Make Security Council Diplomacy Great Again

29. August 2018   ·   Manuel Lafont Rapnouil

The dynamics of the UN Security Council have drastically changed over the past years, fragmenting the Council, but also empowering influential non-permanent members such as Germany. Berlin should seize this as an opportunity in building on a successful Franco-German cooperation record. However, the Security Council seat is not a tool for European integration but for building and securing peace.

France and Germany will sit together at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) for the two next years, and they have a significant track record they can build upon to cooperate closely during that biennium. But the Security Council is arguably in a worse situation than even in the post-Iraq 2003 era, and for Germany to make a difference over these two years will prove a challenge.

Changing dynamics in the UN Security Council provide an opportunity to Germany

The context at the UN is changing quickly, including at the Security Council. The veto statistics are only the tip of a broader phenomenon whereby Russia as well as China are proving more assertive in the Council’s discussions. The US, for its part, has once again changed its posture vis-à-vis the United Nations: even if it has used the Council to increase pressure over Pyongyang, it more often displays its unilateral instincts and “my way or the highway” approach of negotiations. Also, Europeans still face many unknowns as to how Brexit will impact their collective influence at the UN. Lastly, voting coalitions at the Council recently became more versatile than in the past, and non-permanent members proved able to exercise significant influence on some topics.

This does open a door for Germany to play a significant role, in a context where the P5 are less able to control negotiation dynamics, and more dependent on influential and able non-permanent members to build majorities, or at least to reduce frictions and prove a less tainted voice.

But it also makes the environment more hostile for Berlin. For instance, Security Council work on prevention or climate change, traditional German priorities, could be even more difficult than usually. Actually, this environment means that the primary role of the UNSC, i.e. the maintenance of international peace and security, especially through addressing ongoing crises and conflicts, needs to be Germany’s main focus. Berlin should look for partners for this goal.

Building on success: the Franco-German record

There are solid grounds for Franco-German cooperation at the UN Security Council since the end of the Cold War, helped by the fact that Germany returns to the Council every eight years. Most readers will remember the 2003-04 term because of opposing the military intervention in Iraq, although Franco-German cooperation went beyond Iraq at the time. In the 2011-12 biennium, cooperation was also important, for instance when all four European members of the Council (with Britain and Portugal) pushed to reiterate demands that Israel cease all settlement activity immediately – only to be vetoed by the US.

Even when Germany does not sit at the Council, the bilateral cooperation lives on, both in New York and between the capitals. The two foreign ministries have consistently exchanged diplomats in their respective UN departments for over 20 years. And consultations are frequent, especially on some key issues where Berlin wants to see its interests and position represented. That’s how, last June, France and Germany jointly tabled a draft statement on Ukraine, whose adoption made it the first UNSC decision since 2015 on that particular crisis.

This degree of cooperation between permanent and non-permanent members is rare at the UN. Of course, France supports Germany’s bid to a permanent seat to the Security Council, but it does also support explicitly Japan, Brazil and India (as well as permanent representation for Africa): yet none of these partners enjoy the closeness and intimacy that France and Germany often display at the UN.

Prospects for further joint Franco-German projects at the Council

Such a close relation does not imply that both countries’ positions always coincide. The 2011-2012 biennium is also remembered for Germany’s abstention on resolution 1973 authorizing the use of force in Libya, a text introduced by France with others. Right now, Berlin does not share Paris’ caution and even reluctance on the very idea of deploying a peacekeeping operation in Ukraine. But given the political context, and both Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel’s desire to enhance foreign policy cooperation for peace in the spirit of the 55th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty, both sides are likely to try to work together even more closely, even when they have differences.

There are several issues around which such cooperation could catalyze. France and Germany are present and active on a number of crises at the Council’s agenda. Most crises – Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Democratic Republic of Congo, Balkans, Iraq, terrorism, etc. – will be of interest for Paris and Berlin. Situations where both countries have deployed troops and bring financial support to local authorities, such as Mali and the Sahel, or Lebanon, will obviously carry special importance.

Don’t shackle yourself to a European consensus

At the UN, France holds the pen on some of these topics. But, in spite of German requests, it will prove reluctant to share this role, out of concern that prior bilateral coordination with Berlin hampers French flexibility in New York, a quality that often proves decisive in managing the complex negotiation dynamics. Germany seems to have anticipated this: recently, Merkel suggested that Germany would try to coordinate with other EU members, so as to Europeanise its non-permanent seat, rather than with France.

But Berlin too should be wary of constraining itself through intra-European consultations at the possible expense of being able to take the initiative and react in a UNSC environment which is more fluid and volatile than before. France could learn a thing or two about the need to work with its fellow EU partners earlier on during UNSC discussions, so as to enhance its leadership when implementing the Council’s decisions. Being a leader in the Council does not mean forging consensus between its European members, although that can only be a good start, but it takes bringing a majority of voting members around your initiatives and proposals. These majorities normally take you beyond just like-minded partners, and need to include other member states from Africa, Middle East or elsewhere who have a particular stake in the issues being discussed.

Beyond crisis management

So what this suggests is that Germany should not frenetically fixate on “representing” Europe. The non-permanent seat at the Security Council is not an instrument for European integration. Berlin should rather act as a member able and willing to contribute to international peace and security. Which, especially in the current UN circumstances, raise a number of contentious issues beyond immediate response to crises. Tensions at the UNSC are not just about respective interests in a given crisis, but also on principled issues, including the key elements of a conflict settlement strategy. The importance of human rights and the fight against impunity have become major areas of divergences in the Council, and not just with Russia and China. Key norms such as humanitarian access and international humanitarian law, or even the prohibition to use chemical weapons, are more contested. In addition, peace-making and peace-building efforts are more needed than before, so as to rebalance an overly-militarised response to many international conflicts, and to better sustain an overstretched and more fragile peacekeeping effort.

A peacekeeping reform itself will be a cross-cutting issue of many discussions at the Council. Most commentators still frame this ongoing discussion in terms of looking for the right balance between the UN tradition of impartiality and the more recent trend to use force, if only to protect civilians and defend its mandates. Germany can play a role in joining France to shift the terms of the debate, not just towards adapting peacekeeping to the reality of the conflict zones where blue helmets are deployed, but even more important towards giving means and authority to better advance peace – at a time when the Council is fraught with tensions, budget contributors are stingy with funds, and key members are reluctant to engage directly, all factors weakening the missions’ credibility, both as a security provider and as a political and civilian actor. 

For Europe to make a difference remains an uphill battle

In a nutshell, the main issue for France and Germany is not the ways and means of their bilateral cooperation at the UN Security Council, but how they can work together to better shape the Council’s decisions – and make their implementation more effective – in a more polarised and fragmented environment.

More generally, the challenge for Europeans right now at the UN, and at the Security Council in particular, is not how well coordinated they are, although that is part of the issue. It is how much of a difference they can make, especially in a context when the rest of the world feels Europe is over-represented and yet decreasingly relevant, at least in relative terms. It has to do with strategy to both settle conflicts and navigate in a more contentious diplomatic landscape. This is, really, the major objective that should inform how France and Germany will cooperate during the next two years period at the Security Council.

Vereinte Nationen Europäische Union Frieden & Sicherheit UN-Sicherheitsrat

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil

Manuel Lafont Rapnouil is Head of the Paris office and Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). From 2011 to 2015, he headed the Political Affairs Division of the Department for UN Affairs at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.