Amid Syria crisis, David Miliband stresses impact of global leadership 'vacuum'

People look at Turkish soldiers standing atop of a military vehicle in the border town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey. Photo by: REUTERS / Stoyan Nenov

NEW YORK — Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, International Rescue Committee President David Miliband, and other global development leaders sounded an alarm on Tuesday on how American foreign isolationism could worsen conflicts and humanitarian responses in fragile contexts worldwide.

Right now, all eyes are on Syria, following the recent U.S. withdrawal from the country’s northern region, and the subsequent offensive by Turkish military into the Kurdish territory.

“In the northwest of the country, there is no American presence. It is the Wild West. You have had 53 hospitals bombed since May this year by the Russians and the Syrians.”

— David Miliband, president, International Rescue Committee

“On the development side, there is so much more we could do to try to alleviate much of the suffering that is coming particularly from the Syrian conflict now, but we have no spokesperson for that, we have no methodology or linking that with diplomacy,” Clinton said. “We are pretty much going to have to rebuild our diplomatic enterprise next time around [following the Trump administration].”

Clinton delivered the keynote address on Tuesday morning during an event focused on peacebuilding in midtown Manhattan, hosted by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

It will take time to repair the “really wicked problems” the administration has created internationally, Clinton said, adding: “We have to figure out how to send a message that American diplomacy, in concert with defense and development, is going to be reliable.”

American foreign policy under the Trump administration is key, but only one factor in global political stability, Miliband said, during a panel conversation with CARE USA President and CEO Michelle Nunn and U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Oscar Fernandez-Taranco.

“The great fear I have now is that we are going to move into a vacuum, because America is such a big player that if the democratic countries of the world do not have a leader on the international stage then you don’t just get vacuum at the local level, you get one at an international level,” Miliband said.

“Where the norms and the laws that were built on so carefully, over hundreds of years, those norms and rules get broken … That is the danger we are in at the moment,” she said.

The Carnegie event came as the political and humanitarian situation in Syria — which Clinton, Miliband, and Nunn all addressed — deteriorated rapidly.

Mercy Corps announced it was suspending operations in northeast Syria on Monday, following the Turkish offensive into the Kurdish region and the U.S. government’s recent decision to withdraw troops. Médecins Sans Frontières also announced this week that it is suspending most of its activities and withdrawing international staff from the area, as it has become impossible to “negotiate safe access,” the organization said in a statement.

Mercy Corps was among the 14 aid agencies, including Norwegian Refugee Council, CARE International, and IRC, that warned last week that humanitarian aid could be cut off in northeast Syria, where there are at least 1.65 million people in need of humanitarian aid.

IRC has 550 local staff members working in northeast Syria and 400 staff members in northwest Syria, according to Miliband. In the northeast of the country, where the U.S. has maintained 1,000 troops, plus support from the 81 countries in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, there has been “relative stability and relative security for 5 million people,” Miliband said.

“The return on investment was very significant, indeed,” he said. “In the northwest of the country, there is no American presence. It is the Wild West. You have had 53 hospitals bombed since May this year by the Russians and the Syrians.”

About 80% of international humanitarian responses are centered in conflicts, from Afghanistan and Syria to South Sudan and Yemen, Nunn said. That is only likely to get worse, she explained, as 80% of extremely poor people are expected to live in fragile states by 2030.

Miliband called for the need to recognize new kinds of leadership, beyond traditional actors, in all areas of international collaboration.

“When governments are in retreat, business, NGOs, and civil society have to step forward. We have to recognize politics is driving governments to think more and more inward,” Miliband said.

“If we confine our search of quote-unquote ‘leadership to traditional actors,’ we are going to narrow the field too much. We are going to have to look for new players in the field. Whether you are thinking about climate or trade.”

About the author

  • Amy Lieberman

    Amy Lieberman is the U.N. Correspondent for Devex. She covers the United Nations and reports on global development and politics. Amy previously worked as a freelance reporter, covering the environment, human rights, immigration, and health across the U.S. and in more than 10 countries, including Colombia, Mexico, Nepal, and Cambodia. Her coverage has appeared in the Guardian, the Atlantic, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times. A native New Yorker, Amy received her master’s degree in politics and government from Columbia’s School of Journalism.

Join the Discussion