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A left-wing perspective on what can be expected from Germany’s sixth term as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council

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April 2019

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Heiko Maas, German Foreign Minister, in 2016 Public domain

Germany’s election to the UN Security Council for the 2019–20 term came as no surprise. And yet 184 votes of approval out of a total of 193 UN member states also places a great responsibility on Germany. After all, the UN Security Council is the only UN body whose resolutions are legally binding and form the basis of international law, and whose main remit according to Article 24 of the Charter of the United Nations lies in the maintenance of world peace and international security. Accordingly, its main task now as in the future is to pass resolutions which seek political solutions to international conflicts. Of its 15 members, five (China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States) hold permanent seats with veto powers, while the remaining ten are elected on a rotational, loose regional basis for two-year terms. This will be Germany’s sixth term on the Security Council.[1]

1.

With its current Security Council membership Germany intends to contribute to the strengthening of this institution and, given that its current composition still reflects the balance of power following the Second World War, advocate for its structural reform. At the same time, the German government pursues political ambitions of establishing a permanent seat which would specifically represent the interests of the EU. It justifies its suitability for such a position with its current status as the fourth-largest contributor to the UN’s regular and peacekeeping budgets, the second-largest donor of humanitarian aid, and one of the main providers of Western troops to UN peacekeeping missions.[2]

The German government has grand plans for its brief term as member of the Security Council. It wants to “take on responsibility” and to contribute to “ending wars across the world by peaceful means”. Specifically, this will involve:

  • the development of a “comprehensive approach” aimed at fostering “peacebuilding and peacekeeping in crisis-hit countries and unstable regions”;
  • “following up more closely on human rights abuses in the process”;
  • “a more efficient containment of global health risks and an improved response to pandemics such as the Ebola crisis”;
  • “increased support for efforts aimed at worldwide disarmament and the non-distribution of weapons in order to increase nations’ capacity for action”;
  • “treating non-permanent seats as EU seats”;
  • “also representing Israel’s interests”.

According to Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Germany’s election by a clear majority is a reflection of the widespread recognition of its active involvement worldwide. Alongside its status as the fourth-largest contributor to the United Nations and generous supporter of UN humanitarian missions and development agencies, its role as a dedicated advocate of multilateral conflict resolution and as active member in the Human Rights Council were further significant factors. All this, in Maas’s view, accounts for the high expectations Germany is facing as well as the widespread confidence that Germany will be “a force of equilibrium, defender of a rules-based global order, a voice of reason in an increasingly radicalised world”.[3] In order to meet these demands and, mostly importantly, to contribute to a resolution of the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine, South Sudan, and Yemen, Maas explains, Germany will endeavour to use its Council membership to push for policy initiatives that seek to overcome existing obstacles. At the same time Germany is prepared, if necessary, to intervene militarily. Since a third of the Security Council in 2019 will be made up of EU members,[4] this European momentum, Maas argues, should be capitalized on in such a way that any foreign policy coming out of New York also genuinely represents European interests. It is for this reason that Germany casts its current seat on the UN Security Council as a European one, and simultaneously makes its case for the establishment of a common EU seat.

The German foreign minister has held numerous interviews on the topic of Germany’s sixth term as a non-permanent member of the Security Council. In one such interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 8 June 2018, he spoke about establishing new approaches to certain issues, which can be summarised as follows:

  • US President Trump’s “America First” policy should be countered with a ‘Europe United’ policy, as Trump’s one-sided revocation of the nuclear deal with Iran, the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), conflicts with European security interests. In the interest of maintaining this deal, Germany will contemplate joining forces with Russia and China, whilst at the same time re-evaluating its partnership with the US.
  • Germany must be prepared to make a greater contribution to peace and security by increasing its expenditure for civilian missions as well as for defence. This entails working towards a tighter cooperation of defence within Europe.
  • Germany strives to play a stronger role in bringing about a political resolution of the Syrian conflict. This entails fulfilling a mediating role between Russia and Iran on the one hand, and between the US, Europe, and Saudi Arabia on the other.
  • Concerning the crisis in Ukraine, every effort should be made to bring all parties of conflict back to the negotiating table. Here, first steps have already been undertaken.
2.

Over the last 20 years the world has become neither a safer nor a more peaceful place. In Asia and Africa in particular, both the number and scale of conflicts have increased. The Western member states of NATO, including Germany, carry a large responsibility for this development. Germany now has a military presence in numerous countries across the world, from Afghanistan to Mali, and is involved in the local conflicts. Most recently, Germany has expressed interest in taking part in an, extremely dangerous, US military mission in the South China Sea.

Despite its commendation as a global contributor to peacekeeping, to date Germany’s record of worldwide military interventions can hardly be described as conducive to peace:

  • The first deployment of the German national army following World War II took place in 1999 under a false appeal to “humanitarian intervention”. In reality, this was nothing less than an illegal war of aggression against Yugoslavia, as later publicly admitted by then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder.
  • The almost 20-year-long operation in Afghanistan has, among other things, left the country in a state of perpetual terror and destruction. The prospect of pacification is still a long way off—not despite, but rather because of the presence of foreign troops.
  • The delivery of tanks and other arms supplies to Turkey, a country which has for decades waged an open war against parts of its own population, can hardly be described as efforts of peacekeeping or peacebuilding. Neither can the Turkish government’s recent illegal advance into Syria using German weapons, or its continued occupation of the district of Afrin which constitutes a violation of international law.
  • To date, Germany has made no substantial contribution towards disarmament. Despite government rhetoric on the “non-distribution of weapons”, Germany remains one of the world’s leading nations in the sale and supply of weapons. What is more, the government has made no move towards nuclear disarmament. It did not attend the negotiation talks on the Treaty of the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons in New York in July 2017 and continues to sanction the stationing of US nuclear weapons in Bücheln.
  • In the absence of a mandate issued by the Security Council and the permission of the lawful government in Damascus, the deployment of Tornado and AWACS aircrafts in Syrian airspace is also a flagrant violation of Syria’s territorial integrity. This cannot even be legitimized through Germany’s alleged support of the war against ISIS, since the presence of troops from other nations that have intervened in Syria—the US, France, the UK, Belgium, Denmark etc.—is not justified under international law.
  • The German government’s participation in the boycott measures against Syria, Iran, and Russia is not conducive to the peaceful resolution of these conflicts. Aimed at coercing governments to surrender to the demands made by the West, in reality these measures ultimately harm the local populations, exposing them to enormous suffering.
  • What is particularly striking is the contradiction between the concept of “peacebuilding” and the actual prolongation of a state of war in the government’s unconditional support of the Israeli government’s policies of occupation and settlement as well as the  boycotting of the Palestinian population of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Even if the German government voices occasional criticism of Israeli policy, this critique has never been followed by concrete actions that might induce Israel to abandon its policies, which clearly violate international law. On the contrary, even at the UN level the German government unilaterally represents Israeli interests without advocating for the justified demands of the Palestinians to be met. In doing so, it contributes directly to the prolongation of the occupation, which violates both international and human rights law, and with it the permanent state of war.
3.

Given Germany’s negative record of peacekeeping so far, its capacity for resolving conflicts will be tested all the more and the expectations placed on Germany in its sixth term on the Security Council to live up to its declared aim of campaigning for “a forward-looking and comprehensive conflict resolution” will be all the greater. Yet this will only be possible if the government is willing, above all else, to relinquish any biases and double standards in its dealings, and to aim for—in line with the principle of equality it constantly swears by—a viable balancing of interests.

In consequence, the federal government will be measured primarily against the following:

  • To what extent it takes active steps towards stabilising the security situation in the Middle East; particularly the extent to which it helps to end the steadily increasing violence in the region and to bring about a stable order based on the principles of peaceful coexistence and lasting disarmament;
  • How determined it proves, alongside other EU member states, to push for the nuclear deal with Iran against all looming hindrances and to foster solidarity with Russia and Iran in the process. This also entails developing an effective response to the potential danger of a further political escalation or even direct military conflict with Iran following Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal, as well as to a foreign-imposed regime change in Teheran. This move will prove crucial to preventing a political wildfire that would engulf the entire region, and to ward off any threat to security in Europe;
  • Whether it is willing and able to contribute to resolving the, often eruptive and violent, Israeli-Palestinian conflict under consideration of the legitimate national interests of both sides. This means pushing Israel to finally respect international law and to end the more than 50 years of occupation of Palestinian territory as well as the ten-year blockade of the Gaza Strip;
  • To what extent it is successful in its desired role as a mediator for political resolution of the Syrian conflict. This will involve moving away from the previously one-sided and EU-backed efforts for political influence and change of government in Damascus, and offering a solution which transcends the ‘good versus evil’ model still strongly prevalent in the most recent G7 Summit’s closing statement (incidentally, the latter could prove necessary for dealing with the Ukraine crisis);
  • The extent to which it is serious about arms control, which constitutes one of the fundamental pillars of German foreign policy, and campaigns actively for a ban on exporting weapons and other military goods to flashpoints (among others the Middle East, including Israel). This would mean advocating resolutions within the Security Council which tighten arms control and focus on national compliance with the commitment to disarmament enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

There are serious doubts about the Federal government’s willingness to act on and genuinely live up to the objectives that it has publicly committed itself to. It is not only that its outlines of strategy are more in keeping with the Cold War era and lag far behind the global development towards multipolarity in the 21st century. It is also better known for its wait-and-see attitude than for any initiatives to promote conflict resolution, especially for the Middle East. More serious, however, is the loss of credibility suffered as a consequence of its policy in the Syrian war. Its approval of the two missile strikes by the US, the UK and France in April 2017 on Al Sheirat and on Duma in April 2018, which were described as “understandable, necessary and imperative”,[5] has completely undermined its enduring commitment to international law. Both strikes were clearly and unequivocally in violation of international law, as the US had not been attacked and the Security Council had not issued a mandate. A country that will even violate international law in favour of satisfying its political allies in the theatre of war cannot be taken seriously in its repeated commitments to peacekeeping and its self-presentation as ‘defender of a rules-based global order’.

For the German government, despite all the current stresses and strains of its relationship to the US under Trump’s presidency, the tripolar order of transatlanticism, the EU and NATO—the so-called “Western community of values”—continues to provide the normative structure for shaping international relations. To be more specific, this is nothing less than the dichotomous dictum of the “We” of the Western world versus the “They” of the authoritarian and, accordingly, antagonistic system represented foremost by Russia. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Siegmar Gabriel illustrated the latter point by characterising today’s international relations as a “rivalry between the systems of developed democracies and autocracies”—calling upon a Russian logic of escalation that belongs to the bygone era of a bipolar world order.[6]

Notwithstanding the general irritation at the erratic actions of the current US President Trump and the clear criticism levelled at him, there can be no doubt that it lies in the interest of the German government for the Western transatlantic axis to continue to dominate international politics. The only ‘new measure’ that has been added is the aspiration to significantly increase Europe’s political weight; as Ursula von der Leyen stated at the Munich Security Conference in February 2018, “we want to remain transatlantic – while also becoming more European.” Similarly, in an interview with the Du Mont media group on 3 August 2018, foreign minister Maas said: “We want our transatlantic partnership to have a future […] If we want to preserve the partnership, we must readjust it and tilt the balance in our favour when needed. It is imperative that we keep Europe unanimous.” In a guest commentary published shortly afterwards in the trade journal Handelsblatt, he envisions a “balanced partnership”. According to this concept, Europe, and therefore Germany, should take on more responsibility, especially “when the US crosses the line. Where we put our weight when America retreats. And in which we can start a new conversation.” However, given the European Union’s current composition, it is hard to imagine how Germany can succeed in persuading the individual governments to agree and act upon a joint foreign policy. As we well know, it is not just the refugee issue that divides the EU. Nevertheless, Maas’s simultaneous plea for a strengthening of the European pillar of NATO and an increase to its defence expenditure is still a cause for concern. For these two issues both stand diametrically opposed to the globally more pressing issue of disarmament.

This tripolar approach per se, which forms the underlying structure of Germany’s international policy, is one of the main barriers to Germany’s fulfilment of its self-declared goals for its UN Security Council term. This polarity has a primarily destructive effect on the relationship with Russia which is currently already under significant strain – largely caused by the German government. And yet cooperative relations with Russia are essential, not just for any attempt at conflict resolution, but for European security itself. To blame Russia entirely for its policy on the Crimea is to deliberately disregard the underlying causes and background and to subordinate legitimate Russian interests to EU interests. Since the dissolution of the Eastern bloc, NATO has, contrary to its own claims, pursued a deliberate policy of isolation with regards to Russia, while at the same time relocating more and more of its military infrastructure and personnel in the vicinities of the Russian border and stationing elements of America’s missile defence system in close proximity to the border. Despite the fact that this constitutes a flagrant violation of Russian security interests, Russia has been expected to turn a blind eye. In the process of safeguarding its own interests, Russia has become Europe’s bogeyman and, according to current NATO doctrine, now constitutes the biggest threat to transatlantic security. Russia’s standing as an aggressive nuisance factor in international politics has in turn justified the use of disciplinary sanctions. By contrast, the regime change plans facilitated by the use of military force by the US and other NATO member states, which have caused nothing but chaos in the Middle East, remain sacrosanct even if the parties involved admit to having violated international law. When, following violations of international law by Western allies, Germany declares its solidarity with the latter, the German government does not simply encourage the erosion of international law. It also signals that double standards are in operation: while Russia and other non-members of the transatlantic axis are faced with penalties in the form of sanctions, international law violations by the West are seen merely as trivial offences.

Without overcoming these “us versus them” or black-and-white schemata, the German government will struggle to make a constructive contribution to a stable global order in the 21st century. Instead of focusing on the strengthening of NATO through further increases to its military expenditure and on the newly formed European defence cooperation PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation on Defence), the government should, in the interest of peace, security, and stability in Europe, aim to establish a system of collective security which includes Russia and involves substantial and qualitative disarmament. Russia’s sovereignty as well as its legitimate security interests must be accepted and any actions aimed at weakening Russia abandoned. To this end, an honest dialogue and a cooperation based on trust are indispensable.

At the Munich Security Conference in 2014, a triumvirate made up of the then-Federal Chancellor, then-foreign minister and then- and current minister of defence declared their readiness to take on “greater responsibility”. More than anything, this declaration should focus on putting an end to the madness of a steady rise in arms procurement and finally preventing the export of weapons and other military equipment to crisis regions.

4.

During its temporary membership on the UN Security Council, the German government will face the tough question of how it intends to promote its goal of conflict resolution via political initiatives. In this context the government has referred specifically to Syria, Ukraine, South Sudan, and Yemen. By contrast, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the cause of continuous violence and military conflict, and whose enduring potential for escalation presents an increasing threat to the stability and security of regions beyond the Middle East, has found no mention. This is clearly no coincidence, but largely a direct result of Germany’s unilateral alignment with Israel, grounded in the raison d’état declared by Chancellor Merkel. This position does not even seem swayed by the current state of affairs, in which the Israeli Prime Minister seeks to create a joint bloc with Baltic and other eastern European states. This endeavour has the specific goal of creating division within the EU in order to sabotage a joint Middle Eastern policy of conflict resolution on the basis of international law. As long as the German government stands firm on its partisan support of Israel and demonstrates its unwillingness to consider the legitimate national interests of both conflicted parties, it is highly unrealistic that it will actively contribute to the resolution of the conflict.

During its membership of the UN Security Council, the German government will be expected to use every chance to help kick-start a peace process in the conflict-ridden and war-torn region of the Middle East. This process should put an end to the steadily increasing violence in the region and facilitate the implementation of a stable order based on peaceful coexistence and long-term disarmament. This would be an opportunity for Germany to put into practice its commitment to international law by pressuring Israel into finally respecting its most basic principles. There is an ever more urgent need for a regional security blueprint which would serve as the basis for the resolution of the diverse, but in many ways connected, conflicts in the region. This is not a new idea; in his former capacity as foreign minister, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier posited the idea of a pan-regional conference on security and cooperation based on the model of the earlier Conferences on Security and Co-operation in Europe. This idea was never pursued further, however, and an attempt by the French government to set up such a conference did not receive the necessary support. For this reason, it is of primary importance that the German government take advantage of its friendly relations with the Israeli government to persuade the latter to finally end the occupation and to engage in serious political negotiations.

The renewed proposal presented by the Iranian foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif at the 2018 Munich Security Conference is equally deserving of support. This proposal calls for the creation of dialogue forums aimed at establishing a stable security structure in the Arabian Gulf, and was also applauded by the General Secretary of the UN António Guterres. This would be a clear test of just how determined the German government is to defend the nuclear deal with Iran alongside other EU member states, and to seek solidarity with Russia and China in the process.

This proposal would largely entail the initiation of an Arab-Iranian dialogue which fosters mutual understanding and a deep level of commitment. Such a dialogue, which must go hand in hand with the establishment of trust-building measures, would also entail the negotiation of mutual non-aggression pacts and the shaping of inter-governmental relations on the principle of peaceful coexistence. On the Iranian side, the main components of such a dialogue include respect for the legitimate interests of all parties, the renunciation of any attempts to establish hegemony, an end to the arms race, the acceptance of differences as well as the formation of security networks for mutual benefit.

In Zarif’s view, this endeavour should explicitly follow the precedent of the Helsinki Process,[7] a series of events which initiated negotiations between the period’s two antagonistic social systems on the basis of a declaration of principles, followed by thematic focus points. The catalogue of principles proposed by the Iranian foreign minister should mirror the very standards anchored in the UN charter: the equality of states, their territorial integrity and the inviolability of their borders, the non-interference in the internal affairs of states as well as the respect of their right to self-determination. The trust-building measures should include in particular: a commitment to transparency on issues of arms procurement, a reduction in military expenditure as well as the signing of regional non-aggression treaties. The promotion of mutual tourism and the formation of Joint Ventures should also be added to the list. The realignment of the Arabian Gulf’s security politics within the framework of a ‘regional dialogue forum’ is intended to foster mutual understanding – both at government level as well as between scientists, artists and in economic affairs. From an Iranian perspective, the nuclear deal of 2015, whose revocation by the US president in May 2018 met with enthusiastic approval from the Israeli and Saudi Arabian governments, showed that agreements are possible. Alongside political volition, the preconditions for such agreements include the respect for existing differences, an agreement on common goals as well as a consideration of the interests of the other party.[8] A courageous diplomatic mediation by the German government could put the Middle East on the path towards a serious negotiation process and constitute first steps towards a policy of détente, lasting stability, peace and positive future prospects for the region’s inhabitants.

These are indeed enormous tasks facing Germany. They not only require the government to turn its back on a series of erroneous foreign policy decisions, but to display a high level of competence in conflict resolution to enforce and guarantee compliance with international rules that are equally binding for all states.

Karin Kulow is a historian and scholar of Arabic Studies and Islamic Studies. She was previously Professor of History with a specialization on the Middle East in Berlin. Norman Paech is Emeritus Professor of Political Science and Public Law at the University of Hamburg. For many years he was active in the peace movement and from 2005 to 2009 was spokesperson for the Left Party in the Bundestag. This article first appeared in German in Eine Welt ohne GewaltTranslation by Carly McLaughlin and Joanna Mitchell for lingua•trans•fair.


[1] Germany has held five non-permanent terms for the following two-year cycles: 1977–8, 1987–8, 1995–6, 2003–4 and 2011–12.

[2] The government’s campaign brochure for the rotating non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, titled ‘Germany, a voice for peace, justice, innovation and partnership in the United Nations’, cites contributions amounting to 1.3 billion US dollars for both budgets between 2016 and 2017. It also points out that in 2016 Germany deployed “500 soldiers from its national army and more than 30 police officers in multilateral UN missions”. Further, it discloses that Germany provided over 825 million US dollars for humanitarian aid in the same year and would continue to provide a further 2.6 billion US dollars for Syrian refugees until 2018.

[3] On this, see Maas's parliamentary speech on 29 June 2018 with the title “Germany’s membership of the United Nations Security Council – for an enduring peaceful, stable and just global order”.

[4] Alongside the UK and France, both of which have a permanent seat with veto powers, there are three states with a non-permanent seat: the two newly elected states Belgium and Germany for the 2019/20 term, and Poland, whose two-year membership will come to an end in 2019.

[5] These are the words of the Federal Chancellor following the air strikes. By contrast, the relevant parliamentary Research Section assessed this use of military force in relation to Syria’s alleged violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention as a violation of the prohibition of force under international law. See Wissenschaftliche Dienste Deutscher Bundestag: Völkerrechtliche Bewertung der russischen, amerikanischen und israelischen Beteiligung am Syrienkonflikt, WD2-3003-029/18, Berlin 2018, p. 9.

[6] On this topic, see the critical guest commentary by Arne C. Seifert on Siegmar Gabriel’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February 2018 under the title: ‘Statt Systemkonkurrenz friedliche Koexistenz wiederbeleben‘ [Reviving peaceful coexistence – an alternative to competing rival systems], in: WeltTrends, Nr. 139, May 2018.

[7] During the Helsinki process in July 1973, first steps were taken towards an easing of tension between the West and East bloc states. The conference, in which 35 states participated, gave rise to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) which reformed in 1995 as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

[8] See the speech by Iranian foreign minister in session 54 of the Munich Security Conference in February 2018, available under: en.mfa.ir/index.aspx?fkeyid=&siteid=&pageid=2029&newsview=501055.