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

21 Jan

Whitehorse

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.

 

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