Germany on the Security Council: Time to Stand Up

08. Juni 2018   ·   Tanja Bernstein

In the two years of its membership on the UN Security Council, Germany should not be afraid to engage in high-profile initiatives to solve the most pressing security issues. With Brexit coming up, Berlin also has the opportunity to fill Great Britain’s role of advocating for EU priorities.

On 8 June, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to determine who would take up five of the ten non-permanent seats of the Security Council for the period 2019-2020. Germany, one of the six member states contesting, was successful in its bid – though this came as no surprise to anyone, given the lack of competition for the two seats designated for the Western Europe and Others group (Belgium will hold the other seat). Discussions are now focusing on how best Germany can use its tenure to make a mark and usefully contribute to the UN’s agenda. With tensions between the permanent members particularly high and the role of the UK as a voice for Europe on the Council changing because of Brexit, Germany should use this opportunity to act as a broker between the big powers, not “shy away” from taking a lead role in high-profile initiatives and show that it can play at the highest level of global crisis management.  

Germany is already an influential political player within the UN system – it is the second largest contributor to the overall UN system and the fourth largest financial contributor to UN peacekeeping missions. What is more, Germany is currently Vice-Chair of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) – an advisory body that supports peace efforts in conflict affected countries – and a top donor to the Peacebuilding Fund. Still, a seat in the Security Council could significantly boost its influence – if used wisely. 

Mixed record for Germany’s previous tenure in 2011-2012

When Germany was last a member of the Council back in 2011-2012, former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle proclaimed Germany’s guiding principle as promoting a culture of military restraint. Germany’s controversial decision on 17 March 2011 to abstain on Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized the use of force in Libya, may stand out to many as either a moment of weakness, strength, or indecision. Despite the fact that this memorable vote cannot be ignored (and Germany’s reputation among some allies may have temporarily suffered), its overall contribution during the time of its tenure was viewed very positively. The German permanent mission to the UN had a reputation for being well-briefed and serious even on those issues, in which it had no particular national interest or leverage. With regard to those issues where there was national interest – such as Afghanistan – Germany can take some credit for improvements to the UN’s engagement at the time. The fact that German diplomats brought issues such as climate change to the Council – gently pushing at the boundaries of the Council’s conception of peace and security – also showed that they were trying to initiate a broader debate about the shifting threats to international security. 

Germany’s next tenure – spending energy on the right issues

This time around, Germany decided to focus on four broad priorities as part of its campaign for a non-permanent seat: peace; justice; innovation; and partnership. These priorities entail issues such as: conflict prevention; stabilization; post-conflict peacebuilding; promoting peaceful and inclusive societies; human rights; women, peace and security; and tackling climate change. Clearly this list needs to be narrowed down.

During Germany’s term, the Council’s agenda – not surprisingly – will predominantly focus on the ongoing crises. And while taking on thematic issues may help shape normative debates, most non-permanent members are usually judged on their impact on specific countries and crises. Thus, in order to leave a legacy behind, most of Germany’s energy should be spent on regional/country specific issues. Germany has expressed interest in engaging in several issues currently on the Council’s agenda, prioritizing countries such as Syria, Libya and Yemen. Given Germany’s contribution in Mali, an active role can be expected on this file as well. While Germany will likely have less of a role to play on North Korea, it will probably find itself involved in complex diplomacy over Iran. With enough political will in Berlin and diplomatic initiative in New York, Germany could also help broker the deployment of a UN operation to end the Ukrainian war or help de-escalate the crisis in Syria. On these and other country-specific issues, Germany could „hold the pen“ on drafting resolutions, play a lead role in negotiating between respective member states and/or be a broker between permanent members of the Council. 

The rest of Germany’s energy could be spent on thematic issues. Germany – as a troop contributing country and top financial contributor – should participate in discussions on the review of peace operations’ mandates underway in New York and how to fine-tune the Council’s approach to designing mandates. It could facilitate and lead on some aspects of the discussions between the UN Secretariat, the Council and other member states on realistic expectations for mandate implementation. This way, it could help to reduce the continuous tension that exists between the lack of resources and high expectations on what can be achieved on the ground. Related to this point are the discussions surrounding the safety and security of uniformed and civilian personnel and appropriate exit strategies for peace operations – both important issues where Germany could take a leading role in working with the UN Secretariat to find improvements. 

Germany has been a vocal supporter of the sustaining peace agenda and could make a significant contribution to translating some of the recommendations contained in the Secretary-General’s Report on Peacebuilding and Sustaining Peace into concrete action. Specifically, with its current role as Vice-Chair of the PBC, Germany could advance discussions on strengthening cooperation between the PBC and the Council, further enhancing an integrated approach of the development and peace and security communities. Supporting initiatives to increase financing for peacebuilding activities as well as continuing its support for joint programming between the peace and development communities would also signal Germany’s active role in moving the sustaining peace agenda forward.  

Along with some other current candidates, Germany has also stressed that the Council must address climate change again – noting that it is a security threat. Germany may advocate for this during its tenure, though with opposition from Russia, China and now probably the US, it should be careful how much political capital and energy to spend on this issue. 

Brexit could boost Germany’s role in the Council

Germany will enter the Council when relations between its members are particularly bad – and on some issues, toxic. This will not make Germany’s tenure easy. Compartmentalizing issues will be key to bring some matters forward. Interestingly, Brexit also provides a new twist to Germany’s role on the Council. It could become more active to fill the gap Brexit creates and work harder to communicate EU priorities rather than leave most of the heavy-lifting to the United Kingdom and France. In fact, Brexit provides a possibility of closer Franco-German cooperation in New York and could create a new center of gravity in the Council.

Germany can play an important role – irrelevant of the prospect of a permanent membership

Last time Germany was on the Council, it lobbied actively – but ultimately unsuccessfully – for a permanent seat on the Council, coordinating closely with Brazil, India, Japan and South Africa. While hopes of a permanent seat may not have vanished, realistically, Council reform will not happen any time soon. 

Thus, it is ever more important that Germany uses its opportunity as a non-permanent member wisely – demonstrating that it can take a prominent role in promoting the values for which the UN stands and consolidating its status on the world stage. Leading and contributing to thematic discussions will help to shape normative debates at the UN. But Germany should not “duck away” from high-profile initiatives. The only real way Germany can increase its influence and make a mark at the UN is by weighing in on the country crises and conflicts dominating the Council’s agenda.

A German version of this article first appeared in ZEIT ONLINE on June 7, 2018.