Compound Interest: Amplifying Attention to the UN’s Security Architecture, Dr. Robert Zuber

2 Apr

People who have lived through a terrible conflict may be hungry and desperate, but they are not stupid. They often have very good ideas about how peace can evolve, and they need to be asked.  Leymah Gbowee

History is littered with the wars everybody knew could never happen.  Enoch Powell

Peace is not an easy prospect–it requires greater bravery than does conflict.  Ozzie Zehner

This week at the UN was, at least from a peace and security standpoint, more interesting than most.  In addition to consensus resolutions in the Security Council on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, on the Lake Chad Basin region, and on protecting cultural heritage from terror threats, the energy of the building was dominated by negotiations toward a Treaty to “Ban” nuclear weapons.

The quotation marks in the last sentence have mostly to do with the absence of over 40 states from these initial negotiations, an absence that included the states now in possession of these weapons.  A press conference initiated by US Ambassador Haley to underscore the decision to “boycott” the negotiations got a fair amount of press coverage, but largely fell flat.  If the assumption of the Ambassador and those joining her at the podium is that boycotting states have been and are now negotiating nuclear disarmament in “good faith,” they have clearly been sitting in different meetings and reading different press reports over these past years than I have.

Indeed, the effect of the boycott was to leave the largely “like-minded” states and NGOs in charge of what was at times a powerful, table-setting event.  Indeed, to the extent there is an upside in trying to “ban” weapons without the weapons possessors in the room, it is that conversations can push forward in the absence of friction in ways that would be difficult otherwise.   Anyone who has tried to run distance into the teeth of an Oklahoma wind can appreciate the blessing of having wind at your back.

The problem is that, when the wind is blowing in a favorable direction, people tend to conclude that they are faster and in better shape than is actually the case.  The “Ban” treaty deliberations, typical of such discussions, ranged full-spectrum from the highly insightful to the borderline cultish, at times minimizing certain challenges in attempting to “ban” weapons over which they have little operational jurisdiction. And there was perhaps insufficient attention to the many promises which have arisen previously from the disarmament community, promises which have been kept incompletely at best.  Overcoming the “fool me once, fool me twice” legacy of so much UN disarmament activity will require more comprehensive security conversations beyond the remit of disarmament affairs, beyond the slogans of disarmament campaigners, beyond the needs and political aspirations of the like-minded states.  As OPANAL (Tlatelolco) and other voices noted during the week, prohibiting things and eliminating them altogether remain – oftentimes and certainly in this instance – quite some distance apart.

In other UN rooms this week, headwinds were definitely the order of the day in two security-related events where progress is equally uncertain but critical to achieve.  Wednesday, the Peacebuilding Commission held an organizational meeting ably and kindly chaired by the Republic of Korea’s Amb. Cho Tae-yul.  In addition to reports from the chairs of the PBC’s country configurations (minus Swiss Ambassador Lauber who was in Burundi), the discussion focused on the “place” of the PBC within the UN’s broader security architecture, with more specific reference to the steadily evolving but seemingly ever-suspicious relationship between the PBC and the Security Council.

The Chair’s emphasis on consolidating “one peacebuilding commission” resonated with PBC members as it fits as a snug reinforcement for the Secretary-General’s “sustaining peace” concept; but also because it promises the possibility for the PBC to move beyond country-specific, post-conflict configurations and towards a mission that is preventive in its orientation and available to any in the full UN membership interested in tapping the PBC’s considerable and growing expertise in all conflict phases.

Post-conflict reconstruction is certainly an important and specialized expertise, but the general sense of the diplomatic talent here at the UN, certainly including talent which is organized through the PBC, is that we are spending too much energy and money responding to aftermath of conflicts that could (and should) have been anticipated and addressed at earlier stages.  This is, after all, not a “peace rebuilding commission” though that is the role to which the PBC has primarily been assigned and, in the minds of more than a few PBC delegates, one which the Security Council permanent members – including those also serving on the PBC — seem overly committed to preserving.

Some practical reform-minded suggestions were made, including Council member Sweden urging that the PBC have a larger role in consultation with Council “pen holders” while resolutions are in their formative stages and another Council member – Egypt – urging closer coordination linking country visits by PBC configuration chairs and relevant country discussions taking place within the Council.  For its part, Belgium urged more “repetition” of PBC-Security Council meetings as a contribution to eliminating what Morocco alleged as the P-5’s “annoyance” towards the PBC and its presumed evolution.

But as Ambassador Cho Tae-yul made clear, the PBC should worry less about fixing the Council and more about fixing itself.  “Fixing” in the sense of refining its own working methods, including a commitment (as noted by Indonesia) to more “cross cutting” concerns; taking the lead (as urged again by Morocco) in inviting the Heads of affected states to discussions in New York; and (as Bangladesh noted) sustaining a more “hands-on” approach to peace. But this also implies “fixing” (as highlighted by Colombia) in the sense of seeking out the most relevant opportunities for the PBC to share its expertise with the full UN community — with the welcome cooperation of the Council, but not necessarily with its permission.

Ironically, perhaps, one such opportunity occurred this week as Ukraine convened a Security Council “Arria Formula” discussion on the growing threat of “Hybrid War.”  While the concept admittedly has some miles to travel on definition and focus, and in this instance was largely focused on Russian behavior in and around Crimea, the notion underscores the use of allegedly “non-lethal” tools, including from the media and cyber realms – to “wage war” in more subtle ways than the mere imposition of military means, to use diverse forms of media to distract and distort in ways that are at times “more destructive than bombs.”  As the conversation ensued, both Ukraine and Sweden referred explicitly to an evolving and dangerous “grey zone” blurring common (if now outmoded) distinctions between “war and peace,” such that warfare can reasonably be presumed to exist well before the first gun shots are actually fired.

The implications of this new (if still somewhat vague) genre of subtle coercion were not lost on the audience.  Latvia noted that Hybrid War further undermines the notion that states and their military operations alone can protect us from attack.  Egypt asserted that the distortions and manipulations of Hybrid War are pervasive, including within some of the states now complaining loudly about their use.  For its part, Japan was most explicit in urgently rejecting expansion of the “you use it therefore I use it” mentality.

In addition, current Council member Italy rightly urged that we engage in more comprehensive analysis of Hybrid warfare to guide a more comprehensive policy response.   In our view the Peacebuilding Commission is the ideal and most relevant setting in which to conduct and disseminate such an analysis.  The PBC’s conceptual flexibility, its close connections to the Peacebuilding Support Office and Trust Fund, its ability to access diverse NGOs and other stakeholders beyond the usual suspects, this and more makes it well suited to continue analysis of a trend that, as Ukraine put it, represents both an “ambiguous” and “escalating” threat for which we are simply not sufficiently prepared.

To stay in top of evolving security threats, from the most destructive weapons to the most cunning coercive strategies, the active policy interest of all sectors of the UN community is paramount.   The times now require a bit of institutional bravery from each of us, a commitment to fulfill our stated mandates but in ways that encourage new policy ideas and the “compounding” interest of diverse stakeholders.  In our view, the PBC increasingly represents a distinctive culture within the UN from which to cultivate such policy attention.

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