Optimism rises after the tsunamis
Optimism rises after the tsunamis
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Optimism rises after the tsunamis

International relations optimists are usually seen as incorrigibly naive, if not demented. But 2005 may just prove to be the year that made optimism respectable, with co-operative internationalism recovering traction, unilateralists losing ground, the United Nations and regional organisations getting their acts together and some conflicts and crises turning the corner.

Some of the necessary elements are already in place. The UN's 60th anniversary and associated summitry give us the formal occasion for a fundamental rethink of collective security. Last month's report of the UN High Level Panel on security threats sets a clear agenda for the necessary institutional and policy change. And evidence of the need for change is all around us, from Darfur and Iraq to North Korea.

What has been missing is a catalyst to bring all the ingredients together, to generate real global momentum for change - and make it harder for those countries and their political leaders lacking real will for change to resist it.

The Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, with its extraordinary international response, may well play that role. This has been the world's first truly global catastrophe, dwarfing any other single event in the emotion and support it has generated and demonstrating graphically that we are indeed one human family, ever more susceptible to common risks and with a shared responsibility to tackle them.

The trick will be, as immediate emotions fade, to harness the sentiment for change. There are some positive signs in the conflict areas most affected by the tsunamis. In Sri Lanka, although recent reports suggest relations are again fraying, both government and Tamil Tiger leaders have expressed an apparently sincere determination to find common cause in the country's reconstruction.

In Indonesia, the most encouraging news I heard while visiting Jakarta last week was that the Acehnese were overwhelmed by the outpouring of emotional and financial support from fellow Indonesians - with all that implies for diminution of separatist sentiment. The less encouraging news was that hardline elements in both the military and resistance movement seem inclined to continue their armed struggle. If talks are to resume - and now is the perfect time - the new government must show real leadership and international pressure must be exerted, strongly if subtly, to ensure it.

On a wider front, the hope is that the tsunami disaster will give new impetus to a generally more co-operative and less unilateralist approach to solving the world's security problems, both man-made and natural, and greater recognition of the benefits of deploying more assistance, persuasion and empathy, and less military force: more soft power, less hard; more Ukraines and fewer Iraqs.

The big question is whether any of this will butter any parsnips in Washington. The signals at the moment are not all bad. Life is a learning experience, even for neo-conservatives. And the appointment of the highly capable and pragmatic Robert Zoellick as deputy to Condoleezza Rice, the incoming US secretary of state, is good news indeed. Multilateralists can help the US become more enthusiastic about embracing co-operative internationalism by making their arguments more nuanced. Not every security problem has a UN solution. When it comes to urgent disaster relief operations, such as the kind mounted in Aceh by Australia, the US, Singapore and Japan, there was every reason for the initial response to take that direct form (but also for the UN to take over longer-haul co-ordination, as it now has).

Similarly with conflict resolution: every situation has its own dynamic, and its own best institutional solution. When it comes to negotiating a way through the North Korean or Iranian nuclear standoffs, or toward the longed-for Palestinian settlement, or facilitating peace talks in Nepal, the critical roles may need to be played by individual countries, small groups of them, regional organisations, or non-government mediators, not necessarily acting under UN auspices.

Again with institutional effectiveness generally: multilateralists do no service to the cause by loving intergovernmental structures while leaving them inefficient and ineffective. They must acknowledge that the UN's secretariat, many of its agencies and most regional organisations, are ripe for far-reaching reform.

That said, the bottom line must be universal and unequivocal acceptance of the UN charter as setting the ultimate rules of international behaviour, particularly concerning the use of force, whether in self-defence or defence of others. As the UN panel insisted, if there are weaknesses in the present collective security system, the task is not to seek alternatives to present institutions but to make them work better.

The evidence since the cold war is that co-operative security efforts do bear fruit. For all that has so often gone wrong with Security Council decision-making and with peacekeeping and peacebuilding operations, there have been in the new century so far just some 20,000 to 30,000 people each year suffering violent deaths in wars within and between states - as compared to more than 200,000 a year through most of the 1990s. That is more lives now being saved each year than were lost in the tsunamis. And it is within our capacity this year to create the conditions for doing much better still.

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