Author: Richard Gowan, UN Director, International Crisis Group
Germany’s two-year stint on the United Nations Security Council has been constructive and bruising in equal measure. German diplomats have made significant contributions to Council debates on issues ranging from the future of Sudan to the security implications of climate change. But they have also clashed with China, Russia and, most strikingly, the United States.
It has been Germany’s misfortune to serve on the Council during one of the more dysfunctional periods in its post-Cold War history. The Trump administration has aimed to marginalize the UN on most security issues. Taking advantage of this U.S. disengagement, Russia and China have become increasingly assertive. The COVID crisis created both practical and political headaches for the Council, too. Diplomats had to learn how to negotiate over the internet, while Chinese and U.S. officials traded accusations over the origins of the pandemic.
The German mission in New York responded to these challenging circumstances quite boldly. Rather than avoid friction with the Security Council’s most powerful members, Germany has aimed to play a central role on difficult situations, including Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Iran. It has also emphasized themes – such as the Women, Peace and Security agenda and climate change – that were bound to create arguments with the Americans, Chinese and Russians.
These efforts have had mixed results. This is inevitable: Security Council diplomacy is a messy mix of confrontation and compromise with imperfect results. This is particularly true when it comes to dealing with specific crises and country situations. Even when Council members can agree what to do in a particular case, they can still struggle to shape events on the ground.
This being so, one of the most striking aspects of Germany’s term has been its willingness to take a lead in dealing with specific countries. It has acted as a “penholder” (or diplomatic lead) on Afghanistan, humanitarian aid to Syria, Sudan and the Libyan sanctions regime. None of these have been easy. In 2019, China threatened to veto the renewal of the mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) because it wanted the resolution to include language praising its Belt and Road Initiative. More seriously still, Russia pressed hard in both December 2019 and July 2020 to place limits on humanitarian aid to Syria – reducing the number of border crossings aid agencies can use – sparking two huge rows in the Council.
While Germany and its allies were able to eke out compromises in both these cases, it has arguably been more creative, if not more successful, in its efforts on Sudan and Libya. It has “shared the pen” on both files with the UK (an arrangement London mainly agreed to for purposes of building goodwill during Brexit) but Berlin has been keen to put its stamp on proceedings. After UN efforts to craft a peace deal in Libya fell apart in 2019, Germany attempted to reboot diplomacy by holding multinational ceasefire talks in Berlin – and following up with a Security Council resolution – in January 2020. In Sudan, the Germans and British guided UN talks on the establishment of a new political mission to support the country’s transition to civilian rule after the ousting of President Omar al-Bashir.
Both processes proved frustrating. In the Libyan case, Russia obstructed the passage of the Security Council resolution endorsing the outcome of the Berlin summit for weeks on end to protect its Libyan ally General Haftar. The U.S. seemed most concerned about including language in the resolution criticizing Russian private military contractors. Violence spiked in Libya as COVID sucked up international attention, but UN mediators finally secured a ceasefire in October 2020.
Turning to Sudan, the Security Council was happy to agree to the creation of an assistance mission (known as UNITAMS) in Khartoum, but problems arose over the unstable region of Darfur. Germany hoped that in addition to offering Sudan’s new leaders advice on political and economic matters, UNITAMS could encompass a limited military and police presence in Darfur, replacing the joint UN-African Union force (UNAMID) that has patrolled there since 2007. With UNAMID set to close at the end of this year, there are risks of a resurgence of violence, but the Sudanese authorities have opposed maintaining any uniformed UN presence. China, Russia, and the African members of the Security Council all backed Khartoum, and Germany and the UK eventually backed away from the idea of keeping UN troops in place.
While Germany certainly did not get all that it wanted on either Libya or Sudan, it can still be satisfied that it was able to move these two very difficult diplomatic processes forward at all. Had Berlin not been willing to push for UN action on Libya in particular, the Council might have remained largely disengaged from the crisis this year. A European diplomat who worked with the Germans on Sudan compliments their team as “engaged, thorough, collegial and smart.” Although UNITAMS may have a limited mandate, it can still be a useful channel for international support to the Sudanese transition, and Berlin is likely to keep a close eye on it.
The German mission has also engaged in difficult diplomacy over broader thematic issues. Elected Council members often emphasize thematic priorities like the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda as these are seen as less controversial than particular crises. But Germany discovered that this is not always true in 2019, when the U.S. threatened to veto a resolution backed by Berlin on tackling sexual violence in conflict because it contained a very short reference to reproductive health issues that the Americans claimed promoted abortion.
Although most Council members condemned the U.S. veto threat, they also criticized Germany for having tabled a resolution that was likely to inspire argument. Apparently taking this to heart, the mission took a more cautious approach to advancing another priority – a resolution on climate and conflict – in 2020. German officials knew very well that the Trump administration was also likely to obstruct this for ideological reasons. They nonetheless worked with a caucus of nine other Council members, including France and the UK, to craft a text calling on the UN Secretary-General to appoint a new envoy on climate-related conflict.
While Germany had a final draft of this text ready for its turn as Security Council president in June, the U.S. duly threatened to veto it (China and Russia, although skeptical, were less negative). The Germans and their allies chose to avoid a showdown with Washington and shelved the plan. But the effort may have a positive legacy in 2021. As the Biden administration takes office and promises to put fighting climate change at the heart of its agenda, it seems likely to revive (or encourage its friends to revive) Security Council discussions of environmental issues. The German draft resolution could well turn out to be the basis for future UN action on the issue.
If the Biden administration may thank Germany for its work on climate change, it also owes officials in Berlin – along with their counterparts in Paris and London – gratitude for their efforts to keep the Iran nuclear deal alive in the Trump era. These culminated in a brief drama in New York in August and September 2020 as the U.S. attempted to use the terms of the 2015 Security Council resolution that enshrined the deal to restore former UN sanctions on Iran, despite having unilaterally quit the agreement in 2018.
This maneuver, designed to wreck relations with Iran, failed thanks to concerted efforts by the Europeans (for once working closely with China and Russia) to persuade the rest of the Council to reject the U.S. initiative. While American diplomats had threatened to force a major crisis over the issue in the Council if they did not get their way, they backed off once it became clear that they had very little support. This defense of the Iranian nuclear deal was perhaps the clearest German foreign policy success of the Council term, although it remains to be seen if the Biden administration and its allies can salvage the accord with Iran next year.
The German team in New York has, therefore, shown itself quite capable of managing the cut-and-thrust of Security Council diplomacy. Permanent Representative Christoph Heusgen has also gained a reputation for plain dealing with his peers, challenging the Russians over their behavior in Syria and China for its treatment of the Uighurs. Some of Germany’s partners, notably the French, have sometimes fretted that such a tough approach complicates Council diplomacy unnecessarily. Yet in a period in which Council diplomacy has grown stilted and unproductive mainly due to great power tensions, Heusgen’s frankness is a welcome change.
As Germany leaves the Council, there will be questions in Berlin about whether its term has furthered the long-standing goal of a permanent German Council seat. Notwithstanding a strong run, the answer is almost certainly not. This is not the mission’s fault. While talks on Council reform drag on in New York, China has made it clear that it will oppose any reform that favors Japan – one of Berlin’s allies in the quest for new permanent seats – and the Trump administration has shown no interest in the issue. The Biden administration is unlikely to give it much greater priority. While some German politicians argue that France should “Europeanize” its seat on behalf of the EU, French diplomats remain devoutly wedded to their P5 status.
Yet if Council reform remains elusive, Germany can be satisfied that it used its non-permanent seat to advance UN diplomacy on a few tough conflicts and countries, defend international agreements and stake out ideas on how to address the looming challenges arising from climate change. In an era of international disarray, those are achievements to celebrate.