Politics in Tough Places: United Nations Diplomacy in Today's Crises
On July 15, the Managing Global Order project at Brookings hosted Jeffrey Feltman, the United Nations under-secretary-general for political affairs to discuss the role of UN diplomacy in today’s crises around the globe. His remarks focused on UN efforts in Syria, Somalia and the Great Lakes region in Africa. Feltman was joined by a panel that included Wegger Strommen, the ambassador of Norway to the U.S., Bruce Jones, senior fellow and director of the Managing Global Order project at Brookings and moderator Martin Indyk, vice president and director of Foreign Policy at Brookings.
Feltman opened his remarks by posing two broader questions that he hoped to answer, both relating to the UN’s role in conflict mediation. First, what are the main differences between working on peace and diplomacy multilaterally versus UN bilateral diplomacy? Second, what are some of the key challenges that the UN faces when engaging in diplomatic efforts?
In regards to the first question, Feltman said he underestimated the time and effort necessary to adjust to the intricacies of UN diplomacy, as he had worked primarily within the field of U.S. diplomacy prior to his appointment at the UN.
“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 powers of the presidency, the Pentagon, the dollar, the voting weight of the IMF and the World Bank and the permanent seat on the UN Security Council,” Feltman said.
However, he added that UN officials also wield important sources of power as they attempt to coax antagonists toward peace. He said learning how to leverage “intangibles”—including ideals, values and impartiality—has been crucial in his UN education.
“The legitimacy the UN can convey on issues of peace and security cannot be replicated by any single nation, no matter how powerful,” Feltman said. He also emphasized that almost all conflicts are rooted in politics, so it is crucial for the UN to understand the political nature of their mediating efforts.
“Lasting solutions to conflicts require working the politics in tough places,” Feltman added.
Feltman then began to narrow in on the ongoing war in Syria. He cited Syria as an example of a challenge the UN faces when a divergence of perspectives paralyzes the Security Council. The UN is currently facing a deadlock regarding a political solution to the conflict, so Feltman mentioned three different areas that his office emphasizes in regards to the ongoing crisis.
First, the UN has continued to focus on mobilizing support for humanitarian relief to aid refugees and internally displaced persons both in Syria and in neighboring countries. The UN is also working to mitigate dangers and spillover conflict in Jordan and Lebanon, two neighboring countries that have experienced a large influx of Syrian refugees. Finally, the UN is committed to organizing post-conflict planning. Feltman reemphasized that he does not believe there is an immediate military solution to the conflict, so the UN’s role is to help the necessary political actors reach a political solution.
He then turned to Somalia, which he said is currently at a potential turning point.
“For the UN, this country 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 still needs to be nurtured,” Feltman said.
The task of ending anarchy and building a stable government in Somalia has taken on great strategic and humanitarian significance for the UN. Feltman noted that the UN has invested heavily in Somalia, with key partners in the African Union and the U.S. The organization helped mediate the 2008 Djibouti Agreement, which laid out a roadmap to transition last year when Somalis elected a new government.
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