New York was buzzing last week with global deal making and policy baking at the United Nations General Assembly. UNGA is what wonks call the meetings that mark the annual start of the intensive foreign policy season for world leaders, bringing together under one domed roof bullies and brainiacs. This annual U.N. conclave provides a time and space for allies and adversaries to try to play nice and make peace.
The U.N. gets a bad rap from many American policymakers and pundits, though Donald Trump is willing to renovate the place and save it a billion dollars. There are plenty of things wrong with an unwieldy body that weights democratic and dictatorial voices equally and gives disproportionate heft to blocs and beneficiaries, sinners and supplicants.
But every once in a while, the U.N. brings about solutions to seemingly intractable international problems. It is currently on the verge of solving the 41-year-old division of Cyprus.
UNGA watchers focused on the pronouncements, popularity or posturing of leaders from China, India, Russia, Cuba and Washington, D.C., while in the shadows, dedicated diplomats hashed away at ending a multigenerational U.N. peacekeeping mission. For the first time in years, it appears that peace may actually be at hand for the Mediterranean island nation.
Cyprus was a united country until 1974 when it was invaded, occupied and rent asunder by Turkish forces. Since then, it has been a bifurcated state with a poor Turkish Cypriot north and a surviving and relatively thriving Greek Cypriot south.
Seeking a just solution has been the goal of the last two generations of Cypriots. Justice, however, is forever elusive and always a matter of perspective. Compromise, on the other hand, is sometimes achievable.
A new compromise that reunifies the island, its populations and its European Union policies is potentially months away. Less than 100 miles from a Syria in flames, Cyprus is potentially the lone upbeat story in this unstable region.
Why now? It is a combination of tenacity, distraction, vision, economic profit and opportunity.
First, the U.N. has worked tirelessly, keeping international “Blue Helmet” troops on the ground for its successful long-running peacekeeping mission.
U.N. special adviser Espen Barth Eide has also found ready, willing, open, serious and popular partners for peace in Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot President Mustafa Akıncı. In the past, leaders on either side were unwilling to talk or deal in good faith. Today, both sides have smiling leaders with positive approaches and a common overarching goal.
Past agreements have been hindered or undermined by big brother nations Greece and Turkey. Those countries are now distracted with more immediate challenges. Political crises, economic threats and border problems abound.
While Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is intensively fighting Islamic State forces and Kurdish separatists, next door, Greece’s Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras pleads for international debt relief. Greece is trying to recapitalize its banks while also managing endless streams of arriving Middle East refugees.
Erdoğan and Tsipras have their hands full.
Finally, a potential hydrocarbon bonanza has helped focus the diplomatic mind. Extraordinarily large energy reserves off the Cypriot coast will remain untapped as long as the north and south remain divided. A peace accord promises to unlock local riches. Petrodollars could help soothe the sting of lingering resentments.
Cypriots both north and south of the bizarre but effective demarcating U.N. “Green Line” are tired of the status quo, but they have needed the United Nations to referee and help negotiate an end to the island’s split society.
Presidents Richard Nixon and George W. Bush derided the United Nations as a “debating society.” Advancing Cypriot peace and creating the conditions for prosperity in the world’s most volatile region is no small feat. The value of a successfully U.N.-brokered deal is not debatable.
Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.