The United Nations was founded in 1945 as a sort of vaccine to eradicate state-on-state conflict, which until that time had been pandemic. It has, on the whole, been effective in reducing land-grabbing wars between nations, but war, like a virus, has adapted and mutated. What we need now is a booster shot.
Since the end of the Second World War, the U.N. has acted as a forum for countries to air their concerns, advocate their positions, and announce their ambitions for the future. Yet, with the rise of internationalism – from corporations to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to terror networks – the U.N. has struggled to keep up. This is exacerbated by the weakening of domestic governments, which don’t have the same power, authority, or trust that they used to.
As a result, the current conflict landscape is dominated by intrastate wars, civil wars, and other complex conflicts that the United Nations is not equipped to solve. This is not entirely the institution’s fault.
The New York-based organization is the product of a time when the state exercised complete sovereignty and its borders were considered the defining characteristics of a people. Since then, though there have been a few setbacks along the way, the union has largely done its job admirably. The Cold War, while certainly the cause of much pain and suffering around the globe, could have been exponentially worse had there not been a means of solving disputes without recourse to open conflict.
However, since 1990, interstate wars have been limited to invasions by Iraq (Kuwait), the United States (Afghanistan and Iraq) and Russia (Georgia and Ukraine). In contrast, the majority of conflicts that grab the headlines today usually take place within one state, between a host of actors all vying for power against a failed government. Somalia, Yemen, and Sudan are all examples of this conflict type, but nowhere is it more apparent than Syria.
Bashar al-Assad has long disregarded the pronouncements of the U.N. Security Council and its calls for ceasefire; in the past month he has shelled eastern Ghouta while aid trucks attempted to provide emergency supplies and attacked his own citizens with chemical weapons, again. The civil war has dragged on for seven years and killed nearly half a million, and there is no end in sight.
Participants in the conflict range from a government propped up by Moscow to rebels armed by Washington to terrorists seeking territory, notoriety, and financial gain. They run the gamut in terms of professionalism and training, and each group has varying political capabilities and legitimacy with the people. Their participation in the civil war, and support from international actors, has not secured them a place at the bargaining table in the eyes of the U.N. The only domestic actor fully represented at the United Nations is the Assad Regime. This means that the U.N. – a body founded on the principle of equal access to the bargaining table – is hamstrung by its own nature, as its purview is inter-state war, not intra-state war.
An organization that acts as a conflict-negotiation forum on a lower level could fill this void.
To establish its legitimacy as a truly international organization, this new body should probably be attached to the U.N., at least tangentially, but it could also operate independently. Its concept is to mirror the General Assembly format on a sub-state level, to formalize negotiations and make them last beyond the conflict itself, similar to the U.N.’s role in interstate talks. Bilateral meetings will still exist, but as side events in the context of a broader conversation.
The next, and potentially greater, difficulty will be deciding who gets a seat at this multilateral table. Set the threshold too low and every small group with a grievance will seek entry, but set it too high and it becomes another United Nations.
A natural prerequisite for joining is the belief in diplomacy and negotiation as a means of settling dispute. Therefore, groups like ISIS and al-Qaeda don’t qualify. However, this becomes problematic with a group like the Taliban or Hezbollah, which engage in terrorism, but also seek power through political means and whose aspirations for control are mostly confined to their respective states. Furthermore, there would have to be safeguards to prevent states from blocking the admission of groups that they see as enemies or who oppose their interests, such as Turkey singling out the Kurds, or Russia the Free Syrian Army.
Creating an application process that obviates these concerns would be the best solution to this problem. Regardless, an institution that works to rectify intrastate conflict would be an incredible boon to the world. It could help bring peace to conflict ridden states and help to restore faith in a liberal – and democratic – international order.
At the close of World War One, President Woodrow Wilson outlined his idea for an international body that would prevent conflicts like that from reoccurring. His famous 14 Points inspired the League of Nations, whose failure led to WWII and in turn the United Nations. Now, we need a new 14 Points, a new vision for the future of peace, a new solution to global conflict.
Just as modern warfare has changed, so, too, must its antidote.