- But for History to Take the Right Path, America and Europe Must Work Together
The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point in history. It brings to a close the chapter that began at the end of the Cold War, when Western countries tried to integrate Russia into an international rules-based order. Russia under President Vladimir Putin has become a pariah state. Much as it did when facing down the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the United States has taken the lead in countering Putin‘s blatant attack on civilization.
Many countries support the U.S.-led response to Putin’s war, but some do so grudgingly. Too many governments see the conflict as a return to the days of the Cold War, when they were forced to choose sides. They imagine that what is at stake is the collision of two geopolitical rivals, not a fundamental question of principle. This is deeply unfortunate. Russia’s aggression should not be seen as ushering in a new Cold War but simply as what it is: the worst act of aggression in Europe since the end of World War II and a brutal violation of international law.
History will not turn in a positive direction on its own. The United States, which has at times undermined international law in its foreign policy choices, should commit to the upholding of the norms and laws that define the international rules-based order. The burden of addressing violations of international law has to be divided more evenly. Germany‘s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has described this moment as a Zeitenwende, a historical turning point. Along with other European countries, Germany needs to step up to the plate and significantly increase its defense spending, improve its readiness to help maintain stability in and around Europe, and take on a leadership role in resolving international conflicts.
This effort requires a global alliance. The partnership among countries that commit to international law and its foundational texts, the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, should comprise countries from all continents. The international community should not be a euphemism for the West. The perception that there continues to be a conflict between “the West” and “the East” allows too many countries to sit on the fence. The fault line really lies between those who seek to reaffirm a principled, global moral and legal order, and those who do not. A new global alliance should stand tall in its uncompromising efforts to protect international law, international humanitarian law, and human rights law.
PLAYING BY THE RULES
In December 2018, when I was serving as Germany’s ambassador to the UN, I and nearly all of my fellow representatives received a note from Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the UN. The message said that if we voted in favor of a resolution in the General Assembly that condemned the United States’ plan to move its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, she would report us to U.S. President Donald Trump. I was stunned. I asked to see Haley, with whom I was friendly. She received me, and I explained to her my incredulous reaction to her note.
I was born in 1955, ten years after the Holocaust and World War II. I grew up in a divided Germany. Only because of the generosity and wisdom of the allied forces did Germany, after the horrendous crimes it had committed, receive a second chance. Thanks to allied persuasion, West Germany agreed to be better behaved, never again violate international law, and solve its conflicts with others peacefully. The German constitution was carefully drafted in 1949 and received the approval of the allies; it upheld respect for the law and abjured the unilateral use of force to resolve problems. The European Union was founded in 1957 on the same principle that differences could be managed through institutions and legal procedures—through the rule of law, not the law of the strongest. This premise afforded the center of Europe its longest period of peace in history.
I explained all this to Haley. And I asked her if she understood why I was surprised by the fact that she had demanded we ignore international law. Now it was her turn to be stunned. She asked her adviser what he thought. He stuttered and admitted that I was correct: UN Security Council Resolution 478 had asked all countries not to place their embassies in Jerusalem. He knew that UN Security Council resolutions were legally binding. The conversation quickly turned to another issue.
During Germany’s tenure on the Security Council between 2019 and 2020, the United States repeatedly violated UN Security Council resolutions, including by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights; and recognizing Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. The United States also withdrew from the World Health Organization, the Paris climate change agreement, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the UN cultural body. Trump advanced a narrow-minded “America first” policy instead of a global view of the common good.
But I was surprised by the successor Trump appointed to replace Haley in 2019: Kelly Craft. Although the Trump administration officially considered climate change a hoax, Craft understood that the climate crisis was a serious issue. She came out strongly in support of UN Secretary-General António Guterres and the United Nations. In 2020, she and I joined forces in upholding human rights by rallying dozens of countries to condemn China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority. As a result of that vote in the UN, the director general in charge of minority issues in the Chinese foreign ministry was reportedly fired. Craft and I had helped create an alliance that stretched from Albania to New Zealand and that was ready to stand up for the rule of law and for human rights.
Craft and I also joined forces to challenge China and Russia on another dismal human rights situation: Syria. I chaired the Security Council in July 2020, when it considered the renewal of the resolution that legalized UN border crossing points through which aid reached northwestern Syria. The UN program was a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of refugees and for local people in parts of Syria cut off from aid. Russia, supported by China, wanted to terminate the UN presence, insisting on the sovereignty of the Bashar al-Assad regime over the whole Syrian territory. It came to a showdown in the Security Council. Russia and China did veto the resolution, but thanks to internal and external pressure, both countries ultimately agreed to a solution that allowed for a minimum of help to be delivered to the people who desperately needed it.
This is the kind of cooperation a global alliance needs to pursue: a shared policy that upholds international law, humanitarian priorities, and human rights. Yes, it can be a painful process coordinating with partners to find a common solution, but it’s the only way forward for this alliance to continue to hold the upper hand in the conflict with autocracies such as Russia and China, which consciously violate international law in suppressing their own people and in bullying their neighbors.
STEPPING UP TO THE PLATE
China and Russia want to rewrite the international rule book by insisting on national sovereignty being the most important legal principle, one that trumps international law, humanitarian law, and human rights law. Against this backdrop, countries committed to upholding international legal regimes have to join forces. They have to do it on the basis of real partnership. In this respect, the Biden administration’s reaction to Russia’s aggression was exemplary: since late December 2021, President Joe Biden and his team have gone out of their way to coordinate the response to Putin with an alliance that reaches beyond NATO and the EU. Out of 193 countries, only Belarus, Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria supported Russia in the March vote at the General Assembly that condemned Putin’s invasion.
The new German government demonstrated some reluctance to fully join in possible sanctions, but Washington reacted with patience and allowed the Germans to iron out differences internally and eventually join the consensus in favor of sanctions. Germany, the world’s fourth-largest economy, has to strengthen its international role. It began to do so under former Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany is the second-largest financial contributor to the UN system, a major source of support for the organization that underpins the international rules-based order and is the only entity that can deal with global challenges. Together with France, Germany helped negotiate the Minsk agreement with Russia and Ukraine that stopped Russia’s 2014-15 invasion. Together with the UN secretary-general, Germany organized the 2020 Berlin Conference on Libya, the outcome of which served as basis for the end of fighting there and opened a track toward a political resolution of the conflict. Germany is part of the group of countries that under EU leadership negotiated the Iran nuclear deal. Merkel was the driving force behind the G-20’s Compact with Africa, which directed international attention toward the continent by inviting selected African countries to the G–20 summit in Hamburg in 2017.
But countries clearly expect more of Germany. When I worked as a diplomatic adviser to Merkel and as Germany’s ambassador to the UN, I was impressed by the many requests from representatives of other countries who asked for more German leadership in areas as disparate as the western Balkans, eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Sahel, Central Asia, and even Latin America. Of course, they appreciated Merkel and her steady hand, but they also respected Germany’s commitment to a foreign policy that was neither paternalistic nor neocolonialist. Countries recognize that Germany delivers much of its financial aid directly to UN agencies; it seeks to support development and peacekeeping goals without extracting anything immediate in return.
Scholz’s government has pledged that Germany will assume more responsibility on the international stage. Germany can promote stability in the Balkans, eastern Europe, Central Asia, the wider Middle East, and Northern and sub-Saharan Africa through energetic diplomacy, holding conferences, hosting key players, and engaging others with all the peaceful instruments at its disposal. Scholz has also promised to strengthen Germany’s commitment to the European Union. Germany as a country can do much to support and help stabilize Europe’s wider neighborhood, but only a stronger European Union can make a difference globally.
THE TROUBLE WITH EXCEPTIONALISM
The United States remains the most powerful global democratic actor, but it also presents a major challenge. In 2019, I complained to a member of the Trump administration about the disrespect it showed to the Security Council resolutions adopted during the time of the Obama administration. The official replied that his administration considered as null and void those international obligations entered into by its predecessor. Again, I was stunned. I had bumped into a particularly stubborn brand of American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States exists above the rest of the world—and above the rules of the rest of the world. To be sure, the United States throughout the twentieth century promoted democracy and the rule of international law. But it still has difficulties accepting that it, too, is subject to that law, as evidenced by its actions in the Vietnam War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, as well as by its abuses in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The rules-based international order will prevail only if the United States commits to it. The United States in the twenty-first century is no longer the one superpower that can control developments worldwide, that has the capability and the domestic backing to intervene globally. Without real coordination with its allies, the Biden administration rushed out of Afghanistan in 2021, implementing the awkward deal set in motion by the Trump administration and leaving the Afghan population in the hands of the Taliban, who don’t respect basic human rights, in particular those of women. Many of my American friends didn’t see any problems with the chaotic and unilateral nature of the withdrawal. They didn’t take issue with how the Afghan republican government found itself in an impossible (and doomed) situation, nor with how the withdrawal caught U.S. allies off guard. The feeling of my friends was that a swift withdrawal was necessary to concentrate on the many challenges the country faced at home: education, health, infrastructure, income disparity, and so on. The U.S. departure from Afghanistan was a clear demonstration of its gradual withdrawal from international crisis management and a call to action for others: a wider global alliance, including Germany, must fill the gap.
NB: Christoph Heusgen is Chairman of the Munich Security Conference. He served as Germany’s Ambassador to the United Nations from 2017 to 2021 and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Chief Foreign Policy Adviser from 2005 to 2017, wrote this article for foreignaffairs.com