Under the best of conditions, international negotiations are often likened to herding cats. The peace talks over Syria are taking place in an environment that is far from the best of conditions. Negotiations to end armed conflicts can often be like herding velociraptors: somewhat more organized, but with each participant seeing all of the others as a potential item on the lunch menu. In this kind of environment, reaching an agreement that can bring together all parties can be nearly impossible to achieve.
To reach a negotiated solution, parties need to have enough common ground between them for a mutually-agreed outcome to gain the support of all sides. With two sides, the logic can be a challenge, especially if the common ground is narrow. The more parties in the negotiations, the harder it is to build a solution that has the support of everyone involved.
The negotiations over the Syrian Civil War include many different groups and the area of common agreement is not only small, it is also constantly shifting. To add even more complexity, not all of the parties to the fighting are involved in the talks with both the Islamic State (IS) group and the largest Kurdish groups having been left out. These conditions make a successful outcome of the Geneva talks extremely difficult to achieve and help to explain the fragility of the negotiations.
The talks are also undermined by the role of spoilers in the process. IS clearly wants the talks to fail. Its only hope for survival as an organization is continued chaos. The steady battlefield losses in Syria and Iraq have steadily rolled back IS control of territory for most of the past year. A collapse of the cease-fire and the return to widespread fighting between its enemies benefits IS more than any other group.
With the departure of several of the rebel factions from the talks in the face of a Russian-backed government offensive, the talks appear to be on brink of failure. The cease-fire began in a brief moment of US-Russian agreement on the need to seek negotiations on a future settlement of the conflict. As the will of the great powers to support the peace effort eroded, so has the peace on the ground. As fighting has increased, the peace process has verged on total collapse.
For the moment, the common ground that is necessary for success in international negotiations does not appear to be sufficient for an end to the conflict. While the conflict has been raging for years, the sides to not appear to have reached a state of exhaustion, nor has a hurting stalemate emerged that might push sides to the table. For the moment, the conflict rages on and the only certainty is that civilians will continue to bear the brunt of the violence.
The Paris Climate Agreement emerged from the COP21 conference in early December of 2015. So what were all of these world leaders doing on Earth Day when they were celebrating an agreement that is nearly half a year old?
The answer is one of those funny things about international law and global governance: an agreement is not really an agreement until all the paperwork is done. And the paperwork is different for each party to the agreement. This is one of the challenges with global governance, and for formal agreements in particular.
In December, the COP21 Meeting ended with an agreement that made firm commitments to address global climate change in the coming decades. This was widely celebrated, but the agreement on the terms of the document was not the same as making the document binding, or even official. To be official, the document must be signed by the leaders of the states that are joining the agreement. The agreement must then be ratified by the governments of the states in question. That part of the process is different in every state and this can often be messy.
The symbolism of Earth Day was just too good for the world’s leaders to pass up. So the formal signing of the agreement was delayed from December to April 22. The ceremonies surrounding the signing make for good political theater and they are an important part of the process, but this is just the beginning.
Signing a treaty has to be followed up by ratification. Ratification is the process of providing the international agreement formal recognition in the laws of the nation-state. Nation-states are sovereign and cannot be legitimately coerced into following the dictates of any other actor. By ratifying a treaty, the nation-state incorporates the treaty into its domestic legal structure, providing the treaty with the force of domestic law.
Until a treaty is ratified, it is just a very fancy piece of paper.
Most treaties include language that makes things even more complicated. Most require that a certain minimum number of nation-states ratify the treaty in order for it to enter into effect. In the case of the Paris Agreement, 55 countries must ratify the accord before it can enter into effect. To make it even more complicated, the 55 countries have to account for at least 55% of global greenhouse gas emissions before the treaty enters into effect. The percentage clause prevents a handful of smaller states, such as a group of island states that may disappear if sea levels rise, from ratifying the treaty and binding their larger cousins to the new rules.
With the signing of the Paris Agreement, we now get to watch countries scramble to ratify the accord before competing states do. There is status to being the in the group that gets through ratification first. The winners in the rapid ratification contest were 15 small island states that ratified the agreement before it was even formally signed. When your country may cease to exist as sea levels rise you are highly motivated to make progress on climate change.
The big question mark in the ratification process is the United States. While the US signed the Agreement, the US Constitution requires that all treaties be ratified by a two-thirds vote in the Senate. Given that 2016 is an election year and that the Senate is controlled by the Republican Party, there is not likely to be a rush in the Senate to ratify the Agreement. Depending on the outcome of the US elections, the next Senate may refuse to ratify the Agreement at all, leaving the US outside of the provisions of the Agreement.
While the US has a particularly difficult system, it is just one example of the many different means of ratification used by various nation-states. These processes must run their course for sovereign bodies to bind themselves to international rules.
So, for the second time, we celebrate the Paris Climate Agreement, but we have to wait for the day when the ratifications have reached the required levels before the treaty has any force in law.
For people in the United States of America, Elizabeth II, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand is a celebrity figure whose children and grandchildren make for nice tabloid news. For citizens of the United Kingdom, the longest reigning monarch is a symbol of unity that binds a diverse collection of nations together. For citizens of the Commonwealth, she is the mixed symbol of a colonial legacy that binds member states together, but reminds them of years of subjugation.
Few people in the world today occupy a position that brings together so much complex history and symbolism. The Queen is the longest-serving monarch in the history of the UK and she remains among the most popular public figures in the country. The Queen remains the Head of State for a dozen former British colonies other than those included the list above. Many other colonies have shed the core of the monarchy, but still honor her as the head of the Commonwealth.
The powerful international attention to the Queen stems from the far-reaching power of the British Empire. Controlling territory across the globe, the Empire knitted together far-flung peoples into a single political organization. But at its heart, the British Empire was a coercive entity that imposed a foreign political rule upon local peoples. In the United States, the Queen is well-liked in spite of being the head of the nation from which we violently split in 1776. For colonies that more recently, and more peaceably, achieved their independence, the political ties persist, but with some ambivalence. Jamaicans express fondness for the Queen, but the newly elected Prime Minister has argued for moving towards a fully republican form of government with a Head of State who is Jamaican and not the nominal ruler of the former colonial power.
While many European states retain their monarchies in some form, the global popularity of the Queen of the United Kingdom stems from the cultural as well as political power of the old Empire. English serves as the global lingua franca and the British Broadcasting Company retains a global reach, streaming its World Service (formerly the Empire Service) globally through multiple media streams.
The world pays attention to Elizabeth II in a way that it does not pay attention to Queen Maxima of the Netherlands or Karl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. This reflects a soft power that stems from a long-running set of global institutions. The British Empire developed social, economic, political, and cultural networks of people around the world. These were held together over time by the hard power of the Empire, but they developed a staying power of their own. When the political and military power of the Empire dissolved following the Second World War, the economic, cultural, and social ties remained. In this network of interactions, the Queen plays an important symbolic role.
So, as the Queen reaches her 90th birthday there is celebration of her long and popular reign. People extoll her virtues and laud her charitable work around the world. They speak highly of her ability to be royal without being arrogant. But at the same time they whisper whether her successor will be able to keep the traditions built around her alive. Whether the soft power of the monarchy continues for another ninety years remains to be seen. But for today, God Save the Queen and Happy Birthday, Elizabeth II.
Mozambique faces severe economic strain after the International Monetary Fund suspended lending to the country following the revelation that it had an extra US$1 billion in debts. It is unclear just how the loans failed to make it into the national accounting reports, but the idea that loans equivalent to 10% of Mozambique’s GDP could somehow have been forgotten seems to be going over poorly at the IMF. The result has been a suspension of lending and a big hit to the aid-dependent economy.
The role of international aid is controversial, with many concerned that international development aid is often targeted at projects that are poorly conceived and that do not provide benefits to the average citizens of the recipient countries. Directing aid through governments tends to enrich government officials, but has a mixed record with average citizens. The counter-argument is that aid plays a critical role in economic development. Aid can provide capital that markets won’t, at least not at a price that countries can afford to pay. There are many more sides to the debate, but most of these arguments assume that states can manage to keep track of their loans and the projects they support.
Mozambique seems to challenge these assumptions, highlighting concerns about corruption. The $1 billion dollars in hidden loans were revealed as part of an investigation into how $850 million that had been borrowed to support the development of a tuna fishing industry ended up funding Mozambican Naval patrol ships and other military hardware. Corruption and misallocation of funds undermines efforts at expanding aid programs and makes it harder to get donors to provide aid.
To ensure that aid is spent wisely, the IMF tracks spending and requires country reports on an annual basis. The annual reporting process holds recipients accountable and is meant to ensure that money is spent appropriately.
The challenge in this type of enforcement is that those who pay the price are often the same people that failed to get the services in the first place. Mozambican fishermen and poor citizens who will have to continue to pay a massive debt burden for years into the future are those who suffer the most from this kind of punishment. The suspension of Mozambique will have some impact on those responsible, mostly by reducing their ability to spend government money as they see fit. But the average citizens are the ones who will suffer the most as development projects stall and economic growth stagnates under the weight of a debt burden that crushes economic output.
Like many elements of economic development, the provision of aid is a complex issue, but that is of little comfort to average citizens of Mozambique.
In May of 2014, 276 girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram, the Nigerian Radical Islamist insurgent group, from their school in the town of Chibok. The girls were seized as “war prizes” by the insurgent group as part of its efforts to establish a radical Islamic state in northern Nigeria. Amnesty International estimates that just over 2,000 girls have been kidnapped as war prizes by Boko Haram since the start of their violent campaign against the Nigerian government. Boko Haram argues that these girls are legitimate targets, their seizure being part of the ongoing war. The girls are seized so that they can be taken as war brides by Boko Haram fighters or sold into slavery. The fate of the girls is particularly horrific, with escapees telling of forced marriage, repeated rape, and generally terrible living conditions.
While such actions horrify the international community, they go largely unnoticed in most cases. The kidnapping of the girls in Chibok has been the exception to this rule. Parents of the girls organized a social media campaign around the tag #BringBackOurGirls. This campaign gained international attention, with even Michelle Obama, the First Lady of the United States calling attention to the parents’ efforts to get their children back.
The kidnapping in Chibok shows the impact that social media can have on calling attention to local issues around the world. The use of social media made this particular group of girls and their parents internationally known. The movement had an impact on the elections in Nigeria, with the attention to the kidnapping and the Nigerian government’s inability to address the parents’ demands for a return of their daughters. In spite of a change in the president of the country, the Nigerian Army and security services have been unable to free many of the Chibok girls, with 219 of them still missing and presumed to be prisoners of Boko Haram.
With the release of this new video providing proof of life, the Chibok parents are back in the international news and attention is once again placed on the issue of kidnapped girls in Nigeria. While attention is focused on the issue, and anti-Boko Haram rhetoric ramps up again, it is not clear that the social media attention has increased the likelihood of the girls’ rescue.
The impact of social media in cases like this remains unclear. While international attention has been focused on the issue, little practical change has taken place on the ground. The conflict continues to simmer. The Nigerian Army has had some successes in the past year, freeing several hundred women in the past year and driving Boko Haram into the hinterland. But the attention has not made much difference in ending the conflict in the region. The conflict simmers on and more girls are seized from time to time. But at least these actions do not go ignored by the international community as they did before #BringBackOurGirls.
The world can offer many challenges to nation-states seeking to assert their influence. While we often think of navies, rockets, and columns of armed troops, that can distract us from what really matters: who will win the World Cup every four years. Billions of soccer fans root for their national teams in the quadrennial cycle of world sporting madness. In spite of this enthusiasm, only a handful of countries have actually won the World Cup, and few outside this group have a realistic chance of breaking into that elite level as things stand. China wants to overturn this soccer world order and become a global soccer powerhouse by 2050, challenging the likes of Brazil and Germany at the top of the world’s most popular game.
Chinese state media reported a long-term plan to develop the game of soccer in China. The plan involves millions of children in development programs, thousands of training facilities, and the development of a network of training academies to develop young players. It also includes a push to make the Chinese Super League one of the dominant professional soccer leagues in the world.
This move is seen as part of China’s desire to be seen as a world power that is more than just a manufacturing hub. The soft power that comes from sporting success is an intangible, providing cultural benefits but not fitting easily into our traditional understanding of how power works. But in the world’s only truly global sport, such soft power may carry weight. Sport can be a symbol of national pride, as the free-for-all contests to host events like the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics show. For China, with over a billion inhabitants, to be a perennial also-ran compared to neighboring states like South Korea and Japan grates on the rising power.
The Chinese government is set to spend billions of dollars over the next thirty-five years in order to turn itself into a global soccer power. This commitment shows the strong belief on the part of the Chinese government that the result will be worth the investment. Just how much soft power it will bring is hard to say. Soft power is notoriously tricky to measure. But one day we might see young Tanzanians and Argentinians wearing their Shanghai Shenhua jerseys on the bus as they watch a World Cup Final match in Beijing. Stranger things have happened, but I won’t but away my Manchester United jersey just yet.
Millions of documents stolen by hackers from the firm Mossack Fonseca have been released to the world in what may be the largest leak of such information to date. The documents reveal the secret financial dealings of tens of thousands of companies and individuals around the world and will be providing juicy news stories about the secret finances of powerful people for at least weeks and potentially months.
In spite of the hype, the basic story revealed by the documents is not news at all. That the rich use perfectly legal means of reducing their taxes is hardly interesting. Average Americans do this all the time when they hire accountants to do their taxes. That the rich would use more complicated means to limit how much of their wealth governments take each year surprised exactly no one. But the level of detail shows just how widespread the phenomenon is.
It also reveals a striking level of hypocrisy among elected officials who have been speaking out against international banks and offshore tax havens. The Icelandic Prime Minister was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had an offshore corporation to hide his assets. That he had crusaded against international banks made his use of international banks to reduce his tax burden particularly galling to ordinary Icelanders. Leaders including Vladimir Putin, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, and Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton have all been revealed to have ties to foreign accounts either directly or through organization to which they have ties. And this is just the start. As reporters comb through these documents there will be more names and more headlines.
Amidst the titillating fodder for tabloid newspapers are also some serious cases where rogue regimes and their leaders have used the international financial system to avoid economic sanctions and to hide ill-gotten-gains. That banks and law firms appear to have chosen to remain ignorant of who ultimately controlled these offshore companies reveals weaknesses in self-monitoring rules that dominate international finance.
While the details are new, the basic story is not. Globalization of economic ties has lowered the cost of moving assets around the world. With tax and regulatory burdens rising in many countries, a desire to reduce these costs drives actors to tax havens with lower tax rates and business friendly legal systems. With the reduced privacy of the information age, many wealthy people seek the anonymity that can be had from moving money to countries with strict secrecy laws that protect personal financial information. All of these activities are entirely legal so long as national laws are complied with, but they require expensive law firms and the ability to move money across borders. These means are beyond the reach of average citizens.
It is hard to predict the long-term effect of the Panama Papers on the international financial regime. Countries have always complained about how large corporations and rich individuals have used international finance to reduce their tax burdens, but have done little to end the policies that push people into offshore finance. Further, they have done little to cut off the flow of money across borders that permits such activities. Whether the public revelation of so much detail will lead to changes is hard to know. In the context of global governance of financial systems it is also hard to see how nation-states could end the practice of offshore tax planning without shutting down the entire international financial system, which would have disastrous results for the global economy.
In the fourth Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) meeting, world leaders gathered in Washington DC to discuss the threats to global security posed by the spread of nuclear weapons and nuclear materials. The NSS was created following and invitation to a group of nations following a speech by the US President, Barack Obama, in 2009. In this speech to an audience in Prague, the President argued that nuclear weapons posed a danger to the world community and that more effective cooperation would be required to protect the community from these dangers.
The first meeting took place in 2010 and included more than fifty countries. Subsequent meetings in 2012, 2014, and now 2016 have continued the work of the original project, seeking ways to keep nuclear material out of the hands of states and groups who would use that material to threaten the world community.
The NSS meetings are an interesting example of a case in which a series of international meetings begin to evolve into something more permanent. The initial meeting was an ad-hoc program based on President Obama’s speech calling for greater cooperation. Over the course of four meetings, the shared interest in controlling nuclear technologies has led to the creation of a forum that seems set to continue into the future.
Importantly, the NSS does not have a formal organization or a founding treaty. It works in service to a number of existing agreements and operates on the principle of shared interest. While the number of joint statements and technical agreements that have emerged from the meetings grows, they are still agreements between states outside of a formal treaty organization. In spite of the informality, the summits have resulted in several agreements in areas related to the control of nuclear materials that bind the participants to commitments to greater security in their nuclear efforts.
Despite these successes, the NSS has faced serious challenges. The most significant was the absence of Russia from the 2016 meeting. As tensions have risen between Russia and the West, Russia opted to skip this meeting as a form of diplomatic protest. Given Russia’s status as the holder of the world’s second largest nuclear arsenal, its absence from the summit was a troubling sign.
In spite of these problems, the NSS 2016 was largely successful at moving forward on gains in nuclear security. It also took steps to begin to make itself a more formal organization, with steps taken to ensure that it continues as the democratic member states see changes in leadership as elections replace national leaders. There was also agreement on areas of action to help prevent the trafficking in nuclear materials that could be used in nuclear weapons or in radiological devices (dirty bombs.)
On the whole, the NSS shows how global governance can evolve in areas of shared interest even without a formal organization to lock-in the relationships. While the NSS has not yet faced a severe test of its norms, the general success of the organization and the moves to make it more durable show the value of the organization to its members. And it also happens to make the world a bit safer for all of us.