Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, South Sudan – not to mention Afghanistan, Central African Republic, Gaza, or Somalia. None of them is exactly a poster child for the multilateral system’s capacity to address or prevent conflict. Richard Gowan has a great piece in World Politics Review this week (£) that offers a typically pithy (and pitiless) account of why the multilateral security system seems to be stumbling so badly:
It suffers structural weaknesses at three levels. The major powers at the apex of the system are in disarray, as the U.S. tries to limit its global commitments and China and Russia assert themselves. Middle-sized powers that want to undercut the system are exploiting these top-tier tensions: While Moscow and Washington have sparred over Syria at the U.N., for example, Saudi Arabia and Iran have fought a proxy war on the ground.
At the bottom of the global ladder, a mix of predatory governments, rebel movements and terrorists have taken advantage of the troubles higher up. As I noted at the start of this year, embattled and autocratic leaders from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to South Sudan’s Salva Kiir have concluded that they can have more to gain from using force against their foes than submitting to international mediation. In the Middle East and North Africa, groups such as the Islamic State are profiting from the resulting conflicts.
Richard’s last point, on the opportunism of those at the bottom of the global ladder, certainly chimes with an experience I had a few months ago: sitting in the lobby of the hotel in Addis Ababa where the South Sudan peace negotiations have been taking place, I overheard two negotiators sitting at the next table chuckling gleefully at how the international community’s focus on Ukraine had taken the pressure right off them to reach a deal with their opponents.
All the same, as Richard concludes, it still matters that:
…a mix of international officials and observers, soldiers and governments remain willing to stand up for the vulnerable and do what they can to uphold that system. Perhaps the system hasn’t completely flopped in recent crises. A fairer if less pithy assessment might be that the system is indeed failing, but it still does enough good to be worth fighting for.