As a critic of the intervention in Iraq, and even of its milder sequel in Libya, I am a big fan of what David Cameron is doing on Thursday for Somalia. This time there are no troops massed on the borders or Nato air strikes, just a conference at London’s venerable Lancaster House, which in colonial times regularly saw countries made and unmade.
For those who might not have noticed because Somalia is an unintentionally well-kept secret, he is hosting Somali and international leaders in an effort to begin to sort out the country’s future. And Somalia needs sorting. It has a violent civil war, the remains of a famine, a government whose writ does not run beyond the capital, a thriving piracy industry off its coast and terrorist training camps on shore.
Something should be done. But over many years very little has. On the face of it conferences seem a much less robust way of sorting out problems than deploying military force. But to an unapologetic UN multilateralist such as myself, military force is the last resort. Diplomacy, sanctions, development assistance, institution-building are the proper first response to a failing state.
This is the logic of the doctrine that has come to be known as The Responsibility to Protect. Too often we default to military force prematurely once events reach a point that the media and the public are understandably howling for action (as was the case in Libya) or because the politicians have their own agenda (as was the case in Iraq).
Statesmanship is about calmer kinds of intervention that head off a broader conflict. The difficulty is that modest pre-emptive investments in conflict prevention often lack the domestic political support that a call to send in the troops – when events have deteriorated beyond the point of no return – enjoys. It’s the security equivalent of investment in sensible public health measures, such as diet and exercise, rather than waiting for expensive cardiac surgery once the heart attack has happened.
The case for investing in Somalia conflict prevention today is Afghanistan in 2001. It had a growing internal conflict, a massive drug industry and there was evidence that it was harbouring terrorists. But Afghanistan remained a second tier issue for the rest of the world. Until 9/11 and the attacks on America it was crowded out by other problems. Afterwards it sparked the costly and destructive war on terrorism that is still with us, and has had profound consequences for the US and its allies, as well as for Afghanistan and its neighbours.
The Somali comparison stacks up as follows: the cost to the global economy last year of Somali pirate attacks on international shipping is calculated to be around $12bn. This was due to the disruption of shipping lanes and increased security, insurance and journey times. The actual ransom costs were a more modest $160m. Britain’s security services report that Somalia, together with with Pakistan and Yemen, are the principal training grounds for British terrorists. One think tank claims there are currently around 50 British nationals undergoing terrorist training in Somalia. It took far fewer than that to bring down the World Trade Center Towers and a wing of the Pentagon.
The Lancaster House conference will look at improved protection and justice against pirates, a strengthening of the African Union peacekeeping force and more support to Somalia’s feeble institutions and public services. Above all, it must try to work out a plan that can deliver a united government in return for plenty of decentralised powers to the various regional and clan groups that have long resisted rule from Mogadishu. It won’t be easy but bravo, Mr Cameron for trying.
The writer is chairman of global affairs at FTI Consulting, and former UN deputy secretary and head of the UN Development Programme