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.

No SDGs for you, North Korea! (updated)

Gird your loins: the zero draft of the UN Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals is out! While most post-2015ers will have raced ahead to see what Goals are included, they’ll have overlooked a small but significant detail in the preamble. As you’d expect in a document of this nature, the usual genuflections to countries in special circumstances are naturally observed:

We recognize that each country faces specific challenges to achieve sustainable development, and we underscore the special challenges facing the most vulnerable countries and, in particular, African countries, least developed countries, landlocked developing countries and small island developing States …

But there are also a couple of additions to the usual list, lest anyone feel left out:

…as well as the specific challenges facing the middle-income countries. Countries in situations of conflict also need special attention.

Now, you might think that this diverse array of country categories must cover just about every developing country on Earth. But you’d be wrong. For as the proper development nerds among you will immediately have realised, there is a small number of developing countries that are neither least developed (according to the UNCTAD definition), nor middle income (according to the World Bank list) – Kenya, DPRK, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe, to be specific.

In practice, Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe are covered elsewhere on the list, given that African countries warrant a special mention of their own. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan? Both landlocked – so they’re included too. Which means that, uniquely among the diverse array of the world’s developing countries, only North Korea fails to warrant inclusion in a category for special attention under the SDGs. Oops. Someone call Dennis Rodman!

Update: Peter Chowla writes in to point out that all is not lost for DPRK’s SDG coverage, as it is “most definitely a country in a conflict situation”: for one thing it never signed a formal peace treaty with the US after the Korean War, and for another thing it declared war on South Korea last year. So there we are: panic over!

China’s transition from object of Western power to rival to it

In our latest #progressivedilemmas article we look at how the left should respond to China’s rise.

During Labour’s last period in government we failed to make responding to illiberal powers one of the organising concepts of British foreign policy and paid the price in Copenhagen, Geneva, and New York. If we want to avoid repeating that mistake, we need to face up to the scale and nature of China’s power. Labour’s future China policy must combine the humility to recognise the UK’s diminished leverage and the confidence to believe the west’s collective capacity to shape the environment in which Beijing makes its choices has not been lost.

Have you heard who will replace Annan? It’s Mr. Inaudible!

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?

The world’s economic centre of gravity

From the Economist:

It is not exactly news that the world’s economic centre of gravity is shifting east. But it is striking how fast this seems to be happening. In a new study on the economic impact of urbanisation the McKinsey Global Institute, the research arm of the eponymous consultancy, has attempted to calculate how this centre of gravity has moved since AD 1 and how it is likely to move until 2025. Although the underlying maths (which involves weighting the approximate centre of landmass of a country by its GDP) has to be taken with a pinch of salt, the calculations show that the centre is rapidly shifting east—at a speed of 140 kilometres a year and thus faster than ever before in human history, according to Richard Dobbs, one of the authors of the study. The main reason for this is rapid urbanisation in developing countries, in particular China.

Majority of Chinese people rank environment higher than economy – Gallup

From Gallup’s website:

Fifty-seven percent of Chinese adults surveyed in 2011 — before the country’s economic slowdown grabbed headlines — prioritized protecting the environment, even at the risk of curbing economic growth. About one in five believed economic growth is more important. Chinese attitudes are typical of those in other emerging-market economies, where residents sided with the environment over the economy in earlier surveys.

Similarly, Americans historically prioritized environment protection over economic growth from 1985 to 2008. However, economic growth has taken priority since the economic recession deepened in 2009. If China’s economic troubles worsen, residents’ attitudes could change too.

The most heavily aided place in the world

Ever wondered where gets most Official Development Assistance per capita in the world? Have a guess. Somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa? Nope. The Occupied Palestinian Territories? Uh-uh. Somewhere that’s recently had a huge humanitarian disaster? You’re still way off.

In fact, it’s the place in the photo above – that’s the French dependency of Mayotte, in case you’re wondering, which in 2009 received the princely sum of US $2,751 per person in ODA.

Now, you’re probably assuming that this is just some strange anomaly to do with France’s generosity towards her overseas colonies. But in fact, numbers 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the top five most heavily aided places on the planet are also small island states – and by no means are they all French possessions. Tuvalu gets $1,785 per capita; Palau, $1,737; the Marshall Islands, $1,101; and the Federated States of Micronesia, $1,093.

In fact, no-one else managed to get over the $1,000 per capita mark in 2009. The next nearest was the West Bank and Gaza, at $748 a head. If you’re wondering when an African country that’s not a small island state gets a look in, then you’re looking at Djibouti – all the way down at $186 a head.

Oh, and newsflash – none of the above are low income countries. In fact, you have to get to number 24 on the list of countries that get most ODA per capita – that’s Afghanistan – before you find a low income country. But who ever said life was rational?

(PS – if you’re interested in the general insanity of global aid allocations, check out this recent paper from Jonathan Glennie and Annalisa Prizzon at ODI for a more thorough analysis than the one above. Me, I’m off in search of some consultancy work in the south Pacific. They can afford it.)