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When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?
What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?
What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?
Op-Ed / Global

When the Line Between War and Peace Becomes Blurred, How Do We Keep Ourselves Safe?

Originally published in World Economic Forum

Is a more connected world a safer and more resilient one, or is it more brittle and fragile? It all depends on how we organize our defense. But the failure to stem the rise of terrorism over the past 15 years suggests we’ve not got it right. How can we restructure our defense systems to take into account the immense changes taking place, and the blurring distinction between war and peace?

An Out-of-Date Model

Today’s defense model is one of state-centric centralized defense. Each state is expected to protect its citizens against external threats by deterring state-to-state aggression and by intervening in those states whose failure provides a safe haven to non-state enemies.

States are also expected to protect people against internal threats; they do so through increased police and military presence in our cities, and through ever-expanding digital mass surveillance to detect anomalous behaviours and identify potential threats.

A Thin Line Between War and Peace

This model is not working. Whether it is little green men in Crimea or cyber-attacks, the line between war and peace has been blurred, and in a world no more structured by an ideological divide, exploiting the vulnerabilities of the enemy is a more effective way to wage war than confronting it head on.

As for failing states, 15 years of costly interventions should have taught us the limits of military intervention: foreigners may help but they can’t substitute for locally driven state building.

We need an alternative model of decentralized defense that will reflect the profound transformation brought upon us by the digital age...

Lastly, finding the needle of terrorism in the haystack of law-abiding citizens is proving to be a frustrating pursuit, which at worst could turn democratic countries into police states, and at best, generates many false flags and will never guarantee complete success, even if the record of security agencies is better than often alleged.

We need an alternative model of decentralized defense that will reflect the profound transformation brought upon us by the digital age and the increased connectivity.

A New Approach to Defense

What we have at present is the worst of both worlds: traditional centralized systems are inefficient at identifying and correcting local vulnerabilities, but connectivity increases vulnerabilities because it accelerates and multiplies the psychological, political and in some cases physical impact of an attack on any part of a system. This is very different from the terrorist attacks of the seventies, which were not a threat to our societies.

What, then, should our new approach towards defense look like? That’s not an easy question to answer, but whatever model we end up with needs to take into account five important points:

The enemy within

Internal fragilities are a greater risk than external threats. By any objective measure, terrorism and external aggression are low risks to our personal safety, but they exacerbate our pre-existing sense of vulnerability. The biggest risks are the political upheavals that such a sense of vulnerability can trigger and that malevolent actors can exploit.

We can’t let fear win

Communities brought together only by fear are vulnerable because fear destroys trust, which is the foundation of any long-term human community. A much greater effort is needed to foster a positive sense of common purpose. Civic organizations and public debate have a critical role to play in strengthening the fabric of society from the bottom up.

Cities will supplant states

Physical proximity is becoming more relevant as a counterweight to the anonymity of globalization: in an urbanized world, cities are likely to become increasingly important as political units and standard bearers of identity. Over time, they may become more relevant to our security than states, provided that mechanisms are put in place to ensure effective sharing of data.

The only way to restore some symmetry and stability is to organize defense at the lowest possible level...

The changing nature of warfare

Top-down provision of security, based on the Weberian model of the state enjoying a monopoly on the legal use of force, is ill-suited to the growing diffusion of power, including lethal power, which multiplies the capacities of individuals to wreak havoc in a society. Attack is becoming much cheaper than defense, especially, but not only, in the cyber world. We should not be surprised if this makes asymmetric warfare the most rational way of conducting war, which would generate increased instability.

The power of devolution

The only way to restore some symmetry and stability is to organize defense at the lowest possible level, empowering individuals to protect themselves against cyber-attacks through point-to-point encryption, and empowering cities to strengthen local connections among its citizens, making it more difficult for outsiders to launch attacks. Devolving power to individuals and to lower levels of government will also deprive enemies of targets whose value resides in their symbolic value as centres of great power, reducing the advantage of asymmetric attack. Nuclear warfare, but also cyber warfare, will be less likely if there is no target of strategic importance.

A Brave New World

The implications of this transformation will inevitably be gradual but they will be far-reaching.

Nuclear weapons for instance, are the ultimate expression of the traditional centralized state system: they need its resources to be developed, they require extreme concentration of decision for the threat of use to be credible, and they require similarly structured enemies for the threat to have a target. Their elimination – essential for the long-term survival of humanity – is unlikely to come from a decision to abolish them, but it may eventually happen through an evolution of political structures that will make them irrelevant, for lack of resources, centralized decision makers, and targets.

At the strategic level, the evolution of the world towards ever-bigger building blocks – the US, China, Europe, Russia – ­will be reversed. The ongoing backlash against a European super-state is partly an expression of nostalgic nationalism, partly an acknowledgement that big structures can be dangerous because the stakes are just too high when a change occurs at the top. But now the era of the big state is coming to an end.

At the same time, the world has benefited enormously from the economies of scale of globalization and from the dynamism brought about by diversity. Individuals, cities must be connected, but the connections are unlikely to replicate the pyramidal model of traditional federalism. The European Union will need to adapt to that new situation if it wants to stay ahead of its time.

More likely, in a flatter world, interoperability and communications between smaller entities will be achieved through a multiplicity of issue-specific arrangements that will balance democratic and technical legitimacy: think of the evolving governance of the internet.

The ongoing backlash against a European super-state is partly an expression of nostalgic nationalism, partly an acknowledgement that big structures can be dangerous...

At the operational level, just as “know your customers” has become an obligation for any law-abiding bank, know-thy-neighbour is likely to become a feature of tomorrow’s societies. If applied to big entities such as mega-states, or even mega-cities, it could destroy anonymity, which has been an essential dimension of freedom, and could make our societies oppressively Orwellian.

However, if there is a multiplicity of political entities, allowing us to choose our neighbours, and if we can protect privacy through robust encryption, that risk will be largely eliminated. Freedom will be ensured less through separation of powers and more through a juxtaposition of multiple powers.

Why Decentralization Makes Sense

The present experience with increased flows of refugees pouring into Europe provides the best example of the value of decentralization. When human beings are just part of a statistic, they can easily be perceived as a threat. When they acquire a human face, natural human empathy reasserts itself, as has been the case in many German small towns welcoming refugees.

Decentralized defense will operationalize that intuition: the abstraction of the nation feeds dangerous nationalism; the empowerment of individuals connected by proximity strengthens the fabric of a resilient and open society.

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2019. REUTERS/Brendan Mcdermid
Q&A / Global

What Changed for the World’s Conflicts at the UN General Assembly?

The annual United Nations General Assembly high-level session in the last week of September offered leaders and diplomats the chance to address today’s gravest crises. UN Director Richard Gowan and Senior Analyst Ashish Pradhan reflect on what happened and its potential impact on crisis diplomacy.

What were the most important trends observable at the General Assembly?

The main priority for many participants appeared to be de-escalating crises in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the 14 September attacks on Saudi oil installations. There was a huge amount of speculation at the start of the week over whether U.S. President Donald Trump would meet his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. While that proved impossible – Iran refused a meeting without guarantees on sanctions relief, and the U.S. was unwilling to offer them prior to the meeting – some lower-profile discussions took place on how to solve active conflicts in the region.

Both the Huthis and the Saudis have signalled that they want to de-escalate a conflict that could trigger a broader regional confrontation.

There was notable diplomatic activity around Yemen and Libya. The UK, Kuwait and Sweden convened a new “small group” on Yemen, which also included the permanent members of the Security Council and Germany, in an effort to coordinate diplomatic support to UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths’ peacemaking efforts. The participants envisage expanding the group to include some of the powers directly involved in the Yemeni civil war, potentially including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), in future meetings of this group. Both the Huthis and the Saudis have signalled that they want to de-escalate a conflict that could trigger a broader regional confrontation. This could lead to mutual de-escalation steps that could support the start of a meaningful UN process.

France and Italy pulled together a similar discussion on restarting the UN-led peace process in Libya. That process fell apart after General Khalifa Haftar (who controls the east of the country) tried to seize the capital Tripoli earlier this year, sparking a war between his forces and those nominally loyal to the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). The Security Council has been divided over how to act on Libya since then, so this was a chance to reboot the UN approach. Significantly, the Franco-Italian meeting involved not only Egypt and the UAE, which support Haftar, but also Turkey, which backs the GNA.

These meetings at the UN are not decisive in themselves, but send signals about powers’ willingness to cooperate on fixing a crisis. In principle, the fact that France and Italy co-convened talks on Libya was positive, as Paris has ties to Haftar while Rome favours the GNA. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that Haftar announced his willingness to engage in UN-led talks last Thursday, the same day as the meeting. But the stagecraft wasn’t perfect. GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj used his speech to the General Assembly to brand the General a “war criminal”.

There was also a glimmer of hope on Syria, as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the formation of a Constitutional Committee.

There was also a glimmer of hope on Syria, as Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the formation of a Constitutional Committee – involving both supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad – to meet in Geneva under UN auspices this autumn. The UN has been working on this idea as a means to frame a post-war settlement for almost two years, although many of Assad’s enemies fear it will be a sham. It does nothing to address the most pressing threat in Syria, a potentially brutal battle for the rebel-held enclave of Idlib in Syria’s north west. Nor are representatives of the Kurdish Syrian Defence Forces – which hold a quarter of the country – set to participate.

Still, after a long period in which the UN has been adrift over Syria, this is at least a small win for Guterres. And overall the diplomatic activity on the Middle East and North Africa – even including President Trump’s apparent openness to talking with Rouhani – suggested that both the P5 and regional powers see a common interest in lowering the temperature in the region.

Did leaders also focus on crises in Africa?

The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel [...] generated a high level of concern.

The deteriorating security situation in the Sahel, where jihadi groups are gaining territory and inter-communal bloodshed is increasing, generated a high level of concern. French President Emmanuel Macron made a pitch for strengthening both the UN peace operation in Mali and regional counter-terrorism efforts in his General Assembly speech, and Secretary-General Guterres said the world was “losing ground” in the face of violence in the region. While the General Assembly offers a good platform for leaders to raise the alarm on a regional crisis like this, Macron’s focus on a military-led response overlooks that the various military missions already operating in the Sahel have been unable to check escalating violence. As Crisis Group has argued for several years, a more coherent political strategy, potentially including dialogue with a wider array of armed groups, need to complement security operations.

There was also an unusual high-level meeting of the Peacebuilding Commission (normally a bit of an afterthought in General Assembly week) on the situation in Burkina Faso, where jihadi groups have been gaining ground this year. Discussions about humanitarian assistance and community-level conflict resolution were constructive, although some participants felt that the ideas under discussion still do not match the gravity of the brewing crisis and the level of violence on the ground.

Leaders welcomed two new African leaders – Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan and President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

More positively, leaders welcomed two new African leaders – Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok of Sudan and President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Hamdok, who leads the transitional administration in Khartoum that is meant to pave the way to civilian rule after the fall of Omar al-Bashir earlier this year, handled the opportunity deftly. He won plaudits for signing a pledge of media freedom and agreeing to let the High Commissioner for Human Rights set up a network of offices in Sudan, including in the conflict-affected areas of Darfur, Blue Nile, South Kordofan and East Sudan. Sudan faces an enormous economic crisis, and Hamdok used his trip to New York to call for more economic aid and the end to U.S. sanctions. While his government still relies on the goodwill of the Sudanese military and security services, the Prime Minister made a convincing case for backing the transition.

Tshisekedi has also been trying to win international friends since he took office in Kinshasa at the start of this year after contested elections. His priority has been improving relations with Rwanda and Uganda in particular, with the goal of cooperating against the numerous armed groups that destabilise the eastern DRC. He continued this campaign in New York, participating in a meeting on the Great Lakes to discuss proposals – apparently originally tabled by Rwanda – to create a new regional security mechanism. This would reportedly permit Ugandan and Rwandan troops to conduct anti-militia operations on Congolese soil with the DRC’s permission, possibly supported by Angolan and Tanzanian troops.

If diplomats came away from the General Assembly cautiously positive about the DRC, they are worried about the potential for more violence in Burundi.

Regional security cooperation is certainly needed to tackle eastern DRC’s myriad problems, but President Tshisekedi will have to proceed cautiously. Uganda and Rwanda have intervened in the past in DRC and local memories of abuses their forces committed are a major factor in local and regional tensions. Tshisekedi ought to ensure that any help from his neighbours fits into a political and security plan that makes sense for the DRC. But at least he is talking constructively with his neighbours, and also seems keen to have positive relations with the UN, in contrast to Kabila whose relations with the world body at the end of his tenure were acrimonious.

If diplomats came away from the General Assembly cautiously positive about the DRC, they are worried about the potential for more violence in Burundi – with possible spillover effects in the DRC in particular – around elections next year. The UN still has an envoy to Burundi, but many Security Council members have lost confidence in UN officials’ ability to monitor (let alone affect) the political situation. No new ideas on what to do emerged at the General Assembly.

What other crises were priorities in New York?

There was an awful lot of political theatre around Venezuela, with delegations representing both President Nicolás Maduro and his rival Juan Guaidó attending the General Assembly. But while three high-level events covered the crisis – including one involving President Trump – there was more posturing than real diplomacy over how to find a political solution. The only notable development may have been in Trump’s main speech to the General Assembly, in which he implicitly ruled out any direct U.S. intervention (he noted that Washington would “await” the fall of Maduro, rather than force it). This will have disappointed some of Guaidó’s more hardline supporters, who have continued to hope for U.S. military support. As Crisis Group has argued throughout the crisis, the best way out of the Maduro-Guaidó stand-off remains a negotiated solution involving early, internationally monitored presidential elections as well as political guarantees for both the ruling chavistas and opposition. That did not come any closer last week.

Pakistan has been working hard to keep Kashmir high on the UN agenda.

Perhaps the General Assembly’s most disturbing feature was the obvious level of Indian-Pakistani animosity over Kashmir. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan not only condemned India’s decision to remove Kashmir’s status as a state and ensuing security operations there, but raised the possibility of an all-out war involving nuclear weapons. Pakistan has been working hard to keep Kashmir high on the UN agenda, sending Security Council diplomats daily briefings on human rights abuses, while India insists that it is solely an internal issue. In that vein, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not refer to it at all in his General Assembly speech, which came shortly before Khan’s. The crisis will, at best, continue to poison relations between Islamabad and New Delhi, although the UN seems unlikely to be able to do much about it. While China demanded a Security Council meeting on Kashmir in August, the first since 1971, the majority of members appeared disinclined to irritate the Indians.

Also on the Asian front, there were a number of meetings during the General Assembly on the plight of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in Bangladesh, but no real sign of a viable solution. Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina underlined that her country cannot bear the burden of housing the refugees indefinitely. In one potentially interesting development, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi met with officials from Bangladesh and Myanmar to discuss setting up a new trilateral working group on repatriation. Beijing has refused to let the Security Council take any serious action over the Rohingya crisis, and may be looking for ways to settle a situation that complicates its Belt and Road Initiative on its terms rather than via the UN.

China’s domestic and international behaviour came up in a number of meetings. The U.S. and UK co-convened one on the situation of the Uighurs in western China. Western diplomats also used the meeting with President Tshisekedi noted above to raise concerns about China’s growing influence in central Africa. These criticisms are indicative of a hardening of Western attitudes toward China at the UN in the last year.

The U.S. and Europeans have adopted a policy of “mutual accommodation” with Beijing in the Security Council.

As Crisis Group has noted in the past, the U.S. and Europeans have adopted a policy of “mutual accommodation” with Beijing in the Security Council, agreeing to avoid major public battles similar to those with Russia over Syria. But there are signs of this accommodation cracking. Western diplomats raised the Uighur question in the Security Council this summer, while China came close to vetoing a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan in September as it did not reference the benefits of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative for Afghans (Beijing eventually backed down and allowed the resolution through in return for a reference to “regional cooperation and connectivity”). These small spats are not yet significantly impeding the work of the UN. But they may be early signs that deepening Sino-American competition will eventually become a more serious obstacle to multilateral crisis diplomacy.

Contributors

UN Director
RichardGowan1
Senior Analyst, UN Advocacy and Research
ashishspradhan