Tuesday, November 03, 2015

The 20/20 Project - Warnings Worth Heeding

The International Crisis Group, a prestigious think tank devoted to conflict resolution and avoidance formerly headed by Canadian Louise Arbour, is celebrating its 20th anniversary by unveiling the 20/20 Project. This is a series of 20 essays by some magnificent minds to be released over the course of the year.

As a teaser, here are some excerpts from two of the first tranche of essays, "Failures of Democracy," by Lord Christopher Patten, Chancellor of the University of Oxford; and "The World's Fragmenting Conflicts," by Crisis Group president, Jean-Marie Guehenno.

On our faltering democracy, Lord Patten observes:

The Great Wars’ victors created a better world with remarkable generosity and virtuosity on Washington’s part. The UN, the European Union, the World Trade Organisation and the World Bank, together with the steady spread of democracy and the rule of law, promised and provided for a better world for millions.

So what happened? When and how did things change? When did the world seem to swing off its previous course and turn onto a new path in a different direction leading to who knows where?

Since then the old certainties have crumbled away into confusion and doubt. China’s economic rise seems to have faltered with the prospect, Larry Summers thinks, of a sharp growth regression to the much lower mean of other previously fast-growing economies. The U.S. retains its prominence as the world’s only real super-power, but seems to have lost its international self-confidence and its enthusiasm for global leadership somewhere in the thankless deserts of Mesopotamia and the committee rooms on Capitol Hill.
To some, Europe looks as decadent as a Sorrentino movie; at best it drifts between past dreams and tough contemporary choices — flashy and introverted or competitive and outward-looking. Failing states from Central and Western Asia to the Sahel export their problems and people. The bleak prospects for the world’s poorest, the bottom billion, threaten to turn much of the world into a Darwinian battlefield.

One potentially bright spot on the horizon is the prospect this year of a global deal on climate change — too late and arguably too little, but at least something to build on for the future. It is a reminder, as well, that the problems that assail us can only be tackled effectively by international co-operation. Perhaps people really are aware that our future depends on such a sense of common interest and common humanity, and yet they and their leaders do not behave as though they are.

...In the mid-years of the last century, the old democracies took the lead in making cooperation work and creating institutions that could channel and manage that common endeavour. Rhetoric on the whole ran ahead of reality. It usually does. But the UN and its family had real success despite the early years of brutish Russian behaviour and the long-term ambivalence of the great powers about ceding authority to a quasi-global government. Yet today, along with the authority of other regional organisations like the European Union, the credibility and legitimacy of sovereignty-sharing as a means of overcoming that bypass or demolish national frontiers is discredited or ignored.

...In the U.S. and Europe — which bear a particular responsibility for the effectiveness of all these global institutions — politicians run scared of challenging voters with the brute realities of the 21st century. Is speaking the truth to your nation’s citizens a certain way to lose office? Perhaps, but surely not forever. Moreover, if someone doesn’t try, political leaders will in any event lose their posts and much more besides. It is not enough for elected presidents and prime ministers, like Abbé Sieyès during the French Revolution and its aftermath, to regard mere survival as a triumph.

Can the excessively partisan, money-dominated American political system rediscover its vitality as an exemplar of democracy? Can European politics recover their morale, with Europe’s leaders telling their citizens more than these voters may find comfortable to hear? There seems to me to be a host of existential questions about the way the oldest democracies run their affairs. Perhaps even without a real democratic exertion, even without putting our faith again in reason and in the willingness of voters to behave rationally, we can somehow muddle through the next few years. The danger is that muddle is no longer sufficient. The danger is that we can’t and won’t muddle through. The danger is that we are at a real tipping-point on what Matthew Arnold described as “this darkling plain”. The danger is that this time things will tip.

On 21st century conflicts, Guehenno writes:

There was for a while a significant decline in conflict, as the world got better at peacemaking and peacekeeping.

But here we are, with a war in Syria that has claimed a quarter million deaths and displaced some twelve million people from their homes; with the return of power politics and great power rivalry playing out in Ukraine, as well as in Syria, and, in different form, the South China Sea; and with a new transnational jihadist agenda that infects an increasing number of conflicts that were, at their inception, simpler local disputes.

The threat of big war is back, and new forms of violence — cyber-attacks, hybrid war, and terrorism with a global reach — are redefining conflict.

They threaten to reverse the progress achieved since the end of the Cold War and challenge the legal order that emerged from World War II. At issue is not just that violent non-state actors threaten an international order based on the sovereignty of states. The problem is also that states themselves increasingly use force in situations that stretch or violate the UN founding principle that prohibits the use force except in cases of self-defence, or when the UN Security Council has authorised action in the interests of international peace and security.

...It is not enough to say that there are more intra- than inter-state conflicts. In a world that is as much multi-layered as it is multipolar, conflict is also multilayered: most conflicts still have very local roots, but they are often manipulated by external powers or hijacked by transnational ideologies.

The world is no more the top-down strategic play that it often was during the Cold War, but it would be naïve to think that a purely bottom-up analysis can explain the complexities of recent conflicts. Ukraine is about Ukraine, and it is also about Russia, and about Russia and the West. Syria is about the Assad regime, but it is also about the rivalry between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and about the spread of transnational jihadism.

States are losing their centrality as the theatre within which politics is played, and they compete with other actors, benevolent or malevolent, whose goals may not be confined within the borders of a particular country.

...let’s admit that when confronted with conflict and change, there is no such thing as an “international community”.

There never was, but there was the pretense, and that pretense was useful. Exposing hypocrisy can be the beginning of virtue, and the world’s thugs could sometimes be shamed into not blatantly challenging a working, if shallow, international consensus. This is no longer the case: established and emerging norms, as well as values that were still considered universal a decade ago, are now openly attacked as the props of an unfair order imposed by Western powers.

Indeed, a strong case can be made that Western powers have a significant share of responsibility for the unraveling of the international order: they launched a military operation in Iraq without the explicit authorisation of the UN Security Council, and they used the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect as cover for a policy of regime change in Libya. Both actions have had a disastrous aftermath.
Western powers lost moral authority as they were accused of double standards.

Guehenno's arguments make the case that we live in a world bereft of vision and statesmanship, the helmsmen of international comity. We go to distant corners of the world indulging in "whack-a-mole" warfare that earns us nothing but enmity from those we attack and, often, those we pretend to be helping alike.

As the year goes on and more essays are released I'll try to link to them.


the salamander said...

.. Fantastic ! Merci Beaucoup !

Anonymous said...

While lucid, perhaps next essays could be a bit more blunt and afford explications: " money-dominated American political system", "Responsibility to Protect as cover for a policy of regime change in Libya" and also offer solutions to the apparently intractable conflict between Israelis and Palestinians which sends incendiary flares all over the place.
My take is that nothing will change as long as "spheres of influence" are not considered as an oxymoron...