March 23, 2021

Are we losing the battle against violence and war? Jean-Marie Guéhenno examined this question and explored the increasingly complex challenges posed by contemporary conflict during the spring lecture of the Kent Global Leadership Program on Conflict Resolution

Guéhenno, who recently returned to a teaching position at SIPA, is the former French diplomat who currently sits on the United Nations’ High-Level Advisory Board on Mediation. From 2014 to 2017, he served as president and CEO of the International Crisis Group. Before that, he was SIPA’s Arnold Saltzman Professor of Professional Practice in International and Public Affairs—taking a brief leave from Columbia to help resolve the crisis in Syria in 2012. He previously was the UN Under Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations.

Guéhenno assumed leadership of the Kent Program after the previous director, Professor Edward C. Luck, died in February. Dean Merit. E Janow and Kent Program founder Muhtar Kent delivered opening remarks, expressing condolences and gratitude for Luck’s leadership—of both the Kent Program and in global conflict resolution.

For many, Guéhenno said, 2021 has been a year of diminished hopes. The world must bring back diplomacy and values of humanity when addressing conflict, which includes a respect for and protection of treaties, he added.

Guéhenno spoke of the need to understand the time period we are living in. While experts often rely on comparing it to the past—as shown by the term “post-Cold War period”—we need to be clear of the specific ideas defining our time. This way, Guéhenno said, we can understand the drivers of conflict.

The professor outlined a few key points about our world today. First, he stated that our interdependence is also a vulnerability. While the benefits of globalization are well known, we must keep in mind that there are political and material risks to global connectivity. The pandemic is a clear example, said Guéhenno, as well as the climate crisis—especially as it has already begun to drive mass migration.

Additionally, a new type of nationalism is emerging, said Guéhenno—a nationalism of fear. He said multiple identities competing against each other in a vacuum has made communities susceptible to such ideology.

Despite interdependence, there is still little cohesion between states. Nations are turning inward to focus on domestic issues, and have less appetite to stabilize other countries, Guéhenno said.

Guéhenno shared a few insights that inform lessons for conflict resolution today. As a young diplomat working on nuclear doctrine, he saw the core of a nuclear bomb and was surprised by how small it was. In that moment, he realized the enormous concentration of power defining the nuclear age. When he thinks of child soldiers in Sierra Leone forced to commit violence using machetes, he realizes the precarity of human communities. The lesson he draws from these examples? We need global norms and institutions, but we also need to support and build communities from the ground up.

Jack Snyder, Columbia’s Robert and Renee Belfer Professor of International Relations, moderated a discussion with Guéhenno to wrap up the event. The conversation ended with Snyder echoing the importance of mutual connectivity and vulnerability between nations. In addition, both speakers highlighted the need for the golden triangle—government, business, and civil society—to coordinate and work together.

—Aastha Uprety MPA '21

“Are We Losing the Battle Against Violence and War?” featuring Jean-Marie Guéhenno
March 17