Brexit Makes Early Warning on International Crises Even More Imperative
Brexit Makes Early Warning on International Crises Even More Imperative
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Trump, Biden and the Future of U.S. Multilateralism
Op-Ed / Global 4 minutes

Brexit Makes Early Warning on International Crises Even More Imperative

When there is a major crisis in the international system, it is often followed by a host of small crises that pop up in its wake and start escalating out of control. The 2008 financial crisis set the stage for the current rash of conflicts and confrontations in the Arab world, Ukraine and the Asia-Pacific. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union could have a similar effect.

The 2008 recession emboldened China and Russia to challenge the U.S., contributed to economic fragility in the Arab world, and discouraged Western policymakers from investing heavily in international conflict management. Relatively light-footprint options, such as NATO’s air campaign over Libya, were the order of the day. These often did as much harm as good, and rarely resulted in stable political peace deals.

Britain’s vote may not have quite such dramatic results, but it has stirred up doubts about the solidity of international organizations. While the EU is, of course, the primary institutional victim of the vote, the outcome of the referendum “is also generating uncertainty about an even bigger issue,” in the words of The New York Times: “Is the post-1945 order imposed on the world by the United States and its allies unraveling, too?” In the coming months and years, the best diplomatic minds in Brussels and Washington are likely to focus on shoring up this system—unless Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidency this fall, and follows through on his threat to take apart the global system altogether.

In these circumstances, crises in middle-sized or minor trouble spots are likely to receive limited attention, with the partial exception of those tied to global terrorism. 

There is no shortage of such crises today, from the economic collapse of Venezuela to a looming electoral crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that could spark widespread violence. Already, upsurges of violence in warzones like South Sudan receive increasingly sporadic attention. Even the slow collapse of this year’s cessation of hostilities in Syria has aroused little real passion internationally. This is tragic in its own right, but as the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean region has shown in recent years, ostensibly peripheral wars can escalate into major international calamities.

This is one reason why a new report by the International Crisis Group, to which I contributed, argues that major powers and international organizations alike need to invest in developing early warning mechanisms for such crises as well as diplomatic engagement to handle them. 

“Early warning” has been a popular phrase in Western capitals for some time, and political scientists and futurologists have worked out complex data-driven ways of identifying weak states. There is, for example, a striking correlation between countries with high rates of infant mortality and looming conflicts. In the new age of big data, it should be increasingly feasible to dig out more warning signs of violence.

Yet the Crisis Group report, which is based on a close reading of the organization’s reports on multiple conflicts over the past five years, makes a rather old-fashioned point about understanding emerging crises. This is that, if data can help identify when and where a crisis may arise in broad terms, the only way to anticipate how it may evolve, and try to engage in halting it, is to focus on the political actors involved.
This means understanding the political leaders and elites whose decisions can lead, whether by chance or design, to violence. It’s not hard to list leaders whose own vanity, paranoia or simple miscalculations have sparked or exacerbated conflicts in recent years. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad responded to domestic protests with a deliberate strategy of violent crackdowns designed to divide his citizens and radicalize his base. Former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych plunged his country into chaos by trying to balance the EU and Moscow for economic gain, and bungling the attempt. In the DRC, President Joseph Kabila’s desire to defy the constitution and secure a third term in office threatens to undo almost two decades of peacemaking and stabilization operations.

Figuring out how to deal with such figures demands building close relationships with them and their inner circles, in order to grasp their motivations and intentions. It is often striking how little diplomats and international envoys really know about leaders in a crisis. As one Western official remarked in private back in 2012, a lot of U.S. and European analysts underestimated Assad’s capacity for violence because he speaks English and has a photogenic wife. Good diplomacy and analysis needs to be a little deeper than that.

The new Crisis Group report, “Seizing the Moment,” argues that real political analysis must also go beyond specific leaders to encompass an understanding of the political parties, security services and other powerbrokers that either support them or have the power to bring them down. This also involves getting out into peripheral regions of fragile states, such as northern Mali, to get an on-the-ground sense of the tensions there.

This all sounds like common sense diplomacy, but a mixture of budget cuts, security concerns and political obstacles often impede this sort of engagement. The U.S. does not have diplomatic staff inside either Libya or Yemen, making it far harder to track developments or even run aid programs there. If the U.S. and its allies want to have a real chance of shaping political processes in cases such as these, they will need to invest more on, and take more risks with, on-the-ground diplomacy.

This is not only a problem for Western powers. As I noted last week, China has expanded both its economic and security presence in Africa in recent years, but has often been slow to get involved in diplomatic efforts to handle the continent’s crises.

But in the current geopolitical environment, with Brexit and the weakness of Western institutions at the center of international attention, it is especially important that the U.S. and its European allies invest in the hard work of crisis diplomacy. It may be tempting, and indeed understandable, to focus solely on internal political issues like fixing Britain’s relationship with Europe. But if that means ignoring the deterioration of a growing number of new conflicts, or trying to catch up with them after they escalate, there will be a very high price to pay later on.

This article first appeared in World Politics Review.

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