Recently, 24 former foreign ministers, representing years of diplomatic experience – all with previous involvements in the Middle East and Africa – gathered under the auspices of the Aspen Institute in Marrakesh to focus on the turmoil currently roiling some Arab states.
It was of particular relevance as the Syrian conflict has just marked an anniversary and entered into its third year with no obvious resolution in sight. The former ministers were asked by the chair of the group, former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright, to see if they could put their experience to work on ideas that might allay the various conflicts and abet the building of stable, representative governments. In effect, we were tasked with finding any traces of light in all the dark. To quote Leonard Cohen’s felicitous lyric from the song Anthem, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
With such a varied group, one might have expected a diversity of view that would overwhelm any consensus. However, there were two obvious and necessary recommendations.
First, if there was to be stoppage to the killing in Syria, there would have to be a face-to-face meeting between presidents Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama. This meeting would have to be supported by regional leaders with the goal of resolving differences and liberating the paralysis in the Security Council. There was dismay that such a confab had yet to be worked out. There was a sense that Mr. Obama’s most recent visit to the Middle East was a missed opportunity to get peace talks underway.
Second, it was about time that members of the United Nations began to live up to the principle their leaders passed in 2005 to uphold the Responsibility to Protect: That is, to give full safety and security to innocent people when their domestic governments cannot, will not, or are themselves the predators.
Clearly the UN special envoy for the region, Lakhdar Brahimi, needs far more political backing than he now receives in his effort to arrange a ceasefire. And this is occurring amid reports of failure on the part of UN member states to live up to their commitments of resources for relief efforts for the Syrian refugees. The movement of people is not simply a humanitarian concern, but one with clear implications for the stability of the entire region. Simply put, beyond the political hesitation and game-playing, there are obvious opportunities where more can be done.
These considerations of the ex-ministers however, went beyond the expected transactional advice and began to probe at what ultimately could be a key factor in addressing a fundamental source of Middle East angst. This is the issue of diminishing food security for the people of the region, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change and the concomitant underlying shortage of water.
This is not to argue against the reality that sectarian divisions, the autocracy of governments, simmering state rivalries and popular demand for reform had not in themselves created the tinderbox that occasionally sets the region afire. Nevertheless, the region faces a shortage of water, arable land is shrinking and volatile food prices limit access to food. History has shown that any grievance over access to food will make for a potent cocktail of conflict and insecurity.
At the same time as the Marrakesh meeting, the Centre for American Progress released a book of academic writings that makes a similar case. Anne-Marie Slaughter, in the preface to The Arab Spring and Climate Change, does not argue that climate change caused the revolutions that have shaken the Arab world over the past two years, but the essays collected in this slim volume make a compelling case that the consequences of climate change are stressors that can ignite a volatile mix of underlying causes that erupt into revolution.
Taking this argument one step further, the necessity to come to grips with this reality opens up an opportunity for international mobilization of resources, expertise and support to offer to people and governments of the region.
Possible solutions to these problems remain non-political while offering individual states the ability to adapt to the food security and water challenges. Israel is already a regional leader in the reuse and purification of drinking water – offering one possible node in a network of solutions.
Efforts to arrest aridity, to build and distribute water systems, and launch serious efforts at renewable energy could be a constructive, non-military way of taking action while drawing attention to more positive engagement, abating the venom that seems to be ever present in today’s politics in the region.
And even if doesn’t have immediate effects, it would, at the very least, show how a co-operative international action can be launched in this time when such actions are AWOL. It may even be a good topic to introduce at a future Putin-Obama summit as they raise their glasses of desalinated water in a toast.
Lloyd Axworthy, a Canadian minister of foreign affairs from 1996 to 2000, is president of the University of Winnipeg