The fog of peace: An interview with Jean-Marie Guehénno

Editor’s Note: International Crisis Group President Jean-Marie Guehénno gave a speech at Brookings on his new book, The Fog of Peace, on May 15. The book focuses on the future of U.N. peacekeeping in a world of renewed geo-political competition. In an interview with Order from Chaos, conducted by Blog Editor Jeremy Shapiro, Guehénno talks about his belief that U.N. peacekeeping will remain vital but faces renewed challenges from great power disagreements and the increasing complexity of modern conflicts.

Order from Chaos: How do you think U.N. peacekeeping should respond to the many crises of the moment?

Jean-Marie Guehénno: What’s interesting is that in spite of the deepening divisions within the Security Council, you haven’t seen peacekeeping shrink significantly.…On the contrary, it’s stayed at a very high level. I think that reflects the fact that we are not in a good situation. We are in a situation that is different from the Cold War in the sense that both the U.S. and Russia like to compartmentalize.

So you see situations like Ukraine or Syria, where there is no agreement whatsoever and certainly there’s a paralysis as far as the Security Council is concerned. And you see situations like—actually the bulk of peacekeeping operations—where there’s a measure of collaboration. …At the moment, the poisonous atmosphere in the Security Council hasn’t poisoned peacekeeping in a big way.

Peacekeeping without the agreement of the P5 can’t work. You won’t have a resolution, which is the legal foundation of any peacekeeping operation, without agreement of the P5. And then beyond that agreement you need political support.

There is a tendency of the Security Council today to focus more and more on a non-political approach to peace. I see two different examples of that. One is the protection of civilians… and the other is counterterrorism. And these are two pieces of the agenda on which you see some agreement in the Security Council.

I think that the measure of agreement we see on counterterrorism policies is not necessarily reassuring, because I’m not sure that those counterterrorism policies are very sound. The big powers agree on the worst aspects of counterterrorism sometimes.

The mission in Mali is an illustration of that. In Mali, what really matters is that there is an inclusive political process that will allow the various communities in northern Mali to have a seat at the table. And that the single-minded focus on a rushed process… will leave out a number of groups, which will then possibly be labeled as terrorists. That’s got to be counterproductive.

OfC: The return of geopolitical competition has often created a situation that we were very familiar with during the Cold War, where local actors are supported by outside actors and therefore are proxies. Does that affect the way you see the efforts that the U.N. typically undertakes to create these peace settlements?

JMG: Yes, traditionally, the U.N. has been country based in its peacekeeping approach and that we see more and more conflicts which have a regional dimension. …You need an integrated approach where you deal with local groups, which can be proxies, but you also deal with those behind them. …That’s something that really requires a new approach, and the U.N. is not that well equipped to address this new approach because of the separation between the national focus on peacekeeping and the more regional focus. …Certainly Libya is a good example of that—because you can’t really make progress in Libya if you don’t address the policies of Egypt, the policies of the United Arab Emirates, to take one side, and on the other side, the policies of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and maybe Turkey, and certainly the policies of other actors.

In many conflicts you have three layers: local, national level; the regional level; and the global level. If you want a solution, most of the time you need to align those levels. When you look at the way [former U.N. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Iraq Lakhdar] Brahimi operated, for instance, in the early days in Afghanistan, he was engaging a lot with Iran and with various regional actors.

OfC: You’ve said U.S. is no longer the security guarantor in the Middle East. How do you suggest the international community as a whole should move forward to replace that role of the U.S.?

JMG: Well, first the replacement to the U.S. is not going to come anytime soon. So I do think that it remains very important that the U.S. be fully engaged. There have been conflicting signals. Drawing a red line for chemical weapons with Syria might have been a mistake. But then walking away from that red line, the U.S. paid a price for that. There is now much less trust and respect for American power.  Countries in their hour of need are not sure what the U.S. engagement will be. …

There’s a certain diminishing confidence in the capacity of the U.S. to manage the balance of power in the Middle East. …And that nervousness goes to the heart of Saudi concerns because they are not sure about their own internal stability. And so they are not sure of how much reassurance they can get from the United States. That means that you’re going to see countries taking harder positions, because you can only afford to be flexible if you are absolutely convinced that your back is protected.

OfC: Why is it that conflicts have become so much more durable in recent years?

JMG: The world of states is weakening. The notion of a well-defined battle for political power within the confines of a country is not as much a defining characteristic of every conflict today as it was yesterday. …There’s a decline of politics. When you look at the evolution of political movements, we are far away from the national movements of the 1970s. Now you have religious movements, criminal movements, there’s a crisis of politics.

The end of the Soviet Union and Cold War has really generated a crisis of politics in the sense political ideas are not really what motivate people today. You see it in advanced democracies, where you are hard put to define political programs. You see it in developing countries, where the traditional political movements are under stress. What you see now are agendas where the political, the criminal, the religious agendas are all very blurred. …The amorphous nature of modern politics and of conflict is one reason why conflicts are more difficult to end today.

It’s important to try to act early because what we see of conflicts today is that precisely because of the weakening of political agendas—you see it in Syria, in Libya—the longer a conflict lasts, the more it fragments. You had a few dozen movements three years ago in Syria, now you …see fragmentation, and you see radicalization and criminalization and transnational movements.

What is striking in most of those conflicts is that jihadism and radicalism don’t necessarily come early in the conflict. They come at kind of a second phase, and once they are there it’s much more difficult to address. Mali is on the cusp at the moment. There have been a few terrorist attacks in Mali, nothing too big so far, although the U.N. mission has lost more troops in Mali than any mission has before in that short span of time. So there is a real concern there. …

Actors have also adapted to the economics of war and have no fundamental interest in ending the war because they have interest in a state of disfunctionality, which is very different from the old conflict resolution approach where all parties wanted to end conflict on their terms.