Politics in Tough Places: UN Diplomacy in Today’s Crises
In a July address at the Brookings Institution in Washington, Jeffrey Feltman, the Under-Secretary- General for Political Affairs, surveyed UN diplomacy in today’s crises, while reflecting on the contrast in coming to the UN after a long career as a US diplomat. His abridged remarks follow. The full speech is available here.
Friends and colleagues, it was exactly a year ago this month that — after nearly 30 years at the State Department — I took up the position as head of the UN’s Department of Political Affairs.
For those who do not know it, the Department of Political Affairs works at the center of UN preventive diplomacy and peacemaking. It oversees political missions and peace envoys abroad. It monitors political developments around the globe and works hard to mobilize action at the international level to prevent and resolve conflict.
Today I am delighted to be back in Washington, familiar terrain, but my vantage point has changed. To illustrate my new, UN perspective, I will attempt to answer two questions: First, what are the main differences in working on peace and security issues in the multilateral setting of the UN versus U.S. bilateral diplomacy? And second, what are some of the key challenges the UN faces in doing this work?
On the first question — differences between multilateral and bilateral diplomacy — I underestimated the time and effort I needed to adjust to a far greater change than I had anticipated.
Until you leave the U.S. Government you cannot fully grasp what it means to walk into a room backed at all times by the tangible power of the Presidency, the Pentagon and the dollar, the voting weight at the IMF and World Bank, and a permanent seat in the Security Council.
But at the UN, I learned that UN officials also wield important sources of power as they try to coax antagonists toward peace. Placed on our shoulders, for example, are the principles of the UN Charter and the legitimacy derived from the universal membership. Another of the UN’s strengths is its perceived impartiality, which allows us to talk to all sides and play the honest-broker role that others often cannot.
This UN leverage, you might think, is less. But the legitimacy that the UN can convey to decisions on peace and security cannot be replicated by any one nation, no matter how powerful.
What remains the same, however, whether viewed from Foggy Bottom or from Turtle Bay, is the political nature of most conflicts and, thus, the centrality of political solutions.
Yes, the UN can use troops — and often needs to — to stabilize and to provide security on the ground. And, yes, UN humanitarian actors help to diminish the suffering of victims. But lasting solutions to conflicts requires working the politics in tough places. And this is what we are trying to do, with varying degrees of success, in numerous arenas today, often in evolving and complex operating environments.
Let me focus now on a few of these cases:
I will begin with Syria. Nothing has been more painful than to watch the Syrian crisis unfolding ever more tragically every day, and sowing instability across the entire region.
The Syria crisis is an example of the challenges the UN faces when sharp divergences of perspectives paralyzes the Security Council. So what do we do?
First, mobilize support for humanitarian relief and delivering humanitarian assistance to those affected by the fighting. Second, we are working as best we can to limit the damage to Syria’s neighbours of the spillover from the conflict. Third, the UN has also organized post-conflict planning.
But our primary political role, of course, is promoting a political solution for Syria. We could not have more capable mediators than, first, Kofi Annan and, now, Lakhdar rahimi. Yet neither side in Syria has been ready to talk peace seriously. Still, we remain convinced that there is no military solution. The belief by some that there is a military solution is leading to Syria’s destruction.
We stand ready to host a peace conference as soon as possible. In the end there is a need for a new politics in Syria — and urgently so: with every additional day of fighting, lives are lost, hatred rises and a united, multicultural, peaceful Syria becomes an ever more distant reality.
Let me turn now to Somalia, where we have reached a potential turning point. Clearly one of the lessons of the past decade is that failed and failing states pose an unacceptable danger not only to their own people but to the region around them and the world at large. The UN has invested heavily along with partners to try to turn the tide in that country.
Today, the archetypal failed state has before it the best chance in a generation to build a stable government and bring a measure of peace and prosperity to its people. Of course diplomacy is only one side of this story. It was a major security intervention by the African Union that fundamentally turned the tide against Al Shabab. The very real security gains provided already by AMISOM have helped pry open space for serious political work.
Now, for the first time since the 1990s, the UN’s political mission for Somalia operates in Mogadishu, not Nairobi. Security is still a concern — a UN compound was attacked by terrorists in June — and we do not underestimate the obstacles ahead in Somalia. But we remain committed and determined to stay.
In the Great Lakes Region of Africa, we can see how the UN has addressed a long-standing challenge with a new, expanded approach that offers a ray of hope. MONUSCO, the UN’s peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is the UN’s largest. But, recognizing that security tools alone were insufficient to solve the problems of the eastern DRC, the Secretary-General at the beginning of this year concluded a political agreement among 11 countries — the DRC and its neighbours — and four organizations, including the UN and the African Union.
In addition, the Secretary- General appointed Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as his Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, to use the framework to end the recurring cycles of violence, including horrific sexual violence.
To add economic incentives, the Secretary-General and Jim Yong Kim, the President of the World Bank, recently travelled in the region. Moreover, the Security Council has authorized a new intervention brigade within MONUSCO.
In summary, we are bringing our convening power, diplomatic, peacekeeping and financial assets into play to encourage a comprehensive approach to the challenges in the Great Lakes.
Regarding Afghanistan, the UN is viewing our engagement in light of the significant changes that will take place with the withdrawal of ISAF troops and the presidential elections in 2014. My colleagues in the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations have the lead in Afghanistan, but DPA is heavily involved in strategic thinking as well.
In March, the Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for an additional year without major changes and thereby signalled a desire for continuity in the mission’s role, including its good offices on elections; reconciliation and regional cooperation.
As we deal with tough politics in these arenas and others, a number of challenges emerge across the board.
First, going from early warning to early response. Our single biggest challenge is not to improve early warning, but to find ways to mobilize early action as soon as opportunities open up. But political space for early interventions is often extremely limited, due to concerns over sovereignty and interference in internal affairs. The UN can only mediate where there is willingness and consent.
Second, professionalizing the service. Yes, there is an art to diplomacy and there always will be. However, in today’s complex peace processes, even the most skilled diplomat needs access to a broad range of technical expertise. Through instruments including a stand-by team of mediation experts who can be deployed to any negotiation setting in the world within 72 hours we are adding more than a dose of science to the art.
My third point relates to security. Our work is becoming more and more dangerous. When our mobility is restricted due to security, our ability to deliver on our mandates is seriously compromised. In short, we, too, face the dilemma of trying to do effective political outreach while hemmed in behind T-walls, razor wire and sandbags.
Finally, let me end how I started, with leverage. Equipped with neither offensive battalions nor billions of available dollars, what leverage does the UN have — beyond the UN’s broad legitimacy I spoke of earlier? The real challenge is finding ways to build consensus and to get the international community to speak with one voice.
In conclusion, doing politics in tough places is not easy. But it is my strong belief that we have no alternative but to maintain the momentum around diplomacy and ensure that we stay focused, in every engagement, on finding political solutions. While bilateral and multilateral diplomacy may work differently, we need the best of both to succeed in today’s tough places.