Last week, I was at Chatham House in London for International Crisis Group’s presentation of conflicts to watch in 2018.  I find it one of the more depressing top-ten lists and we seem to be a way off hitting a top-ten of crises and conflicts that have been avoided.

Which areas or countries made the list?  North Korea; US-Saudi-Iran rivalry; the Rohingya crisis encompassing Myanmar and Bangladesh; Yemen; Afghanistan; Syria; the Sahel region; Democratic Republic of Congo; Ukraine; and Venezuela.

Here are some points I took from the session.

1          The list could easily have been a lot longer, with the Israel-Palestinian conflict being cited as the eleventh item on the list in most years.  Other countries referred to were Libya, Pakistan and Cameroon.

2          There are no great surprises on the list, with the possible exception of the Sahel – the region that includes Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Chad and Mauritania – but that might be because it doesn’t receive as much coverage in the media.  From recollection, it made last year’s list too.

3          ICG’s representative made the point that politicians frequently overestimate the impact of military intervention and underestimate the influence that can be achieved through non-military measures.  Using just a bit more power generally won’t solve the problem and there are some obvious examples of this.  I can’t help thinking some history lessons wouldn’t go amiss for a few world leaders and their advisers to hammer this point home.

4          Creative thinking on the part of world leaders is in short supply.  It seems to me that creative solutions are essential in view of the number of conflicts across the globe and a large dose of patience is needed too.  It can take time to build trust and to achieve results.  Militarisation isn’t creative but there seems to be a trend in that direction, which is a shame because history shows it rarely works and is costly on all levels.

5          There are 18 elections across Africa in 2018, including in Cameroon, a country that those familiar with the region see as a potential conflict area.  As a result of colonial connections, France and the UK might be able to take (non-military) steps to make a difference and avert a crisis.  That’s likely to require creative thinking, a lot of patience and collaboration, but that would seem to me to be a price worth paying to stop a tinder box breaking out in flames.

Caesars and Judges


Last week began with the International Crisis Group presenting its top ten crises for 2017 at Chatham House.  Those crises barely got a look-in:  most of the discussion was about the US under its new President.

Most of the commentary and answers to the questions came from Mark Malloch Brown, former UN Deputy-Secretary General.  His insights were excellent and there was one that struck me in particular.

Rather than seeing the election of President Trump as being linked to – and in a line with – Brexit, it would be more appropriate to see him as the latest of the “Caesars” – authoritarians with a populist appeal.  A number of examples were given and more occurred to people during the session; I’m sure you’ll be able to work them out.

Caesars do things that liberals regard as breaking political and/or social norms.  Some voters see them as an aberration, but others consider them an admirable breath of fresh air.  One thing Caesars generally have in common is that they seem very comfortable exercising power without an array of checks and balances.

It’s a while since I studied the development of the US constitution, but my recollection is that it was designed and drafted to avoid excessive power vesting in the executive, whether called a president, a king or a Caesar.  Congress (as the legislature) and the judiciary are given their roles to produce a balanced constitution with inherent checks and balances on power.

The judiciary is important as one of these branches of government, as we’ve seen in the UK on the Brexit appeals.  The role of judges is to interpret and rule on the law.  It isn’t to make decisions about implementing the will of the people or (picking up on the court decisions in the US over the last few days) to determine what makes a country or people safe.

The rule of law is a pillar of a properly functioning polity and the separation of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government is the foundation on which the rule of law is built.