Youth & Leaders Summit 2021

Youth and Leaders Summit: “We need to work together”

In times of uncertainty, we need to stick together and help each other out. That was the presiding message of the Youth and Leaders Summit organized by Sciences Po Paris School of International Affairs (PSIA), which kicked off on Monday, 18 January 2021.

This year’s summit was like no other: not only was it online, but it also tripled in size. What used to be a summit with an average of 3 panels all in one day, was now a 3-day summit with 9 panels, some 50 speakers, 35 breakout sessions, close to 3000 attendees, and over 70 student volunteers.

The event discussed issues of Wars and Peace: Solving Conflicts, Building Human Security. For the millions living under difficult socio-economic and climate change conditions reinforcing tensions and the millions more who care about peace in the world, security is a pressing issue. Indeed, the United Nations reported that in 2016, the number of countries facing violent conflict had not been as high for almost 30 years.

As the world has grown more interconnected, so have disputes and illicit networks. Therefore, global solutions are required to achieve and maintain peace. The event gathered participants with backgrounds as varied as the sectors of defense, international organisations, politics, NGOs, academia, arts, sports to bring diverse perspectives. As noted by NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in the very first keynote speech of the Summit, “We look for ways to solve our differences together, that is what we have always done, and that is what we are doing today.”

"War is a combination of battlefields"

The first day kicked off with three panels addressing the changing nature of (armed) conflicts as well as the hard and soft power tools used to mitigate them. According to the speakers in the first panel, conflicts have become more complex due to multiplying factors like climate change and demographic and societal tensions. To solve them, we require more inclusive and human-centred approaches. The speakers of panel 2, who addressed the economical aspects of the topic, came to the same conclusion and emphasised that reaching a consensus on trade can be a valuable tool for peace and sustainable development.

But waging war and making peace in the markets are not the only instruments we have. Soft power tools like the arts, sports and culture are equally important. The speakers of the third panel — each of them an artist, athlete or culture-protector by profession — explained how sports can provide a forum for dialogue, how art and storytelling can help us understand one another, and how culture can bring us together in times of turmoil. In his keynote speech later that day, Josep Borrell Fontelles brought up a similar point: unity. As former President of the European Parliament, he especially advocated for unity within the EU and their strategic autonomy. The French Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, gave the closing address of that day and accurately concluded that “War is a combination of battlefields.”

The root causes of conflict

The second day was dedicated to rethinking peacemaking as the means to address the root causes of conflict. In doing so, panelists focused on the social, economic, and technological facets of instability. Former UN Chief of Staff Susana Malcorra stated that technological disruption escalates inequalities, which in turn undermine democratic governance, a negative process that can only be countered by a multilateral approach. Panelists then discussed migration, arguing that the issue is often integrated into security frameworks that emphasize coercive approaches. They agreed on the weaknesses of the Dublin Regulation and on the need to establish a more equal distribution of the burden among European countries.

The following panel joined Malcorra in stressing the impact of inequalities on democracy and stability. Panelists called for developing local democracy, while some of them advocated for rethinking decades of what they called individualistic and dominative policies. Lastly, the sixth panel echoed this call for a more human-friendly approach. Participants exchanged their views on the negative impact of technologies on inequalities, if not regulated. Former UN Special Envoy to Libya and former Dean of PSIA, Ghassan Salamé gave the last word of the discussions, following on Malcorra by concluding on the need to constantly propose multilateral policies: “Peace is something you need to plan, pursue and that needs a lot of permanent vigilance.”

Sustainable strategies

The third and last day of the summit comprised discussions on the changing nature of interlinked challenges faced in the security realm and the adaptation required in our responses. In his keynote speech, Swedish politician and diplomat Carl Bildt highlighted the importance of understanding the complexity of the cultural and historical backgrounds in conflict-affected areas. Only then may bilateral and multilateral cooperation or military action take place and catastrophes be prevented or shortened. Although focusing on the structurally different fight against drugs, terror, organized crime and corruption, participants of panel 7 echoed this call for more comprehensive responses. Panelists argued in favor of new sustainable strategies to understand, fight, and prevent organized crime at national, regional, and global levels. And what other sphere requires policies inscribed on the long term, if not the energy sector? The speakers of panel 8 advocated for an inclusive, critical and realistic way of governing global commons and the natural resources at large through states’ collaborative efforts and commitment. However, democratic cooperation is currently under threat, agreed the participants of panel 9. Polarization, autocratically hijacked institutions and increased instability in international affairs should thus be at the center of preoccupations.

Over the course of the summit, the changing nature of conflict was discussed from multiple angles. Decision-makers, academics, artists and engineers exposed the evolving threats faced by the international community: more intra-state conflicts, proxy wars, the spread of new technologies of war in the hands of aggressive non-state actors, and the general speed of change greatly influence today’s conflicts. We now witness more long-term situations of instability and fragility which, in turn, reinforce the already existing tensions. With this in mind, the panelists not only discussed the implications but potential solutions as well. They considered multilateral and bilateral cooperation, hard power tools like financial sanctions, soft power tools like arts, and any other diplomatic efforts aiming at building mutual understanding. With their numerous real-life examples, they demonstrated that such steps can be implemented, although it will be a hard and strenuous process. But, as Juan Manuel Santos exclaimed during the last keynote speech of the summit: “No matter how difficult peace can be, it is always better than war.”

An article by PSIA students Emylie Bobbi, Aude Dejaifve and Meike Eijsberg

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