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The Long Road to Peace
The Long Road to Peace
UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism
UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism
Op-Ed / Global

The Long Road to Peace

Originally published in The Atlantic Times

In today's networked multipolar world the West still seeks the right strategy

Three long-term trends are redefining conflict and security: the redistribution of power, the world’s increasing physical and informational connectivity, and the resulting decline of the state as the centerpiece of the international system. The first moves us away from the post-Cold War world. The last two have more radical implications: they challenge the role of states and intergovernmental organizations as the building blocks of global order.

All three will shape the conflicts of 2015, and all three present immediate challenges to Western powers. International cooperation has never been as important, but today’s conflicts demand an engagement that is both more modest and more imaginative than in the past. This is not an easy combination.

The redistribution of power has been abundantly documented, but its implications are not yet clear. The United States is less overwhelmingly dominant, except in its military capacity, but it is also less willing to use the force it has. In most crises, in any event, the utility of its force is doubtful. Europe moves frustratingly slowly and has failed to become a strategic actor (though one should not discount its raw potential to become one).

Both, too, have been undermined by the travails and inequities of their economic systems – no longer seen as unparalleled role models; and by the legal and moral excesses of their post-9/11 posture. The West has failed, to date, to effectively counter the perception that its international stance is motivated solely by a desire to maintain its political, economic and military supremacy.

Meanwhile, Russia, China, India and Japan are increasingly assertive in their immediate regions. And a set of middle powers plays an ever more influential, even dominant, role in their own neighborhoods, sometimes for better but often for worse, as ensuing local rivalries make conflict resolution that much more difficult. Perhaps most grave, in a growing expanse of territories, mostly across parts of Africa, the Middle East and South Asia, the writ of the state is weak, sometimes even non-existent.

It has become fashionable to talk about the “return of geopolitics.” But more significant is that this redistribution – or, perhaps better, diffusion – of power makes geopolitics, as traditionally understood, obsolete. Today’s world with its multiple players, some with global reach but weak commitments, some with only regional clout, but strong interests, does not function like the world once dominated by Europe, or that of the Cold War, or even that of the immediate post-Cold War period, in which – many thought – only a handful of powers really mattered. States can work together on some issues while contesting others, allowing for a much more flexible, but also less predictable world. The co-operation between Russia and Western countries on the Iran nuclear issue, even as they compete in Ukraine and Syria, is a case in point.

The second trend is the world’s increased connectivity. The emergence of terrorism as a global concern is a stark illustration. Terrorism is nothing new; it is a centuries old tactical response to an asymmetric distribution of power. What is new is the global impact of some terrorist acts. This reflects the physical connectivity of the 21st century, as exemplified in the profound transformation of civil aviation since 9/11, or the growing threat of cyber warfare in digital economies.

It also reflects unprecedented information connectivity: an impact-multiplier that creates recognition, whether for a fast-food chain, a running shoe or Jihadism. And just as global commercial franchises buy local businesses to establish a presence, the Jihadist franchises exploit and boost local conflicts, whether in the Sahel, northern Kenya, or Syria. Often pressure is bottom-up: local groups seek the franchise because it offers easy access to money, weapons and recruits.

Connectivity is also a recruitment tool. The global impact of terrorist actions attracts lost souls seduced by the publicity given to their acts. Extreme violence becomes both tactic and strategy, an end unto itself. It is packaged as Jihadism not because Islam has much to do with it, but because Islam provides a convenient marker, a readily recognizable totem around which to gather in resistance to real or perceived injustice.

Also, as yet there is no good counter-narrative in the Sunni world to win over the alienated: liberal democracy has lost its appeal; the often remote secular or religious autocrats offer little to most young men; and moderate political Islam has also come unstuck – most dramatically in Egypt. The relatively high proportion of converts among French Jihadists (more than 20 percent) is also revealing.

In such a connected world, retrenchment is not possible. No border force, no “homeland” security can safeguard islands of peace and stability in an ocean of turmoil as isolationists would have it. The flow of people can never be fully controlled, nor can the flow of ideas, at least not in a free society. Outside threats will have their echo in homegrown terrorism. There is no choice but to engage. The question is: How?

Sharing intelligence, coordinating efforts to weaken international terrorist connections is necessary, but cannot replace local and regional conflict resolution, and cannot take place oblivious to how others might view those actions. Empathy, clarity and consistency of exposition, and adherence to minimum norms are much needed.

Neglecting that and focusing exclusively on military operations can help terrorist groups increase their influence by aggravating the conditions that gave rise to them in the first place. Assessing the strategic impact of targeted military actions is vital: they may achieve tactical results at the expense of strategic success. In Syria and Iraq, airstrikes and support to Kurdish and Shia fighters may have degraded the Islamic State’s capacities, but have also strengthened the narrative of Sunni victimization at the hands of Western powers and their allies.

The third trend is the decline of the state as the critical actor of the international system – the disintermediation of politics. The end of the Cold War showed some positive consequences of that decline: individuals’ rights trumped the power of repressive states; human security sat alongside state security, at least in principle. The Arab Spring seemed initially another vindication of that new power, as a ground-swell of largely unorganized individual protests spread and toppled dictatorships.

Although in some cases, like Egypt, the state has since fought back, it has often done so in a way that excludes large segments of the population and thus stores up problems for later. The negative consequences of the disempowerment and decline of the institutions through which individual lives acquire a collective dimension, in particular formal state institutions, and the resulting decline in state-society relations are now more visible.

In the world’s most troubled regions, particularly across parts of Africa and the Middle East, states – often those that had either been propped up by Cold War rivalries or benefitted from the fresh legitimacy of decolonization – are now struggling. Many are chronically weak, at war, collapsed or facing cycles of low-intensity violence. Even those that appear reasonably strong are often, to varying degrees, rather brittle.

In these regions, international actors and national reformers alike can aspire to forge inclusive, accountable and resilient states, but they face a familiar question: “What is good enough?” Can leaders in those states that appear reasonably strong be nudged into doing enough to make collapse less likely? – at a minimum widening their support base and patronage networks or, more optimistically, improving governance. And can those states that have collapsed regain a share of power and resources to keep enough people happy to create at least some short-term stability, and hope over time for improvements in governance? Such ends appear modest. But in practice they will be hard won.

As many states weaken, the relative power of non-state actors – both legitimate like corporations and illegitimate like criminal networks – keeps growing. Implications are wide-ranging. The distinction between domestic and international affairs is blurred because domestic fragility, whether in industrialized Ukraine or the developing Democratic Republic of Congo or South Sudan, creates opportunities for foreign meddling. The distinction between crime and politics is also fading: profits from trafficking not only corrupt officials and hollow out institutions, but also support terrorists, mafias and insurgencies from the Sahel to Eastern Europe and Latin America.

In such a fluid and amorphous context, wars are more intractable. Political programs no longer structure conflicts; the risk of political fragmentation increases, as political, criminal and personal agendas mix together. The longer a war lasts, the more armed groups proliferate, as observed in Somalia, South Sudan or Syria. Ending armed conflict becomes ever harder, not only because of the number of actors who need to be included in a peace process, but also because political goals are elusive and protagonists on all sides share an interest in prolonging the fighting. It keeps the state weak, and they have adapted to a war economy that enhances their own power and ability to loot resources. Sadly most of the deadly conflicts of 2014 look set to continue.

No overarching concept can capture the diversity and complexity of conflict in 2015. Disenfranchisement and local grievances can have an increasingly global impact. They are transforming the geopolitical landscape, which in turn changes the nature of local conflicts. The connections between local grievances and the global strategic theater also make the world of 2015 a more dangerous and less predictable place: strategic surprise is the new normal, as neglected local conflicts may suddenly acquire a global dimension. Russia, China and emerging middle powers will continue to build up their militaries, but new threats resulting from the weakness of many states are likely to be even more pressing.

This is no reason for Western powers to abandon efforts for cooperative management of international security – in fact they are more vital now than ever. But those efforts must be more humble: proportionate to the limited international consensus on interventions and to the international community’s limited capacity to effectively stabilize countries in crisis. They must also be more imaginative: first and foremost looking outside traditional centers of power, but also working creatively outside traditional alliances and seeking support for efforts to end conflicts even in what may seem unlikely quarters.

After a decade and a half of interventionism, whether US-led or UN-led, and increasing disagreement on what constitutes legitimate engagement, the temptation exists for the West to adopt a minimalist approach to foreign relations. That would be as wrong as the previous maximalist posture. 2015 could bring in a new equilibrium, if a focus on the political foundations of stabilization leads to a limited but broad consensus on peace and security: less military interventionism, more politics, smarter diplomacy, more collective action, and more modest ambitions.

UN peacekeepers (UNIFIL) patrol the border with Israel near the village of Kfar Kila, Lebanon 04 December 2018. REUTERS/Ali Hashisho
Q&A / Global

UN Strengthens Peacekeeping Despite U.S. Scepticism

This Friday, the UN hosts the 2019 Peacekeeping Ministerial Conference, an opportunity for politicians and diplomats to fill gaps in blue helmet missions. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s UN Director Richard Gowan previews the agenda.

What is the point of the conference?

This is the latest edition of a series of conferences that former U.S. President Barack Obama kicked off with other leaders at the UN General Assembly in 2015. Vice President Joe Biden had chaired a trial run the previous year. The basic idea is to get senior figures together to pledge military units, or other forms of help like training, to UN Peacekeeping.

This process was the Obama administration’s response to major gaps in the UN’s forces revealed by crises such as the collapse of South Sudan in 2013. The president used his convening power to get other leaders to pledge high-grade units from advanced militaries that the UN was unlikely to attract otherwise.

The initiative, which included defence minister-level talks in the UK and Canada in 2016 and 2017, has worked quite well. The British sent medics to work with the UN in South Sudan, Portuguese special forces have deployed to the Central African Republic (CAR), and a number of NATO and EU members have sent air assets and intelligence specialists to Mali. Well-established UN contributors, such as Rwanda, have also upgraded the range of forces and types of units – like helicopters – that they offer the UN.

We are likely to see some additional steps in that direction this week. This year’s conference is not quite as high-powered as some of the earlier ones. One hundred and twenty countries will participate, but only half are sending ministers. Nonetheless, there are still countries that want to get involved in blue helmet operations. Mexico, for example, will make its first concrete pledge of a fully-fledged peacekeeping unit this week.

What sort of resources do peacekeepers need?

While peacekeepers often get stereotyped as shambolic and ill-disciplined, the overall picture is actually rather better. Only a limited number of troop contributors – mainly under-resourced African militaries – now consistently deploy ill-equipped or untrained contingents.

These ministerial meetings have helped raise the overall standard of forces. More broadly, the UN is able to be somewhat selective about which troops to deploy, as the total number of peacekeepers worldwide has dropped in recent years. When President Obama hosted his peacekeeping summit in 2015, the organisation was responsible for 105,000 soldiers and police officers worldwide, and UN officials had to scramble to find even quite basic infantry battalions to meet this level of demand. That figure has dropped to 88,000 as missions in places where they are no longer needed, like those in Liberia and Haiti, have closed down. This has allowed the UN to reject particularly ill-prepared contingents. The global number of peacekeepers is likely to drop further – the Security Council is slowly winding down its mission in Darfur, which has been a huge drain on the UN and is now well past its prime.

UN officials also want to use this opportunity to push governments to deploy more female troops and police as peacekeepers.

I facilitated a warm-up conference for this week’s meeting focusing on training peacekeepers in Uruguay last December, and it was striking that major UN troop contributors are working hard to standardise and upgrade deployment systems so that their troops will be attractive candidates for UN missions (a useful source of income for some militaries).

Nonetheless, the UN still has difficulties finding enough troops and military equipment for especially risky missions. Mali, where over 120 personnel have been killed in hostile acts by jihadist insurgents, is the most pressing case. UN officials hope that ministers attending this week’s conference will pledge help on problems like countering roadside bombs for the Mali force. They also need helicopters there, but these aircrafts are perennially difficult to find, and governments often place burdensome caveats on how these costly assets can be used.

UN officials also want to use this opportunity to push governments to deploy more female troops and police as peacekeepers. The UN Secretariat would like to double the number of women in its military and police units. The current figure is under 5 per cent. Defence officials – including Western ones – gripe that this request is unreasonable given the overall lack of women in their forces. But militaries including the Ethiopians, Rwandans, Ghanaians and Tanzanians have made good progress against the UN’s target. Angelina Jolie will be at the UN on Friday to encourage the laggards to do better.

Is the U.S. still a fan of the process?

The Trump administration’s attitude to this Obama legacy initiative is ambiguous. The U.S. is still one of the formal co-conveners of the process. Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan represented Washington at the last meeting in the series in Canada (and his boss, then-Secretary James Mattis, only declined to attend that summit for scheduling reasons). This Friday, the senior American representative will be the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, David Hale. He is a highly experienced diplomat, but it is clear that the U.S. interest in the process is down.

That fits with the administration’s broader and growing scepticism toward UN peace operations. The U.S. has been pushing hard for budget cuts to blue helmet missions since President Trump took office. Washington is now reportedly preparing to call for some hefty reductions to the size and budget of the UN mission in Mali, despite its struggle for security.

It is not clear whether Washington’s dislike for peacekeeping is motivated by budgetary concerns, principled aversion for multilateralism or practical doubts about what the UN can achieve – or all three at once. It is fair to point out that, while the Obama initiative may have motivated NATO members to send high-grade units to Mali and South Sudan, neither is close to stable. National Security Advisor John Bolton gave a harsh speech criticising “unproductive” and open-ended UN missions in Africa in December.

If the U.S. is retreating from this process, will other powers replace it?

European countries, which have a direct security interest in the UN managing threats in places like Mali and Lebanon, are taking this conference reasonably seriously. France has pressed its European allies to send personnel to Mali, and French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his German counterpart Heiko Maas will be in New York. The UK is sending a comparatively junior minister, but London is a little busy with other political concerns right now. British officials thought that their recent deployment in South Sudan was good operational experience, and would like to make another significant contribution to the UN fairly soon.

If Washington’s mounting scepticism toward UN peace operations creates a vacuum, it should not be surprised to see others start to fill it.

But as so often happens when the U.S. steps back from multilateral institutions, eyes will turn to China this week. There are currently 2,500 peacekeepers from the People’s Liberation Army on UN missions, which is 1,000 more than deployments by all the other permanent Security Council members combined. Beijing is not sending a top political figure to this week’s meeting, and may not make any big new pledges. But back in 2015, President Xi Jinping promised to deploy up to 8,000 new troops on UN missions. Chinese and UN officials have taken some time to identify and assess suitable additional units, but this technical process is now largely complete. There is a good chance that the number of Chinese peacekeepers will expand quite considerably in the coming years, and Beijing has signaled that it wants senior UN posts and envoy-ships in recognition of this investment.

That could make the current U.S. administration, which has repeatedly raised concerns about China’s rising influence in international institutions in recent months, uncomfortable.

But if Washington’s mounting scepticism toward UN peace operations creates a vacuum, it should not be surprised to see others start to fill it.