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What the UN can teach Germany about war

Germany has surprised many with its new-look approach to take on a more active, even military, role in dealing with global hotspots. The credit for that reversal, writes Richard Gowan, goes to two people in particular.

German politicians are ready to take war seriously again. Last month, President Joachim Gauck excited strategic analysts with a speech condemning "lazy" pacifism. Germany, he argued, must take greater responsibility for tackling global crises and "sometimes it can even be necessary to send in the troops." Perhaps he should have mentioned warplanes too: he implicitly criticized Germany's decision to abstain on the United Nations resolution authorizing the Libyan air campaign in 2011. Since that debacle, many officials in Berlin have been too embarrassed to discuss the rights and wrongs of military interventions.

Although the president has ignited a debate about interventionism, this will be complicated by a shortage of appealing examples of obvious interventions to draw upon. The public no longer believes in the Afghan campaign. The US backed away from strikes against Syria, and France is struggling in the Central African Republic. Can anyone credibly explain what foreign military deployments can achieve?

Two German officials who may have answers to that question are Peter Wittig and Martin Kobler. The former is Berlin's outgoing Ambassador to the United Nations while the latter, an ex-diplomat, is the head of the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Most European military analysts treat the UN as an afterthought. But in their respective positions in New York and Kinshasa, Wittig and Kobler have grappled repeatedly with questions about the use of force similar to those raised by Gauck.

For those who work with or for the UN, it has been impossible to back away from arguments over interventionism in recent years. With 100,000 peacekeepers worldwide, the organization has been thrust into the midst of conflicts from Mali to Syria, while old battlegrounds such as the DRC and South Sudan remain congenitally unstable. For policy-makers in Berlin and other European capitals, the euro crisis has eclipsed these problems. But the UN is inextricably caught up in trying to mitigate bloodshed.

In this grim context, Wittig and Kobler have articulated ideas about international action that parallel President Gauck's. Wittig, now slated to become ambassador in Washington DC, has persistently emphasized the need for diplomatic engagement in foreign conflicts, eschewing the detachment of some of his counterparts in Berlin. Kobler has argued for using lethal force in defense of innocent lives.

Ambassador Wittig had the nasty task of defending Germany's abstention over Libya. He was rumored to have disagreed with this maneuver. Once the deed was done, he pushed hard to play as great a role as possible in shaping the UN's response to other crises, not least by taking a strong line over Syria. While unable to dispel doubts about Berlin's military vision (or lack of one) he has convinced his counterparts in New York that Germany still takes crisis management seriously. The Libyan abstention has faded into diplomatic folklore, while threats like those facing Kobler in the DRC dominate the UN's agenda.

Richard Gowan Copyright: NYU Center on International Cooperations

Richard Gowan

Having served as an adviser to Germany's then-foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, during the Kosovo war, Kobler was no stranger to debates about interventionism before arriving in the DRC last summer. He nonetheless confronted a daunting situation. Despite fielding 20,000 troops, the UN operation had failed to deal with rebel groups in the east of the country. The Security Council had authorized a more aggressive “intervention brigade” to neutralize these groups, but many UN officials and regional experts feared that this would backfire.

Although a self-proclaimed pacifist, Kobler has proved hawkish in his use of this new brigade, arguing that the rebel groups' frequent atrocities and reluctance to disarm peacefully justified a firm response. "It's not pleasant to fight," he told an interviewer earlier this year. "It's not pleasant to give instructions for helicopters to attack and possibly cause the death of people. But it has to be done in these cases."

To date, the intervention brigade has looked like a success, working with the unreliable Congolese army to defeat the most threatening rebel force in the eastern DRC and suppress smaller militias. As Ambassador Wittig noted during a discussion with Kobler this January, the brigade's performance "had tremendous impact both on the ground and here in New York." Some diplomats argue that equally robust units should join other UN missions. In another recent debate, Wittig praised the UN's efforts to "break the cycle of violence, rape and death" in the DRC and highlighted peacekeepers' efforts to defend vulnerable civilians in South Sudan, adding that "it is essential that we build on these examples."

This is hardly militaristic talk. The intervention brigade in the DRC is a relatively small force of 3,000 troops drawn from neighboring African countries. It remains striking that, three years after Germany rejected the case for humanitarian intervention in Libya, Wittig and Kobler have been ready and able to make new versions of that case at the UN - with language very similar to that used by President Gauck.

While framing last month's speech in terms of European defense, Gauck made a plea for the relevance of the "Responsibility to Protect" and human rights as "a cornerstone of any guarantee of security, of a peaceful and cooperative world order." He qualified this with expressions of concern about the state of the Security Council and multilateralism in general. But an operation such as the UN mission in the DRC, with its clear humanitarian justification and broad international backing, reinforces the president's underlying case in favor of international interventions and the well-calibrated but decisive use of force.

President Gauck and other German leaders keen to see their country take a more muscular role in the world should be thankful that officials such as Peter Wittig and Martin Kobler have kept debates over interventionism moving forward since the Libyan affair. It remains hard to believe that Berlin will participate in many future UN-led intervention brigades in central Africa. But Germany can learn hard lessons from the UN about the nature of war and how to control it, even if it is not pleasant to fight.

Richard Gowan is Research Director at New York University's Center on International Cooperation and a Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.