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2012 and the perils of prediction

2012 and the perils of prediction

If there were any doubts about physicist Niels Bohr’s astute observation that “prediction is very difficult, especially about the future", then the dramatic events of 2011 should lay them to rest. The revolutions sweeping the Arab world, the triple disaster that ravaged Japan, the financial and economic meltdown in Europe, Pakistan’s dangerous journey to the brink of self-destruction once again and the populist movements from New York to New Delhi in the world’s leading democracies were not foretold and together produced unimagined shock and awe. What was not surprising, however, was the inability of key powers and global governance structures to effectively address these challenges.

Take the transformation in the Arab world. While there was recognition of the inevitability of these movements and even broad sympathy for the protesters, there was no consensus among the key powers on how best to manage this transition. Should the international community, traditionally represented by the UN Security Council (UNSC), seek to engage the regimes diplomatically to transfer power (as in the decolonization process of yore)? Or should force be used for regime change (as was the case in Kosovo and Iraq)? Or should the approach be one of the use of robust crisis diplomacy and the threat of use of force? Or should UNSC simply let events take their course without any attempt to engage? With the exception of Libya, UNSC chose not intervene and events particularly in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen are unfolding on their own with inevitably some, but not excessive, violence.

This hands-off approach was reminiscent of the response to similar transitions two decades ago in eastern Europe. In that case the non-interference by UNSC was primarily in deference to the rapidly unravelling but still formidable Soviet Union. Moreover, the 1989 east European revolutions were by and large peaceful, as epitomized by the “Velvet Revolution" in Czechoslovakia.

In contrast, the vicious violence and brutal massacres during the civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s were among the key drivers behind the principal of the responsibility to protect. It also informed Nato’s military intervention in Libya, which was authorized by the frailest of agreements among UNSC members. However, as the military campaign against Libya (and a recent The New York Times article on civilian casualties caused by Nato bombing) revealed, force alone remains a blunt and unreliable instrument. Even when it eventually succeeds, as in Libya, the outcome is far from evident.

Consequently, democratic India, Brazil and South Africa (the Ibsa group), all of who are presently on UNSC and are also permanent membership aspirants, are reluctant to support only a “use of force" option. Although all of them have employed force both in their immediate neighbourhoods and also in carrying out their UN peacekeeping mandates, they recognize that use of force alone, even when it is exercised to protect civilians, is a risky proposition. This is why Ibsa is now putting forward the concept of “responsibility when protecting".

While, clearly, masterly inactivity is not an option to deal with unexpected security challenges, the inability to develop alternative approaches of robust crisis diplomacy will inevitably render UNSC helpless and unable to act. Here Ibsa has a crucial role to play in proving its leadership and ability.

Although Ibsa members have justifiably called for the reform of UNSC (with their inclusion as permanent members) and its working methods, this is a luxury that unexpected events will not allow. Finally, at the risk of challenging the Bohr axiom, Syria—along with Iran—and Pakistan are likely to be the cases that will test UNSC skills in 2012.

WPS Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight.

Comments are welcome at otherviews@livemint.com

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