Sep 01, 2020

“We Need the UN More than Ever”

An interview with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on criticism and conflicts, the role of the United States, and Germany's possibilities—75 years after the foundation of the United Nations.

Bild_ Portrait Heiko Maas
Heiko Maas (SPD) ist seit März 2018 Bundesminister des Äußeren. Im vergangenen Jahr initiierte er die Allianz für Multilateralismus, die ihr erstes Treffen Ende September 2019 im Rahmen der UN-Generalversammlung organisierte.
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The United Nations is celebrating its 75th birthday in the middle of the coronavirus crisis. Yet the international community is failing to get the pandemic under control by means of globally coordinated measures. Has the UN outlived its usefulness? On the contrary, we need the United Nations today more than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic in particular has shown that we cannot tackle global challenges at the national or regional level. States can close their borders and restrict international travel to slow down the spread of a pandemic. But in order to contain pandemics in the long term we need multilateral cooperation, for example on the global exchange of data or solidarity mechanisms for the distribution of vaccines. The World Health Organization is the right place for international coordination on these issues. We should therefore strengthen the WHO and continuously develop its procedures for dealing with health crises in order to be even better equipped for future challenges.

The UN Security Council is also the only forum with a global mandate to respond to the security implications of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s why, as a current member of the Security Council, we put the link between pandemics and security on the agenda. I am relieved that the Security Council has finally found its voice and has called for a global ceasefire, as UN Secretary-General Guterres had done before. But the fact that it took agonizingly long negotiations to get there shows that the Security Council is too often deadlocked on important issues or does not react quickly enough. This is unacceptable, especially for such urgent decisions.

Looking back at the history of the UN, what do you think have been its greatest successes so far, and in which areas has it failed? For me, the founding of the United Nations in 1945 is an unprecedented achievement. In the past 75 years, we have become too accustomed to the existence of such an institution to adequately appreciate this historic event. After all, it was then, after the catastrophe of World War II, that states submitted themselves to the rules and decisions of an international authority for the first time in history.

And the Security Council has also made use of its powers to “maintain or restore world peace,” as the UN Charter puts it. United Nations peacekeeping and observer missions—for example in the Middle East, Mali, and the Sudan—not only secure peace, but also facilitate democratic change and ensure that human rights are respected and conditions for humanitarian aid are improved.

Can you also understand the criticism of the UN? Yes, I can, even though the United Nations has prevented or contained many conflicts. However, when for example the population of Syria still continues to suffer after almost 10 years of war, and those responsible are not called to account, we have to ask ourselves where we can increase the UN's capacity to act and strengthen its institutions. Here, however, it is primarily the states that have an obligation to act. After all, it is not the United Nations that keeps the conflict alive and protects criminals. What we are witnessing in Syria is a struggle for power and influence in the region, without regard for the suffering of the people and without respect for international law or the peace efforts of the United Nations. It has to stop. There can only be a political solution to the Syrian conflict. We must support the UN in this by naming those responsible and exerting pressure on the parties to the conflict.

But over the past 75 years, the United Nations has made our world not only safer and more peaceful, but also fairer and more livable. I am thinking here of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 2030 Agenda with its sustainability goals, the further development of international law, and the global protection of the climate and the environment. Through its organs and subsidiary organizations, the UN is on hand every day all over the world to help people in a very concrete way: whether it is the WHO in the fight against polio in Pakistan, the UNICEF children's aid organization in Syria, the UNHCR refugee commission in refugee camps in the Congo, or UNESCO in its commitment to our common world cultural heritage. There is no alternative to the United Nations.

The permanent members of the UN Security Council, in particular China and Russia, are increasingly using their vetoes. The body is gridlocked and is withdrawing from the role of “world government”. What can the UN still achieve today? It is true that the Security Council often fails to live up to its responsibility as guardian of peace and security. The most glaring example of this failure is currently the war in Syria. In the Security Council, it has recently become difficult to reach even an agreement on the humanitarian minimum, such as keeping supply corridors open for the suffering population. Only with extreme efforts have we recently reached agreement on a single remaining border crossing for the next 12 months, because Russia and China have vetoed compromise proposals on several occasions. This is cynical, of course.

But the logical response to this blockade must surely be to keep reminding the veto powers in the Security Council of their responsibility and to form coalitions of those states which, like us, want to work for a strong and effective United Nations. That's why we launched the Alliance for Multilateralism last year, and the encouraging reception shows that the unilateralists and obstructionists are by no means in the majority. This momentum has to carry over to the United Nations itself in order to break down blockades there and make the world organization fit for new challenges.

Under President Donald Trump the United States has distanced itself even further from the UN; Trump has denounced the Paris Climate Protection Convention, and the Americans also want to leave the WHO. How do you explain the US opposition to the UN, which of course has been around since before Trump? Throughout the history of US foreign policy we have observed a shift from strong international engagement to isolationist tendencies and back again. And we should not forget that the United States played a major role in the creation of the United Nations and the other institutions that still form the pillars of our multilateral world order today. The current US administration’s policy of withdrawing from international agreements and questioning the funding of UN organizations such as the WHO is not without controversy in the United States itself. However, we must be prepared for the fact that we as Germans and Europeans will in future have to assume more responsibility for maintaining the international structures from which we have benefited so much in recent decades. Vis-à-vis the US itself, we have to do more than we are used to doing to promote the idea that cooperation based on common rules is beneficial in the long term—even for a great power. And we need to strengthen our coalitions with those who continue to share this view, as we are already doing in the US with individual states, municipalities, or civil society, for example in the case of climate protection.

How credible is the UN in your eyes if, for example, the largest human rights violators are sitting on the UN Human Rights Council? The United Nations was founded 75 years ago as an organization in which as many states of the world as possible have a seat and a vote. Constant dialogue, including with countries and governments whose policies we reject, is the prerequisite for such an organization to function. The alternative would be to deny a place at the table to countries with a questionable record, for example in the area of human rights. But would that really make these countries rethink? I have my doubts. Diplomacy means talking to precisely those governments that do not share our values—and using the bodies of the United Nations to decry shortcomings and name those responsible. The United Nations would lose its credibility if it ended up being just a club of like-minded people that no longer faced the arduous task of struggling every day to make improvements for the people of the world.

What priorities do you see for the UN in the coming years? Can the sustainable development goals of the 2030 Agenda be achieved in a world increasingly dominated by rivalry between major powers and where zero-sum thinking prevails? The top priority for the near future is containing the COVID-19 pandemic. This is because the pandemic exacerbates existing inequalities, increases the burden on already marginalized population groups, and can fan the flames of conflict. That is why we need more commitment right now to the goal of creating a fairer world and equal development opportunities for all. The development goals of the United Nations are and will remain the guiding principle and yardstick for our actions. The implementation of the Paris climate agreement and the fight against the consequences of man-made global warming are, alongside the fight against COVID-19, at the top of the agenda.

How confident are you when it comes to this issue? We have to face up to the fact that not all countries share our concerns and our ways of solving problems. This makes it all the more important for Europe to set a good example. With the European Green Deal we can become a beacon of hope and show that ecological sustainability and economic viability can go hand in hand. I am convinced that other countries will then join us and participate. The consequences of climate change are already being felt by many countries and are already adversely affecting the stability of entire countries and regions. We must therefore also make it clear that climate protection is not only an ecological and economic issue, but also an issue that affects the security interests of all countries. We have therefore firmly anchored the effects of climate change on international security in the agenda of the UN Security Council. The threat posed by climate conflicts must become an integral component of the UN’s concept of security, so that we can recognize dangers early on and defuse conflicts.

What role and responsibility does Germany have in the UN? Our commitment has really grown in recent years, almost exponentially. We are now the second largest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid after the United States. We are at the forefront of conflict resolution, for example in the search for a peaceful solution for Libya, and we are currently involved in seven UN peacekeeping missions and two political missions—often contributing urgently needed capabilities. The fact that we were elected to the Security Council with so much global support was related to that. We enjoy the trust of many countries and many UN bodies and organizations.

We are using this capital to work to strengthen the UN and the multilateral order as a whole. That’s what our current membership of the Security Council stands for. We take responsibility there. We want to ensure that the United Nations remains the central forum for developing common solutions to the pressing issues of our time. This is also reflected in the topics we have taken on during our membership of the Security Council: solutions to conflicts such as those in Syria and Libya, but also in Afghanistan, the Sudan, and Yemen, the importance of women for peace and security, disarmament and non-proliferation, human rights, climate and security, and the strengthening of international humanitarian law.

Do you see any prospect of a permanent seat for Germany on the UN Security Council? Isn’t it time for a joint Franco-German seat or an EU seat? The composition of the Security Council reflects the political situation of 75 years ago. When the UN was founded, it had 51 members; today it has almost four times as many. At that time, a large number of today's member states were locked in colonial dependence; there was no united Europe; few foresaw the economic upswing in Asia. UN procedures and structures need to reflect these changes in a contemporary manner in order to keep the organization operational and to preserve its legitimacy. This ultimately also applies to the composition of the Security Council. It’s why the vast majority of UN states have been calling for years for the Security Council to be made more representative, for example by increasing the number of both permanent and non-permanent members.

Until we achieve comprehensive reform, it is all the more important for the EU to present a united front in the UN and bring its real weight to bear in all fora. We are already coordinating closely with our European partners in New York. Together with France, we have introduced the model of co-chairing the Security Council, a first, but also an example of how we can use creativity and commitment to develop the UN's working methods further.

You have also repeatedly made a very personal commitment to multilateralism. What's the motivation behind this? The commitment to multilateral rules and procedures has been the foreign policy foundation of the Federal Republic of Germany since its foundation. It is based on the lessons we have learned as those responsible for World War II and the incomprehensible crimes committed by Germans at that time: that we must replace the law of the strongest with the strength of the law, that the protection of human rights is a responsibility of the entire world community, that openness based on common rules—and not compartmentalization and egotism—promotes prosperity and prevents conflicts.

 For me, as someone who grew up in the Saarland, these insights were never merely abstract doctrines but always lived reality. It is hard to imagine today that until 1956 Saarland was one of the most disputed regions in Europe. This state of affairs only changed thanks to the rapprochement and reconciliation with France after 1945, a development that still makes me infinitely grateful today. It is therefore no coincidence that today France and Germany are driving forces for the preservation of the multilateral order.

Heiko Maas, a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), has been German Foreign Minister since March 2018. Last year he initiated the Alliance for Multilateralism, which organized its first meeting at the end of September 2019 as part of the UN General Assembly.

This is a translation from the German. The interview was conducted by the INTERNATIONALE POLITIK editorial team for the September/October issue of IP.