Is the Security Council serious about preventive diplomacy?

This afternoon, taking the briefest of breaks from arguing over Palestine, leaders are gathering in the Security Council to talk about preventive diplomacy.  Josh Rogin of FP’s Cable blog will be there.  He’s excited by the turnout:

The meeting will be chaired by the President of Lebanon Michel Sleiman. Other heads of state in attendance will be Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brazil, Colombia, Gabon, Nigeria and South Africa. Portugal will be represented by its prime minister, while the remaining council members will be represented at the level of foreign minister.

Oddly enough, I haven’t been invited.  But my colleague Emily O’Brien and I have published a brief preview of the event over at World Politics Review.  We’re not convinced it’s going to be a thriller:

The Security Council session is unlikely to generate anything more than well-aged truisms: Prevention is better than reaction; diplomacy is better than force, and so on.

That may sound cynical, but last month I somehow guessed that a similar (if lower-level) Security Council debate on peacekeeping would be stunningly dull, and I was right.  But, just like peacekeeping, preventive diplomacy matters:

Officials at the U.N. have been working hard to frame a clearer picture of how and why preventive diplomacy succeeds and fails. The current thinking on the issue is summarized in a report from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon with the pithy title, “Preventive Diplomacy: Delivering Results,” which will serve as the backgrounder for Thursday’s debate.

As the report states at the outset, Ban has been interested in boosting the U.N.’s role in preventive diplomacy ever since he took office in 2007 following a long career in South Korea’s foreign service. Ban felt that the U.N. was too heavily invested in large-scale, high-cost military peace operations and had given too little attention to diplomacy.

This was a huge oversimplification, one that failed to capture the stabilizing if imperfect role of hefty U.N. peace operations in places like Haiti and Liberia. But it contained a kernel of truth. So it is welcome that Ban and his undersecretary-general for political affairs, American diplomat B. Lynn Pascoe, set about retooling the U.N. secretariat’s preventive capacities.

Over the past four years, U.N. officials have scored some noteworthy successes, as the new report describes. These include helping resolve the crisis in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2008 that forced more than 200,000 civilians into flight; assisting Guinea emerge from a long political crisis in 2009-2010 to hold credible elections; and working with European diplomats to contain the horrific violence in Kyrgyzstan.

These successes have underlined the value of the U.N. Secretariat’s roster of experienced mediators, facilitators and diplomats. Still, Ban’s report emphasizes the need to boost the caliber of U.N. officials further and make their work easier by overcoming the phalanx of budgetary and staffing rules that can delay the U.N.’s efforts interminably.

These budgetary constraints and unwieldy hiring processes might seem irrelevant to anyone not immersed in the minutiae of the U.N.’s bureaucracy. But they matter. The organization’s attempts to engage meaningfully with the Arab Spring were held up by a lack of financial resources and a lack of experts in the region. The new report outlines options for increasing the U.N.’s readiness for future crises, like expanding its small network of regional political offices.

To be honest, I think that the UN report could have been a bit bolder in its proposals for boosting conflict prevention, but at least it will get some high-level attention this afternoon.  Hopefully some UN members will be motivated to follow up with related policy initiatives.  Nonetheless, Emily and I aren’t convinced that all the big powers on the Security Council are 100% committed to preventive diplomacy…

The actors most likely to stop an escalating crisis in its tracks remain the world’s great powers. But after the crises of the past year, it is hard to argue that these powers have a coherent grasp of this responsibility. Take the example of Syria. China and Russia have opposed even mild condemnations of the Syrian regime, while other emerging powers on the Security Council — notably Brazil, India and South Africa — have only been marginally more flexible. The U.S. and its European partners have also struggled to find a mix of economic, diplomatic and moral pressure to affect decisions in Damascus. The confusion reflects the many political, security and economic interests all the powers have in Syria.

So it’s nice that the Council’s talking about the importance of prevention.  But treat its pronouncements on the topic with caution.  I look forward to Josh Rogin’s take.