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Igor Ivanov

President of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation (1998–2004)

Since the start of the 21st century the concept of international security has undergone radical transformations. During the Cold War the world had two distinct centers of gravity, and all serious security threats would inevitably acquire a global scale. In essence, any local conflict always had a global dimension. That was the main risk of a bi-polar world: every political crisis, even in the farthest corners of the globe, always posed a potential risk of a world war. But such a situation was also a pillar of international stability: no one wanted to risk an uncontrolled escalation by provoking one local conflict after another. In most cases the principle of mutual deterrence worked not only on the global level but also on the regional one because the stakes were simply too high. As a result, the idea of undivided security was at the very core of the international system.

Now, however, that system is rapidly losing its familiar bi-polar shape. The world is moving towards globalization; the old hierarchy of the great powers no longer applies, and the threats are becoming ever more diverse. The principle of deterrence on a global level is obviously becoming obsolete—and on the regional level it is becoming completely irrelevant. But the international community has not yet developed new principles for conflict prevention. A point in case is the military operation in Libya. The whole campaign was planned and implemented on the hoof, without any legal justification or political platform. Even more importantly, there was no clear strategic purpose for it—surely the mere ousting of Colonel Gaddafi cannot be considered a strategic goal, even if we leave aside its dubious legitimacy.

There has been a sharp rise in the number of local and regional conflicts in the world over the past two decades. Fond hopes that the end of the longest and greatest geopolitical confrontation of the 20th century would automatically lead to world peace, stronger international security, and radical disarmament have not come to pass. The threat of entire humanity perishing in a nuclear conflagration may have receded dramatically -but wars on a smaller scale are now killing a lot more people than they used to. Most experts agree that this trend will continue; we are going to see new crises, new conflicts, and new casualties.

Only a few years ago many analysts opined that a sharp rise in the number of armed conflicts at the turn of the century was temporary. They saw it as merely a delayed effect of the previous era, an effect that would soon fizzle out. They argued that the end of a bi-polar world had released the numerous pent-up antagonisms and frictions that were previously being kept suppressed by the rigid bi-polar system. Old ethnic, religious, and social tensions have surfaced after being artificially kept under the lid for almost half a century, they said. The unprecedented rise of instability on the regional and local levels was therefore seen as a price we were paying for the rapid demolition of the old bi-polar system.

A few years on, these explanations no longer hold water. The Cold War did not end yesterday, and not even a decade ago. Is two decades not long enough for tensions accumulated during the Cold War to subside? How much longer do we have to wait until the world returns to the normal state? Why does the residual potential for conflict in world politics keep getting stronger instead of becoming a spent force? Now that the world has entered the second decade of the 21st century, do we still have the right to blame our problems on the difficult heritage of the previous century?

Chronic instability

The situation is something of a paradox. Responsible politicians in Washington, Brussels, Beijing, and Moscow have very similar views of the global challenges and threats to international security. We all think along the same lines, we are being kept awake at night by the same problems, and the proposed solutions we come up with are not much different. I do not want to oversimplify things: not all our opinions can be reconciled to produce a common approach. But one way or another, we are all united by the shared challenges and threats we face. This is our reality, and it is unlikely to change any time soon.

One would have thought therefore that the task of building a reliable global security system is merely a technical challenge. One would have thought that in a world not being torn asunder by irreconcilable differences, the shared fundamental interests of the key actors should inevitably lead to the creation of effective cooperation mechanisms. But we have to admit that such mechanisms are either absent or ineffectual. An undivided security space remains a dream. The world seems to be moving towards greater unity, but the number of conflicts remains stubbornly high.

Some skeptics in Russia and in the West will probably say that a transition from a bi-polar to a multi-polar system of international relations inevitably increases the potential for conflict in world politics. They will argue that by definition, a multi-polar system is more complex and harder to control than a bi-polar one. They will offer a whole range of arguments that have to do with geopolitics, with inherent differences between cultures and civilizations, and even with religion. I am not convinced by any of these arguments. Usually they just conceal a reluctance to abandon old habits, fears, and stereotypes. What is more, they are not supported by historical evidence. The multi-polar international system shaped at the Vienna Congress in the early nineteenth century had proved to be very resilient, underpinning relative international stability for a whole century.

In my opinion, since the end of the Cold War world politics has seen the rise of a very dangerous trend that explains many of our present difficulties. Or, should I say, there have been several trends—but all of them have led to a fragmentation of the undivided global security space. By the early 1990s it had become clear that a fundamental restructuring of the international system built during the Cold War would be difficult, costly, and politically painful. A probably unconscious choice was then made in favor of conserving the old system, even at the cost of allowing localized or regional outbreaks of instability. That choice was based, explicitly or implicitly, on several assumptions.

First, it was assumed that the security of the West (or even the entire North) can be separated from the security of the East (or South), and that local upheavals would not upset the balance of the global system.

Second, it was assumed that efforts to freeze conflicts can be separated from efforts to achieve their final settlement; it was thought that time always works for the peacemakers.

Third, it was assumed that security in general can be separated from development. The belief was that once the shooting has been stopped, the responsibility for the situation can be handed over to some sensible forces in the region, which would then be able to prevent the conflict from flaring up again, with minimal assistance from the outside.

Let me emphasize that none of these assumptions was completely unreasonable. They can be viewed as cynical, immoral, or selfish—but they are not entirely irrational. In some way, the belief that security can be divided and local conflicts can somehow sort themselves out can be compared to the naive hope that the world economy can sort itself out if only market mechanisms are allowed to take their natural course. Both of these assumptions have in the end turned out to be wrong. As a result, over the past two decades none of the serious regional conflicts has been resolved, and new ones are appearing all the time. The former Yugoslavia and Somalia, Afghanistan and the Greater Caucasus, Haiti and North Korea, the Middle East and Rwanda—the the list just keeps getting longer.
Unfortunately, the situation in the former Soviet countries is not much different. Over the two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union the aftermath of the local conflicts that flared up in the process has been dealt with. But none of the causes of those conflicts has been eliminated. As a result we are now facing multiple threats and risks posed by the possibility of those latent conflicts being reignited. And as last year's crisis in Kyrgyzstan has demonstrated, such conflicts do not necessarily have to be international; they can be internal as well.

By the way, an increase in the number of conflicts resulting from a crisis of statehood is a global trend. More and more often international conflicts are being triggered by internal crises and civil wars. As a result, conflict resolution is becoming more difficult to achieve by rational instruments of international relations and diplomacy. These conflicts are becoming increasingly unpredictable. In the 20th century each conflict had clearly defined warring factions who could seek an agreement based on their clear long-term interests. In many of the twenty-first century conflicts the factions take a long time to coalesce; their interests are fleeting and fragmented, and the formidable capabilities of the traditional world powers turn out to be ill-suited for resolving such conflicts.

Mechanisms of conflict resolution

The situation we are facing is compounded by the fact that the traditional instruments for preventing or resolving regional and local conflicts seem to have been exhausted. The world is increasingly becoming disillusioned with the idea of intervention by outsiders as a way of solving regional or national problems. The U.S.-led campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan have come under serious criticism in the United States. The military intervention in Libya is facing growing opposition in the EU. In Russia too there is little enthusiasm for sending troops abroad.

Skeptics and pessimists argue that in the foreseeable future the great powers will be too preoccupied with their domestic problems to try to resolve conflicts abroad. They say there is little hope of grand new international security projects being proposed: there is no one left to propose them and, even more importantly, no one left to finance them. All the ideas of restructuring the UN, modernizing NATO, and reforming the OSCE will therefore remain on paper—at least for the next several years. Here, too the similarity with the world economic situation is striking.

Remember all the talk at the height of the world economic crisis about the need for a radical reform of the IMF and the World Bank, for a modernization of the WTO and for new measures to keep the world economy from falling off a cliff? Three years on, practical steps in that direction have been timid, and plans for radical reforms have once against been postponed indefinitely.

The international political situation is also contradictory. In a globalized world security is becoming indivisible; any serious crisis sends a wave of repercussions that affects, one way or another, the whole planet. What is more, this build-up of regional factors of instability cannot go on forever. Sooner or later the growing pressure will blow the lid, resulting in a serious and systemic crisis. But despite all that, there is little hope for a reform of key elements of the international security system. There is clearly not enough political will and persistence for such a reform.

It appears that radically new approaches to resolving regional and local conflicts must be sought. The results of humanitarian interventions in the past couple of decades, and the operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have demonstrated that the old methods simply do not work anymore. All too often intervention by external powers becomes yet another factor of instability. It destroys the local social and political relationships, economic systems, and longstanding cultural traditions. It undermines the legitimacy of both the government and the opposition. The result is chronic instability, which can blow up into a violent conflict at any moment.

I do not pretend to have ready solutions to all the problems of conflict prevention and settlement. Neither am I claiming that we must abandon all attempts to reform the existing security institutions; they still have an important role to play in safeguarding global and regional stability. But I do believe that trying to build a new security system for a new globalized world using last century's templates is a completely hopeless task. The time of hierarchies in world politics is gone. There is no guarantee that any new institutions will be better than the existing ones, whose potential is still far from exhausted.

But we need to recognize that the current window of opportunity in the relations between Russia and the West will not stay open for much longer. The nature of the political cycles in the United States, Russia, and some of the leading European countries is such that two or three years from now achieving a breakthrough in our relations could become a lot more difficult than it is today. I do not want to sound like a pessimist, but the chance we have been given now could become the last for our generation of politicians.

How not to miss the chance history has given us?

It is time for all of us, both in the West and in the East, to sit down and think about what we could have done differently in the past. In my own view, one of the key causes of our failures has been the desire to find a single magic solution to all our problems. We have been looking for some kind of philosopher's stone of world politics, a universal mechanism, institution, or construct that would solve the world's security problems once and for all. Some believe all our problems can be resolved by Russia becoming a NATO member. Others speak of the need to reform the United Nations, or to replace it altogether with an entirely new organization centered on the G8 or the G20.

The feverish talk of the existing or proposed new security institutions reminds me of Europe's obsession with treaties and pacts in the 1930s. Back then the European powers were desperately trying to forestall the looming catastrophe by signing all kinds of bilateral or multilateral treaties of cooperation, nonaggression, neutrality, etc. We all remember how the 1930s ended; the obsession with treaties did not—and could not solve a single European or global security problem.

Far be it from me to draw parallels between the 1930s and present days. Let me just say that world politics—and especially politics in the 21st century—does not boil down to institutions. Many of the rapidly unfolding international events completely bypass the international organizations, with their arcane procedures, unwieldy bureaucracy, and interminable debates. All too often the regional and global security institutions such as the UN, NATO, the OSCE and others are simply too slow to react to the unfolding crises. In such cases they are being supplanted by tactical ad hoc coalitions thrown together to achieve certain specific objectives.

I am not at all arguing that the existing international organizations should be consigned to the dustbin—they still have important roles to play. But a globalized world—if ever we achieve a globalized world—will probably begin as a tight network of mutually complementary international regimes. As for the institutions, they will be either reformed or created anew as and when the need for them arises.

That is exactly the approach we have tried to use in the relations between Russia and the EU when we agreed in 2001 to create the common spaces in four areas of cooperation: the Common European Economic Space (CEES); the Common Space of Freedom, Security, and Justice; the Common Space of External Security; and the Common Space of Research, Education, and Culture. These four common spaces were to be based on the use of common or joint rules and regulations, including joint administrative procedures, as a foundation for joint action in many areas. Unfortunately, for a variety of political reasons the roadmaps for the formation of these common spaces are being implemented much more slowly than we would have liked. But the approach itself is sound; indeed, in the current circumstances this may be the only workable approach.

I believe that the same approach, based on a network of separate but interconnected regimes, can also be applied to regional and global security. There are plenty of suitable platforms for such regimes. They include joint measures against terrorism, prevention of nuclear and missile proliferation, cyber-security, managing migration, the future of energy and the environmental situation in Europe, countering drug trafficking and transnational crime—the list could go on and on. Efforts to establish such regimes should probably be made simultaneously in many areas; a breakthrough in one area can help us to succeed in several related areas as well.

Each of these regimes should be based on its own procedures, its own individual list of participants, its own geography and principles of working out a common approach. The role of individual nations in the various regimes will be different: the problems of nuclear energy or migration are not equally pressing for every country.
Experience shows that the effectiveness of international regimes depends on a whole number of factors.

First, such regimes appear only in areas where there are significant shared interests—and these interests must actually be perceived by the participants as shared. That perception is, I believe, key to the success of many sub-regional formats of cooperation, including cooperation on the European continent. The same applies to various specific international regimes that serve a clear function, such as the international regime of civil aviation safety. Such regimes would obviously be easier to build in technical, politically neutral areas, gradually moving on to more sensitive subjects.

Second, the effectiveness of international regimes depends in many important ways on the involvement of the international expert community. Joint political declarations mean little unless they are built on a solid foundation of expert analysis and proposals. There needs to be continuous and very practical dialogue between the experts in every single area of cooperation. It would be no exaggeration to say that international regimes only become successful when the experts and specialists representing the member states start to speak the same language.

Third, one clear advantage of regimes compared with a rigid institutional system is their openness and flexibility. We should make use of that advantage by inviting all the interested parties to join in. As a rule, regimes do not give their participants the right of veto; they do not make a clear distinction between the great powers and all the other nations. Indeed, in some cases they even include non-state actors that have a role to play in world politics.

Fourth, regimes are an effective instrument of reducing uncertainty in the relations between the key players. Trust and channels of communication established in one area reduce the risks and uncertainties in other areas. In that sense regimes are a more flexible but still very effective instrument of neutralizing the anarchic nature of international relations compared with institutions.

Fifth—and this, perhaps, is the greatest difficulty—while recognizing the general principle that security is always undivided in this day and age, we must learn to isolate and shield the successful international regimes from problems, crises, and conflicts in other areas. Our world has become interdependent—but we must not allow our security cooperation to be limited to the lowest common denominator. We must not allow another crisis in our relations—and such crises might yet break out from time to time—to throw our cooperation in all areas back to square one. The practice of linking progress in one area to concessions in other unrelated areas must be abandoned. The principle of indivisibility must strengthen the overall level of regional and global security rather than undermining it.

To the romantics dreaming of a globalized world all these proposals will probably seem too uninspired and down-to-earth. Yet I would prefer slow but steady progress on the long road towards resolving practical problems of international security to overly optimistic goals dictated by short-lived political considerations. Such goals would only freeze the whole process of building a new architecture of regional and global security. The regime-based path towards greater international security will require persistence and many years of painstaking work. But in the end it will probably prove more productive than the ambitious plans of the past two decades which remain firmly on paper.

Of course, as we develop various security regimes and make them part of the international system we must not allow ourselves to be distracted from making the existing international organizations more effective. There have been plenty of proposals to that effect. There is no deficit of new ideas. The real problem is the deficit of political will, commitment, and readiness by the key players to sacrifice immediate tactical advantage in pursuit of strategic interests. There is a clear and urgent need to begin a cautious but profound reform of the UN system; to strengthen the role of regional organizations by delegating to them some of the UN powers; to make better use of the potential of public diplomacy and of the private sector in conflict resolution. There is an equally pressing need for decisive steps in the reform of international law, including a rethinking of such basic definitions as "aggression," "sovereignty," "the right to self-determination," "humanitarian intervention," "information security," and many others.

These tasks are at the top of the agenda of the recently created Russian Council on Foreign Relations, which I have the honor to chair. We would welcome any opportunity for cooperation with all interested partners and colleagues both in Russia and abroad. The problems we are facing are monumental; there is plenty of work for everyone.

Source: Security Index

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