Wishful Thinking? Germany’s Push for U.N. Diplomacy on Syria.
Richard Gowan |Monday, Sept. 14, 2015
|German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier addresses the general|
debate of the sixty-ninth session of the General Assembly, UN.
Despite these bids for a bigger role, German diplomats often seem quite happy with their limited role at the U.N. It demonstrates how far the country has come since its power-hungry excesses of the early 20th century. As Hans Kundnani has argued in a recent book, it also suits Berlin to avoid picking costly fights with economic partners such as China and Russia at the Security Council. Berlin made this manifest with its decision to abstain in the council vote on the Libyan war in 2011. As I noted in a paper for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) in June, “officials in Berlin still do not see the UN as a crucial part of their security strategy, or know much about it.”
Yet last week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier launched a blunt attack on the Security Council’s divisions and failure to take real action over Syria.
“Let’s face it,” he complained in The New York Times, “So far, all efforts by the international community to facilitate a political solution have failed.” He wrote from the moral high ground. Berlin is the leading player in Europe’s efforts to manage the human spillover from the Syrian crisis, welcoming tens of thousands of refugees and pushing its European partners to do more.
In doing so, Germany has at least temporarily shrugged off its reputation as a reluctant crisis manager. In most crises, states establish their leverage by projecting military force or threatening economic sanctions. By contrast, Germany has managed to boost its authority in debates on Syria by escalating its humanitarian role.
Steinmeier has also hit out at other powers that still want to address the crisis in military terms. He has declared “some dismay” at reports that Britain and France, which have fumbled over the refugee crisis, may ratchet up military operations in Syria against the Islamic State. He has warned that Russia’s decision to send more military aid to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad looks rather like “banking on the prolongation of the civil war.”
At one level, this sounds like a reiteration of Germany’s long-standing distaste for the use of force. Yet Steinmeier also appears to be maneuvering to establish his country’s status as an arbiter of events in the Middle East. As he pointed out in The New York Times, Germany was one of the six powers that succeeded in crafting this summer’s nuclear bargain with Iran, which “opened a new window of opportunity for the region and possibly a chance to break the gridlock in Syria.”
It is, of course, very much in Germany’s interest to talk up the benefits of the Iran deal, which Berlin negotiated with Tehran as an equal of the five permanent Security Council members. As I noted shortly before the deal was reached, a successful outcome was bound to inspire talk of similar “P5+1” formats on other crises: “Germany, the one member of the six powers that is not institutionally bound up in daily business in the Security Council, could lead the way in trying to expand the group’s remit.”
It would, of course, be wishful thinking to believe that Germany’s presence in the P5+1 was the key to the success of the Iran talks. The nuclear agreement ultimately rested on bilateral haggling between the U.S. and Iran. Of the European countries involved, France was probably the most important, coming up with canny ideas on enforcing the bargain.
But, as my ECFR colleague Ellie Geranmayeh has observed, Germany is the best-placed European country to cajole Iran into compromises over Syria and other Middle Eastern trouble spots such Yemen, thanks to past economic ties and quiet security dialogues. If Russia goes through with its plans to support Damascus, Germany will also have to use the diplomatic channels it has fostered with Moscow over the Ukrainian crisis to try to draw the Kremlin back from the brink. Chancellor Angela Merkel has joined Steinmeier in emphasizing the need for the West to talk to Russia over Syria.
In arguing for increased diplomacy and against military escalation, Germany is also emerging as the main cheerleader for the ongoing efforts of U.N. envoy Staffan de Mistura to bring the Syrian factions themselves closer together to talk peace. In this, however, Berlin may be harnessing itself to a lost cause. De Mistura has been open about the lack of political will for a deal. Despite the precedent of this summer’s nuclear accord with Tehran, neither Russia nor Iran appears willing to halt their support to Damascus. It may be wrong to assume that the P5+1 format, although well-suited for bargaining with Iran on atomic issues, can work so well in resolving the Middle East’s internecine wars.
Yet by throwing itself behind de Mistura, Germany can at least solidify its claim to act as a near equal of the P5 inside and outside the United Nations. In taking in so many refugees, Berlin has demonstrated its commitment to the U.N.’s humanitarian principles. In speaking up for diplomacy over Syria at a time when the permanent members of the Security Council are once again in disarray, it can make a case for its defense of the U.N.’s political principles as well. That still won’t win it a full-time seat on the Security Council, but it could secure it some extra influence in New York.
Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University.