Carne Ross: Serious issues remain unresolved in the relationship between South Sudan and its northern neighbour
That the world is now "multi-polar" is already a cliché. In this theory, the US is no longer "in charge", and there are now multiple other seats of power, particularly the rising BRIC countries. But what does this really mean in practice? The diplomacy that led to this week's independence of South Sudan, and its membership of the UN, shows the features of this new world, both good and bad.
The process that culminated in the separation of South Sudan has been extraordinarily, but I suspect more and more typically, complicated. It involved a large number of state, multilateral and non-state actors, this last category including oil companies, NGOs and, on occasion, real actors, like film star George Clooney. All of them were influential, if at different times and in different ways.
At the conventional level of diplomacy – that between states – the structure of the process was baroque, verging on the byzantine. Overseen by the UN Security Council, the African Union, in the form of Thabo Mbeki's High-Level Implementation Panel (AUHIP), was given the responsibility to lead the negotiations between north and south to agree arrangements for the separation.
Mbeki's panel was in turn supported by the so-called "Troika" (the US, UK and Norway), the EU, and many other countries with an interest, including Ethiopia, whose prime minister Meles Zenawi played a crucial role. The UN last year convened a "high level" meeting to gather all the most important players – some 40 countries attended.
The involvement of all these countries and regional and international organisations was essential to maximise the alignment of the "international community" around policy towards Sudan and, to a significant extent, it worked. South Sudan's accession to the UN this week was endorsed by all 192 other member states. This was a good day for the UN.
However, that untidy effort to coordinate all the different players consumed a vast amount of time and energy. Much of the diplomacy about Sudan – the meetings, the summits, and private exchanges – consisted of countries telling each other about that diplomacy. Worse, many were content merely to praise each other and the process in a cacophony of platitudes, more or less regardless of what was really happening between the parties or on the ground. Reality didn't get much of a look in. And there was a more serious downside.
The complex chain of actors directing the north-south negotiation (AU-UN-Troika) meant that only rarely was there a clear sense of what the collective strategy actually was. In theory coordinating closely together, in practice it was often the case that diplomats from one part of the chain didn't know what the others were planning, or doing, including on the sequencing and priority of the various questions needing resolution. Those outside this group were even more in the dark.
This meant that the united force of the "international community" was rarely brought to bear, particularly in pressurising the parties for agreement on the tendentious north-south issues, like oil, citizenship, or the division of Sudan's debts and assets.
Partly in consequence, those issues remain unresolved and South Sudan enters statehood with many crucial – and potentially dangerous – aspects of its relations with Khartoum undecided, including the tinder-box issue of Abyei, the border area whose status is undetermined.
The US was the single most important state in driving to this week's conclusion. Sudan has sat high on the agenda of this administration and its predecessors, thanks mainly to the extraordinary bipartisan coalition of support for the South, which united the Christian right and the democratic left. More recent arrivals, like the NGO Enough and indeed George Clooney, added to the pressure. That high-level attention, including from the US representative at the UN, Susan Rice, powered the energetic and capable, if largely uncelebrated, American diplomacy.
American diplomats worked mostly behind the scenes with major regional states, like Ethiopia and Egypt, and with China, which had been historically supportive of Khartoum, thanks to its significant oil interests in Sudan.
Other poles notwithstanding, it remains true that only the US has the diplomatic heft – and the ambition - to drive processes like this, and drag more sceptical countries along. No BRIC country – including China - has yet stepped forward to do this on any major international question. If you want to get things moving on an issue, it is still the US that has the most power to help or hinder. But in turn multi-polarity means for the US that now they can only get things done by recruiting everyone else to the cause.
While this process shows what can be done in modern multi-polar diplomacy, this new dispensation also carries real risks. In the effort to keep everyone on board, clear strategy was often the victim, allowing the North opportunities to make mischief.
The Security Council's failure to think through a coherent plan for the UN's peacekeepers after the South's independence has led to a fragmented approach which will undermine future efforts to coordinate international pressure – and to protect Sudan's people. There are now separate peacekeeping missions in Darfur, the South and Abyei but none in the Nuba mountains, where Khartoum today is attacking civilians.
This was a failure of strategic leadership, including in this case from the US, and from the UN itself.
For the multi-polar world shares one important characteristic in common with the uni-polar world (which was never really uni-polar anyway). You still need leadership from somebody, and clear strategy communicated to everybody, to get results.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2011