“You tried your best and you failed miserably. The lesson is… never try.”- Homer Simpson, to Bart and Lisa Simpson, 14 April 1994
To explain what I mean by a problem with no solution I’ll first briefly discuss Syria, Cyprus, Gibraltar, and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reform. Then I’ll talk briefly about what we should do in those type of situations. Finally, I’ll talk a bit about an example of the sort of “suboptimal-optimal policy” about which I am talking, which is the Estonian approach to UNSC reform.
The Syrian Civil War directly and indirectly involves so many state and non-state actors that it is almost a miniature world war. The war’s many facets include: great power rivalry; classical alliance and counter-alliance building; massive migration and related social upheaval and xenophobia; Islamic extremism; democracy promotion; and regional destabilization. And these are just a few relevant facets. Great minds and great powers are all trying to “solve” Syria. It is the talk of everybody at the UNGA. The United States solution for Syria is that Assad goes; the Russian solution for Syria is that Assad stays; not to mention countless other ideas. Yet not only is there is no solution in sight– the pursuit of a solution to the problem of “the Syria crisis” has caused the conflict to grow and the potential for wider conflict has exponentially increased. But maybe four years is not enough time to solve such a difficult problem.
The United Kingdom and Spain (and Gibraltar) have fought over the status of Gibraltar for 300 years(!). It was ceded to Britain by the Spanish in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht and the Spanish have attempted to reclaim it ever since. On 9 October 2015 (just 302 years after the Treaty), Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Marfil demanded that the United Kingdom immediately negotiate over the status of Gibraltar. Spain actually fired on Gibraltarian seacraft in 2013! The two NATO allies’ bitter, centuries-old dispute has gone nowhere. Why? Because there is no solution; or, do they just need more time to work things out?
If we can’t solve a problem that has no solution, what can we do? The answer is to solve around the problem. And what do I mean by that? Almost every state talks about UNSC reform in terms of an expansion of the council and an increase in transparency. Such talk is useless at best, counterproductive at worst. Estonia, Finland, and Costa Rica recently floated a reasonable and workable proposal for reform, which may work because it does not actually reform the Security Council itself.
The idea is to take the selection of the new Secretary-General out of the hands of the P5, to give a role to the UNGA, and to “open up” the process. The idea is that you could get a Secretary-General that is more responsive to the GA and is not completely beholden to the P5; yet recognizes the importance of the P5. Recently, I spoke to Minna-Liina Lind, the Deputy Permanent Representative from Estonia about the proposal and she told me that, “Estonia has been a strong supporter of reforming the working methods of the Security Council… as something more achievable, targeting the process part of it, and not the political part of it.” They are not talking about any of the UNSC’s core functions– those issues are non-starters. The strategy is to pursue a compromise and agreement that will have a generally net positive effect on the system– and to do that you have to think big by thinking small. The UN is actually a great place to think big by thinking small.
Not every problem can solved in a conference room. Or in a courtroom. Or in the court of public opinion. Or by “facts on the ground.” Or on a battlefield. Or in cyberspace. Or by the philosophical descendants of the “metaphysicians of Geneva,” to quote E.H. Carr, as is now my habit. Some problems can’t be solved at all. To think that any one state or diplomat is uniquely able to solve such a problem is as much paternalistic as it is arrogant. The most important thing to do, as it so often is, is to listen to Homer Simpson– we should not try to solve problems without solutions. We should try to solve around problems.
Cover Image: UN Photo/Mark Garten
What can be done if some international problems cannot be solved at all? What are the opportunities and challenges for "solving around the problems"? Join the discussion in the comments section below.