May-June 2018 Articles



Dr. Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, comes to New York with vast experience as a career diplomat and after more than a decade as Foreign Policy and Security Advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel. Working at the Chancellor’s side since she assumed office in 2005, Heusgen has helped to shepherd German policy through a wide range of global security and economic issues.

Ambassador Heusgen complements his long diplomatic career with deep awareness of the inner workings of German and European politics. As a result of his extensive multilateral work, he is well acquainted with the national leaders and personalities who shape the 21st century international security environments. That experience is tempered by intense behind-the-scenes involvement with the complex demands of the policymaking process. He is known for his intellectual insight, creative approach to problem solving, commitment to international institutions, dedication to a rules-based international order, and immense discretion.

A leading German news outlet has described Christoph Heusgen as a skilled diplomat possessed of great modesty, noting that he exercises “the power of silence.” This Ambassador has never sought the public stage for himself. Though he is determined to “protect” national security while simultaneously “promoting” trade and economic growth, Heusgen has steadfastly avoided not only the spotlight but also the rhetorical excesses to which political egos at the center of power too often succumb.

Christoph Heusgen persistently engages foreign policy dilemmas with probing insight, quiet poise, incisive situational analysis, plus a keen awareness of personalities. All of these traits are leavened with the remarkable patience needed to shape elegantly inventive responses to policy impasses. He navigates the nuances of diplomacy with delicate skill, yet brings to international negotiation the savvy of an experienced political operative who is equally willing to cajole or to pressure his negotiating partners as needed to gain their agreement.

Trained as an economist at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland, Heusgen found himself torn between a career in international banking or the chance to enter Germany‘s foreign service. “We Germans are idealistic so I asked myself a question,” recalls Ambassador Heusgen: “Do I want to work for a company whose primary goal is to make large sums of money, or do I want to try to contribute to German diplomacy by encouraging at least small bits of change in foreign policy? I have not regretted that I took the second way.”

Christoph Heusgen’s education included substantial international perspective with studies in the United States and at the Sorbonne in Paris. He fondly recalls spending a year of his secondary education in the United States at Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, Ohio.  Later, he returned to the United States to study at Georgia Southern University as part of his undergraduate curriculum. His first foreign service posting was at the German Consulate in Chicago as a junior secretary dealing with press and economic affairs. “Experiences like these,” he points out, “provide an early exposure to international life. You become interested in international questions and what moves various countries to take the actions they do.”

Ambassador Heusgen’s professional development followed a somewhat unusual course.  Unlike most fledgling diplomats, he was not cycled back and forth between foreign assignments and postings at the Foreign Ministry.  Instead, his career path focused on two closely related themes: European integration and the transatlantic alliance. He served as Deputy Head of the German delegation to the Coordinating Committee for Multilateral Export Controls (COCOM) based in Paris during the waning days of the Cold War. Returning to the Foreign Ministry, Heusgen served in a variety of administrative posts: dealing with German-French relations; helping to negotiate the Maastricht Treaty that would transform the European Community into the European Union; and eventually becoming Deputy-Director General for European Affairs.

Subsequently, Ambassador Heusgen served for several years [1999-2005] as a top advisor to High Representative Javier Solana in the General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union in Brussels. Upon the election of Chancellor Merkel in 2005, he returned to Berlin as Foreign Policy and Security Advisor to the Federal Chancellor. Now he is at the United Nations as the capstone of what will be four decades of international service.

Ambassador Heusgen was kind enough to sit down for an extended interview with us in his New York office, where he is currently leading Germany’s efforts to be elected to a Security Council seat for the 2019-2020 term.

Diplomatic Connections: The United Nations has been criticized as a massive bureaucracy over-burdened with procedure, paralyzed by political conflicts, under-funded and often times ineffectual. Recognizing that that description is a stereotype of the organization, what is the importance of the United Nations to Germany?

Ambassador Heusgen: If there were not the United Nations, it would have to be founded. For Germany, the United Nations is the key international organization. Germany puts a great deal of emphasis on the rule of law. We want an international order that is rules-based. At the center of these rules are the United Nations and the UN Charter as well as all the subsequent resolutions that have been adopted over the years. That means member states need to do everything to make the UN work.

Diplomatic Connections: You are very close to Chancellor Merkel having served as her foreign affairs advisor for many years. Why did you choose to leave that position and come to the United Nations?

Ambassador Heusgen: We want to strengthen the United Nations. Germany has also always been a promoter of reform within the structure and institutions of the United Nations. The UN Secretary-General, Mr. Guterres, is very adamant in his goal of pushing reforms forward. Our government wishes to support him.

Diplomatic Connections: The German Mission here in New York is busy campaigning for election to the Security Council. What is campaigning for a Security Council seat like within the United Nations community?

Ambassador Heusgen: For Germany to be a member state of the United Nations and, hopefully, once again a member of the Security Council is also to promote the questions we think the United Nations should be examining. A seat on the Security Council puts us at the center of the agenda setting and policy making process of the United Nations. The goal is to advance our candidacy by underscoring Germany’s positions, not promoting Germany as a brand.

Our nation encourages a comprehensive view of security and the primary objective here is to bring before the Security Council a wide range of issues that our government sees as intimately related to international peace and regional security: climate and security, human rights and security, health and security, trade and security. Even issues like food and global population have a security dimension.

The United Nations cannot simply move from crisis to crisis. Instead, it is necessary to have a broader picture, a global picture. This is the approach Germany advocates. Our country has served as a non-permanent member of the Security Council on five previous occasions since Germany became a member of the United Nations in 1973, and we hope for the opportunity to serve again.

[NOTE: Following the end of World War II Germany was divided into four zones of occupation – American, British, French and Soviet. The Allied Occupation of defeated Germany came to an end in 1949 when the American, British and French zones were unified to form the Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, and the Soviet zone gained sovereignty as the German Democratic Republic, or East Germany. The two German states joined the United Nations in 1973. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 a reunified German state was recognized by the United Nations.]

Diplomatic Connections: Israel is included for the first time in the “Europe and Other Countries” group when it comes to the allocation of non-permanent Security Council seats and the election of new members. Is that going to change the dynamics of the election process?

Ambassador Heusgen: Regrettably, there is not a so-called “clean slate” for the West European and Others Group in the upcoming Security Council elections. There are two places available and three candidates. Germany is not competing against Belgium and Israel. We are competing with them. We are not mounting a negative campaign in any way. Instead, our intention is to communicate clearly the positions that our government wishes to convince others to take, if Germany is selected for the Security Council.

Diplomatic Connections: You spoke of the Security Council, and you spoke of United Nations reform. If we might join those two things, what would the future of the Security Council look like from Germany’s point of view? Would you increase the number of permanent members? Would you retain the veto?

Ambassador Heusgen: Germany has been among those states promoting structural reform of the Security Council for many years. That is a difficult process, but my government believes that efforts to change the shape of the Security Council to acknowledge the realities of the 21st century world must not be abandoned. To be sure, there are countries opposed to Security Council reform, but that is no reason not to persist in the reform effort.

If a functioning, rules-based international order is to exist, then the UN must be representative and it must be legitimate. The composition of the Security Council today does not exemplify the balance of power, the economic development, or the demographic development of the globe over time. The world in 2018 is not the world that existed at the end of World War II when the United Nations was founded. Therefore, the United Nations and the Security Council must change.

For these reasons, Germany is seeking to enlarge the Security Council, both in terms of permanent and non-permanent members. To advance this reform process we have joined forces with other countries of similar weight in the world – Brazil, India and Japan.

Diplomatic Connections: Let us close the circle on this discussion of reform. If you enlarge the number of permanent members, would you extend the veto to them or would you create a new category of permanent members without veto power?

Ambassador Heusgen: Germany is in favor of the present construction. That would mean extending the basic rules for both the permanent and non-permanent members.

Major changes are not going to happen tomorrow, but little steps can be taken. Our objective would be to move from just talking about reform toward a text based negotiation, putting forth the text of a reform proposal as a basis for discussion and negotiation.

Diplomatic Connections: You have been called “Germany’s last Atlanticist.” What do you think is the future of the Atlantic Community? Can common endeavors be sustained in the face of what seem to be reassertions of national sovereignty and threats of isolationism popping up all over Europe as well as in the United States?

Ambassador Heusgen: Germany would not be where it is today were it not for the United States. Look at the end of the Second World War and the Berlin Airlift, the support for sustaining West Berlin, the support for the reunification of Germany. The United States was absolutely critical to Germany’s post-war history. Look at what the United States has done for the security of Germany and of the NATO allies.

This transatlantic relationship is central from a security point of view. The world has witnessed what Russia did in 2014 by invading Ukraine, a European country very close to the European Union. Germany has reacted, NATO has reacted, and the United States has reacted. And this has real meaning for us. Today there are more American troops on European soil than has been the case since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Germany and Europe see and value this commitment from the United States.

Of course, as partners Europe and the United States sometimes experience “troubles” in their working relationship, but there remains always an unshakable commitment to critical strategic interests and the defense of Western values. This coordination must be continued, despite tendencies in the United States and Europe that assert more isolationist and inward looking points of view. And, all the member states must work harder to achieve a competitive and fully functional European Union.

Diplomatic Connections: That said, one of the criticisms that candidate Trump, now President Trump, has persistently posed to NATO partner countries is the largely unmet 2% of GDP spending guidelines for investment in national defense. How do you see the future unfolding in this regard? Will Germany make a greater percentage commitment to strengthening its national defense and its contribution to NATO?

Ambassador Heusgen: The 2% guideline is an important objective, but it is critical to examine what the actual investment and the overall commitment to security is. Our country stands by the commitment that was decided upon at the NATO Summit in Wales in 2014. And, when you look at defense spending in Germany, it has been going up.

A new “structured cooperation” initiative has been undertaken by the European Union. It is designed to encourage closer collaboration at all levels of planning and training in order to make European security capabilities much more robust. Germany is among the leaders in working to bring the various national forces closer and closer together.

Diplomatic Connections: The issue of refugees flowing into Germany generated substantial political discord. Now the United Nations must confront the issue of refugee flows coming from the Middle East, from North Africa, as well as the Rohingya issue with refugees from Myanmar flooding into Bangladesh. How should the UN be responding?

Ambassador Heusgen: Refugees run from civil wars, run from internal conflict situations like Syria where there are constant threats to survival on several fronts. This was the situation that confronted Europe in 2015 when the refugees from Syria were stranded in the middle of nowhere. They were without food and water, starving, sick, and had no safe haven in which to take shelter. That was the moment when Chancellor Merkel insisted that Germany would stand by its values and act to protect human life.

These are principles that the international community must uphold, to which it must continue to adhere. Refugees running from dictators, from civil wars, from wars that are destroying communities must be sheltered, protected and offered new opportunities – whether in a new country or by returning home to help rebuild the country from which they came.

Diplomatic Connections: How then should the United Nations respond?

Ambassador Heusgen: One of the issues Germany encountered as it dealt with the refugee flow was that Germans were willing to accept the refugees from Syria who were fleeing crisis, but at the same time Germany also was receiving a large number of economic migrants. German society, and especially the administrative system, was not really prepared for this large scale influx of people pouring into our country. It is impossible to sustain a situation where huge flows of economic migrants are flowing into Europe in a steady stream. This cannot work.

The United Nations must closely examine the root causes of migration flows. For instance, in Africa the international community must do something to respond to climate change. Simultaneously, it is crucial to expand development efforts and to assure a stable security environment. The UN institutions must also respond positively to requests from Africa and other continents that their people should have a possibility to migrate to another continent.

Germany has a demographic problem with its labor market because many areas are already at full employment. Our economy does need employees from other countries, but Germany cannot absorb unorganized migration flows. Instead, the flow of migration must be shaped in ways that Germany is receiving people who are prepared, trained, have the needed skills and who can come to our country and integrate into German economic and social life relatively smoothly. This should be one of the bases for any larger migration compact.

Diplomatic Connections: May we return to the question of the Ukraine and the status of Crimea? Germany was very involved in bringing peace to the Balkans. Based on that experience, are there lessons that were learned in the Balkans that are in any way transferable to the virtual annexation of Crimea and the continuing infiltration/involvement in Ukraine by Russia?

Ambassador Heusgen: The parallels between the Balkans and Ukraine are not very strong. Still, the German Chancellor and the Foreign Ministry continue to look after the remaining problems in the Balkans because our American friends cannot be expected to do that for us. Germany continues to be engaged in the Balkans even 20 years after the Dayton Accords were signed.

The Ukraine situation is totally different. Ukraine decided on independence in 1991 and conducted a referendum asking whether the Ukrainian people wanted to be independent or part of the new Russia. A majority said that they wished to have an independent Ukraine. The vote in Crimea also favored being part of an independent Ukraine. That is very often forgotten.

Diplomatic Connections: Does the present situation in Ukraine and Crimea also have implications for the nuclear non-proliferation regime?

Ambassador Heusgen: When the Soviet Union broke up, there remained Soviet era nuclear weapons in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and other areas. In 1994 Ukraine signed the so-called Budapest Memorandum wherein it gave up the nuclear weapons within its territory. In return, Ukraine got the signature of the Russians and others guaranteeing Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Apparently, President Putin wanted to ignite Russian nationalism for complex reasons of his own, perhaps to cover issues that otherwise threatened to undermine his control of the Russian government and the economy. Russia’s invasion of Crimea and the Donbas was a huge setback for Ukraine. It was a huge setback also for non-proliferation, the effort to give up nuclear weapons and reduce arsenals. The growing perception was that if a state gave up those weapons, as Ukraine had done, then it was without protection.

Diplomatic Connections: How should the United Nations respond to this challenge?

Ambassador Heusgen: The UN and the global community cannot allow Russia to get away with the annexation of Crimea and the constant pressure on the sovereignty and territory of Ukraine. Russia must be offered a face-saving way to extricate themselves from the conflicts they have fomented and fueled in this region.

What Germany has been negotiating, together with our French friends, the Ukrainians and the Russians is the so-called Minsk II process intended to secure a cease fire, stabilize the security environment and the economy, and restore full Ukrainian sovereignty. That negotiation began in 2015. Efforts at implementation continue to be pursued, but unfortunately not much progress is being made.

The goal is to return to and build on the situation of independence and burgeoning democracy that had been negotiated for Ukraine in the 1990s. Working together with the EU, Germany and France are trying to rebuild and strengthen the Ukraine government, reduce corruption, encourage economic development and train a new generation of civil servants committed to reform.

Diplomatic Connections: We cannot end this interview without asking you about the North Korean situation. How can the United Nations contribute to defusing this “edge of the precipice” confrontation between the United States and North Korea, between South Korea and North Korea, and between North Korea and its neighbors in China and Japan?

Ambassador Heusgen: Here at the UN, unlike Washington, there is a North Korean delegation present. People who want to talk to them can certainly do so. The item regarding the North Korean missile development and nuclear weapons programs is repeatedly on the agenda of the Security Council and the General Assembly. That does not mean that the issue is being solved, but it is not being swept under the rug.

There are possibilities to be explored regarding the future of the Korean Peninsula and the threats posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. Given the concerns of China and Russia as well as the United States, the Security Council does not face vetoes by permanent member states on the Korean question. Instead, there are a number of resolutions that demand action from North Korea to give up its missile development and nuclear weapons programs. The pressure on North Korea in the form of economic sanctions has become stronger and continues to be ratcheted up.

It is difficult to say right now where this will lead, but so far the worst has been prevented. A combination of sanctions and exit strategies can be explored in a more nuanced and inclusive way at the UN than is perhaps possible in the hothouse political atmosphere of Washington. I still see a possibility that there may be a path toward an agreed solution to the North Korean drama, one that can avoid the most disastrous consequences.

Diplomatic Connections: Under German law you must retire from the Foreign Service at age 65, a date that comes up in 2020 for you.

Imagine that you are now the senior German diplomat in charge of training a new generation of German diplomats. What lessons would you take from your career that you would want to pass on to these fledgling diplomats?

Ambassador Heusgen: First, it is vital to know your own country. Diplomats must recognize that their primary responsibility is to represent German interests.

Second, it is necessary to search for compromise. No agreement ever gives any party 100% of what was initially sought when negotiations began. Diplomats must learn how to get along with other people and how to listen to the concerns and objectives of other countries. Innate curiosity about everything and a willingness to learn are also essential traits.

Post-World War II Germany is totally different from what it was before. The lessons of history have been learned, and today Germany is a fervent defender of a rules-based international order. German diplomats should always promote this order and should always stand for the fundamental values stipulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 70th anniversary of which we look forward to celebrating in December this year.

Diplomatic Connections: Is there anything else you would like to touch on before we bring this interview to a close?

Ambassador Heusgen: The role of women in the foreign service and at the United Nations must be strengthened. When I started in the German foreign service I had 50 colleagues in my entering class, and three were women. Today gender ratios are moving toward balance, but there are still many areas of international relations – the top ranks, the peacekeepers, the militaries – where men predominate. Continuous efforts must be made to increase the ranks of women in diplomacy. I worked for a woman Chancellor for twelve years, and I know what I’m talking about. I understand, based on experience, just how important the presence of women leaders is on the global and national stage.

Diplomatic Connections: Ambassador Heusgen, thank you very much for talking with us and for being such a professional. You dealt with questions informatively, candidly and discreetly at the same time. And that, it should be said, is a catalog of diplomatic desiderata.

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