Traditionally, many peacebuilders have shunned geopolitics because it represents the kind of power politics, emphasis on hard security, top-down approaches and confrontation that is an anathema to principles that peacebuilders hold close. Yet, changes in global power dynamics may provide new spaces for multilateral and local peacebuilding in old and emerging conflicts, as well as an opportunity for new focus and engagement in European peacebuilding.
If we look to the next 20 years of European support for peacebuilding it will be determined by significant shifts in geo and domestic politics. This wider politics, rather than the latest policy statement, conflict analysis tool, funding instrument or any new thinking on the linkages of development, peace and security will determine European support to peacebuilding. Evolutions caused by changing politics give rise to profound challenges. This blog focuses on two interrelated political issues, and one consequence that will shape EU support to peacebuilding. It is targeted at a European peacebuilding audience. It draws on past analysis conducted by ECDPM but is a personal reflection.
Peacebuilding in the age of open geopolitics competition
To talk of geopolitical competition is very much in vogue, and few analysts would deny that there is a change in global power dynamics amongst the major powers and power blocks. Different societal models are also being promoted globally, ones that are more liberal and democratic by the West or more authoritarian and state-centric by China and Russia. More generally though, all are pursuing their own interests more vigorously with less commitment to multilateralism. Traditionally, many peacebuilders have shunned geopolitics because it represents the kind of power politics, emphasis on hard security, top-down approaches and confrontation that is an anathema to principles that peacebuilders hold close. Yet, the end of the Cold War over 30 years ago clearly opened up multilateral and local space for peacebuilding in old and emerging conflicts that had previously been held hostage to geopolitical competition. This is now changing, arguably at a faster pace with an inevitable consequence for support to peacebuilding and the space available for it. European support to international peacebuilding over the next 20 years will have to find its way in a new geopolitical reality.
Key issue 1: Is shifting geopolitics really closing or opening political and operational space for international peacebuilding? If closing, what can peacebuilders do about it?
Peacebuilding in the age of more volatile European politics
There are many contradictions and policy incoherencies when it comes to Europe’s approach to linking development, peace and security, largely as a result of choices related to domestic and wider foreign political priorities. There should be no misty-eyed idealism about the European contribution to global peacebuilding, but nor should there be needless self-flagellation. Domestic politics is becoming more volatile and less predictable in Europe. The political consensus of European domestic priorities of the post Second World War, and the immediate post-Cold War period is not so evident in European politics. This shift could place containment, stabilisation and narrow defence interests, alternatively simply indifference or
lack of focus, more central to European responses to violent conflict. This also makes the credibility of European actors as supporters of international peacebuilders more questionable.
Peacebuilding, being an ‘expert’ and niche community, is quite small and distant from most domestic politics and the top tables of foreign policy decision-making with little significance for opinion forming in Europe. For much of the last 20 years, with some notable exceptions, it wasn’t really concerned with engaging domestic politics more broadly, even if robust discussions with and amongst officials occurred with increasing frequency at the expert level. This lack of engagement at scale is true of both European countries where the peacebuilding community is well established such as Germany, the United Kingdom or the Netherlands or where it is more nascent such as Italy. This is beginning to change, but given the structural weaknesses in size, political connections, and reliance often on government financing in the European peacebuilding community, there is still a long way to go. Consequently, the question of how to do this engagement with domestic politics effectively across partisan lines is difficult to answer for the peacebuilding community.
Key issue 2: Are shifting domestic European politics going to support or undermine international peacebuilding? How can peacebuilders in Europe engage effectively and across party political lines in domestic politics, at the elite, opinion former and societal levels to ensure that peace doesn’t get squeezed off the agenda or become instrumentalised?
Shifting thematic and geographic priorities
The consequences of these geopolitical and domestic shifts are that European governments’ interests and therefore their priorities are moving in terms of their geographic or thematic focus of peacebuilding support either diplomatic or financial. Violent conflict and its fallout coming closer to the borders of Europe, managing refugee flows and debates about enhancing defence capabilities have shifted the focus of political energy and policy responses – the peacebuilding dimension being quite remote. Driven out of necessity, peacebuilders over the last 20 years often had to be adaptive to the dynamics of policy energy and frankly financing options, yet this comes with perils and ethical hazards.
Peace is also not the major issue on the policy or financial agenda; dominant global issues such as climate crisis, digital transformation, economic recovery after COVID-19 and defence are increasingly the focus of European policymakers domestically and internationally. The same applies to migration management and the political framing of migration as a security topic. While it may well be true to say that peacebuilding is intimately linked to all these issues, the framing and connection is often absent beyond the niche community. Particularly when it comes to where political energy and finances are put in terms of response to these challenges. European peacebuilders will have both make this link more effectively between peacebuilding and these issues, and somewhat adapt and reinvent themselves. This requires developing new narratives and new partnerships while staying true to their principles and past learning to survive and stay relevant.
Key issue 3: How adaptive should peacebuilders be to the evolving geographic and thematic priorities set out by the European governmental institutions? How can peacebuilders influence geographic and thematic priorities from inside and outside of governmental institutions?
The current ‘mood music’ for support for international peacebuilding from Europe is not great. Added to these points, the inequities in the global system further exposed by COVID-19 and its response and the climate crisis can make the next 20 years look somewhat bleak for peacebuilders. The fact that some senior European politicians think that this is the most dangerous period for Europe since the end of the Cold War is not a promising sign. On a more positive note, it is clear that in the last 20 years the understanding of peacebuilding has increased in Europe and the peacebuilding community has ‘grown’ and become more institutionalised. The work of organisations like FriEnt is a testament to that growth and professionalisation. The challenge is now to take this to the next level. The peacebuilding community in Europe will need to grow further and seek to engage and influence domestic political debates and foreign policy choices if it is to remain relevant and sufficiently supported over the next 20 years.