In an increasingly dangerous world, we desperately need a new era of détente
Advancing peace proposals for the Russia-Ukraine conflict is risky business. No one likes appeasement. NATO countries, including Canada, are all-in on military support for Ukraine, seemingly the only solution to Russia’s 2022 invasion.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Russians have been killed or wounded, and millions of refugees have fled.
Things could actually get worse. Bidding farewell to Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of his visit to Moscow in March this year, China’s President Xi Jinping remarked ominously: “Right now there are changes – the likes of which we haven’t seen for 100 years – and we are the ones driving these changes together.”
Are wars really unavoidable? Must military solutions always be exhausted before diplomacy can begin?
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One determining factor is the tendency of countries to stick within exclusive security alliances or ‘spheres of influence’. While it’s instinctive for smaller countries to seek the military protection of larger ones, it creates a bloc in thrall to a dominant power. This produces group think. It can also put soldiers in the lead over diplomats, which is dangerous.
This is what happened during the Cold War. The opposing sides came to realize the dangers of continuous confrontation, especially with nuclear-armed missiles pointed at each other. By the 1970s, they decided to pursue détente, a deliberate effort to ease strained relations through active diplomacy.
Détente is precisely what is needed again, and the Cold War experience offers a plausible template.
The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) – a Finnish initiative – was launched in 1973. By 1975, 35 participating countries agreed to the Helsinki Accords, which committed signatories to ongoing negotiations on everything from arms control and disarmament to confidence-building and human rights. (I was a junior delegate to the 1984-86 Stockholm Conference, which focused on formulating confidence-building measures.)
The CSCE process kept otherwise hostile camps at diplomatic tables for 21e years. It led to the establishment in 1994 of a permanent organization called the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Alas, the OSCE’s ineffectiveness in handling the Russian invasion of Ukraine is precisely why a new process is needed now to deal with modern threats. China’s rise as an adversary, and its current alignment with Russia, means the process needs to be more inclusive. Giants like India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil, and others, also need to have a voice in a new ‘global conference on security and cooperation’.
Of course, the G20 annual summit already convenes the major powers. But it has proved useless for resolving conflicts. Facing criminal charges at the International Criminal Court, Putin has been unable to participate for fear of arrest. Undoubtedly, a similar scenario would prevent Xi’s participation if China were to initiate its threatened military action against Taiwan.
So, unless shunning is our only diplomatic tool, a new process drawing on the Helsinki Accords model would be helpful. The first step would be to negotiate a new accord relevant to the world’s changed circumstances. Areas for cooperation would include:
- arms control and disarmament, including nuclear as well as new weapons technologies (cyber, A.I., space, biotech, hypersonics, etc.), plus terrorism,
- human rights,
- economic development, and again
- confidence-building measures.
Keeping hostile parties at negotiating tables is precisely the point. The longer, the better. Ideally, such a process would become permanent. Members would commit to annual meetings and convene urgently in response to unfolding conflicts. Smaller non-member states engaged in conflicts could be invited, as necessary. Without changing the legal role of the UN, it would do what that body was originally designed to do, but absent the handicaps of a too-exclusive, veto-wielding Security Council, and an all-inclusive and therefore unwieldy General Assembly, all based on U.S. soil.
Establishing a new institution comes with its own set of challenges, such as forging the political commitment, selecting an apt location, determining membership, and honestly addressing the weariness of frequent summits. Fighting first and turning to diplomacy only when the parties are exhausted is a difficult habit to break.
Skeptics will argue that it’s pie in the sky to suggest otherwise. No great powers and certainly no authoritarian leaders would ever come to the table and risk existential compromise. But these hurdles are worth trying to overcome. We have done so in the past.
In the end, diplomacy will always be preferable to fighting and dying over disputes between states. In an increasingly dangerous world, we desperately need an era of détente and a new place for diplomacy to operate.
Randolph Mank is a former Canadian diplomat and business executive. He currently heads MankGlobal consulting, serves on boards, and is a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, Triple Helix, and the Balsillie School of International Affairs.
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