Type to search

Scanning the Globe for Deals

Spring 2009 Tête À Tête

Scanning the Globe for Deals

desotoGlobal Brief scans the globe with former United Nations top man to distill best practices and low-hanging fruit in international conflict deal-making

GB: Alvaro, you were a key player in the 1990-1991 negotiations (or ‘deal-making,’ as it were) that brought an end to the civil war in El Salvador. What do you make of the most recent presidential election results in El Salvador? What does the rise to power of a candidate from the old Marxist resistance coalition – the Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) – say about about your deal-making a couple of decades ago?

AS: Early in the war, President Reagan’s first Secretary of State famously said that El Salvador was where the US would draw the line against communism. As it turned out, when the parties in conflict concluded that the war could not be won militarily and started to negotiate instead, the issue on the table was not a revolutionary transformation of the political system. There was no clash between Marxism and capitalism or liberal democracy. Perhaps more than anything else, the negotiation was about opening up political space so that genuine democracy could flourish and human rights would be respected: that was the leitmotiv of the institutional reforms that were agreed. To be sure, there were Marxists participating in the coalition of five groups of which the FMLN was composed – indeed, the Communist Party of El Salvador was one of the five – but the FMLN’s agenda in the negotiation was ideology-free. The FMLN might have proposed systemic economic and social transformations, but that dog never barked: they said that economic and social policy was not a matter for negotiation between the warring parties; setting it would be the responsibility of a legitimately elected government. What the election of the FMLN’s candidate, and the admirably civil concession of the defeated ARENA candidate, say about the deal-making of 1990-1991 is that the consolidation of democracy in El Salvador is progressing healthily.

GB: So is today’s El Salvador a stable country or society? How does it compare with other countries or societies in Central America or the Caribbean Basin?

AS: El Salvador, poor and densely populated, is bedevilled by the problems of many of its neighbours, including an alarmingly high crime rate. It depends to a great degree on remittances from the hundreds of thousands who fled the conflict in search of a better life abroad, principally in the US. It is therefore vulnerable to the whiplash of the current economic crisis. What we can say is that, because of the peace accords, previously nonexistent institutional channels for the peaceful resolution of grievances are now in place, which considerably reduces the chance of instability getting out of hand. Corpses of people murdered for their thoughts are no longer being found on roadsides or near garbage dumps.

GB: Based on your experience in the El Salvador negotiations and many peace negotiations afterwards, what are the major principles or best practices that today’s and future deal-makers need to keep in mind?

AS: For the UN Secretary-General to be a successful peacemaker, he must adhere unswervingly to two simple rules. Firstly, he must be impartial between parties in conflict, regardless of whether they are states or a state and a rebel group. Secondly, he must insist on compliance by member states with their obligation under the UN Charter to refrain from seeking to influence him or his staff in the discharge of their tasks. Not only his success and his credibility, but those of the office with which he has been entrusted and which he must hand over to his successor depend on this adherence.

GB: How do these principles translate to situations in which deal-makers are state-based – for instance, heads of governments – rather than rooted in international organizations?

AS: Different mediating institutions each have their advantages and disadvantages. As a general proposition, impartiality should be the default rule of thumb for any mediator. It is self-evident that, if a party in conflict perceives that the mediator is tilting toward another, it will grow suspicious,and this will taint the process. But there are cases where different standards apply, and have so been accepted by the parties. One obvious example is in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. In these, Israel would be happy to negotiate with the Palestinians without intermediaries, but accepts the US as a third party because it believes that its fundamental interests are safe in the hands of the US, which makes no secret of its commitment to Israel’s security. The Palestinians to date have, for their part, been happy with US involvement because they are convinced that only the US can ‘deliver’ Israel – if anyone can. Note also that Syria, albeit acutely aware of the close Israel-US relationship, insists on US involvement in future negotiations with Israel at least in part because one of its goals is to rebuild its frayed relationship with the US. The Norways and the Switzerlands of this world have to be impartial and seen to be so.

GB: How do you rate the UN’s capacity today to lead peace or security negotiations in conflict situations?

AS: The Secretary-General’s independence came under severe strain as a result of the ideologically inspired ‘global war on terror’ that was declared in response to the attacks on US territory of September 11, 2001. The GWOT failed to make the indispensable distinction between the feral, nihilist, pre-Westphalian Al Qaeda and groups which are also on lists of terrorist organizations, but act on behalf of a legitimate grievance. A case in point is Hamas, which won a majority in the January 2006 elections for the Palestinian legislature and assumed the government of the Palestinian Authority. The international community had strongly encouraged the holding of those elections and given a green light to Hamas’ participation, in support of PLO leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’ policy of inclusion. Abbas had obtained Hamas’ cessation of attacks against Israel and its agreement to enter the electoral field. Arguably, by so doing, it was tacitly accepting the previously scorned Oslo framework. After winning, Hamas invited the defeated Fateh’s participation in the government, and accepted that Abbas should negotiate with Israel, subject only to the outcome being submitted to referendum. Hamas leaders spoke of their willingness to create a Palestinian state within the June 4, 1967 borders – an implicit acceptance of Israel. Hamas was clearly moving in the right direction. This needed to be encouraged, for which they needed to be engaged. The opportunity was squandered: the Quartet, of which the UN Secretary-General is a member (about which a rethink is long overdue), rebuffed the new Palestinian government, imposed absurd conditions on it, and condoned Israeli collective punishment on the Palestinian people so as to subvert the freely expressed will of the electorate. Palestinian institutions which the West had so painstakingly contributed to build are near collapse. In a break with longstanding UN practice, I was prevented from dealing with the new government of the Palestinian Authority, even though, as the UN’s chief envoy for the Arab-Israeli conflict, I was the Secretary-General’s Personal Representative to that Authority. In the same vein, I was also prevented from engaging Syria. If UN representatives do not speak to parties in conflict, particularly when this constraint is perceived to be the result of the pressure of a member state, one of the UN’s competitive advantages is sacrificed. It also raises questions about the Secretary-General’s credibility as a peacemaker elsewhere. As a result of the Secretary-General’s continued participation in the Quartet, he has become associated with policies that have cruelly punished the Palestinian people and discouraged Hamas’ move toward moderation. The policies have also been singularly ineffective: Hamas has not bowed to the Quartet’s conditions, and there is little evidence that its political standing has suffered. The catastrophic setbacks to the prospects for peace between Israel and the Palestinians since – the deep chasm, geographical and political, dividing the Palestinians, the recent war in Gaza, the move away from a two-state solution in the latest Israeli election – might have been avoided if the Quartet had acted cleverly in January 2006, rather than allowing itself to be guided by ideology. The UN Secretary-General had played a useful role in the creation of the Quartet as a vehicle for encouraging the US to take the lead once again in peace efforts, but it was not necessary for him to remain in it beyond. The UN Secretary-General is a poor fit in the Quartet, elbow to elbow with the two greatest military powers and the EU, which – as distinct from the UN – has supranational aspirations. Moreover, his participation in it compromises other responsibilities: he is at the top of the pyramid of programmes and agencies in the occupied Palestinian territory, which work bravely and hard to meet the daily needs of hundreds of thousands of refugees. By his association with policies that cause the suffering of so many, he compromises his ability to lead the work of those programmes and agencies in the impartial manner that is the core principle of UN assistance. The Quartet and UN programmes and agencies are therefore at cross-purposes: the latter work to repair the damage wrought by the former.

GB: Now that you’ve brought this up, might I ask whether, in all seriousness, you think that the Israeli-Arab conflict is really soluble?

AS: Without a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there cannot be a solution to the overall Israeli-Arab conflict. If one accepts the conventional wisdom that the only possible way out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a two-state solution, then solubility is in peril. The failure (predictable and indeed predicted) of the Annapolis process – negotiations with half of the Palestinian body politic, as if the other did not exist – proves that Palestinian reunification is a prerequisite. Yet the West remains ambivalent about a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. And, even if it can overcome its qualms, Israel is in a serious internal bind: there have been signs of a growing awareness at the top of the Israeli political class (see Sharon’s actions and Olmert’s words) that, if a two-state solution to the Palestinian conflict is not reached soon, Israel will find itself ruling over an Arab majority between the river and the sea, threatening the whole premise of Israel as we know it – a Jewish and democratic state. But the way that the Israeli political system is structured, it seems impossible to translate that awareness into the bold decisions required to accept a genuinely viable Palestinian state. In the meantime, the Palestinian paradigm has shifted: with the relentless growth of settlements and the continuing encroachment in East Jerusalem, the Palestinians have lost faith in the willingness of Israel to ever end occupation, and a reunified Palestinian movement might be less willing to accept the terms that seemed close at Camp David and Taba. (In fact, there are those in Israel who posit that there is no viable two-state solution within the confines of historical Palestine, and that to produce one it will be necessary to engage in a complex negotiation to produce territorial swaps and other infrastructural arrangements that involve Egypt, Jordan and possibly Syria.) The hawkish new Israeli government – elected in the wake of the Gaza war – has distanced itself from a two-state solution. The picture is indeed bleak. Should it not prove possible to have a two-state solution soon, some say that Israel may again borrow a page from Sharon’s book and move toward a massive unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank. But that is much more difficult to do than the Gaza disengagement, and might buy some time, but will not achieve security or stability. Everything would then have to be rethought.

GB: What about individual countries? Are some countries better placed than others to lead international peace or security deals?

AS: There are states for which peacemaking has long been a part of the national agenda. The best known are Norway and Switzerland, which are active worldwide, punching far above their intrinsic weight. There are others which have developed a vocation more recently in their own regions – Qatar, Turkey and South Africa come to mind. Many governments take a proactive interest in following situations and crises without actually taking on a third-party role. The proliferation of would-be mediators sometimes reaches a level that can be very unhelpful to those who are devoted full-time, because it confuses messages and encourages parties in conflict to play one envoy off against another. The refrain about ‘the more the merrier’ does not apply to peacemaking. Unfortunately, mediation is low-tech work, accessible to thousands of diplomats and many foreign ministers hungry for press coverage at home, and therefore hard to resist.

GB: Has Canada got any peacemaking capacity? Or could it develop such capacity? Should it?

AS: Canada has a top-drawer diplomacy and track record. Its proximity to the US, possibly a drawback in some spheres, can also be an advantage. Canada’s work in drawing up the blueprint that was approved by the Security Council and eventually led to Namibia’s independence comes to mind.

GB: What about individual deal-makers like you or people like Martti Ahtisaari? Who impresses you? And is the supply of deal-makers keeping up with the demand generated by conflict, going forward?

AS: The UN’s Department of Political Affairs is mandated by the General Assembly to keep a list of people colloquially known as ‘the great and the good,’ but my recollection is that the people that governments put forward were frequently either 1) unsuitable retired diplomats or politicians, 2) available only for short periods of time, 3) unwilling to take charge of daunting challenges in distant and difficult places that do not make the news, 4) physically or mentally no longer fit, or 5) dead. There are NGOs which have on staff or on call richly talented and experienced peacemakers. Among them are the Humanitarian Dialogue Centre in Geneva and Martti Ahtisaari’s Conflict Management Initiative. Getting the right person or institution is extremely difficult. There are many extremely talented people who are temperamentally unsuited for the work of peace, which requires a cocktail of virtues and flaws more frequently found in certain religious orders or species other than human beings – such as patience, empathy and emotional detachment (I am conscious of the contradiction), a capacity to listen and to adapt, and Gore-Tex instead of skin. Emotional intelligence can sometimes trump the IQ variety. The choice of institution also needs to be carefully weighed. There are advantages to an institution such as the UN because of the resources at its disposal and the ability to segue from peacemaking to peacekeeping and peace implementation. At the same time, the UN might be too intrusive for certain belligerent parties to stomach, including states facing rebellions which they are reluctant to legitimize. Also, the UN is by definition a normative mediator, since those who work at its service cannot – or should not – turn their backs on the body of law developed under its auspices over the years, which may make conflict resolution difficult. On the other hand, there have been cases where a small outfit which was drawn into mediation realized when the time came that it was in above its head, and managed to hand over smoothly to a larger institution when agreements were approaching and a large peacekeeping operation became necessary – for instance, the Communit· di Sant’Egidio to the UN on Mozambique.

GB: Is it true that contained conflict, so-called, is sometimes preferable to an imperfect peace? Where might this apply?

AS: This might be the case, but it is not peacemaking: it is conflict management, and it is essential to be aware that both contained conflict and imperfect peace are fragile and precarious, and require continued nursing care so that either the conflict is solved or can be brought to ‘perfect’ or at least more durable peace. The work of peacemaking is not really done until the causes of conflict are addressed and the necessary institutional or other fixes are made so that disputes can be resolved without having to resort to violence.

GB: As you survey the globe, what are some of the conflicts for which there are ‘doable’ deals over the next decade or so; that is, which ones are low-hanging fruit?

AS: I am acutely aware that things are not always as they seem, and it is very difficult to make a judgement without the necessary information and analysis. I have been second-guessed by semi-informed outsiders all too frequently in the past to want to venture too far afield on this subject, leave alone to draw up a list. I can say with some conviction, and based on fairly recent experience, however, what will and will not work in conflicts with which I have been involved. A few examples:

A) Myanmar/Burma – sanctions as currently applied will not work. Engagement is essential. The International Financial Institutions can play a useful role. And China, India and ASEAN need to be on board: they realize better than anyone else the essential multiethnic composition of Burma, and the dangers of it breaking apart.

B) Western Sahara – the most significant outside players – France, Spain and the US – as well as Algeria and Morocco, seem unwilling to go for a solution based in law and Security Council resolutions because of the risk of instability that it will engender, but may be shy about admitting it because it would be unpopular amongst people at large, and because it seems like an abandonment of the people living in wretched conditions in the Southwestern Algerian desert. There is not likely to be any progress until they come out of their shells, revisit the basic issue, and find a practical way out.

C) The Arab-Israeli conflict no longer easily lends itself to the disaggregation of its parts and to solving them seriatim. The era of separate peaces between Israel and, say, the Palestinians or Syria or Lebanon is over. They are too closely entangled with each other, and must be addressed holistically (if in parallel channels). As recent leaders (Sharon, Olmert) came to realize, Israel’s days as a (preponderantly) Jewish and democratic state are numbered, and its ultra-proportional political system, which in affording a veto to boutique, one- or two-issue parties, is ultimately anti-democratic; that is, it is incapable of taking the grand and bold decisions required to accept the indispensable viable Palestinian state that is required for Israel’s survival as we know it. Now Israel as a whole must reckon with this truth. The Palestinians must reunify and together decide what they want.

D) In addition to looking at peace between Israel and its neighbours comprehensively, it is likely that this will have to be part of a broader, five- or six-ring circus extending as far east as Pakistan, and involving a great number of states – a daunting diplomatic enterprise.

E) Cyprus – the four keys on the padlock that is the Cyprus problem seem to be in place, perhaps for the first time ever. What has changed with the Republic of Cyprus’ admission to the EU is the power alignment. Clearly, the exercise of EU leverage on the Greek Cypriots did not work the last time around (April 2004), and the Greek Cypriot leader at the time, never an enthusiast of coming to terms with the Turkish side, deftly used fear and his people’s resentment to perceived outside pressure to rally a strong majority against a plan that the rest of the world considered equitable. The current leader is a pan-Cyprian by vocation. His EU colleagues must persuade him – not try to twist his arm – that Greek Cypriot generosity is actually in the Greek Cypriot interest, for the most obvious candidates to benefit from reunification, after the Turkish Cypriots, are the Greek Cypriots. In addition, Europe needs to not neglect the importance of drawing Turkey toward it: the disaffection with EU-generated reform in that country is not an encouraging sign. Turkey’s path toward Europe is also a path to solving the Cyprus problem, and to Europe’s reckoning with Islam within and with its immediate Arab/Muslim neighbourhood.

GB: What about the Koreas? Do you see reunification in our lifetime?

AS: I am not an expert, but perhaps the brinkmanship that is the order of the day is part of a long-range negotiation that might one day lead to a sui generis reintegration – if the hand-leading Western diplomacy remains steady.

GB: What about deal-making in today’s Afghanistan and Pakistan?

AS: Deal-making appears to be but a part of the approach to the problems in Afghanistan-Pakistan. In fact, the coupling of the two – as in the acronym ‘AfPak’ – stems from the military determination that the two constitute a single theatre. There are many reasons to see things that way, including the porousness of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Afghan insurgency’s use of the Pakistan’s territory as a sanctuary, and the complications associated with Pakistan cracking down in its own territory when the insurgents seem to melt into the population. There is also the strong cohesiveness of the Pashtun, the insurgency’s main base, whose allegiance is primarily to their tribe rather than to the states – Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – in which they are located. There are deals to be made, for sure: with the neighbouring states whose cooperation is indispensable to ensure stability, and with internal players, including parts of the Taliban – not to mention the governance issues that arise in Afghanistan and the questions that exist about the sympathies of parts of the Pakistani security establishment, a consideration which is not negligible in a country that possesses a significant nuclear arsenal. This is a volatile and dangerous area; it is above all one of the great policy challenges of our time, which calls for marshalling top-drawer international statecraft. Diplomacy is but one aspect of it.

GB: And Sri Lanka?

AS: Most reports indicate that the Tamil rebels are on their last legs. The government has not been receptive to appeals from the outside until now, but I hope that it will rise to the coming test of statesmanship, for even if they defeat the LTTE, they will not succeed in stamping out the grievances in whose behalf the LTTE arose. There are those who, like Edward Luttwak, are opposed to peacemaking for peacemaking’s sake, which prevents war from achieving its purpose – i.e. peace. But this is a case in which victory could turn out to be merely pyrrhic if the opportunity is not used to address those grievances in depth.

GB: Finally, more generally, what worries you as you look ahead in international affairs? What heartens you?

AS: I worry about the seeming inability of the foreign policy or diplomatic profession to improve its performance and delivery. We seem to be stuck in 15th Century Florence or early 19th Century Vienna or modern regurgitations thereof. I envy other professions -astrophysicists, nanotechnologists, pharmacists – and their seven-league boots: they have brought about dazzling progress for humankind. Even if I am not heartened, I do, however, feel a touch of Schadenfreude with the sudden realization that one profession has done worse than us: bankers.


Alvaro de Soto is a senior fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies, an associate fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Studies, and a member of the Global Leadership Foundation. During a 25-year career in senior positions at the UN, including as Under-Secretary-General, he led, among other things, the 1990-1991 negotiations that ended the El Salvador war.