The United Nations diplomatic corps is about to say farewell to one of its best-known members. Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s permanent representative in New York since 2017, departs at the end of June. During his tenure, which included a stint on the Security Council in 2019 and 2020, Heusgen has impressed and sometimes infuriated other diplomats with his plain-speaking, principled brand of diplomacy. He will be missed.
Heusgen has always cut an unusual figure among other ambassadors, as he came to the U.N. after a decade as one of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s principal foreign policy advisers. A spell representing their country in the Security Council would be the pinnacle of most diplomats’ careers. For Heusgen, it was almost a coda to years of service in the G-7, G-20 and other powerful forums.
Perhaps as a result, Berlin’s man in New York has been willing to take risks that other ambassadors might have ducked. If you have seen Russian President Vladimir Putin and other leaders known for their ruthlessness up close, you probably have a good sense of how far you can push their representatives in New York. Heusgen has pushed hard. He has been exceptionally blunt in criticizing Russia over its policy toward Syria, Arab countries for their interference in Libya and China for its treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. He also used speeches to the Security Council to raise the case of Michael Kovrig, my colleague at the International Crisis Group who has been arbitrarily detained by Beijing since December 2018.
This did not make everyone happy. Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, took his German counterpart’s criticisms on the chin and went on to speak of him warmly. But China’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Geng Shuang, used Heusgen’s last appearance in the Security Council to wish him “good riddance.” Even some of Germany’s allies have fretted about his unflinching style. Other European diplomats worried about alienating the Chinese and Russians on issues like humanitarian aid to Syria.
But for most U.N. observers, Heusgen’s moral clarity was welcome for two reasons. First, he has simply been a lot more interesting to listen to than most U.N. speechmakers. Security Council members now generally rely on carefully prepared and frequently turgid texts in public and private meetings. Heusgen did not. He once teased his colleagues about their long-windedness by bringing a gigantic hourglass to the U.N. to time their interventions.
Heusgen has impressed and sometimes infuriated other diplomats with his plain-speaking, principled brand of diplomacy.
Second, Heusgen’s willingness to be frank about human rights abuses and attacks on international law has felt especially urgent at the U.N. in recent years. The Trump administration’s disregard for multilateral institutions and norms hit morale at U.N. headquarters hard. At a time when many diplomats and U.N. officials felt it necessary to avoid controversy to placate Washington, Heusgen’s willingness to stand on principle was a refreshing exception.
The German ambassador proved ready to push back against the U.S. as firmly as he has against China and Russia when circumstances demanded it. Last summer, working closely with his French and British counterparts, Heusgen corralled Security Council members to block the Trump administration’s drive to restore old U.N. sanctions on Iran that were suspended as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. This process involved complex arguments over legal and procedural issues in the Security Council that few people outside—or even inside—the U.N. could follow. But Germany and its allies succeeded in foiling the U.S. initiative, and in doing so managed to avert a full-scale collapse of the nuclear deal before Trump left office.
Not all Heusgen’s initiatives played out so successfully. In 2019, the U.S. very publicly forced Germany to take language referring to abortion out of a Security Council resolution on sexual violence in conflict. While most council members resented the American’s regressive social stance, they faulted the Germans for misreading how the U.S. would behave. Washington also used the threat of a veto to block one of Berlin’s most cherished projects for its Security Council term, a wide-ranging resolution on climate change’s impact on conflict, in 2020. That said, with the Biden administration now in office, current council members such as Ireland are considering tabling a climate change resolution later this year, validating Germany’s focus on the topic.
Despite these setbacks, Heusgen can claim wins on other matters on the U.N. agenda. Germany helped revitalize the U.N.’s peacemaking efforts in Libya by holding an international conference on the crisis in Berlin in early 2020, laying some of the initial groundwork for the cease-fire that took effect late last year. German officials in New York also played a significant role in guiding U.N. efforts to support the authorities in Sudan after the fall of the autocratic Omar al-Bashir in 2019, resulting in the creation of a new U.N. mission in Khartoum to help the transition to civilian rule.
Germany’s engagement on Sudan surprised some U.N. observers, as Berlin has taken a low profile on crises in Africa in the past. More broadly, if often unfairly, Germany has sometimes had a reputation at the U.N. for being a generous donor but a cautious political actor. I summed this up in a 2017 interview by saying that “Germany is the friend you need to bring to every party at the UN, if only because the Germans are the people who can pay for the drinks.” Heusgen spotted that phrase—and didn’t particularly like it. Before entering the Security Council, he told me that he intended to prove me wrong about Germany’s level of ambition in New York. It is fair to say that he has done that, and very convincingly.
Richard Gowan is the U.N. director at the International Crisis Group.
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