Germany joined the United Nations in 1973. But why so late? West Germany, after all, was founded in 1949, only four years after the UN itself.
The reason lay in the division between the two German states: West Germany, or the Federal Republic of Germany, and the German Democratic Republic (GDR), better known as communist East Germany.
A decades-long stalemate had arisen because the government of the Federal Republic claimed to be the sole representative of Germany, believing itself to be the only lawful representative of the German people, since it alone had democratic legitimacy.
The victorious Western Allies of World War II, the United States, Britain and France, which at that time still had a say over how Germany was governed, would have supported UN accession for the Federal Republic alone, but not the Soviet Union, which saw itself as the GDR's guardian. Thus, UN accession was blocked.
In the early 1970s, the German government under center-left Social Democrat (SPD) Chancellor Willy Brandt changed tack, normalized relations with the GDR and thus cleared the way for both German states to join. On September 18, 1973, they joined the United Nations as the 133rd and 134th members.
Futile bids for a seat on the Security Council
The dual membership ended with German reunification on October 3, 1990, and unified Germany has been a UN member ever since. The prerogatives of the victorious Western powers ceased to apply. Since then, Germany has significantly expanded its involvement in the UN. It is one of its largest contributors, has participated in numerous peace missions and is an important UN host country: The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea is in Hamburg and several UN organizations have their headquarters in Bonn.
On the basis of this strong commitment and on Germany's economic and political weight, Berlin has been trying for many years to get a permanent seat with veto power, on the UN Security Council, the organization's highest decision-making body. So far, only the US, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and France belong to this exclusive circle. Germany's argument, like that of the other aspirants to a permanent seat, is that the composition of the Council still reflects the geopolitical situation shortly after World War II, and not present-day realities.
Henning Hoff, a member of the German Council on Foreign Relations and executive editor of foreign affairs magazine Internationale Politik Quarterly, calls the bid for a permanent seat the "holy grail of German foreign policy," but sees the chances as "very, very slim." That's because existing members don't want to share their privileged position with newcomers.
At times, the German government has tried to call for a permanent seat for the entire European Union instead. But since this would have meant that the United Kingdom (still an EU member at the time) and France would have had to give up their respective seats, this too came to nothing.
The German government is caught in a dilemma, Hoff says.
"On the one hand, the most important instrument that German foreign policy has is to rely strongly on the UN to establish something like world governance; on the other hand, you see that the structure of the United Nations is actually in need of reform, but there is no prospect of that happening."
A more representative UN
The coalition agreement of the current German government has its own chapter on multilateralism, which states the following about the goals in the UN context: "We are committed to strengthening the United Nations (UN) as the most important institution of the international order politically, financially and in terms of personnel. Reform of the UN Security Council remains our goal, as does fairer representation for all world regions."
More concretely, Germany is currently preparing, together with Namibia, the so-called UN Summit of the Future, which is to take place next year. Here, delegates are to agree the topics for a planned "Pact for the Future," the envisaged outcome document of the summit.
"The point is to try again to get the powers in the United Nations that want reforms, and it is no small number, around the table again," said Hoff, "and to do it in a form in which a European country like Germany and Namibia, an ex-colony, as a representative of the Global South, pull together and try to clearly define this reform agenda and move it forward." Hoff, however, is "a bit skeptical that this will work."
Alternatives to the UN?
But while all efforts to fundamentally reform the UN have failed, a completely different development is now underway. Hoff says that "China in particular is moving toward creating parallel structures and then trying to present its own structures as alternatives to the UN, so to speak," be they the BRICS countries or the G20.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown accuses the administration of US President Joe Biden of similar behavior in Foreign Policy magazine: Its "fixation on bilateral and regional agreements — at the expense of globally coordinated action — is underplaying the potential of our international institutions, all while undermining any possibility of a stable and managed globalization. Without a new multilateralism, a decade of global disorder seems inevitable," Brown wrote.
But even UN-oriented German foreign policy is now shifting a bit, said Hoff: "The recent G20 summit is a good example of just relying more on such formats to establish something like world governance and less on the UN."
Multilateralism is one of the key words in German foreign policy and has been for decades. But it seems that even the German government is no longer thinking exclusively of the United Nations.
This article was originally written in German.
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