Germany as a Permanent U.N. Security Council Member

In May 1945, after five and a half years of global war, the Allied nations occupied a devastated Germany. Although Japan’s surrender was four months away, and America still drafted plans for a seaborne invasion of the home islands, the war’s main antagonist was destroyed. The most infamous military in human history was disbanded, the concentration camps were emptied, and after Karl Dönitz’s Flensburg government was dismissed on May 23, the fascist administration was finally swept away.  For the first time since 1939, Germany was at peace.

What followed was the custodianship of a nation. As a 1946 newsreel produced by U.S. War Department declared, “Our problem now is future peace; that is your job in Germany. By your conduct…inside Germany you can lay the groundwork for a peace that could last forever, or just the opposite. You could lay the groundwork for a new war to come.”

Chastened by the mistakes at Versailles in 1919, the victorious powers sought to eliminate Germany as a threat and lay strong foundations for future security. America, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union occupied Germany and Austria, assuming total control over their internal affairs and hunting down the Third Reich’s worst offenders. The U.N.— conceived as a replacement for the failed League of Nations — was chartered in 1945 as a neutral international arbiter and guarantor of world peace. In a key move, the occupying powers (with the addition of China) formed the Permanent U.N. Security Council to add strength to the U.N.’s edicts and resolve “any situation threatening international peace.”  

The Security Council (made up of 5 permanent members and 10 rotating members) was to be the cutting edge, the strong arm, of the U.N. It was intended to lead the nations of the world in the task of peace and justice. But this ideal was not simply a foundationless hope — it was supported by a key canon in the U.N.’s charter. Permanent Council members have the power to veto any council resolution, ensuring that the body cannot be bent to sectional interests. The common cause of humanity alone, it was hoped, would guide the actions of the U.N., and the authority of the permanent Security Council was essential to this end. For obvious reasons, the defeated Reich was not invited.

Today, of course, the situation has developed considerably. After German reunification in 1990, and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, the greatest geopolitical standoff in history came to an end. The Federal Republic of Germany took its place among the great powers of the world, helped found the European Union in 1993, and assumed an ever-stronger place in NATO. With Germany as a major world power and important contributor to international security, several leaders — both within and outside Germany — have raised the question of amending the U.N. Security Council to include it (and possibly Japan, a nation with a similar place on the world stage).

For many, it is simply a natural development, suggested by the evolution of geopolitics over the past quarter century. Germany is a cornerstone of the new Europe, a democratic nation with a moral presence on the world stage — and already has a long history in the rotating 10 member non-permanent security council.  But we must remember that today’s situation derives from a 70-year process of idealism and realpolitik, and if we would understand Germany’s relationship with the U.N. today, we must understand the forces that created the current circumstances.

The best place to begin is with the fall of the Nazi state. As Roosevelt saw it at the end of WWII, post-war global security would be kept by the “Four Policemen” of Britain, China, the Soviet Union, and America, who would cooperate to prevent a Third World War. It was this victorious alliance — with the addition of France, at the insistence of Winston Churchill — that became the U.N. Permanent Security Council in 1945. Given its foundation in the midst of war, the shortcomings of the U.N. today should not surprise us. As U.S. Senator Arthur H. Vandenberg put it in 1944, the U.N. was “anything but [the] wild-eyed internationalist dream of a world state” that some had hoped it would become. Rather, it was “based virtually on a four-power alliance” and its main concern was an equal balance of power. This was reaffirmed in 1971, when the U.N. chose to recognize the People’s Republic of China as China’s rightful representative, excluding the Republic of China from membership because it had ceased to exercise authority over the vast majority of Chinese territory.

This spirit of pragmatism set the tone of the U.N. from the beginning, but also became its key weakness, as the Cold War — the great struggle of the second half of the twentieth century — raged within the Security Council itself. Indeed, due to diplomatic tension, it was not until 1973 that East and West Germany became members of the U.N., having finally recognized each other as sovereign states the year prior.

While the U.N.’s effectiveness was always somewhat limited, it has carried the hopes of millions since its foundation in 1945.  One such hope was the fair treatment of the world’s nations, both large and small. In the new order, sectional prejudice was to have no place in policy-making, and all representatives were to have their due accord. But in the mid-twentieth century, with the effects of the war still raw, it was completely out of the question for Germany to join the U.N. Security Council — industrial power though it was.

Beyond Germany’s culpability in some of the worst crimes in human history, the political situation made it impossible. After all, which Germany was the rightful representative of the nation? Was it safe to allow Germany a place at the table, in light of its tendency to upset the balance of power in Europe? Perhaps most significantly, Germany was not part of the grand alliance that founded the new world order in 1945. Germany was the subjugated power, the defeated “gangster regime” upon which the allies hoped to secure a “peace that could last forever.” How could it, in its divided state and with its horrific past, help lead the new world?

Today, however, the question is not “how could Germany possibly help lead the world?” but just the opposite, and Germany is making its case on the world stage. In September 2015, German chancellor Angela Merkel argued for German accession to the permanent Security Council during a summit of U.N. leaders in New York. In a meeting with representatives from Brazil, India, and Japan (whom she also argued were worthy to sit on the Permanent Council), she said, “We need a new method of work to solve problems…That makes reform of the Security Council necessary, reform which reflects the real power in the world better than the situation today.” Further arguing that the Council did not meet the needs and desires of “many” U.N. member states, she declared, “The current atmosphere is that not only we four but many others don’t agree with the structure and the working method of the Security Council.” And stressing her goals of responsiveness and modernization, Merkel concluded by saying that “We want to take others with us to reach a modern working structure of the Security Council which suits the 21st century.”

But Chancellor Merkel is hardly the first to advocate for such a reform. As early as 2000, French President Jacques Chirac advocated for a “two-speed Europe” and the accession of Germany to the permanent Security Council. In a speech in Berlin that year he said, “Germany’s engagement, its ranking as a great power, its international influence” meant that “France would like to see them recognized with a permanent seat on the Security Council.” Significantly, this was a year after Germany’s troop commitment to the conflict in Kosovo, which signified its first active military deployment since the Second World War.

Over the past decade, several other leaders have expressed their desire for German accession, including German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who in 2004 made explicit that Germany desired to be part of the Security Council and “have the veto right” like the other permanent members. He said, in no uncertain terms, that “Germany has the right to a seat” and that his nation was ready to accept more responsibility on the world stage. Similarly, in 2015, the U.K.’s ambassador to the U.N. said his nation officially supported Germany’s bid for a permanent seat on the Council — a position also shared by the French government.

On the other hand, some nations feel that Britain and France should give up their seats for a common EU seat on the Security Council, a view officially advanced in the European Parliament in 2015. Such a proposal would obviously preclude Germany becoming a member in its own right. Incidentally, Italy also opposes German accession for reasons of national interest, concerned that a German seat on the permanent Council would further marginalize its position in Europe. However, the proposal for a common seat—although supported by Italy and the Netherlands—has met strong opposition, and at the moment seems unlikely to come to pass.

Considering this, it seems there would be enough support for German accession if the case were finally opened. But how probable is it in the near future? In addition to Germany and Japan, both India and Brazil are eager for permanent seats, and commentators have raised concern over the effects of expanding the council too widely. (India especially caused hesitation. Although the U.S. supports India’s bid today, it originally objected because of its refusal to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty.) Given the possibility of radical change to the balance of power, it is thus understandable that the “big five” are reluctant to enact any reforms whatsoever. Indeed, it was 21 years from the end of the Chinese Civil War to their recognition of the PRC as China’s sole international representative. However, as Merkel made the case, German presence on the permanent Council would be a sign of stability and modernization, not an upsetting change. Far from a risk to the international community, German membership would help safeguard peace and would be a welcome update to the U.N.’s leadership.

Although some observers, argue that expanding the council would make it harder to reach unanimity on contentious issues (such as Dr. Thomas G. Weiss of the City University of New York, who published a widely cited article in 2003 arguing against expansion), the geopolitical reality means there is already firm division between the Russian/Chinese and Western camps. The main risk would lie in expanding the council to include developing or non-aligned nations.

The accession of one more Western or democratic nation would do little to gridlock the body further; rather, it would give the developed nations of the world a larger hand in U.N. decision-making, and would more honestly reflect the global power balance of the 21st century.

With a place on the permanent Security Council, Germany would be in a position to exert huge influence over the U.N., and like the other permanent members, it would be able to veto any Security Council resolution, giving the decision-making process one more Western democratic voice. Accepting Germany — or for that matter Japan — to the permanent Council would be a huge structural change, but it would also make the U.N. more accountable to its member states and more attentive to the welfare of the human race.

The world is not the same place it was in 1945, and the Council should be changed to reflect the reality of our post Cold War situation. To deny the legitimacy of Germany’s membership bid would be to deny the spirit of pragmatism that has guided the United Nations for more than 70 years.