Richard Gowan |Monday, Nov. 23, 2015
Two competing narratives about the future of international conflict management are currently making the rounds at the United Nations.
To simplify, one argues that military responses to security threats rarely work, and that instead we should invest more in diplomatic and economic approaches, as well as in conflict prevention, even if these only deliver results slowly.
The other, roughly speaking, contends that terrorism is too pervasive now to waste time on diplomacy and development that would be better spent killing some bad guys.
Nobody working in or around the U.N. would be quite so blunt in public. But last week, both schools of thought were regularly in evidence in a series of Security Council debates. Remarkably, some diplomats managed to articulate both positions in a matter of days. But this should not distract from the fact that there is a battle of ideas underway at the U.N., and it will decisively shape the future of the institution.
The basic question at stake, to borrow terms that my colleague Mark Leonard once applied to the European Union, is whether the U.N. should be an “herbivore” or a “carnivore.” The herbivorous school of thought, which has the upper hand inside the U.N. Secretariat, basically rests on three principles. First, Iraq and Afghanistan showed that military responses to global threats are disastrous. Second, the U.N.’s global credibility rests on a commitment to more-political and peaceful approaches to crises. Third, the U.N. should focus on these nonmilitary long-term strategies to prevent conflicts before they arise, especially through development programming.
The carnivores have a rather blunter series of reference points. These can be summarized as “Sinai, Beirut, Paris and Bamako,” for the series of high-profile terrorist attacks in those locations that have had the Security Council racing to keep up over the past few weeks. Surges in violence in backwaters such as Burundi only increase U.N. diplomats’ rising worries. In recent weeks, even the most thoughtful and cosmopolitan diplomats in New York have seemed harried, grumbling about the “philosophy” of conflict prevention and asking if the U.N. can ever really fix anything.
Last week, the Security Council bounced from herbivorous to carnivorous arguments in the space of a few days. On Tuesday, the U.K. hosted a Security Council discussion on links between security and development. According to the U.N.’s summary, 80 countries made presentations at the gathering, and they clearly did an effective job of scraping the bottom of the barrel of diplomatic clichés. Many, the U.N. noted, sagely declared that economic and security issues are “two sides of the same coin.” More substantively, the presentations ranged over poverty, climate change and war, and emphasized the need to involve development agencies like the World Bank in conflict prevention.
U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power added that “we can’t just play whack-a-mole once a conflict is already fueling,” calling for a “nuanced understanding of conditions on the ground.” Her French counterpart, while accepting condolences for the events in Paris, concentrated on prevention and the security threats of climate change. The only high-level party-pooper was Russia’s ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, who argued that the Security Council should not become “bogged down in theoretical research.”
Churkin’s grouchy intervention is hardly surprising, as Russia has been the carnivore-in-chief at the U.N. for some time. Over the past year, herbivorous diplomats at the U.N. have been locked in complex debates over the organization’s future development strategy. This culminated in this September’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which includes targets for promoting peaceful, just and inclusive societies. The Russians have largely ignored this process and focused on terrorism instead.
In February, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov rounded off an anti-American rant in a Security Council debate on the U.N. Charter by noting that the council should discuss how terrorism can be “resisted collectively.” In September, Russian President Vladimir Putin tried to use his first visit to the U.N. General Assembly in a decade to bring other states in line with his new military campaign against the Islamic State.
The U.S. and its European allies refused to grant Putin this favor. But the events of the past few weeks have shifted the momentum to the Russian president’s position. On Friday, the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution describing the Islamic State as “a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security,” and calling on all capable states to help “eradicate” the group. France honorably resisted Russian efforts to pass a resolution giving the current Russian campaign in Syria even greater legitimacy, but the direction the political winds are blowing in is clear. French President Francis Hollande has, after all, called for a “big unified coalition” against the Islamic State, to include Russia. It is all too likely that, in the coming weeks and months, the Security Council will provide a political and legal framework for the big powers to sort out their residual differences over Syria, so that they can focus on counterterrorist actions.
This does not necessarily mean discarding all the herbivores’ concerns. There is a need for complex diplomatic bargaining over Syria and, as I noted last week, the U.N. may need to monitor partial cease-fires inside the country. The U.N. will also need a pretty dramatic plan to stabilize, reconstruct and rehabilitate Syria if it is possible to dislodge the Islamic State. The Middle East may be a focus for U.N. peace-building efforts for decades, indefinitely sucking in humanitarian and development funding.
Yet, as the U.N’s herbivores note, the organization’s recent experiences trying to consolidate stability in Afghanistan and Iraq suggest that this task may be hopeless, while turning the organization’s staff into targets for extremist groups. There are strong practical and principled arguments for keeping U.N. humanitarian agencies, peacekeepers and reconstruction specialists at a safe distance indeed from current and future counterterrorist operations, even if they have Security Council approval.
But while this argument is popular in the U.N. Secretariat, it is unlikely to impress an anti-theorist like Russia’s Churkin or his increasingly desperate counterparts from the West. There will be huge pressure for the U.N. to become a large-scale counterterrorism agency in the years ahead. And when it comes to battles between carnivores and herbivores, the former usually end up having the latter for lunch.
Richard Gowan is an associate fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and nonresident fellow at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, where he was previously research director. He also teaches at Columbia University. His weekly WPR column, Diplomatic Fallout, appears every Monday.