May 14, 2013 | Event Summary

The joint International Security Forum (ISF) and Partnership for Peace Consortium (PfP C) Annual Conference were a success merely by their numbers; over three days, nearly 30 panels on five different themes brought together an eclectic mix of some 600 academics and policy experts from 50 countries from around the world to exchange ideas on the challenges of “Facing a World of Transitions.”

The title of the 10th ISF may by now sound redundant, if not euphemistic. After all, we have been living in a world of transitions for the last two decades. Change has occurred at such a dramatic pace that it scarcely leaves the analyst the time, let alone the leisure to keep pace.

This author has attended, as co-chair of the PfP Consortium Study Group on Regional Stability in the South Caucasus and as Security Governance Group associate, six of the 30 panels, in addition to the opening and concluding panels of the joint ISF and PfP C Annual Conference. The panels were the following; “Revitalizing the OSCE: Mission Impossible?”, “Emerging Security Challenges”, “Mediating today’s Armed Conflicts”, “SSR and Democratisation”, “Urban Armed Violence” and “Shaping a World in Transition through Education.” Panelists and presenters can be seen in the programme available at www.isf2013.ch .

The opening panel focused on the “multiplication of the forms of transitions,” calling into question once again the propensity for interveners to employ ready-made solutions. The unpredictability that is the result of the multiplicity of transitions is really the new threat. It is a matter of common concern, and, as some have argued “building individual islands of security are doomed to collapse.” How this affected the future of venerable security organizations such as the OSCE and the UN was not directly discussed in this panel, but the question is pertinent, as the qualities of these institutions seem ill-adapted for the challenges of a world of transitions.

Consequently, what to do with the OSCE (Panel 1), and how to conceive of the UN’s conflict mediation potential (Panel 3) in such a context occupied much of the debate time. The panel on “revitalizing the OSCE” gave way to a debate about the successes and failures, utility or futility, of this organization. This author suggested that the Helsinki Final Act (1975) could perhaps suffer some revisions, the panelists were adamant that the nations themselves would never agree to it, and neither would they agree to modify their behaviour to better serve the organization itself. This answer was anticipated. But what was not anticipated was the acknowledgement that the member capitals themselves were to blame for not seeking to resolve conflicts through the OSCE format. One panelist argued that giving up the silence procedure would greatly speed up the reaction time of the organization, optimize solutions, and also alleviate the tension between “Eastern” and “Western” values as consensus is sought. One discussant argued that the withering hegemony of certain great powers contributed to the strength of the polycentric (multipolar) model of international relations that is now emerging. To contain such fragmentation, it was suggested, one must be “creative, patient, and willing to engage.”

The panel that focused on the UN’s mediation capacity (Panel 3) didn’t offer much that was new. The panelists concluded that the new Mediation Capacity Unit at the UN was a splendid repository of lessons learned, but that it did not represent or translate into an added capacity for the UN to conduct mediation missions.  Nevertheless, the panelists were clear as to the presence of the need for mediation. The demand is increasing all the time, but no matter how much the new unit is solicited, it remains unable to meet the demand for mediation. This offer-demand gap has always existed, but the question remains as to whether existing structures which focus on capacity building, training and conflict assessment is appropriate to meet the challenges of a world of transitions.

At the Emerging Security Challenges panel (Panel 2), the assessment of NATO’s capacity to meet the onslaught of transition movement is not any better. The consensus there is that the new NATO structure which was pushed forward by current NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and directed by Hungarian ambassador Gabor Iklody since 2010, has not been successful at determining exactly what constitutes and “emerging” threat. There is furthermore no agreement as to what constitutes a threat that has emerged as opposed to one that is looming. The distinction is not academic; it is also administrative, because the difference is made real by public perception. As a consequence, the wisdom of contributing human and financial resources to mitigating threats is only reasonable if that threat seems real to the public. But NATO members are not in agreement themselves, let alone their constituencies. This is not a failure of the international staff charged with coming up with policy options, one must hasten to add. It is the result of any normal discussion within an Alliance of disparate members. Therefore, the quality of the panelists’ remarks tended to reflect the varying degrees of understanding of “emergent” threat, and the corresponding levels of disquietude that accompany that understanding.

The panel on SSR and democratization (Panel 4), was unfortunately not as rich as one could have hoped for. The penultimate panel (Panel 5) stressed the growing problem of urban armed violence. Rich in statistical analysis, it was difficult to agree with the fact that this is an emerging threat. The SSR content of this challenge is plain to see; as  the gap between expected and actual reward widens for a new generation of graduates and adults about to integrate the workforce all over the world, the prospect for instability in the most robust of Western societies increases correspondingly. This tendency, fed by the continuing economic crisis, will only go on worsening and can only be alleviated by an exodus to the suburbs, where the cost of living is lesser. This “return to the village” is already visible in Spain, which only last week started flirting with a 30 percent unemployment level. The problem will grow exponentially greater when combined with the stress put on public spending, and particularly, security sector spending in liberal democracies. Already, large American cities close to bankruptcy have started to close down police precincts and fire stations, yielding the theatre to disenfranchised elements of society. Countries with incomplete democratic transitions are also vulnerable to this stress, and the reflex will likely be to perpetuate counter-democratic application of force, or even roll back the significant reforms achieved since the end of the Cold War.for. Although the panelists shared many useful anecdotes, highlighting successful SSR initiatives in the Middle East, Asia and particularly Somalia, they were extremely short on answering a set of crucial questions; why did the authorities agree to reform their security apparatus? How did SSR capacity-builders motivate the authorities, generate their buy-in? These issues, which I have alluded to in an earlier blog, remained unanswered, but are in my mind essential. The focus of future lessons learned should be on how to motivate and engage otherwise refractory agents in the reform agenda.

The panel “Shaping a World in Transition through Education”, reiterated the continuing need to maintain mobility between the academic elites of the world and the student body, and to expose them to the rich variety of research generated since the end of the Cold War. This applies particularly to the defence and security sector, where cross-pollination of ideas – tactical, operational and strategic – can go a long way in providing the central authorities with the solutions needed to face the instability that is looming because of demographic (immigration), ethno-religious and economic pressures. Initiatives such as the Regional Stability track of the PfP Consortium, as well as the Bologna Process (enabling student, programme and institutional accreditation within the EU), go a long way in establishing networks across ethno-religious and political divides. The recommendations that were issued to the Chair of this panel emphasised the need for a long-term vision and perseverance, which evidently involve the need to fund scholarly initiatives aimed at the preservation of security.

The ISF suggested that there was some pessimism circulating within the policy and academic community, about the prospects to manage the multiple transitions in today’s world. In some sense, the ISF was an exercise in definition and identification of challenges, more than a forum focusing on learned solutions. But there is great room for optimism, for in great part, the situation in which we find ourselves is a legacy from the earlier moments of transition since the end of the Cold War. As Ambassador Fred Tanner (Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy) underscored, the magnitude of the challenges that were discussed during the first ISF in 1998 was categorically and radically different from today’s. In 1998, the attention was cast on the challenges of democratic, economic and political-military transition. Today, this task is mostly completed, at least in the area of the former Soviet Union, and even, one might say, in Russia itself. We do not discuss the problems of post-Cold War transition anymore, and that is definitely because we have moved decisively towards a model of political and social management that is more consensual at least within the wider Euro-Atlantic space. We know that the predominance of a social-political model can also cause misgivings in the areas beyond, and the shape and scope of today’s challenges is a reflection of a tension between the “Western” model and other traditions. Still, past successes lead us to be hopeful for the future, even though the various transitions we face today lend themselves very poorly to traditional modes of analysis and action.

All in all, the 2013 ISF was a great success, and the only criticism that can be addressed is that the various levels of policy makers and academics were so well represented in the panels and in the audience that one felt that some presentations were insufficiently detailed, or excessively academic in nature. Nevertheless, it was a golden opportunity to present the work that the Security Governance Group does, to network and to communicate solutions to individuals who are close to decision-makers.