It’s six months since Kofi Annan stepped down as UN-Arab League envoy for Syria. Does he have second thoughts about his efforts to mediate an end to the civil war last year? He said something odd this week:
“I don’t see a military intervention in Syria. We left it too late. I’m not sure it would not do more harm,” he told the Graduate Institute in Geneva on Tuesday night. “Further militarisation of the conflict, I’m not sure that is the way to help the Syrian people. They are waiting for the killing to stop. You find some people far away from Syria are the ones very keen for putting in weapons.”
Annan went on to say that he still thinks a political solution is the only viable option, although he’s pessimistic about the chances of achieving this. Still, his “we left it too late” line is striking. Does he think that a military intervention might have been feasible a year ago, when he was trying to secure a ceasefire?
Earlier this month, I wrote a commentary for Stability – an up-and-coming online journal devoted to conflict issues – about Annan’s early days as Syria envoy in February and March 2012. I argue that the chances of a military intervention were always low, but there was “prevailing uncertainty about how the intentions of major powers towards Syria might evolve as the crisis continued.”
Russia appeared genuinely convinced that the West might use force. And while the Assad government responded to the splits in the Security Council by escalating military operations, it could not be certain that its Arab and Western opponents might not take a more aggressive line. This doubt was a potential point of leverage for Annan. Should he take advantage of the uncertainties over external powers’ intentions or try to clarify them?
How did the former UN Secretary-General handle this dilemma?
March 27, 2013 at 5:18 pm | More on Conflict and security, Key Posts, Middle East and North Africa | 1 Comment
After his appointment Annan pulled together a team of veteran UN officials and set up office in Geneva. While his team was highly loyal to him, divisions emerged over what strategy he should adopt. A relatively hawkish faction believed that Annan could use the swirling uncertainty to persuade Assad that his position was unsustainable. A more dovish group felt that it was necessary to reassure both Assad and the Russians that regime change was not imminent, creating a framework for talks. The doves were convinced that the chances of an outside intervention were still infinitesimally low and that it was essential to disabuse those opposition forces hoping for a repeat of the Libyan episode. Meanwhile UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has mixed relations with Annan, was pressing hard for an early ceasefire.
Annan visited Damascus on 10 March 2012 and held difficult talks with Assad, who declared he would not talk to “terrorists”. Although declaring himself disappointed by this encounter, Annan opted to follow the dovish route. His six-point plan was an effort to create a climate of confidence both outside and inside Syria. By tabling proposals that all the members of the Security Council could approve, he eased tensions between Russia and the West. By getting these powers to sign on to a deliberately non-threatening text, he reassured Assad that the chances of an intervention were low.
So if “we left it too late” to intervene, Annan was partially responsible for the delay. You can read the rest of the Stability article – including some thoughts on what Annan could have done differently – here.
This is your last drink for tonight, understand?
This was the week the UN stopped being fun. To start with, the US is trying to stop diplomats turning up at budget debates drunk:
The U.S. ambassador for management and reform at the United Nations, Joseph Torsella, scolded his U.N. colleagues today for excessive drinking during delicate budget negotiations.
The unusual censure reflected lingering American frustration with its counterparts’ conduct in budget negotiations in December, which one U.N.-based diplomat compared to a circus.
“There has always been a good and responsible tradition of a bit of alcohol improving a negotiation, but we’re not talking about a delegate having a nip at the bar,” said the diplomat who recalled one G-77 diplomat fell sick from too much alcohol.
As the United States sought to rally support for a proposal to freeze U.N. staff pay in December, it found that key negotiating partners, particularly delegates from the Group of 77 developing countries, were not showing up for meetings. When they did arrive, they had often been drinking.
“As for the conduct of negotiations, we make the modest proposal that the negotiation rooms should in future be an inebriation-free zone,” Torsella said in a meeting of the U.N. membership’s budget committee, known as the Fifth Committee. “While my government is truly grateful for the strategic opportunities presented by some recent practices, lets save the champagne for toasting the successful end of the session, and do some credit to the Fifth Committee’s reputation in the process.”
Meanwhile UN officials have been going after weed…
A United Nations-based drug agency urged the United States government on Tuesday to challenge the legalization of marijuana for recreational use in Colorado and Washington, saying the state laws violate international drug treaties.
The International Narcotics Control Board made its appeal in an annual drug report. It called on Washington, D.C., to act to “ensure full compliance with the international drug control treaties on its entire territory.”
March 5, 2013 at 6:01 pm | More on Global system, North America, Off topic | Comments Off
ECFR has just published a brief multi-authored paper looking at what President Obama’s re-election means for Europe (I was one of the contributors). The paper highlights that there are still many areas – from the Middle East to climate change – on which the US and Europeans differ. But is a new transatlantic bargain possible?
How should Europe respond to Obama’s re-election? Two basic strategic choices are on offer. The first – and the most tempting – is to imagine that Europe and the US can work together on a common project for the future of the international system at a period of deep change in global politics. According to this vision, Obama and the EU can unite to reinvent the post-1945 liberal order for a multipolar world, fulfilling an agenda that many in the US and EU foresaw in 2008. The president may have strayed from this agenda, the argument goes, but now he is no longer constrained by the need to win a second term and can make up for lost time.
The strategic alternative is to assume that Obama’s highly pragmatic approach to international affairs will not fundamentally change in his second term. On this reading of the president, his tepid commitment to global governance and willingness to use tactics like drone strikes have not been aberrations. Instead, they represent his considered view of the best strategy available to the US at this time. If European leaders want to fit in with this realistic American worldview, they should focus on developing their own power and their outreach, leverage and alliance-building capacities with emerging democratic powers, and in particular managing crises in their own backyard, rather than trying to woo Washington. In fact, the US would welcome a tougher Europe of this kind.
Read the full analysis here.
November 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm | More on Climate and resource scarcity, Conflict and security, Cooperation and coherence, Economics and development, Europe and Central Asia, Global system, North America | 2 Comments
Here is a tempting invite from the UN Department of Public Information…
October 22, 2012 at 11:58 pm | More on Climate and resource scarcity, Cooperation and coherence, Latin America and the Caribbean, Off topic | 1 Comment
The Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues
is pleased to invite you to
“The Mayan Cosmovision: Is 2012 the end of the world?”
Wednesday, 24 October
Room S-2726, 27th floor, Secretariat Building, UN Headquarters
After offering their blessings for the new offices of the Secretariat of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the Mayan Elders of the K’iche’ Mayoral of Santo Tomas de Chichicastenango, Guatemala (Maya-Quiche Empire), will share their message with the UN community.
According to the Maya, all aspects of life are governed by the movement of the heavens. Thousands of years ago, Mayan astronomers foresaw in 2012 a unique alignment of the cosmos which occurs only once every 64,000 years. The Maya identified this new cycle as a monumental transition and an opportunity to realign priorities based on the principles of love, gratitude, care and respect for both humanity and our environment.
Please bring your own lunch!
Global food scarcity is approaching a catastrophic tipping-point:
September 24, 2012 at 9:15 pm | More on Climate and resource scarcity, Economics and development, North America, Off topic, UK | Comments Off
Might want to get your fill of ham this year, because “a world shortage of pork and bacon next year is now unavoidable,” according to an industry trade group.
Blame the drought conditions that blazed through the corn and soybean crop this year. Less feed led to herds declining across the European Union “at a significant rate,” according to the National Pig Assn. in Britain.
And the trend “is being mirrored around the world,” according to a release (hat tip to the Financial Times).
In the second half of next year, the number of slaughtered pigs could fall 10%, doubling the price of European pork, according to the release.
The trade group urged supermarkets to pay pig farmers a fair price for the meat to help cover the drought-related losses.
In U.S. warehouses, pork supply soared to a record last month, rising 31% to 580.8 million pounds at the end of August from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The surge came as farmers scaled down their herds as feeding the animals became increasingly expensive.
Aeon, a new online magazine focusing on ethics and aesthetics, launches this week. Managing Editor Ed Lake (an old friend, I should disclose) gets it off to superb start with an article about “Uncivilisation”, a festival that took place this summer in England’s South Downs. It sounds like a sort of Glastonbury for apocalyptic hermits:
The men wore beards and medicine-man adornments — animal-tooth pendants, feathers behind the ear. The women sported Peter Pan tunics and yogically extended backs. Everyone was, as my mother would say, well-spoken. An older chap in a fishing hat announced that he had run into a pair of mourners. They were looking for a fresh grave in the wood; a boy had been buried there the week before. ‘It was like Hamlet,’ he said sagely. ‘You know. Death.’ Ah, we said.
So what’s this all about?
The festival is an outgrowth of an inscrutable cultural programme begun in 2009 by two journalists, Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine. Together they wrote a pamphlet called Uncivilisation: The Dark Mountain Manifesto. ‘We are at a time of social, economic and ecological unravelling,’ they declared. ‘All around us are signs that our whole way of living is already passing into history.’ The environmental movement had failed: the ship of society would never turn around in time. All that was left to do was prepare for the crash, and perhaps learn to look on the bright side. ‘The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.’
Party on! Ed admits to having been “on his guard”:
It didn’t help that the festival offered lessons in using the scythe, or that the trees around the camp were hung with animal bones, or that the photographer and I were waved into our turning by a woman dressed as a medieval mummer. I texted my wife: ‘Directed to the car park by someone literally in a Wicker Man mask.’ There were discussions of what it might mean to live as an ‘indigenous’ Briton. Racism and nationalism were firmly denounced, but the sinister undercurrents never really went away. At a talk about ‘how to act in an era of failed leadership’, a member of the arts group Mearcstapa wondered aloud whether he would be prepared to use violence to prevent greater violence.
So what was Ed, who is not at all a violent man, doing with these people?
It might be tempting to dismiss Uncivilisation with a shudder. But what I overlooked in my preparatory reading — perhaps because I wasn’t equipped to feel it myself — was the grief that underpins Dark Mountain. Most festival-goers appeared to have spent their working lives as professional green activists. They weren’t, as Kingsnorth observed to me later, ‘floaty poets’: they were doers, founders of eco-villages, picketers of building works. And as one man who used to develop organic recycling systems told me: ‘We failed.’ The value of Dark Mountain was, he said, psychological. It was a way to cope.
I still find this unsettling. I’ve heard a growing number of green activists say similar things in more, well, civilized contexts of late. And I’m just not that good with a scythe.
September 17, 2012 at 6:50 pm | More on Climate and resource scarcity, Influence and networks, Off topic, UK | Comments Off
There has been much hilarity this week over comments by Tom Head, a Texan judge who predicts that President Obama is going to authorize a United Nations invasion of Texas in his second term.
Head vowed to personally stand “in front of [the UN's] personnel carriers and say, ‘You’re not coming in here.’ And I’ve asked the sheriff. I said, ‘Are you going to back me on this?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to back you.’ Well, I don’t want a bunch of rookies back there who have no training and little equipment. I want seasoned veteran people who are trained that have got equipment. And even then, you know we may have two or three hundred deputies facing maybe a thousand UN troops. We may have to call out the militia.”
The UN says that this is “ridiculous”. But I think there is a bigger question here: if the UN invaded Texas, could it win? To answer that, I turned to past editions of the Annual Review of Global Peace Operations to compare statistics on current UN missions with data on the forces that might rally to the defense of Texas.
Here are some working assumptions. Texas is pretty big (nearly 270,000 square miles) so if the UN wanted to send in a force, it would probably be comparable to its current large-scale mission in Darfur, which involves over 20,000 soldiers and police officers.
So, going on data from Darfur from late 2012, I think that Judge Head and his fellow Texans are likely to face an invasion force consisting of about 17 infantry battalions with just over 600 combat vehicles and 5,000 support vehicles. Note that “combat vehicles” typically means armored cars, not actual battle tanks.
Looking at Darfur and a couple of other recent UN ops, I estimate that the force would have an air component of just over 30-40 helicopters and 10-20 fixed-wing aircraft. But again, note that fewer than 10 of the helicopters would be attack rather than transport aircraft, and the force would have no fighters, bombers or ground-attack aircraft.
Let’s compare that to what’s available in Texas. The backbone of the defense would be the Texas Army National Guard and Texas Air National Guard – presumably supported by the volunteers of the Texas State Guard plus police, etc., across the state. There are lots of regular US military forces in Texas too, but let’s assume that President Obama could compel them not to resist the UN.
So what have the Texans got? Here is data culled from from various bits of Wikipedia:
So, in terms of numbers the UN and Texan National Guard would be fairly evenly matched, although this would be off-set by the large number of law enforcement officials and well-armed citizens who would fight for the Lone Star state.
But this numerical issue is quite irrelevant. What matters is that the Texans would have immediate air superiority. The F-16s could deal with the UN’s puny attack helicopter component on day one of the campaign. The National Guard Apaches could then go after the UN ground forces at their leisure.
The UN invasion would almost certainly be hampered by the UN’s generally weak command and control systems – designed for day-to-day peacekeeping rather than war-fighting – patchy communications technology and very limited night-fighting capabilities. If the Apaches and Texan ground forces could mount a counter-offensive under the cover of darkness, the UN would soon be in disarray.
My guess is that a UN invasion of Texas would collapse in 24-48 hours. This doesn’t really tell us much about President Obama’s plans for the UN or Texas. But it is worth asking why the Security Council thinks that forces with very limited military capabilities – and especially negligible air assets – can take on cases like Darfur.
August 25, 2012 at 3:47 pm | More on Africa, Conflict and security, North America, Off topic | 8 Comments
The Security Council decided today to close down the UN observer mission in Syria, which I once predicted would be a “heroic failure”. But this isn’t quite the end of the UN political presence on the ground, as the BBC reports:
Although the 101 remaining military observers will leave Damascus over the next eight days, a civilian liaison office is due to remain and a new special envoy is expected to be appointed.
What can such a political mission achieve? Here’s a few historical analogies from a paper I wrote for USIP last year:
What happens if preventive diplomacy fails and decision makers choose to cross the Rubicon and unleash full-scale war? Counterintuitively, political missions may still have a role to play in this scenario, urging the parties to at least limit the level of violence and maintain some channels of communication during the fighting. As noted earlier in this report, UN missions currently play a role in trying to mitigate a number of ongoing conflicts, including those in Somalia and Afghanistan. The United Nations also has a long-standing presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, which has continued to operate during crises such as Israel’s 2008–09 incursion into Gaza (“Operation Cast Lead”). During that crisis, the Office of the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process (UNSCO) engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with all sides—once Israel pulled back, UNSCO turned to facilitating the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza. It is a conduit for communications with Hamas that other actors cannot undertake directly.
Political missions can thus play a useful functional role during active conflicts, although they are typically constrained by both security issues and a lack of political leverage. . . . A mission deployed during the early phase of a war can identify ways to mitigate the damage, but this ultimately depends on the combatants’ cooperation.
Syria’s combatants are unlikely to prove very cooperative.
August 16, 2012 at 6:07 pm | More on Conflict and security, Middle East and North Africa | Comments Off
There’s mounting confusion at the UN about who will replace Kofi Annan as the envoy to Syria. Everyone knows that it’s meant to be veteran UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi. But it’s widely rumored that Brahimi is holding up the announcement because he wants a clear vote of support from the Security Council, which is not so easy these days.
That’s all a bit sensitive. Ban Ki-moon gave a press conference in Timor-Leste today, and some impertinent journalist brought the issue up (as well as raising concerns about Timor’s future). Check out the subtle way that the UN transcript deals with the complex Brahimi issue:
Q: Are you confident the country will remain peaceful once the peacekeeepers [sic] leave? And the second question: Mr. [inaudible] …. is a strong candidate to replace Kofi Annan, are you going to announce officially here in East Timor?
SG: I didn’t clearly understand your first question, but for the second question: I am not in a position to inform on anything about the successor issue of Kofi Annan as Joint Special Envoy for Syria. I am in the process of actively searching for a successor and when I am ready I will certainly announce this as soon as possible.
Now we don’t know if the questioner said “Brahimi”. But it’s not a bad guess, and it wouldn’t be too hard to check. But maybe there’s another mediator in the frame: Mr. Inaudible, a master of quiet diplomacy?
August 15, 2012 at 9:57 pm | More on Conflict and security, East Asia and Pacific, Middle East and North Africa, Off topic | Comments Off
Here’s a great Hillary Clinton moment:
Interviewer: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?
Hillary Clinton: What designers of clothes?
Hillary Clinton: Would you ever ask a man that question?
Interviewer: Probably not. Probably not.
(Stolen from @HayesBrown Twitter feed.)
August 14, 2012 at 8:17 pm | More on Influence and networks, North America, Off topic | Comments Off
What on earth is all this about?
When the winter comes in the squirrel has already stored 3000 nuts in different tree holes that provide the food storage to overcome the harshest season of the year. The nuts have been collected in past months and will be shared with the other members of the community if someone is in need. The squirrel is small but has adapted to live in all sorts of environments including European capitals. It’s agile, collaborative and last but not least independent.
On the other hand, the cow needs to take shelter in the stable during winter. It would not survive without the famer taking care it of all needs. Its life is quiet and relaxed. It just needs to feed, reproduce, and produce milk. But it consumes a lot of resources and life ends always in the abattoir. Its life depends entirely on others for maintenance and aims. Cows live all together but don’t collaborate. The farmer is in charge.
That is in fact the baseline concept for a conference being organized this September by a consortium of Danish and Swedish institutes on “how the European Union can foster and support such pioneers through the new socio-economic policies, namely social business and social innovation.” Does it all seem clearer now? Maybe not…
This metaphorical comparison aims to help civil society leaders and social entrepreneurs picture the transformation our society is going through: less leadership and help from governments and corporations, and the need for self-organisation, funding, support and development of solutions to social problems. We have to rethink our strategy, collaborate and innovate in order to transform from the cow to the squirrel.
The traditional resources as public funding and sponsorships are shrinking but new opportunities and synergies are emerging.
Fair enough. But where does the EU fit into this metaphor? Is it the cow? Or the tree the squirrels hide their nuts in? Or the abattoir? I’m confused…
July 12, 2012 at 4:52 pm | More on Economics and development, Europe and Central Asia, Influence and networks, Off topic | Comments Off
The EU rule of law Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) is adopting an unusual PR strategy:
“EULEX is doing nothing in the fight against high level corruption” is the slogan of a new campaign that has just been launched on TV stations in Kosovo. The campaign spot is being broadcast on all major TV stations, more than 35,000 flyers with the same message are being distributed around Kosovo and T-shirts and car air fresheners in support of Kosovo’s Anti-Corruption Agency are also being distributed.
The EU isn’t really doing nothing: EULEX’s campaign explains that it is tackling corruption. But it’s just conceivable that this cunning wheeze could backfire.
June 13, 2012 at 3:58 pm | More on Conflict and security, Europe and Central Asia, Off topic | Comments Off
The following email was circulated to UN staff in New York today.
As summer approaches in the Northern Hemisphere and the mercury rises, it is time again to get ready for “Cool UN”, a practical way for the UN to demonstrate its commitment to using energy wisely. As in previous years, from 1 June, thermostats at New York Headquarters will be set to 77 degrees Fahrenheit / 25 degrees Celsius in offices and to 75 degrees Fahrenheit / 24 degrees Celsius in conference rooms. Once more, we are also inviting the landlords of our leased spaces to join us in this effort.
So far, so easy to mock. But there is more… so much more.
Over the years, we have learned that not all colleagues agree on what constitutes a comfortable temperature. Depending on their cultural background, what is pleasant for one person can be “borderline” for the next. It is also a reality that, in some buildings, either because of the direction an office faces or possibly due to older ducting, the consistency of temperature can be difficult to finesse.
Damn that combination of aged ducting and cultural pluralism. What can the UN do?
We nonetheless do our best to find an acceptable compromise and, in setting the thermostats, we are guided by temperature ranges recommended by international human comfort indexes.
International human what?
The idea is simple: Rather than having to bulk up on clothing in the summer because the air conditioning is too cold inside, we dress according to the season, keep the thermostat a bit higher and save energy.
During the “Cool UN” initiative, therefore, staff are encouraged to dress in lighter clothing appropriate for a business setting, including national dress, so as to remain comfortable.
My despair is complete. Oh no, there’s more.
Increasingly, the “Cool UN” practice is being echoed by other UN agencies and offices away from Headquarters. Together we can set an example.
That’s so true. This is an example of how not write an email, for a start.
May 29, 2012 at 4:39 pm | More on Climate and resource scarcity, Cooperation and coherence, North America, Off topic | 2 Comments
Nick Clegg spoke at the British embassy in Berlin today. The audience was impressed by his fluent German. But why on earth did the Foreign Office decorate the embassy with what appear (to be very generous) to be two gigantic deformed parsnips?
May 24, 2012 at 2:53 pm | More on Europe and Central Asia, Off topic, UK | 1 Comment