How to seize this crisis as an opportunity for a new global political order
Since more than 3 months a war is waging in Europe, caused by a permanent member of the security council in violation of the UN charter. The shock sits deep, and Russia’s political action received an overwhelming condemnation by a 141 member states out of 193 in the UN General Assembly. But as a matter of principle the condemnation should have been unanimous, because condemning this violation of the UN Charter is one thing, how to go about rectifying the situation quite another. China and India have failed here miserably, and gave an example that should have been avoided.
By now, many political leaders, multilateral bodies, experts have sprung into action, seeking a way to end the war and to get international politics back on track in order to achieve through negotiations agreements on humanitarian relief, an armistice and a long-term solution to the conflict which has been smouldering for many years.
What needs to be resolved?
The Ukraine wants to get out of the constant overbearing dominance of the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian population wants to be master in their own country, and align themselves as equals with other European countries which are members of the EU. They also wanted to become a member of NATO, but have dropped this aspiration accepting instead a guaranteed political and military neutrality. Domestically they want to give the Ukrainian language and culture a higher profile and general acceptance. In a country which is predominantly bilingual, if not multilingual, an ambitious undertaking and fraught with the potential of social conflicts, if not managed well. So far, this has not been managed well. The current Ukrainian government also wants to reduce corruption in the country and strengthen democratic institutions and processes. Yet, coming out of a tradition of authoritarianism, this is a demanding process of changing the political culture, which is not done overnight. The Ukraine’s lack of capacity to implement its part of the Minsk Agreement, or at least to keep a dialogue process alive, is a telling sign of these challenges.
Russia felt and feels neglected as a global power. But this neglect was primarily a result of a Russian introspective attitude and the trauma of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and more than of neglect by the USA and European countries. The expansion of NATO in Eastern Europe clearly did not help to overcome the Russian trauma. For at least 2 decades the Russian government has retreated from the world stage as an active player, mostly denying participation in multilateral, i.e. UN mandated actions, and pursuing their own international initiatives without UN backing. Thus, unilateral actions, such as the civil war in Syria, led to further estrangements with the other big powers, except with China, which also opposes US hegemonial policies. Interestingly enough, when the US under President Obama retreated from this hegemonial policy, the Russian government saw this as weakness, and not as a rational choice by the US government. Clearly, because of this interpretation, Moscow missed at that point an opportunity to strengthen collaboration with the US and others in the context of the UN, probably because it was already too far along on its path of revitalising pan-Russian unity and restoring its geographic spheres of influence. The increasing unwillingness of Western countries to engage with Russia in a political dialogue about the geopolitical situation since 2012 has now led to a situation where two blocks appear on the global horizon, one of democratic governance, led by the US and one of authoritarian governance, led by China. Once more, Russia is not in the same political league as these two countries. Neither is the EU for that matter. And while the EU is willing to accept US leadership, Russia will most likely not accept Chinese leadership.
Interestingly enough, a smaller third block is equally emerging as during the time of the Cold War with the group of non-aligned countries. This time these countries, mostly from Africa, object to any form of neocolonialism, resource exploitation, proxy wars etc. This group is relatively small, but it may become stronger and more influential, if India, the EU and some Asian and Latin American countries join hands with them on specific occasions.
Commensurate with this forming of two, possibly three blocks, is the disengagement from economic interdependence and dependencies created through globalisation after 1989. The blocks will most likely strengthen the economic ties within their blocks, but compete fiercely with each other. Will this competition give enough attention to the Agenda 2030 and its 17 SDGs?
How to escape the growing estrangement and enmity?
In principle, competition is to be welcomed. And a more critical attitude regarding our political system as well. For far too long we assumed in the West that our neoliberal policy and our democratic traditions are the model for all countries. By now, we know, that this won’t work, and we need to establish a new understanding what good governance in the 21st century would or should mean, and which economic policies lead us along the path towards sustainability. Pointing at each other’s failures will not resolve these problems, instead we need to find the common ground and build our relationships on this, in spite of major differences. Castigating the Chinese government for its policy in Xinjiang, the US for its continuing racism, Europe for its handling of migrants across the Mediterranean, etc. will not get us to overcome enmity. As much as such inhuman treatment of individuals, or ethnic groups beg for a more human course of action, we must focus our attention on building a modicum of trust in each other’s commitment to overcome wars, and allowing people wherever they live to have a decent living standard and environment. That is what all the big powers and all countries, which are members of the UN, have committed to when they signed the UN Charter.
The current secretary-general Antonio Guterres has invested a lot of UN resources into keeping the attention of member states and people on global challenges. While emphasising the global threats, he also points out repeatedly the achievements of people and communities around the world to move us in the direction of sustainable development. Regrettably he is forgetting over these broader issues, the challenges here and now in the political arena. As a result, we see a growing erosion of the authority of the UN and its staff. Neutrality and impartiality have less and less coinage in today’s world. More and more people regard the UN as a lame duck, and incapable of intervening successfully in ongoing conflicts, except for mobilising humanitarian assistance to suffering populations. These are dangerous trends, and put us all on the path towards a global hell, something which should be avoided under any circumstances.
The UN leadership today is too hesitant to play an active role in the geopolitical power game. The President of the USA has now clarified in an op-ed piece in the New York Times what his government wants to achieve. They will continue to strengthen the defense capability of the Ukrainian army in order to enhance their position at the negotiation table. However, he stopped here and did not say that the US is supporting negotiations, and will consider the lifting of sanctions, if and when credible agreements between the Russian and Ukrainian government have been reached.
What the position of President Putin and President Selenskyj is at this point in time is less clear. What is clear is that the Russian government has changed its game plan, after the initial one did not work. They now appear wanting to transform the Ukraine into a “failed state”, and to leave it to the EU to pick up the pieces. Already now the current budget of the Ukrainian government needs to be propped up by financial support from the US and EU states. Millions of Ukrainians are being supported in neighbouring countries. Rebuilding the destroyed infrastructure and human settlements will cost billions and take a long time, as the world economy is already struggling with the supply of needed materials. Paradoxically it will be Russia which might be able to supply building and other materials, but will a Ukrainian government want these? Difficult to imagine, unless somebody steps into the scene, and stops this military, economic, psychological and cultural warfare. Only the UN could possibly muster such a task, but that would require the UN secretary-general and the UN bodies and organisations to play an infinitely more active role.
The Ukraine – Russia conflict is a global conflict, hence it has to be solved globally
Where can we find the entry into an alternative course of action? Two possibilities appear feasible. First, the UN secretary-general has to continue his direct dialogue with the two warring parties. At this moment, it would be particularly important to find ways and means to export the grain harvests of last year stored in Ukrainian and Russian harbours in order to avoid global food shortages. Turkey has taken an initiative, and the security council has heard a report from the executive director of WFP and discussions are ongoing between the UN and the Russian and Ukrainian government respectively about a sea corridor to ship grain and fertilizers out via the Black Sea. But such discussions have to be made much more publicly known, irrespective of the need for confidentiality during the negotiation process. The global public needs to know what is being done to end this war and avoid its dire consequences for the world. Instead, we see daily reports how the war is progressing, and witness public debates about how to arm, rather than disarm the two fighting countries. Even if, there is a military victory one way or the other, what is gained by that in light of the continuing destruction, displacement, suffering of people?
We need to find ways to disarm and prepare the ground for negotiations. Disarmament will mean to stop military action, change media coverage, and lifting of sanctions in order to begin the process of reconstruction and resumption of civilian life in the Ukraine and elsewhere. This will demand a well orchestrated and choreographed series of steps by national, regional state and non-state actors, which only the UN staff could manage, as they are not a direct party to this conflict. The political neutrality of the UN does not, however, involve impartiality. On the contrary. What in 1945 was an ambitious aspiration, is today a necessity. At the time that the UN was founded, promoting a global outlook and give a global mandate to an organisation beyond national interests was desirable, today it is indispensable. We live in a globalised world, and the challenge to keep peace and stability is a global challenge. As are climate change and the management of pandemic threats.
In 1998/99, the then UN secretary-general Kofi Annan saw this very clearly, and formulated a global road map for the 21st century with the Millennium Declaration, which was adopted in September 2000 by a gathering of 149 heads of state and government; and in 2015 this road map was updated by the universal Agenda 2030. Boutros Ghali, Kofi Annan and his successor managed this process against great odds.
The two powers that had dominated the global stage after 1948 were either gloating about their “victory”, or reeling from the disruptions of the collapse of their political and state system. Smaller countries and non-state-actors began to fill the void left by the dissolution of the two power blocks, but they did not manage to gain the upper-hand on any of the global civilian fronts.
Instead, we saw more weapons traded on the world market, legally and illegally, and we saw every year more local wars than ever before. The disarmament mandate of the UN had always only resulted in a patchwork of treaties and agreements and did not rise to the challenge of a global disarmament system; and in recent years it even lost ground.
Art. 26 of the UN Charter was never fully enacted, namely to establish a system for the regulation of armaments, nor was Art. 47 to form a Military Staff Committee consisting of the Chiefs of Staff of the 5 permanent members of the security council. It is good to know that even today in spite of all the enmity between the US and Russia the two ministers of defence are in direct contact. But that is not enough. It behoves the secretary-general to remind the P 5 of their obligation under art. 47. There will most likely be little willingness to comply, but change only comes against initial reluctance of the powers that be; endurance and patience are indispensable.
But what is equally important is to invest in confidence building measures and actions, which can strengthen our trust in each other’s preparedness of making our way towards a peaceful future in spite of all our disagreements, frustrations and different aspirations. The war in Europe is the test case whether we can achieve this reversal in global politics. There always will be the tension between the rule of strength and the rule of law, but today these are out of balance, and the world’s people suffer as a consequence. This is unacceptable.
I thank Ingeborg Breines and Georgios Kostakos for their valuable inputs into an earlier draft of this blog.