Monday Commentary: What if?

The Conference on Libya held in Berlin on Sunday (19 January) was high diplomacy at its best. In this week's Monday Commentary Dennis Sammut asks what if the same level of commitment by the top leaders of the top countries of the world is put in solving some of the other big challenges and conflicts?

Hosted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel it brought together the leaders of France, Germany, UK, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, and Algeria, as well as senior officials from USA, China, and UAE.  Also there were the big global and international players: the UN, the African Union, the EU and the Arab League.

The two men competing for the leadership of Libya where there too, but did not participate in the formal proceedings. The languages of the conference were German and English - not Arabic. The conference objective was to try to bring Libya back from the brink, but there was an understanding that it was outside players who were exacerbating the situation and driving it out of control, and this conference was primarily about managing them.

In the end the results of the conference were modest, but participants still hailed it as a success. The conference visualised a roadmap going forward but did not actually take tangible steps towards them. This was more about the international community getting its act together and as much as possible trying to sing from the same hymn sheet.  The UN will now try to follow up. Whether it will work, time will tell, but as an exercise in diplomacy the Berlin Conference was still impressive, a feather in the hat of German diplomacy which showed it had the clout to assemble everyone who mattered on a particular issue when it needs too. It was achieved because neighbouring countries of Libya - and that includes most of Europe - had finally woken up to the fact that the goings-on in that country were not a local matter, but had the potential to become another Syria, only bigger. That eventually focussed minds.

The question that arises however is, what if? What if the same level of commitment by the top leaders of the top countries of the world is put in solving some of the other big challenges and conflicts? Situations where perhaps there is a much better chance for diplomacy to work; engaging with countries and sides in conflict who, unlike in the Libyan case, would be ready to sit together with the international community. Yemen, the conflicts in the South Caucasus, Ukraine, are some of the issues that come to mind where a proper peace process is lacking, and where a diplomatic jolt, similar to the Berlin Conference, may help to unblock years of stagnation.

Three factors explain why  this has not happened yet:

Time and political capital

An exercise such as the Berlin Conference on Libya requires time and political capital, not only by the host country, but also the participants. There is always a shortage of both, so the trend is to wait until the very last moment. Unfortunately that often is too late.


Embarking on a diplomatic initiative of this scale has high risks. For the host country, boycotts, walk outs and other "dramatic moments", may in an instant wipe out years of hard work. Striking a balance between ensuring that expectations are modest and not being accused of being simply a talking shop, or worse, "a show" is always a problem. For participants the risk that they will leave a meeting like Berlin worse off than when they arrived is always high, because often it depends on perception rather than tangible facts. Every participant therefore needs to assess the risks and mitigate against them.

Level of interest

Finally the level of national interest must be high enough for countries to engage at the level of their presidents or prime ministers.  Oil, the fear of another refugee crisis; the risk of having a failed state on Europe's doorsteps that becomes a new haven for Al Qaeda and Islamic State, made Libya an issue of interest to many countries. . However the level of interest is not so easily quantifiable in other cases.  Still one can see the difference between an issue affecting the national interest and others that capture the public attention and become the flavour of the month. Libya was hardly  a latter case.

All three considerations will need to be taken into account before a large scale diplomatic initiative is embarked upon. The question will always remain if an event, such as a high level diplomatic conference, is useful. Ceertainly no instant solutions will ever be possible, but it can very wellenergise moribund peace processes.  In the end it will always require one country - often one leader - to decide to take the bull by the horns and invest the political capital and time required. Germany may in the future be called upon to play such a role more often.

A bigger role for Germany

Over the last decade Germany has been in soul searching mode with regards to its role in the world. Logically the country should be playing a much more important role given its size, its economy and its political reach. Yet the German political and foreign policy elite remains cautious, aware of its historical baggage, and of the instinctive attitude of most Germans against foreign adventures. To her credit, Chancellor Merkel has been steering Germany out of its inertia. The Libya Conference is therefore unlikely to be a one-off. More German-led initiatives are likely.

New opportunities may arise in the second half of this year when Germany assumes the six monthly rotating presidency of the EU. With a German also at the helm as president of the European Commission this will be in any case Europe's German moment. It is in the best interest of Germany, of the whole European Union, and of the EU's neighbourhood, for a concerted effort to engage with some of the unresolved conflicts and challenges in the arc of crisis engulfing the continent and to ensure that all the tools in the toolbox of the international community are put to good use.

source: Monday Commentary is prepared by Dennis Sammut, a member of the editorial team of

Photo: An informal moment during the Berlin Conference on Libya held on 19 January as German Chancellor Angela Merkel confers with Russia's Vladimir Putin.


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