Conflict diplomacy in a turbulent world

By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera and Jacopo Demarinis 

President Biden identified Saudi Arabia as a Pariah state, questioning the human rights concerns. The position changed with geopolitics and the Ukraine war. Biden is looking to reset the relationship and visited Saudi Arabia to seek assistance to alleviate soaring oil prices in the US and around the globe. Many nations with unsustainable debt are facing an economic crisis with rising inflation, which is turning into a political crisis. Sri Lanka is one such nation; 22 percent of the Sri Lankan population or 4.9 million people live in need of food assistance at the moment according to UN representative Hanaa Singer-Hamdy. The geopolitics in Ukraine had ripple effects impacting consumer prices in addition to COVID-19 supply chain interruptions. Ukraine was a case of failed conflict diplomacy, as the Russian government saw war as the necessary course of action. At the IISS Shangri-la Dialogue, East Asia’s rising geopolitical competition was evident. Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe stated ‘on how China will be important to the future of Asia and why it would be a mistake for any country to cross China now’. He added, “If anyone dares to secede Taiwan from China, we will not hesitate to fight, we will fight at all costs,”. Zhang Zhenzhong, Deputy Chief of the Joint Staff Department in the Central Military Commission, said, “The US has already turned the Middle East and Europe into a mess, does it want to mess up Asia-Pacific next?”.

The rise of China and Russia’s resurgence have shifted the game’s rules, creating multiple risk factors. From human rights, respect for international norms and values, populism, transnational security threats including cyberwarfare, violent extremism to climate have propelled conflicts beyond what the traditional diplomatic toolkit could handle.

The practice of peace and conflict diplomacy, where states, civil society and international organizations engage to manage conflict, has become an increasingly challenging domain in the present day. The conflict management mechanisms of conventional bilateral diplomacy, international negotiations, public diplomacy, sanctions, mediation, formal peacekeeping, and, pivotally, the threat or actual use of force are at the forefront in the post-COVID-19 world, and many nations are battling to navigate the challenges. Can conflict diplomacy survive in this turbulent international environment?

The editors of Diplomacy and Future of World Order stated that ‘that the space for international peacemaking and conflict management is shrinking due to resurgent nationalism, a “sovereign backlash” against earlier multinational interventions, and the diminished willingness of the major powers to undertake peacemaking.’ So, it seems like conflict diplomacy has lost its effectiveness. What are some of the root causes, and how can we strengthen conflict diplomacy’s effectiveness is the important question?

Some causes of conflict diplomacy’s ineffectiveness are structural by nature. For example, the structure and procedures of the United Nations Security Council, such as the veto power held by the five permanent members, have hindered its ability to pursue an effective deterrence policy vis à vis Russia given Russia’s position on the Security Council.

Furthermore, historical and political factors, like countries’ perception of historical events, influence diplomacy’s effectiveness. Regarding Ukraine, differing understandings of historical events like the Euromaidan protests, which the Russian government viewed as a blatant demonstration of anti-Russia aggression promoted by the West but that many Ukrainians and the West viewed as highly democratic, have impeded peace settlements. These contrasting perceptions influence peace negotiations by shaping leaders’ views on how settlements should be implemented.

The psychological aspects like the “us-vs-them” mentality, both within and between countries, are enhanced by a perceived struggle regarding issues of identity and can polarize societies. According to Ian Bremmer in his book Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, “it is not rising China, a new Cold War, the future of Europe, or the risk of a global cyber conflict that will define our societies. It’s…. the “us vs. them (message) adopted by both the left and the right.” The “us-vs-them” mentality can also hinder cooperation on transnational threats like climate change, as is evidenced by the Biden administration’s outlook on cooperation with China to address the climate crisis. The United States is particularly susceptible to the paralyzing effects of polarization and populism in comparison to other democracies like the UK and Canada.

In today’s globalized world, transnational threats like forced migration and climate change enhance conflict diplomacy’s importance. The number of people forcibly displaced from their homes increased over the last five years to 89.3 million in 2021 (27.1 million refugees and 53.2 million internally displaced). It grew to 100 million by May 2022, increasing the prospects of conflict and violence against migrants in countries with low state capacity. Thus, conflict diplomacy must address how conditions in fragile and failing states can destabilize neighbouring states, one example being spillovers from the Ethiopian Civil War into Sudan.

So, how can conflict diplomacy be harnessed more effectively to address these challenges? One compelling idea, responsible sovereignty, states that countries’ sovereignty depends on their responsible adherence to negotiated global norms, with the understanding that mishandling of domestic issues can reduce the sovereignty of neighbouring states. An idea supported by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has spoken about the importance of shared responsibility and shared sovereignty in an interdependent world, nations committed to responsible sovereignty would welcome the input of rising and regional powers, focus on long-term threats that impact the global community, and recognize the importance of engaging with nondemocracies.

One of the requirements of responsible sovereignty is the establishment of international institutions that legitimize global norms and values and coordinate interstate action. The authors of Power and Responsibility: Building International Order in an Era of Transnational Threats including Bruce D. Jones from Brookings and Ambassador Carlos Pascual, recommend creating a G-16 that includes major and rising powers and regional powers to foster consensus to address key transnational threats. For example, they recommend that the G-16 negotiate international standards regarding biotechnology and develop a “universal international regime” for biotechnology. Such action is endorsed by organisations like the Millennium Project, a global participatory think tank that unites futurists, policymakers, scholars, and the public to address 15 “Global Challenges collectively.”

Jones and Pascual also suggest increasing the number of members in the UN Security Council. According to the Oxford Research Group, doing this, in addition to addressing the veto power that the P5 wields with impunity, would strengthen the legitimacy of the UN and enhance its knowledge of and ability to address regional conflicts.

Conflict diplomacy should also accommodate other actors like civil society, which the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) refers to as concert diplomacy”. Paul Meerts believes that “pragmatic concert diplomacy,” which combines institutionalized diplomacy that adheres to the “responsibility to protect” with ad-hoc decision-making in informal settings, is also the most effective. Besides merely introducing new perspectives into the mix, Track II diplomacy that includes civil society and NGOs can de-escalate interstate tensions by challenging polarizing rhetoric typically employed by state elites. Diplomacy and the Future World Order supports concert diplomacy given major powers’ increasing disinterest in collaborating with countries to advance global norms. This opens up space for middle powers, NGOs, and other political entities to collaborate in international bodies like a G-16 to articulate new global norms and de-escalate conflicts when they arise.

At the recent G7, German chancellor Olaf Scholz urged world leaders to “not walk into the trap Putin sets of asserting that the world is divided into the global west… and all the rest.” Despite calls for unity, the discussion mainly focused on the war in Ukraine instead of issues of importance to non-G7 countries like Special Drawing Rights, food, health, and climate change. The G7 is also determined to compete with the “BRICS” club, of which China and Russia are a part, to limit its expansion and the possibility of a “rival multilateral order” emerging.

To not walk into Putin’s trap, G7 leaders should embrace a more inclusive, pragmatic “concert diplomacy” that, in accordance with responsible sovereignty, welcomes the input of regional powers, civil society, and small countries, and engages with nondemocracies, including China and other BRICS club members. Great powers and wealthy countries must challenge “us vs. them” rhetoric and not use the UN Security Council and forums like the G7 to only further their agenda.  Thus, more effective conflict diplomacy should reflect a true commitment to inclusive multilateralism and responsible sovereignty.

Asanga Abeyagoonasekera is a Senior Fellow and Jacopo Demarinis is a Research Assistant at The Millennium Project in Washington DC.
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