Letter from Warsaw: How Germany Can Gain Security Credibility in New York

18 October 2018   ·   Adam Traczyk

In Polish eyes, Germany lacks credibility when it comes to security matters. In the UN Security Council, Germany could gain such credibility if it steps out of its comfort zone by focusing on selected partners to get things done, taking everyone’s priorities into account, and formulating real strategies.

Poland’s presence on the Security Council offered the country an opportunity to accentuate its position on the international stage. Of course, the power and influence of the non-permanent members of the Security Council are greatly limited and incomparable to that of the five permanent members. Still, the Polish term to date has progressed in utmost quiet, insofar as it has merited attention at all. However, Poland continues to enjoy access to the world’s diplomatic elite until the end of next year, and the accession of Germany – Poland’s most important European ally – to the Security Council may well prompt Warsaw to make better use of the second-half of its term, despite recent conflicts.

This is why the Polish government should seek closer relations with Berlin and invite Germany to more closely co-operate before the Germans formally commence their term. This gesture of goodwill and eagerness to co-operate could at least partially overcome the bad impression that Poland has left on the European stage. Moreover, Germany’s strategic culture is evolving, and thus it is in Poland’s interest to strive to influence that process - all the more so as the pivot that took place in German security policy following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea has brought the strategic sensitivities of Berlin and Warsaw into notable alignment.

”Europeanization”: Designed to attain the position of hegemon?

The proposal for the “Europeanization” of Germany’s place on the Security Council should spell good news for Poland, especially given the allergy here to any and all signs of policies being carried out over Polish heads. The offer is read as an invitation to other European states to co-shape the unfolding evolution of German strategic culture, and thus it should enjoy Warsaw’s assent. Nonetheless, the proposal has been met largely with silence.

From the Polish perspective, the key obstacle to closer co-operation pertains to the mistrust of Poland’s currently governing elite vis-à-vis Berlin’s intentions. The PiS government reads all pursuits of “Europeanization” as steps designed to help Germany attain the position of European hegemon: the former minister of foreign affairs and current PiS MP Witold Waszczykowski recently argued that the emancipation of Europe from the United States fulfills German dreams for power.

One may also surmise that it was none other than the dominant position of Germany in the EU that President Andrzej Duda had in mind when he recently spoke before the UN General Assembly. He criticized the “negative” multilateralism through which certain countries seek the power to decide the fates of others without their input and push for their own egoistic interests at the cost of the security of others. In opposition to this vision, Duda then sketched positive multilateralism as being based on real international communities that adhere to the sovereign equality of states.

Berlin’s lack of credibility in security matters reinforces mistrust

Yet, even when we place those vague notions aside – based as they are on prejudices rather than on a sober analysis of the international situation– we cannot ignore the fact that Berlin does typically lack credibility in security matters. The stories of equipment shortages in the Bundeswehr have become legendary. Germany’s insufficient defense outlays were decried by the country’s allies long before Donald Trump entered the White House. Moreover, the German-Russian pipeline Nord Stream 2 has come to symbolize this credibility-gap, one that – like no other political initiative – causes Poland to disbelieve Berlin’s honest intentions.

Here we may add that Germany’s last term in the Security Council (2011-2012), in particular its abstention concerning the no-fly zone in Libya, left a lasting impression of an indecisive actor, one unwilling to support its allies and shoulder responsibility in crisis situations. Berlin’s more recent ambivalent stance vis-à-vis the military response of the US, France, and Britain to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime did little to overcome that impression.

This of course does not mean that Berlin’s policy over recent years has been stagnant. Angela Merkel’s leadership regarding the introduction and maintenance of EU sanctions against Moscow after the Russian invasion of Ukraine; the role of the Bundeswehr in assuring the permanent presence of NATO armies on the eastern flank; and Germany’s loyal adherence to the sanctions against Russia following the attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter – Warsaw has deemed all of this to be steps in the right direction. Nonetheless, it is still too little to overcome the mistrust.

Pragmatic approaches instead grandiose rhetoric

And so, is the intention to “Europeanize” Germany’s seat on the Security Council doomed to fail? Not necessarily. But for the German plan to succeed, certain conditions must be fulfilled. 

Above all, Berlin must bear in mind that European security policy is neither crafted in New York, nor in Brussels. It is shaped in individual capitals representing differing sensitivities, interests, and priorities. To build trust, the German federal government can therefore not limit itself only to topics that land on the agenda of the UN Security Council. Berlin must adeptly and with finesse conjoin the global and European spheres.

Nor should Germany inflate expectations. Today there is no single European voice to be represented in the Security Council, nor will there be one in the foreseeable future. The endless quest for the lowest common denominator in Europe can lead to paralysis in decision-making. Moreover, the dissonance between ambitious declarations and meager outcomes can breed frustrations among European partners and thereby undermine both Germany’s credibility and the process of strategic convergence.

This is why a realistic and pragmatic approach is more important than symbolism and grandiose rhetoric – an approach that combines the basic tasks of membership in the Security Council (that is, safeguarding peace and security across the globe) with a European component. Rather than toilsome consultations within the EU27 or 28, what may prove more effective is involving selected countries in matters of special interest for them. In the case of Poland this will naturally include security issues in Eastern Europe. Germany’s contribution could surmount the mistrust between Warsaw and Paris and reactivate co-operation in the Weimar Triangle.

Germany has to leave its comfort zone

The governments of Poland and Germany can also, arm in arm, strive for the reform of the Security Council. President Duda indicated that Poland wishes to participate in reform targeted at equalizing the rights and competencies of all the Council’s members. Of course, it’s a long road from this declaration to establishing a permanent EU-seat in the Security Council, which the CDU/CSU and SPD even stipulated in their coalition agreement. But taken together, this could prove a good start. 

Besides heeding the opinions of other states, it is important that Germany displays its ability to formulate its own strategy, to competently explain the same to its partners, and to translate it into political practice. It is unbefitting of Berlin to hide behind the backs of others, and expectations for Berlin are decidedly greater than concepts that look good on paper, but – in their first confrontation with reality – land back on the shelf. Germany has to leave its comfort zone. For only in so doing will Berlin be able to persuade others to leave their comfort zones. Poland included.