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Don't Give Peace Too Many Chances.
Nothing is more dangerous than a flawed peace treaty.
There’s a fundamental difference between a state of peace and a peace treaty. History is full of disasters brought about by treaties negotiated at the wrong time, or forced on unwilling participants. We don’t want to go through that again with Ukraine.
Note: Some of what follows is adapted from a paper commissioned a few years ago by a European think-tank, but never published because it was seen as too controversial. I wasn’t paid, either.
Our society views peace as always preferable to conflict and war, or at least in principle. The peacemakers are blessed and so are their productions, however questionable they may turn out to be. The announcement of a peace treaty or even a ceasefire—as recently in Ethiopia—is seen as unambiguously good news. Moreover, it is assumed that peace is the natural order of things, and that once “underlying causes” have been dealt with, and a few villainous individuals convicted of something or other, then peace will arrive naturally, and everyone will welcome it.
It wasn’t always like that. For most of human history, war was considered normal and even praiseworthy. Too long a peace, in some of Shakespeare’s plays, is believed to lead to decadence. War, by contrast, is the opportunity for deeds of valour and heroism, and great leaders were generally great war-leaders, and great war-leaders were those who had routed enemy armies, killed large numbers of enemies with their own hand, and burned their cities and enslaved their people. “Saul has slain his thousands, but David his tens of thousands,” sang the Israelite women in the First Book of Samuel exultantly, not showing much concern for the relatives of the slain.
Now, this isn’t to say that ordinary people necessarily enjoyed war very much: it was seen at best as an unavoidable evil, and actually living through the Hundred Years’ War, or the Thirty Years’ War, must have been a terrifying and traumatising experience for many people. But even so, the lure of “going for a soldier”, of performing brave deeds and making your fortune along the way, seems to be a persistent part of the human psyche, most recently visible in the mud and blood of Ukraine.
All this has changed progressively in the last couple of hundred years, not because the world has changed, but because the dominant narrative about it has. As I’ve pointed out before, Liberalism has never really understood issues of conflict and peace. Conflicts “break out,” nations “descend into” violence, sometimes because the people involved are stupid, sometimes because “entrepreneurs of violence” exploit “real if exaggerated grievances” for their own purpose. Critically, conflicts are never really “about” anything, and so peace negotiations, welcomed by all, and ideally facilitated by that curious mongrel animal the International Community, can invariably settle even the most intractable disputes if the will exists, and peace will endure if the “underlying causes” are dealt with.
A moment’s thought suggests that this model of the ills of the world is drawn from contract law and contract negotiations, as so much of Liberal thinking is. A peace treaty can thus be compared to the establishment of a Cartel to control the sale of a particular product in a particular market. There will be tough negotiations, but eventually a compromise that satisfies everyone can be hammered out. Because, in the Liberal view, conflict is ultimately about power and resources, it can be resolved according to the same logic: that much for you, this much for me. The trouble is, the world as a whole doesn’t work like that.
In particular, conflicts are usually about something in practice, and are often binary, zero-sum situations where someone (usually the weaker side) will lose from any peace agreement. So the Middle East “conflict”, for example, is not about reciprocal hatred and distrust between Jews and Palestinians, but rather about who is to possess the land where the Palestinians lived until 1949. In the end, you and I cannot both own the same house, and in a conflict the stronger will win. Whilst the root causes of the conflict can theoretically be addressed in a peace settlement, in many cases this is impossible without effectively awarding victory to one side. Here we might recall Michel Foucault’s inversion of Clausewitz’s famous formula: politics is the continuation of war by other means. Even when a political authority puts an end to war, future political relations are anchored in the balance of forces at the conflict’s end. So peace treaties and the institutions they establish, are not neutral, but reflect the balance of political and military power at the time of signature.
Likewise, the assumption that conflict is essentially irrational (or it would not occur), and so can be resolved through the Liberal values of rationality and logic, actually underestimates the importance of irrational motives themselves. David Hume’s observation that “reason is slave to the passions” has been spectacularly confirmed by the findings of modern neuroscience, which tells us that most decisions are actually taken by our unconscious mind on emotional grounds, and that the conscious mind largely serves to provide post hoc rational justifications. This is why the role of fear in provoking and prolonging conflict is so little understood. Fear, in fact, is the single largest conflict generator, and is by definition not addressable by rational argument or the careful drafting of peace treaty articles. The UN Special Representative in Burundi at the time of the Rwandan crisis commented in an interview that what that country needed was not peacekeepers but psychiatrists: “they are all frightened of each other. When I shake their hands they are dripping with sweat.” In such circumstances, there is no reason to trust anyone, and every reason to see conspiracies everywhere.
Liberal assumptions also see peace and conflict as binary opposites. It does not necessarily look that way on the ground. Many political systems exist in a state of constant mild conflict, traversing a spectrum according to the political situation. Violence is therefore a tool like any other, to be used when it is appropriate, and left aside in favour of negotiations or politics when it is not productive. In a country like Lebanon, for example, violence is a language in which different factions and their foreign sponsors talk to and negotiate with each other. The spectrum ranges from violent street demonstrations to assassinations, car bombings and outright conflict, each of which sends a calibrated message, which is understood by others. Clearly, a “peace settlement” in such circumstances is unattainable, and to believe that one has actually been negotiated is dangerous.
Nor are peace agreements universally popular: indeed, conflict has many advantages, to both great and small. It brings political attention, money, investment and foreign aid workers and troops with money to spend. It has become increasingly obvious in recent years how certain conflicts continue because it is in the interest of all major players that they should do so. (It is otherwise inconceivable that the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo should have lasted so long). To call such people “spoilers” is hardly adequate: for the most part they are simply responding intelligently to the dictates and opportunities of the situation.
So there are many reasons to want a low-level conflict to continue, with only modest casualties and correspondingly few incentives to arrive at a genuine peace, where as David Keen reminds us in an important study, “… the political and economic functions of war do not simply disappear…. peace is often very violent, while the post-war period turns out, all too often, to be a pre-war period.” So the intelligent leader of a country or a faction, unless he or she is losing badly, is more likely to prefer the known quantity of conflict to the uncertainties of peace. This does not mean, of course, that talking about peace, or even signing a peace agreement, is ruled out if that is tactically advantageous. But in most cultures other than our own, signing a peace agreement is one political decision, whilst implementing it is quite another. In any case, before promising to sign and respect a peace agreement, an intelligent leader will ask themselves two questions:
· Will signing this peace agreement further my political aims?
· If I implement it, will I still be alive at the end of a certain minimum period?
Yet in spite of all these difficulties and weaknesses, peace treaties are almost always signed, even if they later lead to conflict. Why is this?
First, it’s important to distinguish between two types of effective treaties. One (often, in practice an armistice) can be considered an administrative treaty. Even unconditional surrender has to be organised in some fashion, after all. Traditionally, such treaties were imposed on the vanquished by the victor (the French defeat of 1870-71 is a good example), and it was normal for the losing side to pay the winning side’s costs, as in a court-case. This was the model still in operation at the time of the Versailles negotiations.
The second is a substantive treaty, where differences have to be ironed out, objectives matched against each other, and, it is hoped, a lasting political settlement agreed. This is a type of treaty typical of the wars of limited objectives of the early modern period, such as the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession. In such treaties, everyone agrees that the war has gone on long enough, that it is unlikely that more fighting will resolve anything, and the time has come to talk. By 1713 it was clear that the French would have their choice of a new King in Spain, but there were a whole host of other issues to be sorted out between the rulers of Europe.
Curiously, most peace treaties negotiated in modern times fall into neither of these categories. Perhaps that is why so many of them fail, and lead to further conflict. These treaties tend to be imposed, or at least strongly encouraged and facilitated, from outside, by nations and individuals sharing broadly Liberal ideas about peace and security, and therefore rather dissociated from reality. Now, whilst all these ideas are not much in evidence in the case of the war in Ukraine at the moment (rather, the airwaves themselves are sagging under the weight of liberal-humanitarian bloodlust) there is going to come a point where “peace talks” are necessary, or at least possible, and at that moment the traditional Liberal ideas will almost certainly pop up again. I’ve already suggested that we need to beware of them in principle: here are a few cases where they have worked disastrously in practice, and which may provide some food for thought in the context of Ukraine.
One is dominance by outsiders, who may heavily influence one or more of the parties, and indeed provide much of the material for the final treaty itself. This happened at the Versailles and associated negotiations, where Wilson and the American delegation benefited from their status as banker of the Entente Powers, and his own status as Head of State. They also arrived with both a significant normative agenda, and little practical knowledge and experience either of Europe and the Middle East, or of the art of negotiation. The Paris Conference was also the first in which large numbers of states were either not represented as negotiators, or were at best in supplicatory mode, approaching the British, French and Americans for favours. The Great Powers were, to a large extent, able to dispose as they thought fit.
This pattern continues today, with the added complication that peace negotiations may be dominated not merely by outside states, but by politicians and the media in national capitals remote from the action. During the Bosnia conflict, a general armistice would have been possible any time after 1993, probably along the lines of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan. But political opinion in a number of western capitals remote from the action and from the steady accretion of corpses, obstructed any settlement that “rewarded aggression,” irrespective of whether the locals wanted it. In the chilling words of one Dutch politician, what was needed was “an arrangement which will satisfy our sense of justice.” But he was not alone, and the US government, urged on by influential NGOs, managed to obstruct peace for some time. Similar comments are already being made about Ukraine. This attitude of aloof moralism, far removed from the reality on the ground, can lead to peace negotiations being structured to meet the requirements of political systems outside the conflict zone.
In the case of Ukraine, it seems fairly obvious that, once the West comes round to the idea of negotiations, it is likely to want to try to determine their outcome. But since the West will have little or no leverage over the Russians, it will attempt to compensate by micro-managing the Ukrainian side. This will have (at least) two obvious consequences. One will be to put what is “acceptable” to the West, and what can be sold to publics, parliaments and the media, ahead of any consideration of the interests of the Ukrainian people, or indeed the prospects for peace. The temptation, indeed, will be to try to force the Ukrainians to take a harder line in the negotiations than is actually sensible, or even practicable. Another is that any unity of purpose the West may have at the beginning will quickly evaporate, and different western countries, individually or in combination, will negotiate separately with different factions in or out of the Ukrainian government.
External actors themselves, of course, have their agendas with each other and in their own country, and much depends on whether they have any kind of official status in the talks. It’s hard to imagine that the United States, NATO and the European Union will simply observe any negotiations about Ukraine from a distance without trying to influence them, but of course the more players there are in a negotiation, the geometrically more complex it becomes. Relations between these actors (which largely overlap anyway), are likely to become tense very quickly. There’s also a fundamental difference between facilitating negotiations with expertise and logistic aid, and just getting in the way and trying to influence the outcome. The 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement for Sudan, for example, largely masterminded from abroad, produced a text that was far too complex and ambitious to be implemented, and led ultimately to the independence, and then the implosion, of South Sudan. In any case, it’s not unknown for even formal negotiations to be destabilised by the activities of individual large players: an example is the 1998 Rome Statute negotiations, where other parties went to enormous lengths to accommodate the US in the wording of the final treaty, only to find that President Clinton was afraid to put it to his Senate for ratification.
Another risk is an overly technical approach to problems which are in fact deeply political and may actually have no easy solution. Although the popular cultural discourse of the First World War, following the lead of the literature of the 1920s, is of an “unnecessary war” full of “mindless slaughter” that “settled nothing,” the truth is rather different. The War had its ultimate origin in the logic of the replacement of scattered imperial possessions with new nation-states, and the consequent problems of what the borders of these nation-states were going to be, and how they would be fixed. (The answer to the second question was unfortunately straightforward: it was by violence.) In practice this resolved itself into the future of the Hapsburg, Ottoman and Romanov Empires, and whether they could each contain their internal centripetal pressures. Other, subsidiary themes included, who would control the former Ottoman territories if that Empire collapsed, and where the borders between the successor states to the Romanov and Hapsburg Empires would be, as well as the small question of whether France or Germany would be the major military power in Europe.
These questions were answered to a degree by the War itself, as well as the years of conflict that followed, and by the series of treaties usually referred to as “Versailles.” In defence of Lloyd George, Wilson and Clemenceau, it can be said that they did their best, in the face of problems that were intellectually and politically far more complex than they could cope with. But their actual approach was reminiscent of an eighteenth-century negotiation where territories were traded between sovereigns, rather than a world where popular nationalist feelings and democratic politics were starting to have a real influence. So it probably seemed a clever idea to award the German-speaking Sudetenland to the newly-minted state of Czechoslovakia to provide it with a defensible frontier. What could possibly go wrong?
In many ways, that inability to grasp the same big picture that we see more clearly now, is paralleled in the incapacity of our political, intellectual and media elites to understand what is going in in and, more importantly around, Ukraine today. What we are seeing is really two things: the final unwinding of the tensions inherent in the situation at the end of the Second World War, and the subsequent creation of a new security order in Europe, where either the US or Russia will dominate. And if both of those points seem to have echoes of the period 1914-21, well perhaps they do: in that sense it’s fair to say the the First World War “settled nothing” because final settlements in history are rare. Just as was the case a century ago, these large intractable problems contain lots of smaller intractable problems, such as the final arrangements for the disposition of the republics of the former Soviet Union, the fate of the boundaries established by force after 1945, the progressive emptying-out of the populations of the declining countries of the East, and the issue of whether France or Germany is to be the dominant player in Europe. Among others, of course.
In 1914, the collection of political tensions that existed in Europe produced a situation that could not be peacefully resolved: France and Germany could not swap ownership of Alsace and Lorraine on alternate weeks, and Poland either existed or it didn’t. The result was violence. Similarly, today, the apparently irresistible eastward march of normative Liberalism has run directly into the genuinely immovable mass of Russian opposition. In theory, the latter case could have been finessed, at least for a while, but as I’ve argued, this would have been at the cost of creating an existential crisis in western Liberal culture. In practice, the collision was probably inevitable.
Now it’s important not to get carried away in historical comparisons. A general war in Europe is not going to happen now, not least because the wider West does not have the means to fight one. But the two moments are, I would argue, of comparable gravity, and significance. This means that attempts to Band-Aid the problem will only delay the worst, and the worst will probably be worse than it would otherwise have been. The only thing that will, possibly, stabilise the situation is if it is allowed to unwind itself completely, which it probably will anyway. (I’ll expand on that gnomic comment in a moment.)
A final risk (three is enough) is that the participants in negotiations simply have no real interest in concluding them positively. This sounds obvious, but there has been a decades-long history of forcing an agreement—any agreement—on parties to an armed conflict, and then being shocked when it goes horribly wrong. The classic modern case is the Arusha Peace Treaty of 1993 for Rwanda, which divided the country, the government and the security forces, roughly equally between the RPF, representatives of the old aristocratic class in exile, and the then-existing coalition government in Kigali, whilst excluding all other political forces. In a country and a region where massacres were a traditional basic tool of politics, and the very concept of negotiation and compromise had always been absent, the Treaty itself destabilised the situation and made a resumption of the war effectively inevitable, with the terrible consequences that followed.
But the reverse can also be true. After the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, and the unbanning of the ANC and the Communist Party, the various sides had to work out a way forward. Although there were small groups of hardliners in different places, the vast majority of the actors (like the vast majority of the population) recognised that the only choices were an agreement of some kind, or an apocalyptic death spiral for the country. There is nothing that so concentrates the mind on the search for solutions as the prospect of destruction if you do not succeed. And to that extent, whilst many of the agreements made between 1990 and 1994 can be, and have been, heavily criticised, this doesn’t obscure the fact that the shared political will to get out of the impasse succeeded in flattening all the obstacles.
In the case of Ukraine, it’s important to distinguish several different types of “agreements,” each of which may be subject to some of the problems discussed above. It may be helpful to take them sequentially. First, the end of any fighting requires technical arrangements of some kind. There will be a line beyond which the Russians do not intend to go, there will be issues of security and law and order in towns nearby, many cases of people who need to transit the line of control, security on both sides, investigations of breaches of the agreement, and so on. Such arrangements are best negotiated locally by those who will have to implement them. History suggests that “international observers” and even more forces of interposition, at best add nothing and at worst can be manipulated and become part of the problem.
Such interim arrangements will at some point have to be included in a settlement which establishes the future boundaries and political composition of Ukraine. History suggests that it is unreasonable to expect too much from documents, because pressure to reach an agreement inevitably leads to compromises, which might be regretted and even abandoned later. In particular, it is hard to believe that any immediately foreseeable Ukrainian government would be united enough, and have enough control of the country, to sign and implement a binding agreement. As a historical precedent, consider the case of the bitterly divisive Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, which required major concessions by both sides. FE Smith, one of the British negotiators, remarked afterwards to Michael Collins, leader of the Irish delegation “I may have signed my political death warrant.” To which Collins replied, presciently “I may have signed my actual death warrant.” He was assassinated a few months later. Or consider the case of the KLA delegates to the Rambouillet talks on Kosovo in 1999, where the head of the delegation (who in truth was only a spokesman for the military commanders) was obliged to tell the US delegation that if he signed their proposed treaty text, he would be killed on his return.
All this suggests that there is little real point in trying to negotiate some all-embracing political settlement for Ukraine, with a large and elaborate set of structures for implementation. Such a settlement would probably contain within itself the seeds of its destruction: crudely, as we have seen, the more complex the settlement, the greater the room for things to go wrong. By contrast, the bare outlines of a settlement—a demilitarised and somewhat smaller Ukraine with no western influence—are easy to understand, and also essentially robust. It is this that will need to be kept in mind, although Russian legalism and the inevitable tendency of negotiations to throw up complex problems which invite complex solutions will make this difficult. The involvement of outside parties should be resisted as much as possible, because there is, in fact, little they can contribute, and it is unlikely than any particular outside party will be acceptable to both sides. And such involvement brings its own problems: the convention that a US government is not bound by treaties signed by its predecessor, for example, is unhelpful.
Finally, there is the wider question of the new security order in Europe that will emerge after the conflict. Here again, it’s not very useful to talk in terms of treaties and formal agreements, because, to the extent that they will feature at all, it will be as a tidying-up exercise when the main political contours have already adjusted. Indeed, it’s a classic error to suppose that formal agreements change things: they don’t. The successful ones, at least, simply register the fact that things have changed already. The fundamental problem of this new security order is easy to state: only one external power can have a decisive influence on western Europe. It can be the US or it can be Russia, but it cannot be both at the same time. After 1945, there was a geographical demarcation between the two, and there were unwritten rules supporting it. Although there was never a Cold War Treaty, the situation was remarkably stable, and the two great powers generally avoided direct challenges to each other. After 1989, the US advanced steadily, until it hit a brick wall early this year. It’s now possible to see a new dispensation, not without the US entirely, since life doesn’t work like that, but with a sharply reduced American role in Europe and de facto recognition of Russian influence. NATO will probably continue in some form, and there may even be a few US military units clinging to the periphery, but this will largely be theatre. Now there’s no reason to think the Russians will want to emulate the US practices of direct involvements with European countries, military bases and so forth, and indeed they don’t need to. A generally understood but unspoken recognition that the new regime is: Americans out, Russians in and Germans (still) down would be enough.
The longer the war goes on, the more likely it is that the second and third of these settlements will appear on the ground, after which formalising them in a treaty may not even be necessary. Nobody, of course, wants wars to continue for the sake of it, but, as I have argued, attempts to use negotiations and treaties to stop conflicts that actually have an unstoppable dynamic simply make things worse in the end. By contrast, some wars, like that in Bosnia, do eventually end when the sides are exhausted. However unattractive the idea may seem, some crises just have to be left to play themselves out, if there is ever to be a stable outcome that stands a chance of lasting.