Choose your partner wisely: regional actors in crisis management

09. November 2018   ·   Ingo Henneberg

Crisis management can only succeed with regional partners: so far, so true – but insufficient. Regional hegemons rarely deliver official German hopes to be “anchors of stability”, and regional organizations are rarely neutral, legitimate and effective at the same time. Still, regional cooperation has great peacekeeping potential if pursued more strategically.

"No one can do it alone," writes Winfried Nachtwei in his contribution to PeaceLab2016, making clear how important it is to cooperate with partners on crisis prevention, crisis management and other important foreign policy issues. Which partners the German government should choose to work with? This is one of the central questions of the PeaceLab debates. Next to its closest partners in the European Union, the United Nations (UN) is rightly regarded as the first point of contact when it comes to matters of crisis prevention and crisis management. However important the UN is, it is overwhelmed by the multitude of global crises and the prolonged nature of most armed conflicts.

Regional cooperation is increasingly important

Fortunately, the UN is no longer the only organization dedicated to peace and security. Regional cooperation and regional organizations are increasingly important and some experts have already begun to speak of a regionalization of international relations. Regional cooperation is an important step towards maintaining peace between states, regulating cross-border issues and problems, and, increasingly, addressing intrastate challenges. Worldwide, there is an unbroken trend towards more regional cooperation and almost every year a new regional organization – meaning an institutionalized cooperation between the states of a geographical region – is founded. Today there are about 70 such regional organizations, of which about 60 percent are dedicated to securing peace and security. Among the best-known regional organizations are, apart from the European Union, the African Union (AU), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Gulf Cooperation Council. In Africa alone, which is the continent most threatened by armed conflict, there are now 22 such organizations, more than on any other continent.

What can regional organizations do?

Today, many regional organizations make an important contribution to securing peace in their region: they observe elections in neighboring countries, carry out fact-finding missions and mediate in conflict situations. If a conflict does escalate, they impose sanctions or intervene militarily – like ECOWAS in Gambia in early 2017 – and disarm combatants and reconstruct the state and infrastructure after a conflict. The various early warning systems established by the regional organizations are particularly important for regional crisis prevention.

Germany supports many of these regional organizations both nationally and via the EU, and contributes substantially to the stabilization of crisis regions through its own election observation, capacity building and mediation – support that should definitely be expanded and maintained. Overall, regional actors are credited with greater legitimacy in conflict regions and better context awareness. However, member states within regional organizations pursue their own interests – a factor which tends to increase in importance with greater proximity to the conflict.

Keeping this in mind, strengthening regional actors as a means of simply passing on the responsibility for crisis management to “the region” is not a good strategy . While it is necessary that local solutions to local problems are found, it is also important that Germany and Europe continue to actively engage in global and regional conflicts. The empowerment of regional actors cannot be used as a justification for inaction, especially when it concerns the prevention of atrocities.

Regional organizations are usually better partners than hegemonic states

Steffen Eckhard and Marius Müller-Hennig, as well as Philipp Rotmann, rightly criticize the unilateral "enable and enhance initiative" propagated by Angela Merkel. This initiative supports regional "stability anchors" such as Jordan, Morocco or Nigeria and, if necessary, also provides them with German weapons and information technology. Similar dynamics could also evolve with various authoritarian states to reduce migration flows.

This type of cooperation is short-sighted foreign policy: while it may temporarily solve a problem, such a policy undermines human rights and democracy in the long run – and diminishes Germany’s credibility. Moreover, it can threaten regional stability. Weapons cannot only be used against neighboring states or domestic opponents, but also these alleged "stability anchors" are often not as stable as initially assumed. The last few years have shown how quickly states like Nigeria can stumble.

Rather than relying on hegemonic states, it is usually more effective to multilaterally work with regional organizations. However, one should not neglect the problems of regional cooperation. Although regional cooperation generally reduces the danger of an interstate war, it is not always clear if such cooperation actually benefits the local population: cooperation between authoritarian states (for example when fighting against terrorism, which can be used as a cover for the persecution of political opponents) is a recent phenomenon, especially in Central Asia. Decision makers must be aware of such pitfalls. In such cases, only cautious cooperation is useful.

Capacity building makes sense, but is not a panacea

In her contribution to this blog, Almut Wieland-Karimi praises the role of regional organizations, but points to their capacity problems which are often a core topic in the political debate. She is right: the German government should continue to strengthen regional organizations such as the African Union. They should not only focus on civilian components and support administrations, but should also emphasize human rights and the protection of civilians when training police and the military.

However, better capacity alone cannot solve all problems: in addition to the problems of decision-making in many organizations, the growing number of actors also carry new challenges for peacekeeping and German foreign policy.

Division of labor, promoting constructive cooperation

If there are several partially overlapping regional organizations in one region, new cooperation problems arise. Rogue states can play different organizations off against each other by targeting the regional forum and maximizing their own benefits (‘forum-shopping’). There are also responsibility issues: Which organization should become active when peace is threatened? Which organization should be addressed or supported by Germany or the EU first? Almost inevitably, it takes an enormous amount of time to coordinate efforts.

In Africa, important steps towards better coordination have been initiated with the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). The APSA links the AU to various smaller regional organizations. However, this is neither comprehensive nor are important issues such as the relationship amongst the smaller organizations or their relationships to the UN clearly defined. For other regions, similar efforts almost do not exist. In principle, regional organizations could effectively supplement the UN. This can be seen as a form of division of labor which is partly already taking place. For instance, several stabilization missions which were started by fast-acting regional organizations have eventually been replaced by more comprehensive UN missions over time. However, whether or not this leads to subsidiarity or other forms of constructive cooperation is still largely unclear.

In order to make progress in this field and actively shape the international order, the German government should share its experience with a multitude of multilateral institutions and make concrete proposals for the division of labor and forms of cooperation between different levels of multilateral cooperation. It should focus on organizations that have been successful and align most closely with European core values. If several organizations are active in a crisis, they should at least agree on common goals and approaches. The German government could promote International Contact Groups, in which different actors coordinate their activities and combine them into a coherent strategy. To maximize the efficiency of such contact groups, they should primarily consist of regional organizations and not individual states. So far this is only rarely the case.

Regionalization should not threaten human rights standards

As pointed out, the progressive regionalization of international relations can be a positive development. Regional organizations can meaningfully complement United Nations peacekeeping operations and lay the foundations for peaceful regional cooperation. However, regionalization can also threaten democratic and human rights standards and fragment the international order. Germany has a great interest in a strong UN and the strengthening of the international order. Therefore, the German government should continue to campaign for universal values and global norms whenever possible.

This is an updated version of the German article “Augen auf bei der Partnerwahl! Regionalorganisationen als Partner für die Friedenssicherung“

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Ingo Henneberg

Ingo Henneberg conducts research at the University of Freiburg on regional peace and security cooperation and peace processes with a special focus on Africa.