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Relevant reading

A call for radical reform

by Hans Dembowski

In depth

Senegalese peacekeepers preparing to leave Haiti after completing their mission.

Senegalese peacekeepers preparing to leave Haiti after completing their mission.

The UN needs a new approach to keeping and building peace. According to Michael von der Schulenburg, a former officer of the UN as well as the OSCE, the international community should strike a new “grand bargain” on how to deal with collapsing states, belligerent non-state actors and intrastate conflicts. Such an agreement, he argues, would help to safeguard interstate peace as well.

Since the end of World War II, inter-state wars have become rare. According to Schulenburg, the interstate peace we are now used to rests on two pillars: the benign collective security system of the UN on the one hand and the terrible threat of massive destruction in nuclear war on the other hand. Governments that have nuclear weapons feel safe from foreign attacks because they know they could retaliate in a devastating manner.

In Schulenburg’s eyes, the twin pillars have proven their worth in past decades. He warns, however, that both are getting weaker. According to him, the authority of the UN is weakening, and the deterrent impact of nuclear arms is being undermined by the growing number of countries with nuclear capability. Moreover, he sees a trend of foreign powers being drawn into civil wars as well as risk of belligerent non-state actors acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Global peace may therefore be more threatened than is generally believed.

As Schulenburg elaborates in his new book “On building peace”, the past three decades have been marked by collapsing statehood and civil wars. Drawing on his vast experience as an officer of the UN and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) in various crisis regions, he wants the international community to rethink its concepts of peace building and peace keeping. He has first-hand experience of many of the world’s trouble spots, including Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Balkans, Sierra Leone and Haiti.

Schulenburg convincingly spells out that peacebuilding is more important – and should precede – peacekeeping. In situations of civil strife, international peacekeepers cannot simply step in and keep warring parties apart because they are normally not considered to be impartial. Establishing a sense of shared norms and nationhood is essential for both building and keeping peace, the author argues.

In Schulenburg’s view, the western model of democratic nation-states and individual rights cannot be replicated in strife-torn countries where community ties and allegiances matter much more. Distrust is rampant. Masses of people have suffered violence, and still fear the enemies. As Schulenburg points out, the priority must be to build trust.

Schulenburg makes a distinction between the notions of the nation and the state. They are related, but different. His metaphor is that the nation is the soul whereas the state is the body. Formalised state institutions can only work well where people share an understanding of purpose. This assessment makes sense, but the author ultimately fails to solve the hen-and-egg problem: What comes first nationhood or statehood? Institutions are needed to keep internal peace, but they are hard to build without trust. A minimum of conventional peacekeeping by foreign security forces thus seems to be required, even though it’s hard to bring about.

Pertinent issues

Schulenburg deserves attention because he is raising the right questions, even though he does not consistently offer convincing answers. No doubt, the international community needs a coherent approach for dealing with belligerent non-state actors. No doubt, it needs globally accepted rules concerning when and how to intervene in civil wars. No doubt, it needs to develop a way to build nationhood as well as statehood in post-conflict settings.

In Schulenburg’s eyes, the scope of the UN Charter should be expanded. He proposes a grand bargain that would do two things:

  • it would make the nation-state itself and the relationships within nation-states subject to international law and norms, and
  • it would empower the UN by giving it a mandate to deal with intrastate conflicts.

Schulenburg admits that defining a set of binding norms for all nation-states will require extensive international debate. However he points out that the UN has already adopted many relevant principles, including human-rights conventions, for example. He lists several elements of what nation-states should facilitate, including the preservation of internal peace, accountable government, access to justice, social inclusion and good governance. Liberal democracy according to the western model meets these criteria, but the author insists that other options must be considered too. In his eyes, traditional understandings of justice or inclusion must be taken into account. Indeed, he expresses stringent criticism of western powers (see box).

Schulenburg acknowledges that his proposal is quite radical and may seem utopian. He insists, however, that his ideas are not unrealistic, pointing out that all major political powers share an interest in safeguarding global peace. According to him, all parties involved should see the advantages of strengthening collective security. The alternative would be “to slip into a global chaos”.

The book reads reasonably well, but it would have benefited from more professional editing and proofreading. There are far too many typos, and the grammar is sometimes garbled.

Von der Schulenburg, M., 2017: On building peace. Rescuing the nation-state and saving the United Nations. Amsterdam: University Press.