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Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations

On 30 March 2010, we were warmly welcomed by Mr Holger Tillmann, who works at the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations. He gave us an overview over his daily work at the Mission. This was particularly interesting for us, as it complemented what we had heard during our briefings at the Federal Foreign Office back in Berlin. We thus learned how the ministry in Berlin and the Mission in New York co-operate and how the German foreign policy develops in day-to-day work.

Mr Tillmann went on by elaborating on his work at the UN General Assembly. His task is to explain Germany’s position with respect to the topics on the agenda of this body and convince the other representatives to follow this position. However, in a forum of 192 Member States and several Observers, it is necessary to rely on partners. Germany’s most important partners are the Members of the European Union (EU). Together, they represent 27 Members in the Assembly. It is therefore politically very important that they speak with one voice, as this gives them more weight during negotiations with other States and groups of States, like the G77.

In effect, a high portion of Mr Tillmann’s work is to talk to his European counterparts in order to forge the different national interests into one common EU position. Usually, this co-ordination works, so that the EU presidency can speak on behalf of all the EU Member States on a specific topic in the General Assembly. Commonly, not only the 27 States have one position, but there are also several other UN Member States that align themselves with the position, especially countries intending to join the EU. The number of States gathered around the co-ordinated position can be as high as 50 countries, over a quarter of the Members of the United Nations. This is of high importance, when it comes to voting on a resolution.

However, Mr Tillmann also said that there were some topics where a consensus is hardly found, as the national positions diverge sharply. By way of example, he referred to the Middle East peace process. While there is a basic European consensus on the question, there are different opinions concerning several aspects of the process and the language they involve. While some States see Israel’s controls of goods at the borders of the Gaza Strip as a ‘blockade’, Germany strives to avoid this term in official documents and negotiations, as support for Israel is a cornerstone of German foreign policy.

Mr Tillmann then gave us the opportunity to ask questions. The first question was about how to deal with moral conflicts, when a diplomat’s personal opinion diverged from that of the State he represents. Mr Tillmann answered by explaining to us his view of the diplomatic profession: Political decisions are made by politicians who are elected by the people. Hence, it is the democratic duty of public servants, including diplomats, to execute their decision, as the political decisions reflect the will of the electorate. Asked whether he was ever personally of another opinion than that of the government, he reiterated that he and his colleagues work for all the Germans.

Another question concerned the current financial crisis. Mr Tillmann stressed that he and his European colleagues were co-operating closely to find ways to solve the crisis. One part of this is the help, the EU gives to Greece.

Regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, he emphasised that a solution must be found through multilateral negotiations. Following on this subject, one delegate asked Mr Tillmann whether he considered Germany to be a civilian power, i.e. one that conducts its foreign policy through multilateral institutions and uses economic rather than military means to secure its national interests. Mr Tillmann answered that, in fact, Germany embodies the essential qualities of a civilian power, because its foreign policy relies on multilateral institutions such as the European Union and the United Nations, and democracy and international co-operation are crucial for achieving its national interest. Indeed, Germany’s influence as a civilian power rests on its commitment to and integration in multilateral frameworks – most importantly the EU.

Beside these interesting facts, Mr Tillmann impressed us with his extraordinary perspective on the United Nations. According to him, this international organisation’s task and scope is to develop and coin narratives. As there is no effective sanctions regime of the international community, the UN and especially the General Assembly can never force its members to act in a certain way. But what they can do – and also every day try to do – is to create terms and perceptions, which might have the power to change politics. In Mr Tillmann’s opinion, it is crucial how things are expressed and which arguments are considered to be legitimate. Consequently, the United Nations should be understood as an important part of the international discourse but only as a governance organ.

To sum up, one can say that our visit to the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations was very helpful to understand what it means to be a diplomat in New York. Furthermore, Mr Tillmann showed us a new perspective on the United Nations’ functions in world politics. Furthermore, we got a lot of inside information about the cooperation between Germany, the EU and the UN. We would like to express again that we are very appreciative to Mr Tillmann for this very interesting briefing.

David Kettner