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Martti Ahtisaari: A world order in crisis

Published on Monday, 16 April 2018

World leaders have drifted far apart, writes the founder of CMI, President Martti Ahtisaari. There seem to be very few signs of genuine desire to negotiate and find common solutions to conflicts.

We live in strange and unstable times, with tensions in international politics growing fast. In addition to wars and conflicts, almost every week we hear new reports of bickering and rivalry between the world’s major powers, provocative military exercises, contempt for or outright violation of international treaties, the incitement of trade wars, and the dissolution of democracy in the heart of Europe.

I visited New York in mid-March, and the international officials, diplomats and politicians I met are clearly concerned about the state of the world. The inability of the United Nations to function, especially with regard to the five permanent member countries of the Security Council, results in uncertainty across the globe. The situation is not helped by the deep animosity between Russia and the United States.

In general, then, it seems that world leaders have drifted far apart. There seem to be very few signs of any genuine desire to negotiate and seek common solutions even relatively minor conflicts, let alone the large-scale ones. A particularly sad example of this is the war in Syria, which is now in its seventh year. The lack of cooperation between the United States and Russia is a threat to stability in the whole world.

Among the people I met and talked with on my trip was Bill Clinton, the former president of the United States. Like others, Clinton shares the concerns about the crumbling multilateral world order, and in particular the measures now being taken by the United States that undermine its credibility throughout the world. In the short time that the current United States administration has been in power, it has cut funding for many international organisations, including the United Nations.

Bill Clinton was not the only one who was amazed at how, in just a few decades, the world now finds itself in a situation where there is no longer any constructive dialogue between the major powers, and the threat or use of force has become the new normal. Clinton wistfully recalled the Helsinki Process and the meetings of the leaders of the major world powers that were held in Helsinki in 1997. In those days, despite their different views President Clinton and President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin both understood the importance of dialogue and interaction in international relations. Clinton recalled that even the prospect of Russian cooperation with NATO was discussed. Why is cooperation across divides not possible now?

The prevailing state of mind in the world at this moment is much like that of the Cold War, with a very tense and volatile atmosphere. In response to any provocative statement or act, there is a seemingly irresistible urge to strike back in kind. There is far more bickering and jostling for position than there is any desire to search for lasting and mutually acceptable solutions – the sort of solutions that are most affordable over the long run. The dominant mode of thinking now seems to be that the common good of humanity is in fundamental conflict with the interests of individual states. This is despite the fact that cooperation and the relative stability it produces ultimately benefit everyone. Some clear examples of this are climate-related matters and refugee policies.

I would argue that the current state of affairs is deeply rooted in a lack of trust. When political leaders do not trust each other and instead pursue competitive policies, others are left with no-one to follow. Particularly worrying is the fact that the lack of trust between the world’s major powers is hindering the activities of the UN and its Security Council. If the United States withdraws from multilateral cooperation, a dangerous vacuum will be left in the world system. The international system needs a strong leader that is willing and able to defend universal values such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

I have been a peace mediator for most of my life. Now, at the age of 80, I can look back on the many conflicting parties, world leaders and other politicians I have had dealings with, and still honestly say that I believe all conflicts can be solved – if only there is the political will.

Peace mediation is at heart of building people’s trust and creating cooperation. No person or country can resolve major conflicts alone. It requires cooperation between states, international organisations such as the UN, and independent and independent actors such as CMI, the conflict resolution organisation I established. Thanks to their flexibility, operators like CMI can play a major role in solving conflicts around the world. They are able to support the peace efforts of the UN and other official mediators.

I am and have long been a UN man, and continue to strongly believe in the organisation despite its shortcomings. Empowering the United Nations serves the best interests of all countries. It is always worth recalling that the United Nations was founded after World War II to create and maintain peace in the world, and that in joining the UN every member state commits to promoting peace. It is vital that the member states of the UN do their best to make this commitment visible in practice also. I have confidence in the current leadership of the United Nations, not least because the current Secretary-General, António Guterres, comes from within the UN system and knows the rules of the game. And most importantly, he has the confidence of the UN civil service behind him.

I am always been a bit of an odd-job man, as I was referred to in 1999 by the investor and philanthropist George Soros. It was Soros who encouraged me to set up my own organisation to undertake the “odd jobs” essential to peacemaking in the world – that is, the kinds of tasks that others were not yet doing. Now there is great demand for CMI and organisations like us. CMI’s eighty professionals work to get to the heart of violent conflicts around the world, bringing the conflicting parties to the negotiating table and building peace between them. CMI’s ambitious vision is that all conflicts can be resolved. My conviction is that whatever harmful processes humans have put in action, they can also bring them to an end. The world is never going to be “ready” or free from problems. What is decisive is how one responds to a situation, and that will always be the case.

Being an eternal optimist, as I am, can take things a long way.

This article was originally published in Vieraskynä section of Uusi Suomi. The article is a part of a collaboration started by CMI and Uusi Suomi.