Watching the States Get Made

The part of the world the US State Department calls “the Near East” is beset right now with a series of interlinked civil wars that threaten to cohere into a wider and even-worse regional conflagration. As it happens, this disorder is exposing the constitution and construction of the contemporary international system to a degree we don’t often see.

In fact, it’s all there in a single passage from a Reuters story on Yemen today (here). The passage starts like this:

[Yemeni President] Hadi’s flight to Aden has raised the prospect of armed confrontation between rival governments based in the north and south, creating chaos that could be exploited by the Yemen-based regional wing of al Qaeda.

Fighting is spreading across Yemen, and 137 people were killed on Friday in the bombings of two Shi’ite mosques in Sanaa. The bombings were claimed by Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot that controls large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria and said it was also behind an attack that killed 23 people in Tunisia on Wednesday.

As this opening implies, the crisis in Yemen is not “just” a civil war—as if that weren’t bad enough for the people who live there. In addition, the state has almost-completely collapsed.

The contemporary international system is organized around the principle of sovereignty vested in organizations we call states. On paper, every swath of territory is legitimately claimed by one and only one government, and that government enjoys final authority over all political doings in its patch of earth (and airspace and, when relevant, coastal waters).

In much of Yemen right now, though, at least two rival factions lay claim to political authority in the same territory. They are actively fighting over those competing claims, but no faction is strong enough to win the struggle, so, effectively, there is no sovereign. What’s more, at least one of those factions isn’t just trying to seize control of part or all of an existing state. Instead, it is trying to create a new state of sorts that cuts across the borders of several extant ones.

Okay, so now what? The passage continues:

In [a recent] letter to [the UN] Security Council, Hadi called for a [UN Security Council] resolution to “deter the Houthi militias and their allies, to stop their aggression against all governorates, especially the city of Aden, and to support the legitimate authority”.

Here we see that, to help its cause, one faction is appealing for help to the organization that sits atop the existing system—the UN Security Council. Led for now by President Hadi, that faction bases its appeal on its purported legitimacy.

If asked, the leaders of that faction would probably say that their legitimacy flows from their victory in Yemen’s last national elections. Now, those elections weren’t exactly the freest and fairest on record, and the ongoing civil war makes plain that some segments of the population in the territory claimed by Yemen’s national government don’t recognize the election winners as their rightful sovereign. Those elections were also conducted with significant support from the UN and other governments. So, although they are construed as an internal source of legitimation, they could not have occurred without external intervention. Never mind, too, that the faction making this appeal also happens to be the one that has continued to permit the most powerful state in that system, the USA, to conduct drone strikes and other operations on its territory against one of that faction’s chief rivals in Yemen’s civil war.

Never mind all that. Elections are the mechanism that the organization sitting atop this system formally recognizes as the only rightful source of political authority, so the appeal makes sense.

So, how is the UN responding?

U.N. mediator Jamal Benomar is likely to brief the council on Sunday via video link, diplomats said. The Security Council is negotiating a statement on Yemen that could be adopted during the meeting, diplomats said.

“We join all of the other members of the Security Council in underscoring that President Hadi is the legitimate authority in Yemen,” Rathke said in a statement released in Washington.

Unsurprisingly, we see that the UN responds positively to an appeal that implicitly and explicitly reinforce the order it was established to protect and deepen. Even less surprising, we see this positive response in a case where the party making the appeal happens to be the faction favored by the states that wield the most power in that system. In his statement, UN mediator Benomar implies that the positive response reflects the domestic legitimacy of Hadi’s authority. In fact, the whole exchange reveals how sovereignty flows from the system to its parts as much as the other way around.

Finally, the passage concludes:

[Benomar] called on the Houthis and “their allies to stop their violent incitement” but made no mention of Iran, whose backing for the Houthis has raised U.S. concerns.

Hadi held open the door to a negotiated settlement with a call for the Houthis and other groups to attend peace talks in Saudi Arabia.

I think this bit is especially fascinating, because it shows how governments simultaneously play by and against the rules, and how the intergovernmental organizations constituted to codify and enforce those rules try to mitigate the damage by pretending this double-dealing isn’t happening. Iran is the only state specifically described as a transgressor here, but the passage also mentions Saudi Arabia, which has forever meddled in Yemeni affairs, and the US, which has done a lot more meddling in Yemen over the past 10 years or so as part of its so-called Global War on Terror. Talking openly of these double-dealings would underscore how prevalent they are, but these routines contradict the formal rules, so the defenders of the extant order try to minimize those behaviors’ corrosive effects by not speaking of them.

In our daily doings, many of us take for granted the organization of human society into a series of states whose boundaries have already been properly established and whose governments receive their political authority from the tacit or explicit consent of the people they rule. Meanwhile, when events conspire to pull back the curtain a bit, we see a messier scene in which powerful organizations continually engage in rituals and sometimes forceful actions that mostly but not always work to sustain that system; in which authority flows from power as much or more than the reverse; and in which upstarts keep trying (and mostly failing) to get in on the action or overturn the table.

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About That Decline in EU Contributions to UN Peacekeeping

A couple of days ago, Ambassador Samantha Power, the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations, gave a speech on peacekeeping in Brussels that, among other things, lamented a decline in the participation of European personnel in UN peacekeeping missions:

Twenty years ago, European countries were leaders in UN peacekeeping. 25,000 troops from European militaries served in UN peacekeeping operations – more than 40 percent of blue helmets at the time. Yet today, with UN troop demands at an all-time high of more than 90,000 troops, fewer than 6,000 European troops are serving in UN peacekeeping missions. That is less than 7 percent of UN troops.

The same day, Mark Leon Goldberg wrote a post for UN Dispatch (here) that echoed Ambassador Power’s remarks and visualized her point with a chart that was promptly tweeted by the US Mission to the UN:

Percentage of western European Troops in UN Peacekeeping missions (source: UN Dispatch)

When I saw that chart, I wondered if it might be a little misleading. As Ambassador Power noted in her remarks, the number of troops deployed as UN peacekeepers has increased significantly in recent years. With so much growth in the size of the pool, changes in the share of that pool contributed by EU members could result from declining contributions, but they could also result from no change, or from slower growth in EU contributions relative to other countries.

To see which it was, I used data from the International Peace Institute’s Providing for Peacekeeping Project to plot monthly personnel contributions from late 1991 to early 2014 for EU members and all other countries. Here’s what I got (and here is the R script I used to get there):

Monthly UN PKO personnel totals by country of origin, Nov 1991-Feb 2014

Monthly UN PKO personnel totals by country of origin, November 1991-February 2014

To me, that chart tells a different story than the one Ambassador Power and UN Dispatch describe. Instead of a sharp decline in European contributions over the past 20 years, we see a few-year surge in the early 1990s followed by a fairly constant level of EU member contributions since then. There’s even a mini-surge in 2005–2006 followed by a slow and steady return to the average level after that.

In her remarks, Ambassador Power compared Europe’s participation now to 20 years ago. Twenty years ago—late 1994 and early 1995—just happens to be the absolute peak of EU contributions. Not coincidentally, that peak coincided with the deployment of a UN PKO in Europe, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to which European countries contributed the bulk of the troops. In other words, when UN peacekeeping was focused on Europe, EU members contributed most of the troops. As the UN has expanded its peacekeeping operations around the world (see here for current info), EU member states haven’t really reduced their participation; instead, other countries have greatly increased theirs.

We can and should argue about how much peacekeeping the UN should try to do, and what various countries should contribute to those efforts. After looking at European participation from another angle, though, I’m not sure it’s fair to criticize EU members for “declining” involvement in the task.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering like I was, here’s a comparison of personnel contributions from EU members to ones from the United States over that same period. The US pays the largest share, but on the dimension Ambassador Power and UN Dispatch chose to spotlight—troop contributions—it offers very little.

unpko.contribution.comparison.eu.us

Monthly UN PKO personnel totals by country of origin, November 1991-February 2014

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