With two distinct models of collaboration, world leaders must create a hybrid approach that can best address today’s challenges.
At the UN building in Geneva in the early hours of November 24, 2013, I reached for a microphone and announced that we had reached an initial agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. Standing with me were the foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council: France, the UK, the US, China, and Russia, who together with Germany had stuck together throughout the years it took to get us to that moment. Everything seemed possible—especially if we could harness the power of international institutions and its core members to work together across the world with common purpose.
Now 10 years later, the moment has passed. The horror of the attacks in Israel and the unfolding humanitarian disaster in Gaza, Russia’s war in Ukraine, and rising concerns about China have made it impossible to imagine a repeat collaboration. Even securing the survival of our planet has proved difficult to the point of dismay, despite the best efforts of some and the desperate needs of others.
We must cherish the tankers. The United Nations was created out of the ashes of World War II. If it is allowed to rust, the prospects of recreating it are virtually nil.
At our disposal we have fundamentally two models of collaboration, which I describe as tankers and yachts. Tankers are big and difficult to maneuver, but they survive for long periods of time, despite rough seas and turbulent winds. The United Nations is such a tanker, as are NATO and the European Union. They can be slow and unwieldy, not always agreeing what to do, and often taking ages to reach a level of consensus. Nevertheless, they all do vital work, much of it unglamorous and under reported. And each was founded to further ideals based on rule of law, democracy, freedom, and human rights—even if these are sometimes honored more in the breach than the observance.
In the last 20 years we saw the rise of the yacht as an alternative model of collaboration. Fast in the water if the wind is good, and able to maneuver quickly to changing circumstances, but also prone to capsizing. Yachts are coalitions of the willing, brought together to tackle one issue, or with one purpose. Beyond that, they don’t sign up to membership, agreed values or views. Making sure Muammar Gaddafi did not murder the people of Benghazi led to a coalition, initially brought together in Paris under French and UK leadership. Eventually the tanker, NATO, took over the military work once the initial coalition had averted the immediate danger of a massacre.
Both models are important; both have their place. But over the years, we have expanded the use of yachts and failed to renew the tankers. We scorn their slow nature, waving at them from the yacht that nips past them in a good wind. While yachts can make a big difference, they are designed to confront a specific challenge. They have a temporary function, not a lasting purpose.
Walking through Benghazi and Tripoli a decade ago, following Gaddafi’s downfall, I was struck by the sense of optimism and hope in the cheers, laughter, and occasional rapid gunfire into the air. I knew from experience that it would not last; the euphoria would soon give way to the harsh reality of building the future. Different ideas and different expectations would clash in argument— or worse, as rival camps set their sights on winning, come what may. A country awash with guns and porous borders descended into chaos. We had yachts, followed by a tanker for military action, but had no viable plans to help the tankers in the reconstruction. Some of the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan have similar roots.
Fast in the water if the wind is good, and able to maneuver quickly to changing circumstances, but also prone to capsizing. Yachts are coalitions of the willing, brought together to tackle one issue, or with one purpose.
It was significant that the Iran talks were hybrid—both a tanker and yacht. Authority to do a deal came from the UN Security Council, which brought the five permanent members (plus Germany) together to work on ensuring the purely peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program. The EU led and chaired the discussions through its Foreign Policy Chief. It was rooted in a tanker—yet its activities were those of a yacht.
It had only one issue to resolve; whatever else was happening was irrelevant to that goal. During 2013 and 2014, the Ukraine crisis began with the Maidan demonstrations and Russia’s invasion of Crimea. At the same time, as I sat with the Russians in Vienna I was working on sanctions against them—flying between Vienna where they were allies, to Kyiv, where they were invaders. People asked how we managed it; I explained we compartmentalized our work. It would have been hard to tell when we were together in Vienna that we were in a bitter dispute with them a few hundred miles away.
What lessons can we learn for the future? First, we must cherish the tankers. The United Nations was created out of the ashes of World War II. If it is allowed to rust, the prospects of recreating it are virtually nil. Second, we must build more yachts, acknowledge that they exist to undertake specific tasks, and strengthen their ability to complete said tasks. Third, we must look for ways to combine the abilities of both kinds of vessel, to ensure we value long-term commitments as much as short-term action.
If there is any proof needed of the importance of building new hybrid vessels it can be found in the two crises that confront us most urgently. One: ending a war and ensuring Ukraine is a sovereign state, protected, and rebuilt; two: to find a long-term lasting solution to bring peace and security to Israel, alongside the Palestinian people who also need the same. Both have an urgency we cannot ignore, and both require long-term sustained action. A more flexible, hybrid architecture, in which big decisions are made in the tankers of set-piece meetings that give direction and authority, together with specific initiatives undertaken by yachts of the willing, could help us deal with both the short and long-term. When consensus is hard to find, and compromise is seen as weakness, we need to combine what we have and put it to work.
The Right Honorable Baroness Catherine Ashton served as the European Union's first High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy from 2009 to 2014. She earned wide praise as a negotiator, leading the P5+1 talks on Iran’s nuclear program and galvanizing agreement between Serbia and Kosovo. Previously, Baroness Ashton served as the first woman Commissioner for Trade in the European Commission and the first woman British European Commissioner. A Life Peer in the British House of Lords, she is a former nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, among other accolades. Currently a Slater Family Distinguished Fellow, she served as a Distinguished Fellow at the Wilson Center in 2017.
Cover photo: Sergei25/Shutterstock.