What Would It Take to Make a “Surge in Diplomacy for Peace” Work?

Secretary-General António Guterres (center) walks with UN officials on his first day in the role. New York, January 3, 2017. (Eskinder Debebe/UN Photo)

In September 1961, in a tribute at the United Nations General Assembly, shortly after the untimely death of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld, United States President John F. Kennedy remarked, “A noble servant of peace is gone. But the quest for peace lies before us. The problem is not the death of one man, the problem is the life of this organization. It will either grow to meet the challenges of our age or it will be gone with the wind, without influence, without force, without respect.” Over half a century later, Kennedy’s words still ring true. The UN, at yet another critical juncture, hobbled by a fractious global order, appears to be a helpless witness in the face of the most virulent conflicts of the 21st century, with preventive war—rather than preventive diplomacy—as the solution of choice. The global cost of conflict and the exponential increase in military spending leave no doubt which way the wind is blowing.

This state of affairs was clearly weighing on the minds of many UN member states when they gathered at a Security Council debate on January 10, on conflict prevention and sustaining peace. In his first formal briefing of the Council as secretary-general, António Guterres offered his vision of how to leverage the UN’s vast normative and policy potential to move from a culture of reaction to crises toward a culture of prevention and early action to sustain peace. He reiterated his commitment to a “surge in diplomacy for peace” and outlined its main components. These included partnering with regional organizations; mobilizing the entire range of those with influence, from religious authorities to civil society and the business community; enhancing the mediation capacity of the UN, including in support to regional and national mediation efforts; and making greater use of the pacific settlement of disputes options laid out in Chapter VI of the UN Charter.

Many member state representatives who took the floor on January 10 articulated iterations of the same vision and proposed practical steps to deliver on their shared commitment to make prevention the cornerstone of UN peace and security work. Key to the success of such a revitalized diplomacy is the effective implementation of Security Council Resolution 2282 on “sustaining peace” and the 2030 agenda for sustainable development, in addition to fostering a trusting relationship among member states and a collaborative and open partnership between the Security Council and secretary-general.

Reframing Diplomacy for Peace

In contemporary usage, diplomacy refers to all forms of communications, networking, and negotiations in international relations to advance not only the interests of a given state, but ideally also the aspirations of its citizens. In formal multilateral settings and platforms, diplomacy seeks to unite states around shared values and interests, and use norms, mediating processes, and structures to guard against competing interests leading to violence.

In the 21st century, the limits of state diplomacy are evident. With so many of the drivers of conflict being transnational in origin and effect, and waging wars and conducting diplomacy no longer the sole preserve of states, various adaptations to traditional diplomacy have emerged.

One could argue that multilateral diplomacy for peace constitutes one of these adaptations. Its starting point is not only the formal basis of statehood or sovereignty and the traditional state-centric tool box associated with it, but the practical basis of a capacity for peace, at both the local and international level. From this perspective, “peace” would involve more than eliminating the threats that endanger it. It would involve, as many have pointed out, the prevalence of social, political, and economic processes and structures that equitably deliver basic services, and create relationships of trust that allow groups and individuals in society to pursue their legitimate needs and aspirations without coercion or fear, with justice and in security. Creating and nurturing structures and institutions that underpin and sustain peaceful societies would be the ultimate aim of diplomacy for peace.

As articulated by Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 and its targets, peace would be treated as a function of good governance and sustainable development. In order to be successful in attaining its objectives, diplomacy for peace would  include not only the traditional tools outlined in the UN Charter, but also processes that put politics, people, and a healthy social contract at the center of peace endeavors. As Guterres implied in his statement, a citizen, from a religious leader to a businessman, can also be a diplomat. Contemporary history books contain many stories of parallel citizen diplomacy that plots for peace away from public view. The extraordinary role played by a French merchant in hastening the release of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela is one such story.

When differing interests and agendas become irreconcilable, and societies are not equipped to manage them peacefully, conflict can lead to violence. From a diplomacy for peace perspective, building back peace after violent conflict, or peacebuilding, is conceived as a process of identifying, restoring, and strengthening a society‘s capacity to resolve conflict in non-violent ways. And as Resolution 2282 indicates, peacebuilding is a whole of society endeavor: it extends beyond the state or the parties to a conflict, and flows through all three pillars of the UN’s work (security, development, and human rights). Under this framework, building sustainable peace entails changing not only the pattern of governance and economic policies but also transforming relationships, building trust, and restoring the legitimacy of public institutions.

Thus framed, peace, in such contexts, would be treated as a common public good, not unlike health or education. The role of external actors would be to support national efforts, where these exist, to deliver this positive peace and build the resiliency structures to maintain it, just as professional experts would do when asked to help boost the health or education system so they can deliver the services expected by citizens. It would be naïve, of course, to think that all post-conflict situations can benefit from this approach.

Implications for the UN

Diplomacy for peace—as articulated by the new secretary-general and as conceptually re-framed above—would scarcely put the Security Council out of business. As implied above, there will always be fragile polities, unable or unwilling to manage their internal vulnerabilities peacefully, which succumb to violence and are eventually deemed a threat to international peace and security, ending up on the Council’s crowded agenda, already seized by old and protracted conflicts. As foreseen by the UN Charter, however, the Council, whose credibility as a custodian of international peace and security is already under stress, should not be the first port of call for preventing or resolving conflicts. Local or regional actors should take a leading role in addressing these conflicts before they are brought to the Council.

If member states do not wish their internal situation to draw the attention and concerns of the international community they need to individually and collectively make sustainable peace and prevention their national priorities, in a trusting partnership with the UN system, in accordance with the Charter and consistent with the spirit and letter of the sustaining peace and 2030 agendas.

The above considerations would inevitably have leadership, operational, and financial implications for the work of the UN, and in particular for the secretary-general and his relations with the Security Council, as well as with the UN entities entrusted with peace, security, and development. The three major peace and security reviews commissioned during the previous secretary-general’s tenure dealt with some of these implications and provided practical recommendations for addressing them, including ways to help member states deliver on their shared commitment to make prevention the cornerstone of the UN’s work.

As outlined below, there are at least four main areas of UN work that could benefit from a diplomacy for peace approach: strategic, resiliency-focused analysis; multi-stakeholder diplomacy; gender equality; and financing for peace. Other areas such as proactive partnership between the UN secretary-general and the Security Council, the good offices and personal engagement of the former with respect to ongoing and future threats to peace, and a revitalized Peacebuilding Commission are equally important components of a diplomacy for peace.

Strategic, Resiliency-Focused Analysis

Under Article 99 of the UN Charter, the secretary-general is expected to “bring to the attention of the Security Council any matter which in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security.” In the fulfillment of this mission the secretary-general would need to have an independent capacity to anticipate such threats, analyze their impact on peace and security, identify and map national capacities for peace that are still resilient (as well as barriers to their success), and suggest strategies to support the former in surmounting the latter. From a diplomacy for peace perspective, resiliency mapping must tap into the knowledge and wisdom of local communities and their leaders, and must be gendered. Resiliency analysis that identifies what still works in a society as opposed to focusing on “fragility” and on what does not work, has a greater converging and convening power, and constitutes a sounder basis for programmatic engagement for sustaining peace.

Secretary-General Guterres’ appointment of a senior adviser to review all prevention and analysis capacities within the UN system and attempting to integrate them in a system-wide early warning and assessment network is a step in the right direction. As Guterres himself noted, however, such early warning must then lead to early action to prevent the outbreak or worsening of violence. Such an enhanced strategic analytical capacity would enable the secretary-general to make informed decisions about situations that could benefit from his discreet good offices and personal engagement, particularly in instances that are not ripe for  public,  state-centric approaches which, undertaken prematurely, may end up being counterproductive.

Thematic and Multi-Stakeholder Diplomacy?

In his remarks to the Council, Guterres acknowledged the range of actors that could make a meaningful contribution to prevention and sustaining peace beyond UN member states. In calling for “a surge in diplomacy for peace,” he included regional organizations; religious leaders; business interests and entrepreneurs; civil society organizations; and those serving as regional or national mediators. He envisaged a role for such actors as part of the various processes of pacific settlement of disputes inscribed in Chapter VI of the UN Charter, as well as through regional arrangement as envisaged under Chapter VIII.

One additional set of actors that could be added to the list are city mayors. The 2008 World Conference on City Diplomacy proposed that city-level municipal governments could be effective diplomats for peace, working “to promote cohesion, conflict prevention, conflict resolution and post-conflict reconstruction, with the aim of creating a stable environment in which citizens can live together in peace, democracy and prosperity.” In light of demographic trends toward growing urbanization around the globe, cities are shaping the future and pioneering new ways to address the problems afflicting states. Because of their proximity to citizens, they manage diversity challenges, promote community cohesion, and encourage social integration—all hallmarks of a peaceful society.

Similarly, there is a range of potential themes upon which diplomacy for peace can build. These tend to be non-military threats to peace, which, if left unattended, could nonetheless endanger international peace and security. Foremost among these areas are water, climate change, cyberspace, and pandemics. Water, for example, is by its nature a transnational resource and a connector across divides, but it is also a threat multiplier. It determines the wealth, welfare, and stability of many countries, and if properly managed can help prevent conflict and sustain peace. Water diplomacy has grown over the years to become a key area of international cooperation; as water scarcity grows, it will likely occupy a greater space in any diplomacy for peace.

In looking to address these issues, the UN can rely on member-states that have already taken the lead on many of them. For example, Senegal and Switzerland, among other countries, have been engaged in promoting water as an instrument for restoring peace and security, using regional and multilateral platforms and processes. NGOs such as Eco Peace in the Middle East have also used water as an entry point for energizing stalled peace processes. Such efforts model how diplomacy for peace can work to address these important issues.

Gender Equality

Central to the success of a surge in diplomacy for peace is gender equality and women’s leadership and participation in decision-making in matters of peace, security, and development. Much has been written about gendered diplomacy and the need for developing a cadre of women peace mediators; equally as much has been said and written about what needs to be done to address the lamentable implementation deficits of Security Council Resolution 1325 and subsequent resolutions on women, peace, and security.

During the January 10 debate, both Guterres and Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström emphasized that sustainable peace would require the combined efforts of men and women working toward shared objectives. The secretary-general’s commitment to parity and what he intends to do to achieve it did not go unnoticed. As he put it, only when we invest in inclusivity, cohesion, and development can we demonstrate that diversity is something to be valued, not feared or resented.

There is hope that with a gendered enactment of a surge of diplomacy for peace, and the effective and inclusive implementation of the sustaining peace and 2030 agendas, as well as  the committed leadership of Guterres, action may finally catch up with rhetoric.

Financing for Peace

Whether it is strategic analysis, conflict prevention, or simply prevention for sustaining peace in the pursuit of a surge in diplomacy for peace, none is achievable without adequate and predictable resources. Prevention for sustainable peace is not an ancillary activity best financed through ad hoc, voluntary contributions. In the report he is expected to present to the UN General Assembly at its 72nd session, as requested by Security Council Resolution 2282, the secretary-general has an opportunity to make a case for regular budget resources, under the new umbrella of diplomacy for peace. Such a case may not succeed if member states continue to harbor the suspicion that a strengthened prevention capacity of the UN system, whose continued relevance many members question, would mean early warning for early action by outsiders, meddling in what is perceived as eminently internal matters. In these turbulent times, when so many challenges to peace are securitized and so much is being sacrificed on the altar of state stability, these suspicions are likely to grow.

The mistrust toward the Security Council, and the impunity with which some countries on its agenda seem to question or flout its decisions, are hardly conducive to a change of heart.  It is therefore imperative that the secretary-general and his senior staff develop a communication strategy to compellingly convey that such enhanced capacity in prevention would be at the service of member states and other national stakeholders committed to peace. This would help them create an enabling environment for a peaceful, inclusive, and just society.

The above pronouncements about what diplomacy for peace may look like both conceptually and operationally are commonly known. However, attempts to implement them will not be easy. The word “conflict” or “crisis” before “prevention” has been sparingly used, if at all. This may cause anxiety for all those who over the years have developed and prescribed an arsenal of short-term, programmatic interventions to secure stability after violence has erupted, heedless of what it would take to help those at the receiving end attain self-sustainable peace. Additionally, skeptics point out, such early-year optimism for peace on display during the debate may soon dissipate in the face of the pressing crises of the day and the expected upsurge in big power rivalries.

Nonetheless, given the right leadership, this surge in diplomacy for peace may indeed have a positive impact, provided its traditional tools—as mentioned in the secretary-general’s remarks—are conceived and carried out from a sustaining peace perspective, where the reference point for member states and UN system actions is peace rather than conflict, and where “we the peoples” have a voice.