Archive | January, 2018

Bucket Shop:  The Security Council Tries Again to Inspire Confidence, Dr. Robert Zuber

21 Jan


All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.  Mark Twain

Peace is not an absence of war; it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, and justice.  Spinoza

Time heals all wounds, unless you pick at them. Shaun Alexander

The fight against this age is in no small measure a fight against the apocalyptic criticism of the age.  Peter Berkowitz

This week provided many moments of hopefulness and regret.  In the US, the squabbling of our erstwhile leadership and the shutting down of many government operations had as its counterpoint the massing on streets within and beyond the US of women (mostly), men and children calling for, among other things, an end to violence, to deportations, to racist and sexist jargon emanating from our highest political levels, to inequities of access in our systems of economics and politics.

Of all the photos from the diverse marches, perhaps my favorites were from Whitehorse, Yukon where even the dogs donned sweaters to protest the complicity of so many in  violence that must no longer be allowed to demean our values and undermine our collective resolve.

At the UN Security Council this week, another dimension of confidence building was on display, with typically mixed results.  At the behest of January’s president Kazakhstan, a group of high level representatives – led by the Polish and Kazakh presidents as well as Foreign (and other) Ministers from Russia, Kuwait, the Netherlands and elsewhere – came together to discuss measures to build “confidence” in efforts to stem the tide of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) including nuclear weapons.

“Confidence-building” is no new concept when it comes to the possession and proliferation of weapons, and as such appears regularly on the agendas of the UN’s Disarmament Commission and the UN General Assembly’s First Committee.  But neither is it a concept that generally inspires significant, practical movement.   In that regard, the presidential statement (PRST) issued on Thursday in conjunction with the discussion in Council chambers said some practically helpful things, including recognition of the “profound need” to engage all tools of preventive diplomacy and, where necessary, “measures to rebuild trust.”

But the statements within the packed Council chamber, most (as is typical) written in advance of the briefings by SG Guterres or Kazakh president Nazarbayev, fell collectively short of the sentiments in the PRST.  There were to be fair a few good moments:  the Kazakh proposal to make it more difficult for states to leave the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is worth considering further.  The Netherlands wisely noted that successful “confidence building” requires reflection and action by a wider range of multilateral actors.  China (as often) called for an end to “double standards” on security that erode interstate confidence.  Ethiopia and Sweden both called directly for Council “unity” as a pathway to promoting disarmament, easing global tensions and minimizing risks from “human error.”  Peru offered direct support for the SG Guterres’ priority on preventive diplomacy and urged more transparency in our “crisis resolution mechanisms.”  Bolivia made clear that grossly excessive military spending undermines the ability of the international community to overcome “coercion” and guarantee our best-faith effort to honor our Sustainable Development Goals promises.

Unfortunately, though, the lasting “take away” from this event, might well have been the squabbling among the US, Russia and the UK regarding blame for the failure (so far) to properly name and then hold accountable perpetrators of chemical weapons use in Syria.  There is no space here to recount the stages that led to what has become for the Council a bit of an open “wound,” but that permanent Council members would use this session to “pick at” that wound rather than focus more broadly on what might need to change in the culture and working methods of the Council to avoid new breeches of international law and security was discouraging to many onlookers.

As this Syria diversion reminded us, the entire notion of “confidence” has taken on a distinctly self-referential tone in recent times, especially in the west.  It is now associated primarily with overcoming personal limitations, achieving personal goals, fulfilling personal desires.  It is considered by many to be an indispensable accessory for building either a career or a social life.  Many report being especially attracted to confident people who appear to “know what they want” and can navigate personal and logistical obstacles to ensure that they “get it.”   The notion (mostly faux, in my view) of people “becoming anything they want to be” is both a symbol and a symptom of cultures (including my own) that assumes an outsized role for personal confidence in the logistics of impact and success.

For multilateral settings, the building of confidence takes a somewhat different track, taking the form of an often-uncomfortable balance between national interest and what Thursday’s PRST upholds as the “striving for sustainable peace” that involves “managing shared challenges and opportunities along the way.”  It also involves another balance – between the well-documented urgency of the times and the need to communicate the will and resolve of our policy centers to face challenges squarely and insist that the resolution of those challenges – and not our national policy preferences or personal anxieties — be the focal point of our collective energies.

It also requires us to assert the importance of human agency in these difficult times. Despite our melting glaciers, widespread ethnic and gender-based violence and threats from newly-modernized weapons, all in this age is not doom and gloom.   If it were otherwise, there would be little reason to spend our days fussing in Security Council and other policy chambers.   Given that hopeful options still present themselves, part of “confidence building” for our times must be in part to remind others (and ourselves) that there are still viable alternatives to “fiddling while Rome burns,” and then invite us all to pick up our buckets and help put those fires to rest.  This is not quite the same track as “nailing” a job interview or “scoring” a date with someone “out of your league,” but it is so much more relevant to the future of the planet.   One only had to scroll through yesterday’s photos of so many streets swelling with engaged women or hear the confident testimony in another Council session last Wednesday from young Libyan activist Hajer Sharief to appreciate once again how many women and men worldwide stand ready and able to pick up their own “buckets” and inspire others to do likewise.

This requires a less self-referential type of confidence, one based on a belief that people of energy and good will still matter, that getting out of our homes and on the streets (even in the frigid Yukon) can turn the tide of hatred and self-interest from which many of our current global challenges stem. In these times, this belief is more likely to be a gift from people to their leadership than the reverse.

Despite the seemingly habitual clumsiness of the Council’s efforts at confidence building, there is value in their growing, collective recognition that the remedial energy of states and constituents is indispensable to effective multilateral governance in times of excessive stress that is in no small measure related to WMD threats.   If the Council expects states and citizens to “do more” of the heavy lifting to address this and other global challenges, we at the erstwhile center of global governance must lift heavier as well.  Indeed, a key message from this week is that sustaining peace requires a more benevolent, cooperative and (especially) determined disposition — especially by those residing in policy chambers — towards sustaining confidence.



Inquiring Minds:  Questions at the Heart of the UN’s 2018 Priorities, Dr. Robert Zuber

14 Jan


Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’  Martin Luther King, Jr.

Questions are the breath of life for a conversation. James Nathan Miller

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask.  Albert Einstein

It’s another frigid Sunday at the UN, a day when (typically) the trains are not running close to properly and the most important news items of the day included a (thankfully) false missile warning for Hawaii, the dangers to youth from swallowing pods of detergent and the possibility that one of those leftover pods might be needed to “wash out” the insensitive mouth of the US president.

At the UN, it was a slow but important week – slow because of most of the missions are still catching up from the burdensome workloads of late 2017, but important because this is the time when senior UN officials reveal their plans and priorities for the year.   SG Guterres will take the floor on Tuesday to lay out the 2018 priorities of the Secretariat, though he provided an important preview this past week during the launch of his Making Migration Work for All report.  During this well-attended session, Guterres rightly called for “canons of international cooperation” that can increase opportunities for legal migration and eliminate unrealistic restrictions.  Migration is “inevitable,” the SG noted, and if something is inevitable it makes sense to attempt to “properly manage it;” this as part of a call for all delegations to negotiate “constructively” a Global Compact on Migration before the end of this year.

On Friday, the President of the General Assembly, Miroslav Lajčák, took his turn to outline priorities for 2018 within the UN’s most democratic chamber, underscoring the SG’s emphasis on protecting rights and maximizing benefits of migrants, those who migrate voluntarily and those many migrants pushed out of their homes by drought and other climate impacts, discrimination and human rights abuses, and of course armed conflict.

The PGA had other things on his mind as well that his office will hope to impact before turning over the gavel in September 2018:   He is seeking to focus attention on Sustainable Development Goal 6, overcoming the “indignities” that so often accompany a lack of access to safe drinking water.  He is seeking to broaden stakeholder involvement in 2030 Development Agenda implementation.  He is seeking ways for the UN to “keep up with a changing world,” including through stronger linkages between the UN’s human rights and development communities.  He is seeking to continue the process of General Assembly reforms, including institutionalizing participation by indigenous communities and raising levels of transparency regarding the process for choosing his successor.  He made a special appeal for a dramatic increase in delegate attention to the health of our oceans, the challenges of global terrorism and the threat of new pandemics.

And he seeks to elevate the SG’s “sustaining peace” initiative, including pathways to greater participation in peacebuilding by women and youth.   Lajčák affirmed, as he has done in the past, the value of a prevention-oriented peace agenda, urging the UN to act sooner on conflict threats while there is still a “peace to keep.”  Towards the end of his remarks, he also acknowledged (as well he should) threats to our multilateral system that risk “overburdening” the UN system, “drowning out” the voices of smaller states, and undermining progress towards previously agreed peace and development goals. To address challenges such as these, he urged delegations to “talk more and learn more.”

And perhaps even to ask better questions.

Despite his expressed desire to focus on the quality of goals, not their quantity, Lajčák understands that the clock is ticking, both for our planet and, more locally, for his tenure as PGA.  We are already now 1/3 of the way through that tenure, one which has successfully promoted the priorities of his predecessor, Fiji’s Peter Thomson, while seeking to inject some new urgency into a building that sometimes seems content with development and security measures that (while often impressive in their own right) offer insufficient relief for a world staring at a future that could well be characterized by wider social unrest, more missile alerts (false and otherwise), accelerated polar melting, growing insurgencies, an increasingly degraded biodiversity, and perhaps even greater erosion in the confidence that the global public places in governments and multilateral institutions.

PGA Lajčák seems to grasp this multi-faceted urgency.  He knows that the office he now holds has a limited tenure and many burdens, some related to internal UN drama and others related to the positioning of the UN’s considerable successes as a trustworthy antidote to the existential threats which daily assault the PGA and his staff.   Even in his sometimes understated way, Lajčák seemed proficient at communicating the UN’s core responsibilities in this sometimes treacherous period.  Was it enough on Friday?

We weren’t able to tell, frankly, because as quickly as it began the session was over.  By my calculation, delegations were in their seats perhaps 30 minutes for a session which had been allotted three hours.  There were (thankfully) no pre-prepared statements from delegations, no attempts to “comment” on what they heard before they heard it.  But neither were there any questions from the floor: Not a single one.

We had plenty of questions, though protocol prohibits us from asking them in these sessions.  We wanted to probe further the PGAs assertion about “quality commitments,” including how he will use the final 8 months of his tenure to press delegations to “talk more and learn more” about the global challenges for which they have tacitly accepted remedial responsibility?  We wanted to know more about how a “voluntary” compact on migration can successfully overcome nationalist resistances?  We wanted to know how a UN system can effectively prevent conflict when peace and security are often addressed in such a politicized fashion and sovereignty reigns supreme until the fires of internal conflict have burned too many innocents?   We wanted to know how a more “transparent” selection process for the next PGA would actually impact the means by which the new president would eventually be selected?   We wanted to know how the office of the PGA can be better fortified to provide system-wide leadership to address a bursting roster of global expectations?

We had questions for virtually every phrase in the PGA’s presentation, questions that sought clarification and offered opportunities for the PGA to share more of his personal concerns and commitments, to lift a portion of the policy veil for a community that recognizes the value of strong leadership from the PGA despite the impediments from an often-underfunded, one-year tenure.  But from the heads of delegations, there was only a bit of mild applause and a reach for coats and brief cases.  Questions, if at all, were left for another time.

For us, this event was a reminder that the key to “learning more” is not primarily through statements and presentations but through questions – not primarily the kind that seek to “catch” people in their errors and hypocrisies — though there is certainly a place for those — but the kind that illuminates personal and institutional commitments, and that binds questions and answers in a common inquiry to find viable solutions to the problems that plague us.   This is not about letting others (or ourselves) “off the hook,” but acknowledging that, in some real sense, we are all now dangling from the same one.

We are collectively not in that place of recognition.  For too many of us, questions are a threat rather than a blessing, a challenge to our branded narratives rather than an ocassion to examine the truths we hold, and sometimes hold in common.  More and more, we don’t ask good questions, in part because we haven’t practiced asking them in the first place.  And even when we have practiced, we don’t ask good questions because we don’t want to risk having to deal with the answers we receive.  We don’t question because we recognize the degree to which, in our sometimes aloof and self-referential policy world, questions are occasions much more for defensiveness than for exploration. We don’t ask questions at times because we don’t care enough to know and at times because we don’t want to appear in a “public” setting not to already know what a question might imply that we don’t.

But then there are those of us yearning to hear good questions, ones which are neither self-referential nor blatantly accusative but attentive invitations to explore, to collaborate, to support, to learn.  Many of us recognize the potential benefits of such questions, but we hear them too seldom and offer them too sparingly.   Thus, GAPW has made a commitment this year to practice asking better questions — more open-ended, utilizing kinder language, and based on higher levels of attentiveness to process and context.  Our hope is that such questions – from us and from others– can lead to better prospects for community learning, more honest disclosures, and even a lowering of our collective emotional guard.  Such outcomes might even pave the way for global constituents to more fully endorse UN proposals to address the many challenges that keep too many people around the world awake, night after night.

Words of Wisdom: Raising the Bar on Council Culture, Dr. Robert Zuber

7 Jan


Science is organized knowledge. Wisdom is organized life. Immanuel Kant

It’s easier to resist at the beginning than at the end. Leonardo da Vinci

The less you talk, the more you’re listened to. Pauline Phillips

Never interrupt someone doing what you said couldn’t be done. Amelia Earhart

If you only have a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail. Abraham Maslow

It’s early on a frigid Sunday in New York, the sort of morning that gives one a new appreciation for hibernation – slowing down the collective metabolism for a season to refresh and restore beyond the bitter elements; but in our case also to reflect on how we ourselves and the institutions we interact with can better fulfill our collective responsibilities.

The UN has been quiet this week, not quite hibernating, but certainly rebooting what had become by mid-December some badly frayed circuits.  The one significant exception was Friday’s “emergency” meeting in the Security Council called for by the US.   The meeting seemed less about how Iran is treating its demonstrators (the alleged and controversial topic of this first session under Kazakhstan’s presidency) and more about undermining confidence in the JCPOA – the Security Council endorsed agreement to restrict Iran’s development of its own nuclear weapons program.

The US has in the recent past used the Security Council as a platform to undercut the credibility of Iran – not only as an alleged sponsor of regional terror but as a state thus incapable of fulfilling agreements such as those embodied in the JCPOA.   The rationale appears to be that if Iran cannot be trusted in all things, it cannot be trusted in this thing either; in this instance despite the firm conviction of the IAEA that Iran is in compliance with its JCPOA obligations, a conviction which is accepted by most Council members including US “allies” France and the United Kingdom.

Meetings of this type are particularly frustrating for us; not only because of their “politicized” implications, but also because of the many conflicts that remain unresolved (such as in Yemen and Myanmar) or that, in instances such as Venezuela and Cameroon, barely seem to register on the Council’s scale of concern.  There is little doubt, as noted on Friday by ASG Zerihoun, that some official reactions to the protests in Iran were excessively violent, a matter of serious interest for Council members beyond the US, which itself had been accused of “grotesque intervention” by Iranian authorities.  But “serious interest” does not in itself justify an “emergency meeting” of the Council, nor does the hostile rhetoric focused on Iran’s at-times misguided policy decisions and human rights performance justify stubborn skepticism regarding Iran’s JCPOA-related compliance.  And it certainly does not justify time taken from interrogating and addressing other looming sites of violent conflict.

Honestly, it felt a bit jarring to emerge from a brief time of winter reflection into the midst of a Council discussion that frankly appeared more than anything else to be lacking in basic wisdom.  Jarring, but not a huge surprise. Council discussions are often more about scoring political points and feeling out the political limitations of national preferences than about full disclosures of national interest, placing policy preferences in their proper context, or the “clear-headed analysis” urged by new Security Council member Peru.

Indeed, wisdom seems to have become a largely discredited phenomenon in policy, in part because more claim it for themselves than exhibit its fruits and in part because of our tendency to keep things discrete – our personal lives from our professional lives, our politics from their personal and real-world implications.  Wisdom is born of experience but is not hostage to experience.   As implied by the quotations above, wisdom is about holding relevant things together, cultivating a long and engaged attention span, exercising self-restraint during times of stress or temptation,  seeing a bigger and richer picture, keeping our bearings when so many around us are losing their own.  It is about describing the (sometimes grave) obstacles in front of us and persistently calling attention to our collective responsibilities, especially to those who are distracted by less urgent matters.  It means talking less and listening more while ensuring that the words we employ have impact beyond their ability to brand preferences and manipulate outcomes.  Especially in the Council’s context, wisdom is about taking preventive measures to resist the outbreak of conflict which can minimize the need for remedial measures in conflict’s aftermath. It implies refraining from a preoccupation with one grievance such that our duty to identify and address grievances of equal or greater significance is compromised.

As some of the greatest minds in our collective history have noted, this wisdom business represents quite a high bar.  Fortunately for us, it is a “bar” that is reached every day by women and men in diverse cultural circumstances, persons with generally limited notoriety but with a demonstrated ability to “organize life,” to step back from the fray in a manner that clarifies options and implications going forward without haughty or self-important aloofness. For us, this “organizing” includes an all-important reminder that most problems needing to be addressed in the world are not akin to an exposed nail in search of some metaphorical hammer.

As France sensibly explained on Friday, it is possible and advisable for the Council to both address “flash points” in the Middle East and honor its JCPOA and related agreements.   Yes it is possible; but what we witnessed Friday was, from the standpoint of wisdom, a clear regression – the JCPOA under senseless threat while “flash points” in Gaza, Yemen, Eastern Ghouta (Syria) and elsewhere within and outside the Middle East region remain stubbornly resistant to Council-initiated resolutions.  As regional and even existential threats to planetary well-being loom large, wiser engagements emanating from this Council would certainly be reassuring.

As we have noted with other issue contexts, Friday’s discussion on Iran summed up many of the problems with the Council’s prevalent “culture” – too many statements, too little listening, too many conflicts ignored, too much political manipulation of those conflicts which are addressed.  The new elected Council members for which Friday was their debut moment – Côte d’Ivoire, Kuwait, Peru, Netherlands, Poland and Equatorial Guinea – have no doubt already experienced several elements of what can be an overly political, wisdom-challenged policy space.   We hope that these elected members will do whatever they can – individually and collectively — to more effectively “organize the life” of the Council.  We promise to support  — certainly not to interrupt — their progress.