European Council on Foreign Relations

Germany and the UN: still fighting over Libya

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The Libyan war is not over for Germany. That was my main conclusion after speaking at two events on Europe and the United Nations in Berlin this week.The discussions, organized by the Green Party in the Bundestag and ECFR’s Berlin office, ranged from Syria to Mali. But they kept returning to Germany’s decision to abstain on the UN resolution authorizing the military intervention in Libya in March 2011.  

At UN headquarters in New York, the Libya vote now feels like a rather distant memory. At the time, it appeared like a turning-point in the history of the Security Council. The fact that China and Russia chose not to veto a humanitarian intervention seemed to be a victory for the Responsibility to Protect. The German abstention was certainly perplexing, but it ultimately looked more like a curiosity than a crisis. It soon became clear that the Libyan episode was not as transformative as it had first seemed.

The BRICS countries - all of which sat on the Security Council in 2011 - became fiercely critical of NATO’s conduct of the campaign against Gaddafi. Divisions over the deepening crisis in Syria demonstrated that the Security Council was not going to make a habit of authorizing humanitarian interventions. Meanwhile German diplomats did a decent job of patching up relationships with their Western partners in New York. They cooperated closely with Britain and France over Syria, and pursued pre-set priorities including Afghanistan, the security implications of climate change and protecting children in warzones.

As I argued in an article published by the German UN Association earlier this year (available in German here and English here) Germany completed its two-year term on the Security Council with its reputation for competent diplomacy largely restored. But if this reassuring message makes sense to the diplomats in New York, it is harder to sell to politicians and analysts in Berlin. Seen from afar, Germany’s various initiatives at the UN certainly look worthy and useful but they are hardly of comparable strategic importance to the Libyan episode. And the strategic questions raised by Libya continue to resonate.

Is Germany a “reliable partner” to Britain and France, which continue to bear the main burden of representing Europe at the UN?  When Berlin fundamentally disagrees with Paris and London on an issue before the Security Council, can it voice its dissent without sparking a diplomatic breakdown inside the EU?  Is there any way to craft a more unified European stance at the UN?  (As I noted in Berlin, Portugal was also on the Security Council in 2011-2012, but was often treated as an afterthought).

Trying to answer these questions – and recognizing the passion that they still arouse in Berlin debates – is a salutary experience for anyone who purports to be a UN expert, as I occasionally do. Studying the Security Council at close quarters breeds an unavoidable degree of cynicism.  Crises come and go: when I first moved to New York in 2005, Darfur was overwhelmingly important, but now it’s largely forgotten.  And members of the Security Council make far worse strategic decisions than that which Germany stumbled into in March 2011. Once you have observed Russia’s prolonged and calculated blocking actions over Syria, Germany’s brief and muddled response to the Libyan crisis looks like a minor mishap.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the Libyan episode will remain a major reference point in German security and political debates for some time to come. Although these debates stem from a German vote at the Security Council, however, they do not really center on the UN. The most interesting questions involve how the government in Berlin coordinates internally during a fast-moving crisis (there’s general agreement that coordination was pretty poor over Libya) as well as the mechanisms that are necessary to forge consensus at the EU level. If German officials are unable to craft decisive responses to future crises in Berlin and Brussels, their representatives in New York cannot be expected to do so instead.

The ongoing debates over Libya may, therefore, have a beneficial impact on how Germany and the EU manage crises. Yet this relatively parochial focus may distract policy-makers and analysts from how non-European actors are shaping decisions at the UN and crisis diplomacy more generally. It is striking, as one participant at this week’s ECFR roundtable observed, that German debates about Libya tend to focus on the Berlin-London-Paris triangle but rarely refer to the decisive role of the Obama administration in green-lighting military action. This is problematic because the U.S. not only made the intervention possible but also (as a careful study by Andreas Rinke has shown) failed to inform Berlin about this decision in a timely fashion, making it very difficult for Germany to calibrate its own position.

Looking ahead, it’s clear that the US will continue to be central to crisis management, while any analysis of the future of the UN also has to factor in Russia’s willingness to obstruct the West over Syria. As I argued in this week’s Berlin meetings, the greatest single threat to the credibility of the UN at this time is the possibility that Russia will expand this obstructionism, regularly paralyzing the Security Council. This may sound a bit alarmist, but it would fit in with Moscow’s anti-Western line under President Putin.

If Germany wants a half-credible UN, it may have to invest more political capital in lobbying Washington and Moscow about matters before the Security Council. German politicians and diplomats appear to be slowly giving up on the dream of a permanent seat of their own on the Security Council. As ECFR's recent European Foreign Policy Scorecard notes, debates about Council reform almost completely lost momentum last year (they didn't have very much momentum to begin with).  But as the leading power in the EU, Germany can and should weigh in frequently and firmly on UN issues with other big powers.

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