High noon in Darfur

UN officials always describe their nightmare scenario as “another Srebrenica”: peacekeepers standing by as civilians are massacred.  Their dream scenario is, of course, for the presence of blue helmets to ward off violence.  Last year’s fighting in the DRC came dangerously close to the nightmare: thinly-spread UN troops remained on their bases as thousands of civilians were forced to flight.  But there were no large-scale massacres (none that made the media anyway), so the UN survived to peacekeep another day.  Now there’s news of a courageous stand by the UN in Darfur:

Peacekeepers have refused to leave a rebel-held town in Darfur, despite warnings from the Sudanese government that an attack is imminent. About 5,000 civilians took shelter at the UN-African Union base after the government said the army was preparing to take Muhajiriya from rebels. A spokesperson for the peacekeeping force – called Unamid – said they would not leave civilians unprotected.

Mediators are talking to both sides to try to prevent more fighting.

The rebel Justice and Equality Movement (Jem) seized Muhajiriya two weeks ago, sparking fierce fighting, including air strikes.

“We are not going to leave while there are thousands of displaced people around our camp,” Unamid spokesman Noureddine Mezni told Reuters news agency. “The Sudanese government should be aware that their actions are endangering civilians and Unamid.”

On Sunday, Khartoum had warned peacekeepers to leave the town. “We are not ordering them around, we are asking them,” said Akuei Bona Malwal, Sudan’s ambassador to the African Union. “It’s sort of like informing them: ‘Something will be happening here,'” the AP news agency reports him as saying.

Meanwhile, Tahir al-Feki, of the Jem rebels, said they were expecting “a large attack.”

“They [government forces] are bringing tanks so they must be preparing to pound the town,” he told Reuters.

This may augur the organization’s redemption – or a catastrophe.

How the Crash affects the global balance of power

Former US Deputy Treasury Secretary Roger Altman has a piece in the new edition of Foreign Affairs on the Great Crash of 2008, which takes the following as its opening premise:

The financial and economic crash of 2008, the worst in over 75 years, is a major geopolitical setback for the United States and Europe. Over the medium term, Washington and European governments will have neither the resources nor the economic credibility to play the role in global affairs that they otherwise would have played. These weaknesses will eventually be repaired, but in the interim, they will accelerate trends that are shifting the world’s center of gravity away from the United States.


The Tories and DFID

As everyone waits to see what Obama plans to do about reforming foreign assistance in the US, back here in Britain change is in the air too: the Conservatives are coming clean about what they really think about DFID, the Department for International Development.

For a while now, there have been whispers that the Tories don’t really buy into the idea of an independent DFID – and that perhaps (gasp!) they might be considering merging it back into the Foreign Office, where it resided until 1997. Well, following last week’s Independent interview with Conservative aid spokesman Andrew Mitchell, we can put that notion to rest: “We are very committed to DFID continuing as an independent department of state”, says he.

So, a ringing endorsement of DFID, then?  Er, not quite.  Here’s the full context:

The shadow International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said DFID had begun to encroach on the work of other departments and to come “perilously close” to setting its own foreign policy, a role he said should be reserved for the Foreign Office. He said the Foreign Office will be given much greater influence over the use of overseas aid should the Tories win the next election …

“There are times when DFID comes perilously close to pursuing its own foreign policy and that is not right,” Mr Mitchell said. “Foreign policy is decided by the government and the Cabinet, led by the Foreign Office, and DFID should not be an alternative to this. We are very committed to DFID continuing as an independent department of state. But we would make it more of a specialised development department and a little less like an aid agency,” he said.

That left me wondering just which specific instances Mitchell was thinking of in arguing that DFID was coming close to having its own foreign policy.  Iraq? Afghanistan? Climate change? (Thinking that Paul Wolfowitz might not be such a great idea for President of the World Bank?) Sadly, we don’t know.  Earlier today I called his office to ask him to elaborate, but he declined to say more.

This is a shame, on two counts. First, because it’s a cop out.  For the Opposition front bench spokesman on international development to argue that the Department he shadows has come ‘close to pursuing its own foreign policy’ is a serious claim – and one which he ought to be prepared to substantiate.  To fail to do so leaves him open to accusations of offering soundbites rather than reasoned argument.

More fundamentally, though, it’s a shame that Andrew Mitchell wouldn’t elaborate because this debate needs to be had.   (more…)

Give Defense to Clinton, not State

The rumour that Barack Obama may appoint Hilary Clinton as his top diplomat has filled the Sunday papers. Personally, I think she would be a better Defense Secretary or a nominee to the Supreme Court, although she is bound to do well as Secretary of State too.

If she were given the State Department, she is more likely to follow Colin Powell’s management style -– which a place like Foggy Bottom sorely needs –- than emulate Condi Rice’s neglect of the department. At the same time, she is likely to play a key role in foreign policy, unlike General Powell, as President Obama is compelled to focus on the economy.

It is just that I think Senator Clinton would do better at the Pentagon. She supported the Iraq War, which will make her better at coaxing the military into a draw-down of forces and a shift of focus onto Afghanistan. Though the officers and soldiers will accept the democratic transition from Bush to Obama, a military that has gone to war twice, suffered both casualties and reputationally, and seen itself as the sharp end of U.S foreign policy for eight years will need to be helped to make the switch by someone they trust. With her hawkish views, time on the Senate Armed Services Committee, and work on Unified Action, a large U.S military exercise, the New York senator is well placed to take this role on.


After state-building: the new UN minimalism?

In early August, Daniel wrote a punchy post entitled “After state-building”.  Looking at American debate about what to do in Afghanistan and Iraq, he concluded “we may be about to witness a paradigmatic shift away from state-building. But what replaces it?”  I’d come to a parallel conclusion for the UN: “the idea of large-scale, multi-dimensional UN missions overseeing countries stumbling out of conflict may have run out of road.”  But I didn’t have an answer about what comes next.

And I still don’t.  But I’ve outlined some initial thoughts in a piece over on the Guardian website, timed to pre-empt the arrival of the UN’s new peacekeeping boss – Alain Le Roy – next Monday.  I run through the current list of short-term UN woes (where are the helicopters?), but then turn to “longer-term, strategic challenges”:

These aren’t about management. They involve adapting to a less American, more multipolar world. The current scale of UN peacekeeping is a product of the last, all-too-American decade. The Bush administration favoured hefty UN missions to stabilise places where it did not want to get bogged down itself: Haiti, Liberia, Darfur.

UN officials, shaken by their impotence over Iraq, have often felt obliged to look “relevant” elsewhere. The result has been a trend towards bigger peace operations with ever-more ambitious, perhaps unrealistic, mandates to rebuild these shattered states. In private, many of the organisation’s experts worry that they cannot fulfil these mandates – almost all would prefer less expansive alternatives with realistic targets.

But the greatest obstacle to effective peace operations is that tensions between the US and its rivals can reduce the UN to paralysis. China has ensured that the UN mission in Darfur cannot push back much (if at all) against pressure from the Sudanese government. Throughout 2008, Russia has stymied efforts to transfer UN peacekeeping responsibilities to the EU in Kosovo. UN observers in Georgia evacuated as Russian troops advanced this month.

If great power tensions increase further, the chances for more UN missions can only decrease. That would be tragic for the vulnerable who rely on the UN from, Port-au-Prince to Kinshasa. It might be dangerous for the great powers too. Without the UN to provide basic security, the odds of small flare-ups escalating into big crises will grow.

So as Alain Le Roy looks beyond his first round of crises, he may decide that his overarching strategic task is to build up a minimal consensus between the US, its allies and its rivals about what UN peacekeeping is for in an age of tensions between them.

Minimal consensus, eh? What might that look like? Stand by for answers sooner or, more probably, later. But I have started to spot quite a few symptoms of a “new minimalism” around the UN of late.  These include its first ever peacekeeping doctrine, which is sharp and thoughtful document but feels conservative relative to earlier UN statements on peacebuilding and statebuilding (there’s textual analysis in my recent International Peacekeeping article, if you like that sort of thing). 

It’s also worth checking out the state of debate on the Responsibility to Protect – Ban Ki-moon’s staff have been rather skillfully guiding discussions, emphasizing “soft” aspects of R2P like conflict prevention over “hard” military interventions.  It’s worth having a close read of this really good report on the subject from the International Peace Institute.  Now, a couple of policy documents do not equal a new ideology, but I think we’re seeing the first signs of a deeper minimalist trend…