Stewart M. Patrick

The Internationalist

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The UN Versus Regional Organizations: Who Keeps the Peace?

by Stewart M. Patrick
March 23, 2012

South African President Jacob Zuma speaks during a Security Council meeting during on conflict prevention during in New York on September 22, 2011 (Eric Thayer/Courtesy Reuters). South African President Jacob Zuma speaks during a Security Council meeting during on conflict prevention during in New York on September 22, 2011 (Eric Thayer/Courtesy Reuters).

In January, the South African government of Jacob Zuma threw down a gauntlet. Taking advantage of the rotating presidency of the UN Security Council (UNSC), South Africa introduced a resolution to tighten the relationship between the UNSC and regional organizations—and the African Union in particular—charging that “Africa must not be a playground for furthering the interests of other regions ever again.” The Security Council subsequently adopted Resolution 2033 (2012), which pledges to enhance cooperation with regional organizations, though its clauses remain extremely vague.

It’s now well accepted, as Francis Fukuyama observes, that we live in a world of “multi-multilateralism,” but U.S. and foreign policymakers, are struggling to keep up. Increasingly, nations exploit collective frameworks beyond the United Nations to manage conflict —from ad hoc arrangements like the Six-Party Talks for North Korea to regional organizations like the African Union. The UN retains unmatched authority and legitimacy—thanks to its universal charter and legally binding Security Council decisions—but it’s hardly the only game in town.

Elsewhere I’ve explored the trade-offs between relying on the prix fixe menu of universal institutions (like the UN) and exploiting a la carte “coalitions of the willing.” The challenge is to ensure that reliance on ad hoc and regional arrangements complement and reinforce, rather than undermine, the UN’s legitimacy and capacity.

This conundrum has become more pointed in the wake of African opposition to the Libyan intervention, as many African governments perceived the United States, France, and the United Kingdom contorting UNSC Resolution 1973 into a license for regime change. This spectacle stiffened the determination of the AU—long wedded to the principle of “African solutions to African problems”—to become the gatekeeper of military intervention on the continent.

Chapter VIII of the UN Charter, of course, recognizes an important role for regional organizations, including in advancing peace and security. But it explicitly subordinates this function to the authority of the UN Security Council. The South African initiative would represent a radical shift, toward codetermination between, in effect, equal partners. Predictably, the permanent members of the Security Council reacted coolly to Zuma’s gambit.

Debates over whether the world should adopt universal or regional approaches to manage conflict are nothing new, of course. Indeed, American and British planners fiercely debated the point during World War II, as the two nations sought to define a postwar structure of peace. But by 1945, as I point out in my book The Best Laid Plans: The Origins of American Multilateralism and the Dawn of the Cold War, UN universalism had definitively won.

Still, the perceived need for buy-in from regional organizations to legitimize UN enforcement action and peacekeeping is likely to persist. Indeed, it may well grow, if—as seems likely—there is no movement on enlarging the Security Council to include permanent members from the developing world. This is a particularly sensitive issue in Africa, which is after all the setting for most UN peace operations. By what right, many Africans ask, should the Security Council be permitted to authorize Chapter VII actions on the continent, without so much as an AU by-your-leave?

As a practical matter, of course, the UN and regional organizations are already deeply intertwined in peace enforcement and peace operations. Alongside classic UN operations, one finds a variety of “hybrid” models, in which the Security Council authorizes a mission that is implemented by either an ad hoc coalition (such as the NATO-led Libyan intervention) or a regional organization (as in the AU’s AMISOM mission in Somalia), or some combination of the two.

The growing role of regional organizations poses a conundrum for the United States. Many of these implications are spelled out in a terrific new book, Rewiring Regional Security in a Fragmented World, edited by Chet Crocker, Fen Hampson, and Pamela Aall. One, already discussed, is the question of how to operationalize Chapter VIII of the Charter—and whether regional organizations should be allowed to serve as gatekeepers to UN-mandated enforcement action. In addition, at least four other insights of the book warrant mentioning.

  • Regional organizations are a diverse lot. The aspirations, mandates and activities of regional organizations vary enormously. One can contrast the growing activism of the AU, for example, with the hyper-cautious ASEAN. While the former’s Constitutive Act has shifted the organization from a position of “nonintervention” to one of “non-indifference” of its members’ internal affairs, the latter’s “ASEAN way” continues to discourage overt challenges to member state sovereignty.
  • Regional approaches are no panacea. At first glance, regional organizations provide an attractive alternative, or complement, to an overstretched and sometimes dysfunctional United Nations. They are presumably more familiar with the sources of the relevant conflict and more invested in its solution. On the other hand, regional bodies are also vulnerable to domination by local hegemons, who may seek to hijack collective action for their own purposes. Moreover, regional organizations can suffer from the same debilitating collective action problems that bedevil the UN—including a tendency to take refuge in bland consensus reflecting the lowest common denominator, as well as a temptation for free-riding.
  • Capacity building must be a priority. In addition, the aspirations of regional organizations often outstrip their ability to deliver. The AU is a case in point. Despite the creation of its own Peace and Security Council, the organization suffers from troubling institutional, professional, technical, logistical and material gaps. Consequently, burden sharing can easily devolve into “burden shifting”—as the international community places unrealistic expectations on unprepared regional bodies. These organizations will only fulfill their potential if outside players—including the United States—seek to nurture their capacities.
  • The United States must adapt its diplomacy to rising regionalism. The State Department tends to approach conflict management through the lens of bilateral relationships, while giving short shrift to relevant regional organizations. (Indeed, it was only in 2009 and 2011, respectively that the United States sent its first resident ambassadors to the AU and ASEAN). Meanwhile, State’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, continues to focus overwhelmingly on the United Nations, though it is beginning to reach out to some regional entities. More effective U.S. engagement will also require changing the professional incentives of foreign service officers, to reward expertise in and diplomatic postings to regional organizations.

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