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Blog Post | Co-managing International Crises or not Managing Them At All

Markus Kornprobst writes about managing international crises.

The Proliferation of Crises

Today’s world faces various crises. Some protracted conflicts escalate again and again. Israel and Palestine as well as Armenia and Azerbaijan come to mind immediately. Relations between Russia and the Ukraine, too, have been badly strained for over seven years. There are many internal wars and proxy wars, ranging from Yemen and the South Sudan via Libya and Afghanistan to Syria and Ethiopia. International terrorism, along with often ill-conceived counter-terrorist measures, causes massive ruptures in several parts of the world, especially in the Sahel zone. Elsewhere, from Myanmar to Belarus, governments – eager to stay in power despite widespread popular dissent – turn on their own population. 

There are also many crises that have nothing to do with the barrel of a gun. Not that long ago, the world experienced the Global Financial Crisis, and, since then, there has been talk about ‘peak finance’ and financial deglobalization.

Environmental crises, often linked to climate change patterns, and migration crises have become recurring features of world politics. The spread of Covid-19 makes for a truly global health crisis with far-reaching repercussions for other policy areas. 
In short, the proliferation of crises is not confined to a particular issue area and at times crises in different issue areas happen simultaneously (e.g., climate crisis and health crisis). Multiple crises, that erupt simultaneously, demand scholarly attention as historically, the simultaneous occurrence of military, economic and health crises did not bode well for the stability of the international order. This configuration fatefully structured, for example, the interwar years. 

Co-managing Crises

To this very day, the term crisis management carries connotations of national responses arrived at by headstrong national leaders. In our times, however, this imagery of the determined leader, navigating the ship of state alone through a rough sea, is highly misleading. The world – and by extension the crises that erupt in it – has come to be interconnected to such a high degree that no national leader can solve an international crisis all by themself. Instead, international crises have to be co-managed. This, of course, is hardly a novel idea. In the 19th century, the Concert of Europe was as much based on the premise that crises need to be de-escalated together as the United Nations Charter is today.

So what does it take to co-manage international crises successfully? Three processes appear to be especially important: First, crisis co-managers need to converge around some basic clues for how to make a crisis situation intelligible to themselves. Otherwise, the proposed solutions to a crisis remain too far apart from one another. Second, they should not shy away from difficult communicative encounters while determining which actions to take. If group think1 is a hallmark of bad decision-making, then pluralistic discussion across boundaries, political parties, science and politics, elites and publics is a prerequisite for sound decision-making. This communication, too, requires at least some convergence around fundamental clues that anchors the reasoning of actors. Third, actors are to learn from their co-management experiences. Controversies notwithstanding, learning ranges from adding a new detail to an existing decision-making procedure to coming to agree upon new basic clues for making sense of future crises.2

The Covid-19 crisis drastically illustrates the current deficiencies of crisis co-management. In late 2019, the crisis started with Xi Jinping and his close advisors being convinced that China could stamp out the virus in Wuhan all by itself, and with most other nations not paying close attention until the global spread of the virus in early 2020. There was plenty of crisis communication, but the bulk of it happened at the national (and at times even at the provincial) as opposed to the global level. Despite the shocking event of a pandemic, there seems to be very little momentum for global learning. There is a proposal of concluding a Pandemic Treaty but, thus far, there is not much support for it. Moreover, the widespread (and rarely explicitly articulated) opinion that global health is of low importance – as opposed to security and economic concerns – remains intact.3

Diplomacy, Clues and Promises

How can we be better prepared for the next global crises to come? Diplomacy, revolving around the communication of international actors, has an important role to play. Yet traditionalist understandings of diplomacy as instrument to pursue short-term national interests, if need be in hard-nosed fashion against competitors, feed into the prevailing myth that nation-states can manage international crises all by themselves.

Only an inclusive form of diplomacy has the potential to foster crisis co-management. Procedurally speaking, the clues underpinning it ought to be about opening up rather than closing communication. While dialogue is routinely framed by diplomats as utopian, there should be at least some kind of meaningful exchange across the boundaries mentioned above. Substantively speaking, the many promises that states have repeatedly made, in legally binding instruments and an array of General Assembly declarations, on military restraint, more economic justice, human rights, protecting the environment, ordering migration, and furthering health for every human being on this planet make for an important reservoir of clues that await being put to use in joint efforts to defuse international crises.

Diplomacy is an ancient institution that has re-invented itself over and over. In our days, it urgently has to adapt to an ever increasing global interconnectedness and an ever faster pace of technological, socio-economic and cultural changes. Crises are to be expected to occur under these kinds of circumstances. Diplomacy can only help de-escalating them, if it becomes an effective tool for state and non-state actors to manage crises together.

Professor Markus Kornprobst is a faculty member of the Vienna School of International Studies and a member of the Hague Journal of Diplomacy’s Advisory Board.

1. Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1972.

2. Markus Kornprobst, Co-managing International Crises: Judgments and Justifications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

3. Markus Kornprobst and Stephanie Strobl, “Global Health: An Order Struggling to Keep Up with Globalization”, International Affairs 97/5 (2021).

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