for Latin America thoroughly into question again. 

Tagesspiegel: Will the permanent Security Council seat for Europe, which Germany’s governing coalition is striving for, ever become reality? 

Rotmann: Perhaps in ten or fifteen years? Certainly not in the short term. France would have to be completely convinced that the European Union is prepared to take on 100 percent of its security interests as well as the responsibility that the country bears for its former colonies – including military combat operations. There is still too much of a difference between the countries of the European Union when it comes to their understandings of the benefits and necessity of military force – particularly between Germany and France.

The German version of this interview was originally published by Tagesspiegel Online on December 28, 2018. An abridged version appeared in the paper’s print edition on December 292018