Richard Gowan

About Richard Gowan

Richard Gowan coordinates the International Security Institutions program at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He is also the UN Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and an associate of the Foreign Policy Center (London).

The future of the UN is revealed!

Each year, the Austrian Ministry of Defense publishes a collection of predictions by various experts on upcoming international developments.  This year, I contributed my thoughts on what will happen to/at the United Nations in 2018.  As it is otherwise only available in German, here is an English version (don’t blame me if it’s all wrong):

2018 will be a year of significant tensions at the United Nations.  The Korean situation, the Syrian war and debates over the Iranian nuclear deal are all likely to create friction in the Security Council.  UN peacekeeping forces face risks of serious violence in cases ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Lebanon.

The Security Council played a leading role in containing the North Korean nuclear crisis in 2017, passing two packages of heavy sanctions against Pyongyang.  China and the US will try to maintain this cooperation.  But if North Korea takes further provocative actions, it may be difficult for the Council to agree on additional serious sanctions.  If Washington edges towards military action on the Korean Peninsula, there could be a serious breakdown in UN diplomacy between China and the US.

The Trump administration is also likely to create divisions in the Security Council if it makes further efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal.  The overall deterioration of the security situation in the Middle East more broadly will be a central issue in UN diplomacy through 2018.  There is a growing possibility of new hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon that would put the long-standing UN peace operation in the area (UNIFIL) at severe risk of casualties.

The UN force on the Golan Heights, which has already been severely constrained by terrorist groups during the Syrian war, could also be caught up in a regional conflict.

The UN may also need to find a new strategy towards Syria itself. Russia and its Syrian and Iranian allies do not want UN peacekeepers or political officers to play a significant role in Syria.  However, Moscow may press European aid donors to support UN civilian reconstruction efforts in the country, arguing that this will limit further refugee flows.

UN agencies could end up effectively working on behalf of the Syrian regime to provide basic services to the population, and possibly facilitate refugee return, although this could leave UN officials at risk of terrorist attacks.

Other UN engagements in the Middle East, such mediation in Yemen, can make little progress while tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain high.  UN aid agencies will struggle to find the resources to assist the suffering across the region, especially if there are fresh flare-ups of violence in Lebanon and Iraq to deal with.

In Africa, UN peacekeepers face serious ongoing conflicts in cases including South Sudan and the Central African Republic.  Presidential elections in the DRC, supposed to take place in 2018 after a controversial delay in 2016, could also result in serious violence between supporters and opponents of President Joseph Kabila.   The UN is likely to need military reinforcements in one or more of the cases to contain trouble.

The Trump administration has demanded major cuts to the peacekeeping budget, and will be skeptical of most proposals to expand existing UN forces, or launch new blue helmet operations.  A possible exception is Ukraine: Washington has indicated that it is could support the creation of a UN peacekeeping force in the east of the country to ease tensions with Russia.  While Moscow’s interest in this option is uncertain, it remains possible that the UN will launch a mission in Ukraine in 2018.

In this scenario, European countries (especially those outside NATO, such as Austria and Sweden) could face calls to provide the backbone of a credible UN presence, possibly alongside Russian-speaking troops from states such as Kazakhstan.

Security issues will not be the only source of tension at the UN in 2018.  The US has threatened to withdraw from the Human Rights Council unless the body reduces its criticism of Israel.  While European governments are working hard to persuade the US not to pull out, there is still a good chance that Washington will eventually do so.

A focus of diplomacy in New York will be migration.  UN member states are meant to agree a new compact on improving international migration management in July 2018.  This has the potential to create tensions between European governments and developing countries over how to handle large flows of migrants in cases like Libya.

There will also be negotiations in New York on proposals by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to reform the UN secretariat and development system.  Guterres has secured considerable support from UN members including the US for plans to streamline the organization’s antiquated management structures.  Yet there will be lengthy debates over the budgetary and organizational aspects of these reforms, potentially distracting Guterres and the UN system from broader global problems.

One global theme that Guterres will emphasize throughout 2018 under any circumstances is the need to strengthen the Paris climate change agreement, despite President Trump’s announcement that the US will leave the pact in 2020.

Trump has indicated he is still willing to negotiate over the issue, but real talks on revising the agreement to meet US interests are unlikely in 2018.  Instead, China will play an increasingly prominent role as a leading actor in the fight against climate change.

China is becoming an ambitious player in the UN system overall, acting increasingly assertively to promote its positions on issues including human rights.  Beijing will continue to look for ways to raise its profile at the UN through 2018 – possibly be implementing promises to send thousands of new troops on UN peacekeeping missions – and while most states will welcome this, the US may see it as a challenge.

There is a risk that the Trump administration’s relations with the UN could deteriorate further if current US ambassador in New York, Nikki Haley, stands down.  Haley is a mainstream Republican who has succeeded in moderating President Trump’s strongest anti-UN policies.  She has been tipped as a potential Secretary of State or presidential candidate, and could leave New York in 2018 to pursue higher office in Washington.  President Trump could then nominate a harder line replacement as US ambassador to the UN, reversing Haley’s moderate stance.

Despite the risks of rising tensions at the UN in 2018, however, it is worth noting that the organization continues to play a significant role in managing and containing major potential crises such as that over Korea.  The UN may be an imperfect and fragile institution, but it will be at the center of high stakes diplomacy through 2018.

The Vancouver summit on UN peacekeeping

This week, defense ministers are meeting in Vancouver to talk about UN peacekeeping.  This follows a conference hosted by President Obama on UN operations in New York in 2015 and a follow-up event in London last year.  The idea is that countries with advanced military capacities that would otherwise stay away from blue helmet commitments will pledge units to the UN.  In 2015, for example, David Cameron promised to send British personnel to Somalia and South Sudan.  Despite a bit of a wobble around Brexit, the UK has followed through on both.

In August, Japan hosted a preparatory meeting on training and capacity-building needs for peace operations in Tokyo.  Paul Williams and I wrote a background paper — you can read it at the link below.  We’ll see if any of our ideas get picked up in Vancouver (I’ll report back if they do).

Tokyo PKO Prep Meeting Background Paper

Do you have 10 years experience in boar semen collection?

Because if you do, ACDI/VOCA (a non-profit promoting “a world in which people are empowered to succeed in the global economy’) has a job for you:

ACDI/VOCA is currently seeking a Boar Semen Collection Specialist for an upcoming volunteer assignment in Georgia. Caucasus Genetics requests volunteer assistance to train the company staff on boar semen collection methodology and techniques. The volunteer will also provide information about semen post-collection storage and distribution methods as well as information on boar station standards. The assignment will last for approximately three weeks in country, in addition to preparation and research prior to departure. Travel and living expenses are covered.

Qualifications:

*  University degree in animal science or another related field
*  Ten years’ experience in boar semen collection technologies including boar semen collection hygiene requirements, quality evaluation, post collection handling, storage and distribution
*  Knowledge and practical experience in artificial insemination techniques in swine
*  Knowledge of engineering and construction of a boar station preferred
*  Basic computer skills, including familiarity with MS Word, MS Excel and PowerPoint

What’s wrong with Geneva?

The BBC website has a rather breathless piece about the joys of Geneva today, declaring that “a cosmopolitan city known for diplomacy (and watches), is now gathering steam as a business and corporate hub.”  It suggests that the city’s reputation as a diplomatic center, hosting innumerable UN offices, is a big plus for its overall appeal:

“Business travellers like to come to Geneva because of the extensive presence of international organisations,” said Van Beurden, the manager of business development at the Crowne Plaza Geneva hotel. “This brings global movers and shakers, both commercial and political, to one small place. That’s why we see international companies investing in offices and headquarters here to be close to these decision makers and financial institutions.”

By pure chance, I have also just published something about Geneva for the Politico Magazine:

There are lots of fun things to see in Geneva. There’s the Jet d’Eau, a 140-meter-high waterspout. There are the Alps. And, if you are especially lucky, there is John Kerry.

The U.S. secretary of state has visited the Swiss “city of peace” five times since he took office in February 2013. It’s far from his most frequent destination. His website records 11 trips to Tel Aviv alone in the same period as part of his doomed effort to revivify the Middle East peace process. Yet Kerry’s appearances in Geneva have played an outsized part in his efforts to save Syria, strike a nuclear deal with Iran and forge a strategic partnership with his Russian opposite number, Sergei Lavrov.

The city has thus served as the backdrop to Kerry’s effort to bring to heel an increasingly unruly world through his personal diplomacy. He sometimes seems more at home there—or in other historic centers of European diplomacy, like London and Paris with their ornate foreign ministries—than at the dowdy State Department in Foggy Bottom.

This year, Kerry’s diplomatie genevoise has started to go awry, with talks on Syria and Ukraine flopping. The Swiss backdrop can hardly be blamed for these failures—and the Swiss government has in fact done Kerry a huge service by directing European mediation and monitoring in Ukraine, keeping a lid on the crisis. But the secretary of state’s attachment to Geneva points to deeper flaws in how he views the world.

So what’s wrong with Geneva?  Read the rest of the piece here.

The gun-nuts ready to fight Obama’s Commie agenda need Commie ammunition

So, it turns out that all those hard-right National Rifle Association libertarians preparing for guerrilla warfare against Obama’s socialist seizure of America need to get their ammo from… Vladimir Putin.

American gun owners are gobbling up cheap Russian ammunition in huge quantities, worried that President Obama’s tussle with Vladimir Putin over Moscow’s grab for Crimea will result in new trade sanctions cutting off imports of bullets.

“We’ve seen an ammo-hoarding effect,” said Larry Hyatt, owner of Hyatt Gun Shop in Charlotte, N.C., one of the nation’s biggest gun stores. “It’s almost like milk and bread when it gets ready to snow: It’s just a mass of people running out and buying some of it, probably more than they need,” he told Secrets.

Driving the ammo binge are gun blogs warning that the supply of surplus AK-47 ammo and other cheaper bullets manufactured by Russian makers like Wolf and TulAmmo will be cut off if sanctions are expanded by the president. The two companies make the 7.62×39 ammunition used in the popular AK-47 and variations for the AR-15. They sell it for $3-$4 a box, versus the $9 charged by U.S. manufacturers.

Some websites are also warning that Putin is considering retaliating against the U.S. by cutting off the supplies. So far, none of the rumors appear true.

Like that matters.

A day in the life of a (hot) UN official

What universal standards does the UN stand for?  Human rights, justice, peace… and high quality tailoring.  That at least is the message from the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations’ Michael Heller Chu, an expert on civilian protection now also modeling suits for Bergdorf Goodman.  Has multilateralism ever looked sharper?YouTube Preview Image

Peacemaking’s silly season

I have an especially dour article over at World Politics Review about the state of crisis diplomacy today, which kicks off like this:

Since the conflict in South Sudan escalated in December, well-meaning governments and United Nations officials have repeatedly argued that only a political solution can end the fighting. “There is no military solution,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told CNN on Christmas Eve. But the South Sudanese government does not seem entirely convinced. Over the past week it has ratcheted up its offensives against rebel-held areas, recapturing the economically important town of Bentiu. Bor, another major center in rebel hands, has also been under attack. The government is still in peace talks with rebel envoys, but it is evidently intent on negotiating from the strongest possible military position.

South Sudanese President Salva Kiir has been bolstered by air support and ground troops from Uganda, as well as political signals of support from his old enemies in Sudan. If Kiir needs further encouragement, he needs only to think of other governments that have been told to find a “political solution” to internal conflicts. From Sri Lanka to Darfur and Syria, leaders who have ignored this advice have managed to fight on in the face of international revulsion. Western powers and the U.N. appear willing—or obliged—to put aside bargaining with these leaders, tragically affirming the continued political value of brute force.

You can read the rest of my argument here.  But perhaps I am just being a curmudgeon, because it seems that peacemakers everywhere are having a whale of a time.  The Russian and U.S. delegations meeting to discuss Syria have been up to high jinks:

For some watchers of international diplomacy, the somber road to Syrian peace was overrun Monday by potatoes and furry pink hats.

A swapping of delegation gifts between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov served as a distraction from predictions of elusive success in Syria.  The usually stern-faced Lavrov came to the meeting armed with at least two ushankas, a traditional Russian fur hat with earflaps that tie to the top of the hat. Both hats went to women on Kerry’s press staff — including a bubblegum-pink one for State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

The more bizarre bout of diplomacy came over a pair of Idaho potatoes.  After pictures of Kerry handing Lavrov the tubers during talks Monday morning surfaced on the Web, reporters pressed both leaders for an explanation hours later.  Kerry quickly sought to disavow any deep diplomatic meaning from the spuds, explaining that he was in Idaho over the holidays when he and Lavrov spoke by phone. The Russian, it seemed, associated Idaho with potatoes.  “He told me he’s not going to make vodka. He’s going to eat them,” Kerry said of Lavrov, who was next to him at an otherwise grim news conference on militant threats to humanitarian aid for Syria.

How could anyone feel grim after such hilarities?  Still, some people just can’t take a joke, like the South Sudanese negotiators who are miffed about holding talks… in a nightclub.

A shift in the venue for talks aimed at brokering a ceasefire in South Sudan has left some delegates bemused.  The government and rebel teams have moved to the dance floor of a top nightclub in an Addis Ababa hotel.

The Gaslight club was selected after the room in the Sheraton hotel the teams had been using was booked by a Japanese delegation.  Sources close to the talks said some delegates were unhappy with the poor lighting and excess noise.

Maybe, just maybe, these things could be handled without spuds and disco balls?