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

7 Jan

Wise

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.

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