Do Europeans still make good peacemakers? Europe’s militaries have been in long-term decline since the end of the Cold War. But the continent’s diplomats and politicians retain a prominent role in international crisis management. This is nowhere more obvious than in the Middle East and North Africa. The United Nations currently has seven top-level envoys working on conflicts in the region. Five of them are Europeans. The U.N. has, for example, decided that a German official will replace a Spanish diplomat as its envoy on Libya. Staffan de Mistura, who holds double Italian-Swedish nationality, still has the ugly task of searching for peace in Syria.
De Mistura and his colleagues stand in a long tradition of European mediation in the Middle East. The U.N.’s first representative in the Arab-Israeli conflict was Folke Bernadotte, a Swedish count who was murdered by Zionist extremists in 1948. Another famous Swede, Olof Palme, tried to halt the Iran-Iraq War on behalf of the U.N. in the early 1980s between stints as Sweden’s prime minister. More recently, former British Premier Tony Blair spent the best part of a decade trying to facilitate peace between Israel and Palestine after leaving office.
European statesmen have multiple reasons to engage in the Middle East, on top of the simple fact that it is at their doorstep. It is a good way to look relevant to the United States. The nature of the region’s conflicts, not least those involving Israel, means that Arab mediators are rarely perceived as unbiased, making them politically unacceptable. European officials played a notable role in facilitating the Iranian nuclear talks, which did not involve any Arab countries at all. In the past year, the surge of refugees into Europe from Libya and Syria has made peacemaking in the Arab world an even greater European priority.