Middle East // Analysis

15 september 2014

The Conference in Paris and the Experience of the Swiss Meetings

Andrey Kortunov Director General of the Russian International Affairs Council, RIAC member
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

A high-level international conference on the situation in Iraq is taking place today in France, discussing cooperation in the fight against the fundamentalist militants of the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”. The importance of this event can scarcely be exaggerated: it’s not just about the fate of the long-suffering country of Iraq but about the future of the Middle East as a whole. In this case, moreover, the interests of all the key regional players (from Israel to Iran) and the global powers (from Russia to the USA) fully coincide. It would seem that the meeting in France is heading for success. Nevertheless, many experts take quite a sceptical view of the chances of the conference to achieve real results, taking into consideration the experience, among other things, of the meetings in neighbouring Switzerland to discuss some severe international crises of the recent past.

In the last two years there have actually been three high-level meetings in Geneva on the most difficult international issues – two on Syria (June 2012 and January 2014) and one on Ukraine (April 2014). Great things were expected of these meetings; the whole world was watching, and they were very tense and emotional. But nevertheless, not one of these meetings brought the expected results. Perhaps it wasn’t just because of the complexity of the issues discussed in Switzerland but also because of the format of the meetings themselves? Some suggestions in this regard come to mind, not least in terms of the experience gained of other formats.

First, not all parties to the conflict were represented at the meetings in Switzerland, which diminished the effectiveness of the discussions. Iran and part of the Syrian opposition were not present at the meetings on Syria, and the meetings on Ukraine did not include representatives of the South-East of the country (the meeting in Minsk that followed was more representative). Consequently those who had not taken part did not consider themselves bound by the decisions made by the negotiators. Ensuring that representation is as wide as possible is very difficult, but it is necessary if one considers the subsequent fulfilment of agreements.

Second, the Swiss meetings were short and ended by adopting some quite brief and at times ambiguous documents that left room for different interpretations and subsequent mutual accusations of not implementing the agreements. The preparation of more detailed and precise agreements requires ongoing work in the format of a Contact Group. If such a group cannot be set up at the ministers’ level, it could operate at the level of deputy ministers or special representatives of heads of state. And the Contact Group should not stop working until it achieves agreement on some roadmaps and until its members can present a detailed and unambiguous document (as was done, for example, at the Dayton meeting on Yugoslavia in November 1995).

Third, the Swiss meetings didn’t have a “second track” – joint work by independent analytical centres which could provide the appropriate expert support for the work on specific areas at official level. That is why the final documents proved to be so declarative and brief, and why the high-level meetings were not followed by a trail of accompanying steps, proposals, addenda and agreements on specific issues. A second track therefore needs to be started at the same time as the Contact Group; it would be a mistake to underestimate the potential of independent expert advice and of public organisations.

Fourth, the participants in the meetings on Syria and Ukraine seemed to be more interested in haggling with each other than in seeking the best solutions to the problems. And as one can imagine, many of them only agreed to take part in the meetings for appearances’ sake, without being convinced of the possibility and even the desirability of agreement (a typical example was Barack Obama’s conspicuously pessimistic attitude to the meeting on Ukraine). They hoped – and continue to hope – that time was on their side, and that if they could drag out the conflict they would be able to settle it on more advantageous terms. Either that, or the parties sent representatives to the meeting who had no authority to take any decisions: this is what the members of the outgoing European Union team at the meeting on Ukraine proved to be. If the meetings are like this it would be better not to hold them at all – they only provide additional arguments for the sceptics and the supporters of imposed unilateral decisions. We don’t need meetings that are held for appearances’ sake – we need people at the highest level who want to achieve a successful outcome.

Hence the conclusion: if the system of international diplomacy is to start working, we need to improve its format – to expand the number of participants, to increase the time of Contact Group discussions, to start a second track, and most importantly, to change the general approach at the highest level. If not, this system will be utterly discredited – but we don’t have any other system, nor is one likely to emerge in the foreseeable future. Today’s conference in Paris could be an attempt to move beyond the traditional system of high-level meetings. Let us hope that this attempt will be successful.

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Andrey Kortunov, “The Conference in Paris and the Experience of the Swiss Meetings ,” Russian International Affairs Council, 15 September 2014, http://russiancouncil.ru/en/inner/?id_4=4360

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