Why Multilateralism Matters – Now More Than Ever
As we mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation from Nazi fascism, we face an unprecedented global crisis. Chancellor Angela Merkel called the current pandemic the greatest challenge since World War II. As we acknowledge this important anniversary, Christoph Heusgen, the German Ambassador to the United Nations, hopes we can recall what prompted the post-war generation to build this system in the first place and learn lessons for how to rebuild it in a more equitable way.
In spring 1945, American troops liberated my hometown, Neuss, Germany, from the Nazis. Later, Neuss became part of the British zone, and they worked together with local citizens to organize post-war life. This did not occur in a vacuum – by the time the Federal Republic of Germany was founded in 1949, the German government was working closely with allies, building a liberal, democratic state and, above all, integrating into an international system that was swiftly becoming robust and was centered on multilateral institutions like the European Union, NATO and the United Nations.
As we mark the 75th anniversary of this liberation, we face an unprecedented global crisis. Chancellor Angela Merkel called the current pandemic the greatest challenge since World War II. As we acknowledge this important anniversary, I hope we can recall what prompted the post-war generation to build this system in the first place and learn lessons for how to rebuild it in a more equitable way.
The challenges we face today cannot be ascribed solely to the current pandemic, yet this crisis reveals fault lines that we must address. To do this, we should remind ourselves why multilateralism matters.
Between 1870 and 1945, differences in Europe culminated in three devastating wars. The lessons of World War II led to the first real system for international justice, beginning with the prosecution of war criminals in Nuremberg. Since 1998 war crimes and crimes against humanity are prosecuted at the International Criminal Court. Having learned the lessons from its disastrous past, Germany deeply believes in the strength of the rule of law and not in the law of the strongest. At the UN, 193 countries have the chance to work together for the common good and there we strive to uphold the rules-based international order.
Seventy-five years later, this order is under heavy strain. It is again the law of the strongest which seems to prevail in Ukraine, in the Middle East, in Libya, in the South China Sea and many other conflicts worldwide. International law is disregarded, human rights are endangered and the freedom of press is in question. International organizations, which were established for the benefit of all people, are regularly instrumentalized for national purposes. As German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, together with his counterparts from the Alliance for Multilateralism, recently made clear: This is a wake-up-call for multilateralism. We should return to what made the world safer and more prosperous.
Germany could not have been rebuilt without its allies. It was rebuilt through global solidarity, with the values of the international system at its center. It was rebuilt on a strong foundation of human rights, equality, and a vision for a better future. Germany was rebuilt on the spirit of multilateralism which guides our policies to this day.
Multilateral cooperation is often not an easy way forward. Finding common solutions can be laborious. But if everyone sticks to them, rules-based multilateral solutions are better, fairer and more lasting than unilateral action. COVID-19 has shown us the fault lines in our system, and now we must work together to make changes.
Together we should reform the United Nations and its Security Council and not boycott it.
Together we should implement the Paris Climate Agreement and not undermine it.
Together we should reform the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization and the Human Rights Council where needed, and not boycott these institutions.
Together we should implement UN Security Council resolutions, which are binding international law and not chose those we like as a menu à la carte.
When COVID-19 has been defeated, other challenges will still exist: climate change, inequality, violent conflict. The best we can do is emerge from this crisis by returning to the roots of international cooperation and recover in a way that is sustainable, equitable, green, and has the values of the UN at its center.
Back in 1971, at the age of 16, I spent a formative and inspiring year in the United States, which would not have been possible if US troops had not liberated Neuss 75 years ago. Germany was saved from fascism, protected against Soviet aggression, eventually reunified and was invited into the international system that the US helped create. Today, we face another defining moment in history. It is time for those with shared values to again work together and not against each other.
has been German Ambassador to the United Nations since 2017. Prior to this he was Foreign and Security Policy Advisor to Chancellor Angela Merkel between 2005 and 2017.