from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

How to Win Friends and Avoid Forever Wars

A man rides on a bike past rubble in Ein Terma, a district of eastern Ghouta, Syria, on February 26, 2019 Omar Sanadiki/Reuters

Major powers need to provide less support for proxy forces and place more emphasis on conflict resolution.

August 14, 2019

A man rides on a bike past rubble in Ein Terma, a district of eastern Ghouta, Syria, on February 26, 2019 Omar Sanadiki/Reuters
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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

The following is a guest post by Betzalel Newman, intern for international institutions and global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.

After six months of talks, a preliminary agreement between the United States and the Taliban seems imminent. Both parties support a timeline for U.S. military withdrawal and a commitment not to use Afghanistan as a launching ground for transnational terrorism. But after persistent Taliban violence disrupted negotiations on a near-daily basis, the latest round concluded on Monday without a deal.

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Conflict Prevention

Syria

Yemen

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Wars and Conflict

Failed attempts to resolve intrastate conflicts are unfortunately no surprise to experts, who offered a bleak outlook for such efforts when looking ahead to this year. Representatives to the Council of Councils (CoC) rated preventing and responding to internal violent conflict as having the least opportunity for breakthrough in 2019 of the ten global challenges included in the 2018–2019 CoC Report Card on International Cooperation. Survey respondents from CoC member institutes underscored the continuation of costly civil wars and humanitarian crises with little in the way of positive indicators for the future.

Efforts in 2018

These think tank leaders exhibited despondency in their assessment of progress in 2018, awarding global efforts to address internal conflict a C–. Thomas Gomart of the French Institute of International Relations lamented that “there was no real progress in preventing and responding to intrastate violent conflict in 2018.”

External actors—from great powers such as the United States and Russia to regional powers such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to nonstate actors such as Al-Qaeda—appeared to play a counterproductive role in mitigation, as “many conflicts were driven externally through proxies,” noted Adam Ward, deputy director of Chatham House. Amid conspicuous great power competition, countries with the capability to contribute to peaceful conflict resolutions seemed to prioritize their desire to fight for influence abroad instead. “The world is experiencing a disordered and rough transition to a cost-conscious multipolarity where big powers compete for influence but are reluctant to commit funds and troops to prevent or terminate intrastate conflicts,” according to Memduh Karakullukcu of the Global Relations Forum (Turkey).

Syria and Yemen in particular suffered as great powers did more to support proxies than resolution efforts. In addition to Russian support for the Assad regime and, implicitly, its chemical weapons use, “the European Union remained uninvolved, and the United States remained unwilling to undertake any significant diplomatic endeavor,” writes Riccardo Alcaro, research coordinator for the Institute of International Affairs (Italy). Meanwhile, Yemen was “the site of the most tragic and senseless intrastate conflict, wherein external powers are sacrificing millions of innocent lives for geopolitical advantage,” according to Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, chief executive of the South African Institute of International Affairs.

Prospects for 2019

Expert pessimism on the possibility for breakthrough in preventing and responding to internal violent conflict for this year seems to have been warranted. The entanglement of intrastate conflicts with other global challenges makes responding to these conflicts even more complex. “With the increasing threats of economic stagnation, climate change-induced large displacement, and political and religious confrontation, it will be an even more daunting job to consolidate the peace and prevent conflicts,” writes Xue Lei of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies.

More on:

Conflict Prevention

Syria

Yemen

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Wars and Conflict

The political and socioeconomic crisis in Venezuela, for instance, has worsened in 2019, and large-scale conflict in the country appears to be a distinct possibility for the not-too-distant future. María Lladós and Juan Battaleme of the Argentine Council for International Relations warned that “due to lack of progress of mediation attempts and . . .  the effects of international pressure, the crisis in Venezuela could further deteriorate.”

On the other hand, progress in conflict mitigation has been evident elsewhere in 2019. A prime example is the geographic decline of the self-proclaimed Islamic State. Alcaro (and others) foresaw the continuation of this trend, prognosticating that though “there are not many prospects for significant breakthroughs in 2019, one exception is the fight against the Islamic State, as it is eventually dislodged from all the territory it still controls.” Territorial control, however, is only one indicator of power and influence, and terrorism carried out under the organization’s banner remains a significant danger. Indeed, the U.S. Department of Defense Inspector General recently reported that the Islamic State is resurging, and forces on the ground have been unable to adequately respond, with half of the United States’ special-ops forces having already left Syria.

Recommendations

Think tank leaders offered a diverse set of recommendations for preventing and responding to internal violent conflict, including suggestions for improvements to conflict mediation coordination between great powers and greater application of the “responsibility to protect” doctrine.

Disputes between external powers have the potential to prolong internal conflicts, so Lladós and Battaleme suggest that “strengthening the dialogue between the main powers could be an effective way to diminish the levels of violence within states. The G20 could play an important part in this effort given it provides a forum where world leaders can regularly meet, and its legitimacy.” Mariana Campero, executive director of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations, echoed this sentiment, suggesting that “creating safe and neutral negotiating forums around the world (like Havana for the Colombia peace talks) will help to settle internal disputes.”

Multiple survey respondents emphasized the rule of law as critical to conflict prevention. Rohinton P. Medhora, president of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (Canada), urged countries to adopt “a coherent and robust use of the responsibility to protect,” the doctrine endorsed by all UN member states that requires governments to protect populations from mass atrocities.

Though it is incumbent upon combatants to lay down arms and rebuild their countries for the future, external actors should lead the way by refraining from exacerbating ongoing conflicts, and instead spearhead conflict mediation efforts.

About the CoC Report Card

The Council of Councils (CoC) Report Card on International Cooperation evaluates multilateral efforts to address ten of the world’s most pressing global challenges, from countering transnational terrorism to advancing global health. No country can confront these issues better on its own; on the contrary, combating the threats, managing the risks, and exploiting the opportunities presented by globalization all require international cooperation. To help policymakers around the world prioritize among these challenges, the CoC Report Card on International Cooperation surveyed the Council of Councils, a network of twenty-eight foreign policy institutes around the world between December 2018 and January 2019.

View the full CoC Report Card on International Cooperation to see how global think tank leaders graded the world’s performance and prospects for 2019 on ten global challenges.

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