Politics in tough places: UN diplomacy in today’s crises

Jeffrey D. Feltman, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, briefs journalists on a range of issues, including the situations in Mali, Somalia, Syria and Madagascar. 08 February 2013 United Nations, New YorkRemarks by Jeffrey Feltman, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs at a Brookings Institution function on 15 July, in Washington, USA.

Friends and colleagues,

Let me begin by thanking Brookings, and in particular Strobe Talbot, Martin Indyk and Bruce Jones, for the invitation to speak about the UN’s diplomacy in today’s crises. I credit Martin, in fact, for how my career evolved: when I worked for Martin as a “Gaza watcher” from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv, I had not planned to spend the rest of my State Department tenure in the Middle East and North Africa. Martin’s passion and leadership inspired me to do just that. Martin also had the good sense to encourage me to get to know Bruce Jones, then with the UN, to explore how the U.S. and the UN could work together to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace. Given the leadership role Norway plays in promoting peaceful resolution of conflicts including through funding and organizing UN mediation efforts, I am particularly grateful for Ambassador Strommen’s participation here today.

It is a pleasure to be here and to see so many familiar faces and such interest in the United Nations.

It was exactly a year ago this month that – after nearly 30 years at the State Department – I took up the position as head of the UN’s Department of Political Affairs. It has been an interesting twelve months.

For those who do not know it, the Department of Political Affairs works at the center of UN preventive diplomacy and peacemaking. It oversees political missions and peace envoys abroad, and the UN’s support for free elections worldwide. It monitors political developments around the globe and works hard to mobilize action at the international level to prevent and resolve conflict. One could say that the Department of Political Affairs, or DPA, plays a similar role within the UN that the U.S. State Department plays within the U.S. Government, in that we advise the Secretary-General on peace and political issues and manage UN political efforts in the field. But, as I shall explain, that parallel only goes so far.

Today I am delighted to be back in Washington, familiar terrain, but my vantage point has changed. To illustrate my new, UN perspective, I will attempt to answer two questions:

– First, what are the main differences in working on peace and security issues in the multilateral setting of the UN versus U.S. bilateral diplomacy?

– And second, what are some of the key challenges the UN faces in doing this work?

In answering these questions, I will open with some general comments about the work of the UN and then use some specific geographic examples to illustrate our methods.

On the first question – differences between multilateral and bilateral diplomacy — I underestimated the time and effort I needed to adjust to a far greater change than I had anticipated. As an English native speaker I had assumed that I would have no difficulties in “reading comprehension” at the UN. It could not have been further from the truth: 193 nations are far more creative than a single one – getting fully proficient in UNglish is enriching even for those of us who grew up with Webster’s and the Oxford English Dictionary.

But, more seriously, until you leave the U.S. Government you cannot fully grasp what it means to walk into a room backed at all times by the tangible power of the Presidency, the Pentagon and the dollar, the voting weight at the IMF and World Bank, and a permanent seat in the Security Council. They were assets that – almost without noticing – I carried with me as U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State. Yes, of course when serving the U.S. Government, one is vaguely aware of the “package” one carries into a meeting. And one of my best educational experiences in the U.S. Foreign Service was observing and learning from experienced foreign policy practitioners, like Martin and Strobe, how to use those powers. But if one has spent an entire diplomatic career with those assets, as I did, it is something of a shock suddenly to be without them. Initially I felt a sense of almost diplomatic nakedness: you mean I now have to rely only on my own powers of persuasiveness?

But at the UN, I learned from watching my new colleagues that UN officials also wield important sources of power as they try to coax antagonists toward peace. But the UN powers are quite different from what U.S. diplomats carry with them to meetings. Learning how to use intangibles — ideals, principles, values — has been at the top of my own UN education.

Placed on our shoulders, for example, are the principles of the UN Charter and the legitimacy derived from the universal membership. The principles and ideals that gave birth to the UN, it is worth remembering, derive from U.S. leadership and vision.

Another of the UN’s strengths is its perceived impartiality, which allows us to talk to all sides and play the honest-broker role that others often cannot. And here again that universal membership helps: to crises, we can deploy negotiators and missions that are diverse and with regional and substantive expertise. This can help win quick respect of the parties concerned.

Moreover, our goal is to prevent and resolve conflicts, period. We do not pick winners or losers. Think about when the UN reports to the Security Council: While our reports can be, and often are, criticized, the UN has an ability to shape international perception of an issue that would be different, say, than when the U.S. Government issues a report on something in which the U.S. has a vested interest in a certain outcome.

This UN leverage, you might think, is less than what the U.S. has. But the legitimacy that the UN can convey to decisions on peace and security cannot be replicated by any one nation, no matter how powerful.

A further difference for me was trying to master, after all the years thinking about the Middle East, a conflict portfolio that is global as opposed to regional. My geographic experience from the State Department was of little use as I walked the corridors of the African Union for the first time, struggled to grasp the challenges we faced in the Central African Republic or Mali, or during the visits I’ve made to Ashgabat and Kathmandu.

What remains the same, however, whether viewed from Foggy Bottom or from Turtle Bay, is the political nature of most conflicts and, thus, the centrality of political solutions.

Yes, the UN can use troops – and often needs to – to stabilize and to provide security on the ground. The UN deploys over 110,000 troops around the world, second only to the United States. And, yes, UN humanitarian actors help to diminish the suffering of victims of man-made or natural disasters.

But lasting solutions to conflicts requires working the politics in tough places. The day I took office, the Secretary-General instructed me to strengthen our diplomatic engagement across the board, to do better on early warning, preventive diplomacy, and conflict mediation. Ban Ki-moon has made prevention – from prevention of childhood disease to prevention of armed conflict – the centerpiece of his leadership at the UN.

And this is what we are trying to do, with varying degrees of success, in numerous arenas today, often in evolving and complex operating environments, in which problems of state failure and internal conflict have been magnified by cross-border threats, such as terrorism and the rise of organised crime, by military coups, and by changing patterns of violence. And in doing this, we are trying to use established tools as effectively as possible, while also developing new approaches. It is worth remembering that the UN was established a result of a world war between states. But more often than not, conflicts now emerge within states, meaning our tools and engagement must constantly evolve as well.

Let me focus now on a few of these cases, and highlight what the UN brings to the table in doing politics in tough places: Syria, Somalia, the Great Lakes region of Africa, and Afghanistan.

I will begin with Syria. Nothing has been more painful than to watch the Syrian crisis unfolding ever more tragically every day, and sowing instability across the entire region.

The Syria crisis is an example of the challenges the UN faces when sharp divergences of perspectives paralyzes the Security Council. UN tools that some might consider as potentially useful – an arms embargo, sanctions, perhaps even reference of the Syria file to the ICC – simply aren’t available, given the Security Council deadlock. So what do we do?

First, one important aspect of the UN’s work regarding the Syria crisis is mobilizing support for humanitarian relief and delivering humanitarian assistance to those affected by the fighting. The humanitarian actors lead these efforts, obviously, but there are political aspects as well: the Damascus office of UN-League of Arab States Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi has, drawing on the impartiality of the UN, brokered with government and opposition forces some localized cease-fires to get assistance across constantly changing front lines.

Second, we are working as best we can to limit the damage to Syria’s neighbors of the spillover from the conflict. We promote ways to support host communities and government institutions, particularly in Jordan and Lebanon, to help mitigate what could easily become destabilizing factors stemming from the inflow of hundreds of thousands of refugees. Drawing on the fact that, while divided on Syria, the Security Council is united on Lebanon, we have also sought to strengthen political support for Lebanon.

Third, the UN has also organized post-conflict planning. These efforts do not presume any particular political outcome but do assume that, when the guns fall silent, the UN will be expected to play a role in rebuilding a shattered country. We have prepared a number of scenarios for UN action that will depend on the circumstances and on what the Syrian people themselves might request from the UN.

Our primary political role, of course, is promoting a political solution for Syria. We could not have more capable mediators than, first, Kofi Annan and, now, Lakhdar Brahimi. And only the UN can offer the broad umbrella of impartiality under which parties and their supporters can arrive at an internationally legitimized settlement in confidence that their interests could be protected.

But it has been an uphill struggle from the onset. All of our bleakest predictions seem to be coming true. Whenever a slight opening appears for advancing a political solution, dynamics either on the ground or among international and regional actors interfere.

Neither side in Syria has been ready to talk peace seriously. The Government has continued to depict what is a full-blown civil war, rooted in real grievances, as the work of a handful of foreign-backed terrorists. The opposition has remained mired in its conflicts and fragmentation.

Still, we remain convinced that there is no military solution. The belief by some that there is a military solution is leading to Syria’s destruction. We stand ready to host a peace conference as soon as possible in support of the Kerry-Lavrov initiative announced on May 7, and I participated in the two Russian-U.S.-UN trilateral preparatory meetings chaired by Lakhdar Brahimi in Geneva in June. But with current developments on the ground, the conference date keeps slipping.

In the end there is a need for a new politics in Syria – and urgently so: with every additional day of fighting, lives are lost, hatred rises and a united, multicultural, peaceful Syria becomes an ever more distant reality. If the key powers can help deliver the parties to the table, there is still a chance, based on the Geneva Communiqué, for a negotiated transition in Syria.

Let me turn now to Somalia, where we have reached a potential turning point. I was in Mogadishu just two weeks ago, my second trip there in 2013. For the UN, Somalia represents the challenge of how, in the face of so many crises demanding attention, the UN can help to sustain regional and international focus on a process that has the promise of real success but that still needs to be nurtured.

Since the early 1990s, it had been perhaps convenient to look away from Somalia in despair. But clearly one of the lessons of the past decade — from Kabul to Mogadishu to Bamako – is that failed and failing states pose an unacceptable danger not only to their own people but to the region around them and the world at large.

And so the task ending anarchy and building security and a stable government in Somalia took on great strategic as well as humanitarian significance. The UN has invested heavily along with partners including the African Union and key governments such as the United States to try to turn the tide in that country.

The UN helped mediate the 2008 Djibouti Agreement, which laid out a roadmap for transition that was completed last August when Somalis elected a new Government. The UN helped broker some of the understandings between clans and regions that led to the end of the transition period.

Today, the country has, for the first time in decades, a leadership that is committed to building the state. The archetypal failed state has before it the best chance in a generation to build a stable government and bring a measure of peace and prosperity to its people.

Of course diplomacy is only one side of this story. It was a major security intervention by the African Union that fundamentally turned the tide against Al Shabab. The United States helped get that AU mission, AMISOM, off the ground and secure UN support for it. Part of our task today is making sure AMISOM continues to receive financial and political support, for the Somali security services are not yet able to extend authority across the entire state. Somalia still needs AMISOM, and AMISOM still needs financial and logistics support from the international community.

The very real security gains provided already by AMISOM have helped pry open space for serious political work. For the first time since the 1990s, the UN’s political mission for Somalia operates in Mogadishu, not Nairobi. Our political engagement inside the country includes helping to address the relationship between the federal government in Mogadishu and the regions, including Somaliland and Puntland. Our Special Representative in Mogadishu is also helping to manage the evolving relationships between Mogadishu and its neighbors, whose support remains essential to Somalia’s success.

Security is still a concern – a UN compound was attacked by terrorists last month – and we do not underestimate the obstacles ahead in Somalia. But we remain committed and determined to stay. Others need to remain focused on support for Somalia as well.

In the Great Lakes Region of Africa, we can see how the UN has addressed a long-standing challenge, a problem that seems almost immune to solutions – instability in the eastern Democratic Republic – with a new, expanded approach that offers a ray of hope.

MONUSCO, the UN’s peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, is the UN’s largest. It remains an essential tool for the protection of civilians and to promote stability. But, recognizing that security tools alone were insufficient to solve the problems of the eastern DRC, the Secretary-General at the beginning of this year concluded a political agreement among 11 countries – the DRC and its neighbors – and four organizations, including the UN and the African Union. Dubbed the 11+4 agreement, this framework codified commitments from the DRC, the other national signatories, and the four organizations.

In addition, the Secretary-General appointed Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as his Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region, to use the framework to end the recurring cycles of violence, including horrific sexual violence. Besides working at the senior leadership level, Special Envoy Robinson is also drawing in grass-roots civil society and women’s organizations to a comprehensive political approach.

We also welcome the recent appointment of the U.S. envoy for the Great Lakes and the U.S. commitment to work closely with Mary Robinson in support of the 11+4 framework.

To add economic incentives and underline the linkage between security and development, the Secretary-General and Jim Yong Kim, the President of the World Bank, recently traveled in the region in what was the first joint mission of this kind.

Moreover, the Security Council has authorized a new intervention brigade within the UN’s peacekeeping mission in the DRC. This is intended to establish a deterrent that should give some breathing space for renewed political and diplomatic efforts.

In summary, we are bringing our convening power, diplomatic, peacekeeping and financial assets into play to encourage a comprehensive approach to the challenges in the Great Lakes. We cannot afford to let this new opportunity slip away.

Regarding Afghanistan , the UN is viewing our engagement in light of the significant changes that will take place with the withdrawal of ISAF troops and the presidential elections in 2014. My colleagues in the UN’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations have the lead in Afghanistan, but DPA is heavily involved in strategic thinking as well. Among other challenges, Afghanistan is a good example of how even the United Nations – like the United States — needs to be sensitive to concerns of national sovereignty.

In March, the Security Council renewed the mandate of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for an additional year without major changes and thereby signaled a desire for continuity in the mission’s role, including its good offices on elections; reconciliation and regional cooperation.

Many of our Member States see a similar role for the UN post-2014. However, some actors in the current Afghan Government have indicated skepticism regarding a continued political role for the UN. They argue this role could “interfere” with Afghan sovereignty. UN diplomacy will require finding compromise and consensus among different interests to allow the Organisation to continue to assist Afghans in the most effective way without compromising the country’s sovereignty.

One way for the UN to engage, of course, is to work regionally, where Afghanistan is one among several partners. The UN’s Regional Centre in Central Asia based in Ashgabat, another one of DPA’s overseas missions, is actively involved in the Istanbul Process and working with the governments of the region to identify common projects and approaches which build trust and thereby prevent conflict and instability in the long term.

To illustrate our work on more “classic good offices,” let me also touch briefly on Yemen and relations between Iraq and Kuwait:

Yemen, in my view, is an excellent example of how the UN complements the work of other partners. It is the only country in the region to emerge from the so-called Arab Spring with a consensus blueprint for a peacefully negotiated transition. The GCC countries and bilateral partners such as the United States deserve our applause in promoting the power-sharing and transition roadmap known as the GCC initiative, finally signed by former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh in November 2011. I believe that the leverage in terms of real power politics by certain GCC countries and the U.S. was essential in persuading Ali Abdullah Saleh to step down.

But Saleh’s signature was only one step in a long and complicated process. A national dialogue had to be organized, with a secretariat set up and committees established, to draw up principles on which a constitution would be drafted. Various understandings had to be brokered, lest the nascent dialogue process collapse. Powerful parties and individuals had to be persuaded to put their trust in the process. All these complicated aspects of implementation have been overseen by the UN, through the Secretary-General’s special envoy.

While considerable work remains before elections can be organized as scheduled in 2014, let us remember that Yemen has one of the most heavily armed and severely tribalized societies in the world, not to mention enormous economic and social challenges. The fact that the Yemenis themselves remain by and large inside the political process speaks volumes about the effectiveness of multilateral diplomacy and partnerships.

On Iraq and Kuwait, the Security Council passed a resolution on June 27 that praised the relationship between the two countries, lifted some of the Chapter VII obligations on Iraq regarding Kuwait, and that was drafted with the full cooperation of both Iraq and Kuwait working in partnership. Moreover, the two countries have been demarcating their border together. For those of us who remember the 1990-1991 period, this is a remarkable turn-around. Credit is due first and foremost to the Kuwaitis and Iraqis themselves. But this is also an area in which I believe UN diplomacy, complemented and backed by the U.S. efforts in both Kuwait and Baghdad, made a real difference.

Both Yemen and Iraq/Kuwait demonstrate the importance of complementary action of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy: when we combine our strengths, lasting solutions can be found.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As we deal with tough politics in all of these arenas and others that might come up in the discussion afterwards, a number of challenges emerge across the board.

First, going from early warning to early response. Although we are still sometimes caught off guard, our single biggest challenge is not to improve early warning, but to find ways to mobilize early action – rapid and unified diplomatic action – as soon as opportunities open up. This is particularly important when we need to prevent mass loss of life. Successful early interventions are far less costly in blood and treasure than conflicts and peacekeeping, obviously.

But political space for early interventions is often extremely limited, due to concerns over sovereignty and interference in internal affairs. The UN cannot simply force itself upon the parties to a conflict; it can only mediate where there is willingness and consent. Sovereignty issues and other questions that affect our ability to broker peace and prevent atrocities are currently at the heart of a major internal process at the UN of learning from the lessons of failure to prevent atrocities in Sri Lanka.

Second, professionalising the service. Yes, there is an art to diplomacy and there always will be. However, in today’s complex peace processes, even the most skilled diplomat needs access to a broad range of technical expertise. Through relatively new instruments, including a stand-by team of mediation experts who can be deployed to any negotiation setting in the world within 72 hours, we are adding more than a dose of science to the art. This kind of mobile assistance – on issues such as power-sharing, constitution-making, mediation process design – is in such demand that we can barely keep up. And let me here salute Norway again, as Norwegian financial, intellectual, and logistics support has made this stand-by team possible.

My third point relates to security, a subject quite familiar to U.S. diplomats as well. Our work is becoming more and more dangerous. Mogadishu was only the most recent reminder. When our mobility is restricted due to security, our ability to deliver on our mandates is seriously compromised. In short, we, too, face the dilemma of trying to do effective political outreach while hemmed in behind T-walls, razor wire and sandbags.

Finally, let me end how I started, with leverage. Equipped with neither offensive battalions nor billions of available dollars, what leverage does the UN have – beyond the UN’s broad legitimacy I spoke of earlier?

The real challenge is finding ways to build consensus and to get the international community to speak with one voice.

When it is united, the leverage is high. On Yemen, we have a united Council. On Syria, we do not. It is hard to overstate the difference that makes.

Doing politics in tough places is not easy. But it is my strong belief that we have no alternative but to maintain the momentum around diplomacy and ensure that we stay focused, in every engagement, on finding political solutions.

And that we pool our efforts for peace. For while bilateral and multilateral diplomacy may work differently, when they combine their clout the results can be powerful. We need the best of both to succeed in today’s tough places.

Thank you very much.