Much western commentary about the Ukraine crisis has asserted that Russian intervention in Crimea has undermined the post-Cold War order based on the inviolability of borders and respect for the rules-based international system developed after the world wars of the last century and founded on respect for the United Nations’ Charter and other international agreements.
But if this order is being undermined, critics would argue the rot set in some years ago and the hypocrisy of both the western powers and Russia, which has been on full display in recent days, has played a role in its decline.
Since the occupation of Crimea by thinly disguised Russian forces began, the American Secretary of State, John Kerry, has declared publicly on several occasions that in the 21st century countries should not invade others for trumped up reasons and dictate what should happen from the barrel of a gun. In late 2002, John Kerry was a senior United States’ Senator and he voted for the invasion of Iraq, which after the failure to find any chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, was justified post-facto by the US administration as a war to bring democracy to the country.
In another critique of Russia’s actions, President Obama, echoing comments by leading European Union politicians, said countries should not be dismembered over the heads of their elected leaders. Yet, in 2008, in a choreographed sequence of events, the US, Germany, Britain, France and Italy first encouraged Kosovo to unilaterally secede from a Serbia, which had been democratic since the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, and then recognised its independence. Of course, the context is different from what is happening in Ukraine today, but the principles of the inviolability of borders in Europe agreed between the West and the old Soviet Union at Helsinki in 1975, part of the rules based international order, was breached.
Russia refused to recognise Kosovo’s independence. At the time, Moscow argued it was a violation of Serbia’s territorial integrity, which it clearly was, and that other states should not recognise a secession that was not mutually agreed – as for example the split between the Slovaks and Czechs in 1993 had been. The Russians also argued it would open Pandora’s Box by setting a precedent that other separatists would follow. The western countries that recognised Kosovo – and not all did – argued Kosovo was unique, sui generis.
Since then, Russia has changed its tune and ensured the precedent it warned of then was followed – by Moscow.
Crimea is internationally recognised as part of Ukraine and Russia specifically guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, but Foreign Minister Lavrov is now indicating that if Crimea wants to secede from Ukraine and even become part of Russia that is fine, showing Moscow’s commitment to its publicly stated principles can be as elastic as that of its western critics.
Russia had already shown its less than firm commitment to the principle it stood by over Kosovo when it recognised the declarations of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, after the short military conflict between Tbilisi and Moscow which broke out when Georgia took military action against separatist Ossetians in August 2008.
Some commentators shrug this off. They say what do you expect? Might is right and ‘twas ever thus with the way great powers behave.
But if the world’s leading states, some of which have permanent seats on the UN Security Council, which is the body meant to ensure global peace and stability, come to be widely perceived as cynically using and discarding the principles of a rules-based international system when it suits them, then that system, which is intended to protect both the strong and the weak, will be eroded further, and that is not in anybody’s interest in an increasingly contested and unstable world.
It may be that Russia would have intervened in Ukraine anyway given what it sees as its key national interest there, but the shifting standards of those western powers opposing its actions means diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis have been made more difficult and the case against Moscow in the court of global public opinion weakened.
France’s beleaguered President Francois Hollande has had some good news.
He may have fallen out of the public’s affection faster than any previous French leader, but last Wednesday the United Nations gave Mr Hollande UNICEF’s Felix Houphouet-Boigny Prize for his contribution to peace and stability.
The award is recognition for France’s intervention in Mali earlier this year which staved off the advance of Islamist rebels, some with alleged links to al Qaeda, who threatened a take-over of the country.
Meanwhile in Mali – as the cliché goes – at the same time as the President was being honoured by UNICEF in Paris, news came that the Malian army had clashed with rebels in the north of country for the first time since the French entered the conflict back in January.
Mali may no longer feature much in the papers or on the news, but that doesn’t mean the conflict is over and the situation there is sorted out. It also goes to illustrate what western countries must have learned about military intervention since the violent collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s – it is much easier to get in than it is to get out – to this day there are thousands of European troops in Kosovo and Bosnia.
To his credit, Mr Hollande seemed to recognise this could be a problem again in Mali quite quickly. When first announcing he was sending troops, he emphasised the emergency nature of the intervention with the Malian army in rapid retreat and a rebel victory looking imminent. He said France would stay until African troops and the UN could get organised to support Mali’s government, but within days French officials were saying the troops would stay “as long as necessary”.
In the event, the arrival of the French – and troops from neighbouring Chad – changed the course of the conflict. The rebels were pushed back quickly and the main towns in the sparsely populated north of the country were retaken, as, by and large, the rebels chose not to stand and fight and returned to insurgent tactics of ambush and bombings.
But in order to bring as quick an end to the intervention as possible, the French also attempted to split the rebels – which were made up of an alliance of various fractious groups. Some were Islamist, such as Ansar Dine, and some secular nationalists, such as the Natonal Movement for the Liberation of Azawad, or MNLA, fighting for more autonomy or independence for the Arab Tuareg people of northern Mali from the black African majority of the south.
Paris had some success in this strategy. As French troops advanced towards a key northern town called Kidal at the end of January, MNLA forces there turned on their Islamist allies and drove them out of the town. In exchange, it seems, the French promised the MNLA could run the town and the Malian army would not return.
At the time, the move helped accelerate the French advance, but it may have complicated the longer term aim of stabilising Mali and ensuring the withdrawal of all French troops.
Although the UN has agreed to send a new stabilisation mission to Mali, called MINUSMA, backed by a military force from neighbouring countries such as Nigeria and Chad, France still has about 2,000 troops there – half the number they had at the height of the fighting, but still a considerable deployment .
The recent clashes between the Malian army and the MNLA were near Kidal, which is still held by the rebel group. The stabilisation plan for Mali involves holding elections next month and the MNLA says it will not return the town to Malian government control before those elections. The army seems to be intent of taking it back before then.
So what will the French do?
The original intervention was justified on political and humanitarian grounds – to save Mali from collapse and the people from human rights abuses by the Islamist fighters. But six months on, the Malian army still seems incapable of defeating the rebels on its own, and human rights groups accuse government troops themselves of abusing civilians in the areas where it has managed to re-establish control.
So far Paris has not said much about the new outbreak of fighting, but if it escalates, it is likely the French will have to delay the withdrawal of the troops still in Mali.
So despite his awareness of the risks of getting sucked into a long term involvement, President Hollande, could still struggle to find the way out of his first foreign intervention.
With six weeks to go before the Rio+20 circus arrives in town, negotiators are working the corridors of the UN to agree on the outcome document so that the 120 world leaders who are planning to come will have something to sign. Oceans have had pride of place within the draft text since the beginning, and although things are delicate, it looks like increasingly likely that we might see a real agreement on the high seas at Rio.
Perhaps to raise the profile of the oceans, we could send Juan Carlos of Spain on a fishing trip?
As David Cameron prepares to chair the High Level Panel charged with designing a successor to the Millennium Development Goals, he should be in no doubt that he faces a tough job.
The original goals have been remarkably successful. Even in a single organisation, most targets are agreed and then quickly forgotten. The MDGs, which took a decade to stitch together, have prospered since their final agreement in 2002. Most developing country governments, and nearly all donors, have at least partially aligned policies to them.
Poverty rates have also dropped remarkably quickly (and not just in China) and progress towards social development targets seems now to be accelerating. How much of the good news can be directly attributed to the MDGs is hard to prove. But if you accept that goals can only ever be a part of the answer to a complex problem, then the British PM should start by asking why the MDGs did so well, not by assuming that his Panel is easily going to come up with something better.
His first question should be to ask what makes for an effective set of goals. I’d identify five criteria. They should:
- Be resonant – powerful, simple and clear enough to communicate with politicians, media, public.
- Form the main elements of a common strategic language, enabling different types of organisation to understand and work with each other.
- Be amenable to implementation, not just on a technical level, but given likely political and resource constraints.
- Have sufficient authority and clarity that it matters whether or not they are delivered fifteen years down the road.
Conversely, effective goals avoid:
- Too much complexity – every interest group in the world will want ‘its’ target included and for technocrats more is usually more. Resisting a ‘Christmas Tree’ framework will require a willingness to pick tough political battles.
- Straying into areas where consensus doesn’t exist – goals make countries more likely to do difficult things they believe are in their best interests; they can’t be used radically to change their identification of those interests.
- Distorting incentives in a way that is significantly counterproductive. Goals will inevitably have at least some adverse consequences, but the detail and balance of the framework will determine how serious a problem this is, as will the quality of the data on results (to avoid cheating).
- Making promises that aren’t really meant – some countries will be happy to sign up to goals they have no intention of doing anything to meet and it is possible to imagine leaders embracing a set of empty promises in 2015 just so they can have a big announcement to make.
So my advice to David Cameron would be to take three types of failure very seriously:
- A failure to agree – lots of talk that leads, ultimately, to another multilateral car crash.
- A framework to forget – we get agreement in 2015, but it’s largely ignored thereafter.
- A strategic realignment to no great purpose – we get goals, try to implement them, but it doesn’t work out due to a lack of will or because the goals are the wrong ones.
None of this is to say that I think that, as Chair of the Panel, the PM has been handed (or worse, lobbied for) a poisoned chalice. Sequels are usually worse than the original, precisely because of the complacent assumption that the original’s success will easily be replicated. Cameron – and his team – need to make it clear from the beginning that they are intent on avoiding this error.
(This post is based on a talk I gave to a seminar recently at Brookings. Alex and I will publish a Brookings paper on the post-2015 challenge in the next few days.)
News in the Guardian today:
David Cameron has been asked by the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, to chair a new UN committee tasked with establishing a new set of UN millennium development goals to follow the present goals, which expire in 2015.
Some initial reactions:
– It’s a major political coup for the UK, and especially of course for DFID, who’ve been working behind the scenes to secure this outcome for months. (The UK may not have been supposed to announce the appointment just yet – there’s nothing on the appointment in the last briefing of the Secretary-General’s spokesman – but you can see why they couldn’t wait…)
– The immediate question now is who will be the other co-chair – or co-chairs. Two co-chairs is the norm for this kind of UN exercise, one from a developed and one from a developing country, but three co-chairs is not unheard of (e.g. the 2006 High-level Panel on System Coherence). If there were three, expect one to be from an emerging economy and one from a low income country.
– It’ll be safe to assume that the other co-chair[s] will be serving heads of government too. If I had to make a guess right now on people, I’d go for Dilma Rousseff from Brazil as the emerging economy candidate (especially as the Rio+20 summit in June is the launchpad for the Panel), and maybe Ellen Johnson Sirleaf from Liberia. Meles Zenawi would be another obvious choice, but he chaired a recent UN panel on climate finance so may be out of the running, plus the UN will want to have gender balance among the co-chairs.
– Another big question is who will head up the secretariat that supports the Panel. The recent trend has been for the secretariat head to come from within the UN: this was the case on both the Global Sustainability Panel last year (which I worked on), and the 2006 system coherence panel). But there’s also precedent from them to come from outside (Steve Stedman’s role on the 2004 panel on Threats, Challenges and Change being the obvious example).
– In terms of substance, the direction of the post-2015 agenda is currently heading towards the idea of Sustainable Development Goals. The Rio+20 summit will probably call for SDGs as a key summit outcome, but duck the issue of what those Goals should cover – passing the political heavy lifting straight to the Panel that David Cameron will be co-chairing.
– Expect the politics of this agenda to become very challenging and complex over the next 12-18 months. We did a backgrounder on SDGs a couple of months ago, which gives a quick overview; we’ll also be publishing a more up-to-date analysis paper through the Brookings Institution very shortly.
– On the domestic political aspects, Patrick Wintour’s analysis in the Guardian is undoubtedly right that this will firmly lock in the government’s commitment to spending 0.7% of national income on aid. At the same time, David Cameron’s chairmanship of the Panel will also allow him to argue to domestic audiences that he’s pushing internationally for a more hard-headed approach to aid – an argument that Conservative Home is already running with approvingly.
Update: if you’re wondering about how David Cameron sees the development agenda, take a look at this speech from last year.