Why the multilateral system is stumbling on conflict prevention

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.

 

With Glasgow Govan’s gentle hard men

In Govan, one of Glasgow’s toughest post-industrial neighbourhoods, a big burly man with a tattoo, a history of drug abuse, huge arms and a large hammer, stops a posh English chap, dressed in a suit and just out of a board meeting. “I remember when I was being chased with a hammer,” he tells me, “and now here I am using a hammer to make this beautiful wooden boat.” He hands me some wood shavings: “Smell that, it’s Douglas Fir, doesn’t it smell gorgeous? They use it in Potpourri.”

Glasgow Govan is a place with a difficult present, but also a proud history. “Govan,” another of the men tells me, “was the great home of shipbuilding and production. Some say the name comes from a Viking word for the God of the Blacksmiths.” The people of Govan have links to the history of Scotland’s islands and to Gaelic and Norse mythology – all of which the participants of the GalGael project draw upon as inspiration for the artifacts they produce and as a way to understand their own personal histories and the next chapters of their lives.

The collapse of industry and the onset of mass unemployment tore into the heart of Govan and wrecked many lives. GalGael is a grassroots attempt to heal the wound and to demonstrate a living alternative.

“I’m so happy to have something to do,” I am told repeatedly by the participants. Politicians critical of civil society sometimes claim that they don’t give enough value to work – but enabling people to work is in fact central to the model of locally-driven projects like this, precisely because it is so core to people’s identity and broader health. “Hard graft beats therapy any day,” says one.

The work being carried out here is tough and physical, but is also individual and beautiful. Men who have been told that they are nothing find work here that is “much more than wage labour – I’ve made some things that make me feel proud. I feel talented. I’ve seen that I’m capable.”

There is no division here between the helpers and the helped. Many of the trainers are people who arrived as participants – and those involved see the most crucial support as from their peers. “We’ve all been through the same things.”

“I’m so thankful,” says another gentle giant.

“What are you most thankful for?” I ask. I expect him to say for the people who run GalGael, but what he says is an even greater tribute. “That all of us here have each other.”

Wishful Thinking and Great Power Politics

Today, President Petro Poroshenko signed the EU Association Agreement and Russia has warned of grave consequences. Of course, it was the refusal of Poroshenko’s predeccesor Victor Yanukovich to sign this Agreement last November that triggered the protests that led to his overthrow and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in February.

Since then, the veering from angry stand-off to telephone diplomacy and back again between the West and Russia over the future of Ukraine resembles a dialogue of the deaf.

This was underlined this week at an on-the-record debate on the Ukraine dispute at the foreign affairs think tank, Chatham House, in London.

The Russian strategic analyst and former Red Army Colonel, Dmitri Trenin – with more than a hint of irony – bemoaned a surfeit of ideology in western foreign policy. He made this observation in relation to a discussion over whether Russia would ‘allow’ Ukraine to join the EU and/or NATO.

The Canadian Liberal MP, Chrystia Feeland, had argued that Ukraine is in the throes of a democratic revolution and the Ukrainian people have the right to decide if they want to join either of the western clubs. The American Realist international relations professor, John Mearsheimer, insisted, bluntly, rights don’t come into it – Russia is the great power in the region and will wreck Ukraine rather than allow it to make that choice.

The former US Ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul, the other participant in the debate, and Ms Freeland were visibly bemused by this argument which was indicative of what I think Trenin was getting at.

Western foreign policy makers seem to be prone to wishful thinking – that the rest of the international community shares their worldview and that values should outweigh core national interests.

This means, for instance, that what Washington sees as its ‘rebalance’ or ‘pivot’ to Asia, which, it asserts, will benefit Asia and the US economically and help ensure peace and stability in the region, is seen very differently in Beijing. It is clear that China is suspicious of the ‘pivot’ and many there regard it as an attempt to contain them and stifle growing Chinese power and influence in its own backyard. American policymakers insist this is not the case and express surprise their Chinese counterparts could possibly think such a thing.

In the case of Russia, the Americans and Europeans insist Russia has nothing to fear from a Ukraine that chooses to be in the western camp and that it can be a win-win for all, and this is sometimes expressed as incredulity that Moscow can’t see this.

Cynics may argue that this attitude is feigned given the Americans know they would not accept a country like Mexico allying itself with another great power, but in many cases it isn’t – reflecting what appears to be an assumption in US circles, perhaps resulting from the post-Cold War period of American global dominance, that what is in its national interests is in everyone else’s too.

If you add to this that Washington is also having to adjust to the shift in the global balance of power, which has seen the return of what commentators like Professor Mearsheimer see as great power politics,  when countries like Russia and China assert their interests, it often meets with incomprehension in the US.

As for the Europeans who have spent the last sixty years trying to shed the great power mindset that fuelled two world wars which killed tens of millions, and have concentrated on enlarging the EU by acquiring new members by using the attraction of its economic and democratic values, they are also finding it difficult to adapt to the return to a world of competing powers.

On the Russian side, Moscow doesn’t see the current situation in Ukraine as a potential win-win; in the eyes of the Kremlin it is a zero-sum game. For Russia, a neighbouring Ukraine in the western camp would be a threat, hence its destabilisation of the country since the overthrow of the pro-Russian President Yanukovich.

Given all this, as long as the two sides remain unable and apparently unwilling to see the world from each other’s perspective, whatever resolution is reached in Ukraine, further confrontation between the West and Russia is almost inevitable.

The Unquiet: Challenging Inequality in Pakistan

They were brought up to be quiet. But they insist upon raising their voice. At a gathering in Lahore of women grassroots activists from different parts of rural and small town Pakistan, they meet to discuss what they have been doing to challenge the worst inequalities and hold government to account in their communities. To learn from each other they take it in turns to share their stories.

“I am a school teacher, and my school didn’t have a boundary wall, or a toilet. So I met with the local government official and said that it needed to be fixed. He said there were no funds. I said that I would find that out using the Right to Information Act. He organised for the wall and the toilet.”

“When a man murdered some young girls the police did nothing to arrest him. So I went to see the police to complain. The murderer’s family went to visit my brother to put pressure on me to stop pushing. But my brother supported me. I stood firm. Then six days later the police arrested the killer.”

“I organised for the women in my village to get ID cards – we could not get them because our marriages were not being recognised as Hindus. It can be difficult to be a Hindu, even harder to be low caste Hindu. We are called untouchable. But I don’t care what they say. I am not afraid.”

“That’s right. If the authorities think we are weak and innocent they ignore us. But if they see that we know our rights, that we are strong, then they act.”

“In my village there is a piece of land on which some very poor families have been farming for many years. But the government wanted to sell the land from under them. We organised a protest and the local media came. The families were weeping. I went inside to meet the official and urged him to stop the land sale. He asked why. I told him he was a public servant and his salary was paid for by these families’ taxes. He laughed and said they pay no taxes, they are too poor. I said every time they buy something they are paying taxes. Even when they buy a match box they must pay tax on it. He told me that even if he wanted to stop the sale he could not. But I knew the rules and I told him he could postpone the sale and write to the higher ups recommending that the families be allowed to stay. We went outside together and he announced to the media that the sale had been postponed. The families still live on that land.”

So much is being written about what is wrong in Pakistan. And much more could be written. From feudal land ownership, to underinvestment in health and education, to tax dodging by the rich, to endemic violence against women. And now a war. But that is not the only story.

“These small-small things we are changing,” explains one of the women. They are an unlikely grouping: they speak different languages, have different religions, come from different backgrounds. “You see this lady,” says one of her friend as she holds her hand, “she is a landlord’s daughter, not like the rest of us who are poor, but she is one of us now.” Her friend smiles: “And we are getting stronger, because we have learnt. And because we have each other.”

The great 18th century British anti-slavery campaigner William Wilberforce was once asked why he kept on fighting for what seemed to so many to be an unwinnable cause. “We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible,” he replied, “so we will do them anyway.”

Because I am their neighbour. A day at the Kingston Food Bank.

In Kingston, South-West London, amongst leafy streets and upmarket cafes, a group of volunteers meets in a church to welcome locals who have been referred by government or by other charities for food aid.

One man who has been referred for assitance used to be a night guard but is now recovering from 6 months of treatment for throat cancer that left him with only 60% of his tongue, and so is struggling to find work. “And before you ask, I never smoked. Not once. It’s hereditary.” He wants to make sure that I do not blame him for his cancer. “My Dad’s been treated for cancer too,” I share. His response floors me: “Well, to you and your father let me say this: Positive Mental Thinking, Positive Mental Thinking. It will be OK.” And I realise that he is counselling me. A volunteer brings tea. “Thank you so much,” he says to the volunteer, “that’s wonderful.” We run through a list of items he is entitled to. “Spaghetti?” “Yes please.” “Coffee/Tea?” “Can I choose? In which case, coffee.”  “What’s your favourite food?”, I ask. “Chinese. I’m just a couple of weeks out of treatment now but I’ve got the all clear and I’m gonna get a job. And then I’m gonna buy a Chinese takeaway meal. Positive Mental Thinking.”

Another man tells me of his gratitude to the Job Centre official who got a mistake corrected and a three month deduction cancelled. He’s looking forward to tomorrow’s football competition he is taking his son to. “It’s expensive,.£3, but another parent will drive us. People are very kind.”

I ask the volunteers what kind of people are referred in. “Oh, we’ve had people who are in work but don’t earn enough, we’ve had people who’ve been ill, people who have had a mistake made on their benefits, we had someone who had been well-to-do but lost his job, we get quite a few ex-soldiers, too, they find it hard.”

Is it tough volunteering here, I ask? “Yeah, it can be, when the people are crying. One man howled, I’d never heard a man howl before. He was at rock bottom. I stayed with him for two hours. It’s about more than the food. It’s about listening. Showing people that they matter. We have to help wherever there is need. That’s what we are commissioned for.” The confused look on my face shows at her use of the word commissioning. For these are volunteers, not contractors. “I mean our great commission.” She is talking of a higher authority than government.

The church partners with the local mosque and donations are pooled. People of all faiths and none serve together.

“How long would you be able to last without any job?” one volunteer asks me. I think about it. “Wow. One month. I’d only last one month.” “Yeah, that’s it, you see, it could be you.” If it is ever me, I will want to go see the volunteers of the Kingston Food Bank. Not just for the food. But because they will not judge, just help. Because I am their neighbour.

 

 

Environmentally friendly oil rigs? Well yes, Norway, but….

oil rig

Photo: Dave Taylor/www.oilrig-photos.com

We are big fans of Norway here at GD. And look – in a bid to make oil production more environmentally friendly, the Norwegian parliament is hoping to force offshore oil rigs to use electrical power rather than burn gas or diesel.  Hurrah, obviously –  what’s not to love about the Scandinaviafication of oil production.

The Norwegians aren’t alone either.  Environmentally friendly drilling (by oil workers in shiny lipstick, obviously), is a thing, it seems…

So yay and double yay.  Let’s make oil production all green and cuddly and maybe we can stop worrying about those millions of barrels that are rolling up out of the sea every day and burning…oh wait a minute….

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