A summer reading list on United Nations diplomacy
Editor’s Note: Guest columnist Richard Gowan is replacing Emily Taylor, who will return next week.
What should people who care about international organizations and conflict management order for their summer reading this year? Closely following the back and forth of daily events can sometimes make it difficult to get a clear picture of the health of the international system. The Biden administration has promised that “multilateralism is back”, for example, but when it comes to dealing with crises like the coup in Myanmar and challenges like global vaccine distribution, international cooperation still looks distinctly dull. With summer here, it’s a good time to sit down, grab a smart book, and try to see the big picture.
A good place to start is “Diplomacy and the Future of the World Order», A collection of sober and thoughtful essays edited by Chester A. Crocker, Fen Osler Hampson and Pamela Aall. The editors are seasoned observers of conflict resolution, with a series of large volumes on the subject to their credit, and they are not easily impressed by the fear-mongering claims that the rules-based world order is emerging. collapse. They are indeed slightly optimistic that “many elements” of the current international system “seem likely to survive today’s turbulence, as many important states and groups of states want it to survive.” A perceptive phalanx of writers delve into such elements of the post-1945 system, such as the non-proliferation regime and peacekeeping, as well as institutions like the United Nations and the policies of the great powers.
Most of these contributions support the writers’ pragmatic and ironic point of view that “peace and conflict diplomacy will increasingly become a creative ‘scrambling’ exercise, navigating complexity through negotiated agreements and training. ad hoc coalitions where parties have mutual and divergent interests. This assertion will annoy both hawkish readers who believe that the United States, China and Russia are doomed to wage a new Cold War – a buzzword that is overlooked here – and idealists who believe that the only way out of the current mess is major reforms. at the UN and other global organizations. But it will resonate well with diplomats and international officials who actually work in and for these institutions.
To understand what creative crisis diplomacy looks like on the ground, it is worth turning to “Who are we building peace to? Leadership for Peace in Africa», By Youssef Mahmoud, former United Nations Special Representative in Burundi and Chad. It is a mixture of memory and political tract, and UN historians will find Mahmoud’s accounts of his assignments in Africa useful. This is unusually humble for a book written by a leading international figure who has a tendency to self-mythologize. Mahmoud even includes a series of anonymous comments on his performance from former staff. Many of them are laudatory, but some are harsh, like the one who says he was “too humble” when he was in Burundi.
With summer here, it’s a good time to sit down, grab a smart book, and try to see the big picture.
Mahmoud’s overall message, however, is that in conflict resolution, humility is key. Unfortunately, this is not always what he has observed on the ground. “Since I entered the field of peace and security more than two decades ago, and even more now,” he notes, “I have come to the conclusion that peacebuilding is now what foreigners do, however well-meaning and well-resourced they are. “He rants at Security Council diplomats and aid officials who want quick results in complex situations and stresses that peacemakers should not impose a” predetermined vision of what peace should look like To a society. To determine what a society really needs to maintain peace, Mahmoud emphasizes instead the importance of listening to popular movements and civil society, rather than just elites.
In this, his arguments join that of the most discussed and rightly praised book on conflict issues so far this year, “” by Séverine AutesserreThe front lines of peace. “Autesserre is also convinced that organizations like the UN, which it groups together under the name” Peace Inc. “, have adopted an excessively” top-down “approach to peace processes and should adopt alternatives based on the needs of individuals and specific communities, she emphasizes that the resulting solutions to the violence will be “localized, ad hoc, sometimes even only temporary,” but these are more realistic than more grandiose proposals imposed from New York, Washington or Brussels. Together, the volumes of Autesserre and Mahmoud plead for a humble and flexible approach to peacemaking that will surely appeal to policymakers burned by the failures of operations like the one in Afghanistan.
I should point out that I know Youssef and Séverine personally, but that’s because we are all members of an intellectual community that is pungently anatomized in “The “third” United NationsBy Tatiana Carayannis and Thomas G. Weiss. (I know them personally too). The title refers to the authors’ assertion that there are three United Nations: first, the intergovernmental sphere inhabited by diplomats; second, the international secretariats and agencies that formulate the policies; and third, a nebulous but influential universe of researchers, NGOs and other actors who generate much of the knowledge and ideas on which the official arms of the UN operate. Youssef Mahmoud, for example, has been based at the International Peace Institute think tank since leaving the UN service. Carayannis and Weiss’s book explains “how non-state actors help the UN think” and shows how these actors have shaped multilateral agreements such as the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs.
Carayannis and Weiss are less romantic and at times mischievous in their descriptions of these processes. Regarding the SDG drafting process, which sadly ended up involving 17 goals and nearly 200 individual targets, they conclude that “it is fair to describe the Third UN as having added to the confusion rather than clarified thinking and priorities ”. Nonetheless, they clearly demonstrate that ideas matter at the UN and that “if the global organization is to survive and remain relevant, the vast majority of ideas needed to meet these challenges will come from people outside and within. the Third UN “.
This is a great manual for researchers wondering how to get the UN to listen to their big ideas and a must read for anyone looking to get into advocacy with the UN. As someone already involved in this endeavor, I got another glimpse from my reading of Carayannis and Weiss’ candid account of the ups and downs of NGO interactions with the UN: I need a vacation. I could even read.
Richard Gowan is the UN director at the International Crisis Group.