Written by Sir David Richmond
Conflict between states has been in decline since the end of the Cold War. Yet the world does not feel like a safer place. Conflicts within states, the rise of cross-border terrorist groups like al-Qaeda (AQ) and the Islamic State (ISIS) and—in a globalized world—the capacity for internal conflicts not only to spill across borders but to impact countries thousands of miles away have created new threats to peace and stability.
These threats have called into question the international community’s ability to respond appropriately, proportionately and in a concerted manner. Too often the instruments of conventional diplomacy like the UN, designed to deal with inter-state conflict, have proven inadequate to the task.
The reasons for this are various and interlinked. December this year will mark the 25th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. We moved from a bipolar world to a unipolar world where, for a short period, the U.S. was completely dominant. We are now in a multipolar world where U.S. authority has been diminished by failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and other powers have been staking out their claims.
China’s rapid rise to become the world’s second largest economy has been accompanied by a more ambitious foreign policy and a much more assertive stance in its own neighborhood, notably in the South China Sea. Russia has re-asserted itself, first in what it sees as its sphere of influence (Georgia, Ukraine) and now internationally, taking advantage of U.S. reluctance to intervene in Syria. Regional powers have also played key roles, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East where their rivalry has helped fuel the conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Iraq.
A system dominated by one or two dominant powers does not prevent conflict but it reduces the variables that could spark it. In a multipolar world, conflicts like the one in Syria tend to become more complex, with outside players involved either directly or by proxy, and are correspondingly harder to resolve. With so many different parties having a stake in the outcome, it is that much more difficult to arrive at a mutually hurting stalemate when—experience suggests—parties to a conflict finally begin to seek a way out.
A loss of trust and confidence in Western leadership and governments has also made decisive action much harder. Some of this is due to economic factors, including some of the downsides of globalization and the effects of the 2009/10 economic crisis; the rich are getting richer, but everyone else feels they are losing out and governments seem unable to do anything about it.
In foreign policy, a similar picture prevails: U.S. power and influence have waned, the EU is in crisis, and the UN has been largely ineffective. The international, by which we usually mean Western, mechanisms of control and influence have been weakened. There is a reluctance to get sucked into new conflict which groups like ISIS have been quick to exploit.
Nor is government ineffectiveness only an issue in the West. The Arab Spring was in large measure about the failure of long-standing and often aging authoritarian governments to meet either the economic or the political expectations of rapidly growing, youthful populations.
One result of these trends has been a space that has opened up for new and dangerous non state actors like AQ and ISIS. Regional groups like al Shabaab and Boko Haram have been quick to align themselves with AQ or ISIS. In each case, you can point to purely local factors behind their rise, but they are linked by their methods and by an ultraconservative jihadist Islamist ideology which cuts across state boundaries and goes far beyond conventional political demands.
Internal conflicts are rarely purely internal. Such conflicts often suck in regional and international powers directly or indirectly. But in the past, the impact of such conflicts was largely local or regional. Not anymore.
The internet and social media have become potent and wide-reaching instruments for propaganda for AQ and ISIS as well as a means to recruit foreign fighters and other supporters (at one point 5,000 people per month were joining ISIS). Terrorists can and do strike anywhere. And refugees seek sanctuary not just in neighboring countries but far beyond as Europe has so painfully discovered. The repercussions of internal conflict are now frequently international in scope.
As a former diplomat, I would never undervalue the importance of regular diplomatic negotiations or the work undertaken by the UN and other international bodies. But success has often proved elusive, especially in response to complex internal conflicts. Too often governments, facing the pressure of public opinion or determined to be seen to be sticking to cherished principles, find themselves setting pre-conditions and drawing red lines.
A recent example of this was Western insistence that Assad had to go, and that no deal was possible while he clung to power. Yet he remained a key figure who represented a minority in Syria with a great deal to lose if he and his regime were swept aside, and retained the support of other minorities in Syria’s multi-confessional mix fearful of what might follow his removal. Western diplomats have been forced to row back, but this was a stark reminder that setting red lines and asserting in advance of a negotiation what is and is not acceptable are often counterproductive.
This is why informal or parallel diplomacy has a role. Where governments are unable or unwilling to venture, at least publicly, for fear of losing credibility with their electorates or their allies, parallel diplomacy can offer a way forward. In this context it is not about negotiating solutions, but establishing a degree of trust and confidence so that the parties to a conflict have some reason to believe that more formal negotiations can ultimately lead to a solution.
Governments will sometimes appoint their own representatives to carry out these very private and informal contacts. They feel they have more control over the process if they are involved directly rather than through intermediaries. At other times, in the interests of maintaining deniability or neutrality, they might prefer that another organization or third party take on the role.
Each situation is unique, and how you build that trust will vary. At its most basic, it is about allowing individuals to meet and to begin to talk. It is about humanizing those who have been demonized, eschewing pre-conditions and fashioning the beginning of a dialogue. In the initial stages it does not mean having to make concessions or agreeing to anything except to continue talking. Success is never guaranteed, setbacks are inevitable, and patience and persistence remain the only reliable tools.
Although the term “confidence-building measures” appears to have gone out of fashion, it can be a crucial technique in creating grounds for trust. Prisoner exchanges and humanitarian relief are classic examples. Small acts of cooperation are the building blocks of trust and create the confidence to move to the next stage. Starting a dialogue is not about finding solutions; rather it is about identifying enough common ground to take the next step, however small.
Over the years, parallel diplomacy has had some signal successes: the Brazzaville Agreement in 1988 which brought an end to the conflicts in Southern Africa, the Oslo Accords in 1993, the Good Friday Agreement which secured peace in Northern Ireland, and most recently the Vatican’s role in brokering agreement between the U.S. and Cuba were all the result of initial, very discreet, behind-the-scenes efforts to establish dialogue and trust and lay the foundations for more formal agreements.
The methods and circumstances will vary but they all share one similar characteristic—the emphasis is on creating trust. Parallel diplomacy is not a panacea, but in today’s complex and asymmetric world, it remains an important and highly flexible addition to more conventional diplomatic tools.
Sir David is the Chief Executive of the Brazzaville Foundation for Peace and Conservation. He is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years’ experience in international affairs, including postings to the Middle East, New York for the UN and Brussels for the EU as well as senior positions at the Foreign Office in London. He is also Chairman of the British Lebanese Association and a former Governor of the Ditchley Foundation for transatlantic relations.