Seven Big Crisis Management Questions for a Disorderly World in 2016

International conflict management is not necessarily a rewarding occupation for people who have neat and orderly minds. Well-made plans tend to fall apart in fast-moving crises. As I noted in a chapter in a book on the Security Council published earlier this year, the recent history of United Nations peace operations is basically a story of “one damn thing after another.” U.N. forces have repeatedly been caught off-guard by upsurges in violence and entangled in intractable struggles that they can help mitigate but cannot resolve. This is not only true for the blue helmets. In the United States, analysts once blamed the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan on President George W. Bush administration’s lackadaisical postwar planning. Now they are less sure.  

“In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster,” Philip Gordon, a former National Security Council official and President Barack Obama’s main Middle East adviser from 2013 until the spring of this year, recently observed. “In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.” Clearly, it is unwise to make concrete predictions about individual conflicts, as I wrote last week.

Yet looking ahead, it is still possible to spy out a series of big questions that will shape the evolution of crisis management more generally in 2016. Here are seven.

1. Will Russia triumph or flop in Syria? President Vladimir Putin’s decision to intervene in Syria this year will have a decisive long-term impact on great powers’ responses to future crises. If Moscow is able to secure a peace deal on its terms, hawks from Beijing to Washington will argue that Putin has shown that military action is still a viable tool of statecraft, no matter the lessons of the U.S. failure in Iraq.

But if, as the Obama administration predicts, Russia ends up trapped in a quagmire of its own making, policymakers generally will become even more trigger-shy. Not only Russia, but other major powers will become less willing to jump into new wars.

2. Is Sunni Arab interventionism a passing fad? Putin’s Syrian adventure has partially obscured the other most significant military intervention of 2015: The Saudi-led incursion to oust Houthi rebels in Yemen. For this, Riyadh threw together a coalition of Sunni Arab allies, supported by well-paid mercenaries. Some Middle East officials have proposed a similar regional intervention in Syria. But the Yemen war has not gone smoothly, instead empowering the local branch of al-Qaida, and the Arabs may well turn to the U.N. to send in peacekeepers in 2016.

If the Saudis and their allies conclude that the Yemen operation was costly but worth it, however, they could launch similar so-called stabilization missions in the Middle East and North Africa in the years ahead, undercutting outside attempts to calm the region.

3. Is the European Union finally ready for prime-time crisis management? The EU has struggled to become a convincing military force for two decades. It initially did little better in 2015, squabbling over naval options to tackle people smugglers in the Mediterranean. But the refugee crisis, the Paris attacks and ongoing disorder in North Africa are all gradually forcing EU members to raise their game. Even cautious Germany has now pledged forces to help fight the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and to stabilize Mali. There is an outside chance that the EU will at last become serious about security in 2016.

4. Are African powers able to police their own continent? The African Union’s members will face even sterner tests than the EU next year. The AU is currently working on plans for an intervention force to halt Burundi’s slide into chaos. If this operation is a success, it could represent a major step forward in the continent’s efforts to police its own conflicts, building on its grinding stabilization mission in Somalia and messy deployment in the Central African Republic in 2014.  

But a Burundi mission could also backfire, running into serious opposition or falling prey to the widespread indiscipline and abuse that characterized MISCA, the AU’s peacekeeping operation in CAR. Either way, it will be a decisive test of the AU’s ability to manage crises effectively.

5. Will Joseph Kabila, the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), humiliate the U.N.? While the AU focuses on Burundi, U.N. officials are nervously watching events in the neighboring DRC, where Kabila has been searching hard for ways to circumvent the constitution and win a third term at the helm of sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country, which has hosted U.N. peacekeepers for over 15 years. That could precipitate an immense crisis and do the U.N.’s reputation for constructing functioning states lasting damage. But if Kabila agrees to stand down, it will be a signal success for the blue helmets, after recent setbacks in South Sudan and Mali.

6. Can the U.S. save the international humanitarian system? The proliferation of conflicts from Syria to central Africa over the last year has put immense pressure on U.N. agencies and other humanitarian groups, threatening to overwhelm them altogether. There are now 60 million displaced people worldwide, the U.N. wants $20 billion to cope with them, and many individual aid operations are short on cash.

Just before Christmas, the U.S. announced that Obama would make resolving this crisis a priority for his final year in office. “The President must be conscious that his policies in the Middle East have contributed much to the plight of organizations like UNHCR and World Food Programme,” as I noted in a recent essay in the American Interest. “However unintentionally, the U.S. has helped saddle them with responsibilities well beyond their means to cope. So he owes them a last boost before he exits.” It remains to be seen if Obama still wields the clout to achieve that.

7. Will big powers pick a real crisis manager as the next U.N. secretary-general? Another of Obama’s closing acts will be to help select a new U.N. steward to replace Ban Ki-moon in 2017. Ban has never been a natural first responder to outbreaks of violence, preferring the statelier pace of conference diplomacy. But while actors from Russia and Saudi Arabia to the EU and AU are increasingly central to crisis management, the U.N. is still a huge player in the field—and it needs a leader who instinctively knows how to handle tricky mediation processes and high-risk military operations. Will the U.S. and the other big powers on the Security Council choose such an individual later this year? Watch this space.

This article was originally published by the World Politics Review on December 28, 2015

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Dec 28, 2015
Richard Gowan