Do peace talks work?
Do peace talks work?
Interview / Global

Do peace talks work?

Can international conflicts be solved at peace summits and what are the limits of international intervention? In this MSNBC's The Cycle interview to mark the May 2015 publication of his memoir The Fog of Peace, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, President & CEO, evaluates efforts to end the war in Syria, the rising role of regional powers and changing expectations of international intervention.

MSNBC’s The Cycle: Let’s start with the Saudis. The closeness of the U.S.-Saudi relationship has been criticised as constricting some of our choices, but now we are hearing many in Washington concerned about what might be some sort of new friction.

Jean-Marie: This is a reflection of a broader phenomenon. The United States used to be seen as the ultimate security guarantee and it is no more because of a new distribution of power, and that means that all the regional powers are taking harder positions – Saudi Arabia and Israel, two very different countries, are two illustrations of that.

Let’s talk about Syria, a country where you spent a lot of time to bring peace and now obviously we see chaos and civil war and ISIS [ Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham, also known as IS or ISIL] there. It seems like a perfect example of no good choices, no good options, perhaps the fog of peace that you talk about. What should we, as the United States, be doing vis-à-vis Syria?

What is sad is that if we had taken a harder position, a tougher position with President Assad two years ago, it might have been less difficult to solve than it is now. But, at this stage, there is a stalemate. Yet, neither side has the perception of a stalemate. They all think they can win. And so, without the United States giving a strong sense that Assad cannot win, that the opposition that it supports cannot be just bombed out of existence, I think you won’t have any negotiation. You are not going to end the war just by winning, you will end the war through negotiation. But, for that negotiation to start you need to create that sense that nobody can win, and at the moment it is not there.

You look more broadly at our different interventions in the Middle East with the intent of creating some sort of peace and calm in the area. The question is: have we? Have we brought peace anywhere? It feels that we’ve just poked the hornet’s nest wherever we go.

In the early 2000s there was much too great an optimism on what you can do, a kind of social engineering: you come to a country, you change it and you bring peace. I think now there is a sense that this is difficult and complicated, “let’s just not touch it”. The real debate on intervention today is how to find a reasonable solution – [we need] lower ambitions, but that doesn’t mean that we will not engage, or not intervene. Sometimes intervention is needed. But, the kind of intervention where you throw in military force without a political strategy behind is bound to fail. And that is what happened in the Middle East.

You need compromise …

You need compromise, you need the use of force to push for a political solution. If the force is there to impose an order, it doesn’t work.

So, Jean-Marie, there is a UN report discussing American shortcomings in terms of policing, and race, and in terms of surveillance. What impact does that have on our standing around the world?

The United States remains by far the most powerful country in the world, but the kind of soft power that has been the greatest asset of the United States has considerably weakened. Even if many countries still see the American way of life as a model, I think that all the discourse on freedom has been compromised. The impact has been undermined by all that we’ve seen from NSA [the National Security Agency] to the behaviour of the police and that kind of thing. And that’s very important because if you pretend to have the moral high ground, but people think you are not doing the homework at home, then it feeds into anti-American propaganda.

Internationally, there was tremendous hope in Barack Obama’s presidency. Everyone remembers the early Nobel Prize. I think some of that has faded over time. What do you think is the international reception to the American presidential candidates that we’re seeing playing in the world, particularly someone like Rand Paul, who would be potentially far less interventionist?

A lot of people are worried in the world. Because everybody complains about the United States when it intervenes, but at the same time everybody wants the United States to be around. And, at the moment, Obama is trying a very difficult balancing act. Whether he is succeeding or not depends on the views, but he’s trying hard. And the sense that the United States could move to a situation where it really just stays behind its borders is worrying. That frankly doesn’t work because if you don’t treat the problems early on, then they fester and they become much more difficult to address.

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