Water Diplomacy can Learn from Realist Ideas
As Russia’s war in Ukraine continues and nations are returning to behaviors best explained by realism, we are wrestling with these trends’ longer-term implications on water diplomacy. States are becoming inward-looking and prioritizing national sovereignty. Debates about water and climate are resurfacing, and we should better understand how hard power and inward-looking approaches can impact water diplomacy and cooperation. To inform policymakers about power sensitivities and power games played in diplomacy, water diplomats must rethink the future of water security and peace. They should reexamine leadership styles, cultural sensitivities, and knowledge exchange from the lens of realism.
Realism helps explain how Egypt internationalized negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Africa’s largest dam, to maintain its hegemony over the Nile Basin. Hegemony refers to a state’s relatively stronger influence in a region—in this case Egypt is the historical water hegemon of the Nile by how it has used its resources and political power to achieve its goals in the basin. Similarly, realism sheds light on Ethiopia’s counterpoint that GERD construction is essential for its electricity needs and is a matter of national sovereignty.
This article explores questions critical to determining how next steps in the GERD dispute and ones like it can be grounded in international relations theories and practice: First, what can diplomatic failures between Russia and key NATO members tell us about leadership styles and the role of foreign policy in transboundary waters? Second, with global geopolitics returning to realism, how should we change water diplomacy initiatives?
Diplomacy false starts and failures
In the past, President Vladimir Putin has indicated an interest in joining NATO. Putin made it clear that Russia would have to be treated as an equal partner, with its sphere of influence and voice sufficiently heard in the alliance. Though Russia obviously never joined NATO, stronger multilateral relationships were observed through diplomatic events such as Russia’s accession to G7 to make it G8, the creation of the Russia-NATO council in 2002, and Russia joining the WTO in 2012.
Nonetheless, relations between Russia, NATO members, and other neighbors have longstanding tensions—to say the least—such as 2013 protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Square, the Georgia and Yugoslavian war, and the 2014 annexation of Crimea. Russia has been gaining economic strength, building financial defenses with sizeable foreign currency reserves from large fossil fuel sales. Financial strength allowed Russia to exercise military action in Ukraine seemingly without fearing global economic sanctions. This behind-the-scenes preparation from Russia indicates they may have had longer-term intentions to exercise hard power and re-establish themselves as the power center in Eastern Europe.
Leadership style to influence water diplomacy
Based on the Ukraine-Russia war, foreign policy scholars suggest that western countries have failed to understand Putin’s desire to be a lion in the world political order and failed to understand Russia’s expansionist threat which Polish and Baltic leadership warned about.
The classical international relations work of Morgenthau, Murray, and Robert Myers discusses international leadership and its influence on the future of the world order. Their work can help us assess how current leaders display virtues to shape global leadership and maintain peace and security, including how leaders like Xi Jinping, Narendra Modi, and Vladimir Putin are employing an alpha-male style leadership to stay in power and using national security goals. Regimes with the “alpha-male style” or “wolf-warrior diplomacy” are more likely to act unilaterally and exercise hard power, such as by using military gains or exercises rather than economic sanctions. Such a shift limits opportunities for cooperation, breaks down trust-building processes, and weakens the diplomatic channels.
In addition, realism can help us recognize leaders’ strategies to obtain their states’ desire for maximizing their power—including in leadership decisions on the GERD. In a decade-long dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan, there were several rounds of diplomatic negotiations, including one assisted by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The GERD dispute was the first time in the UNSC’s history that a water infrastructure conflict was discussed and UNSC members had varying opinions about the escalation by Egyptian leadership. The negotiations failed to bring a comprehensive agreement on GERD. Ethiopia argued that UNSC was interfering in a regional matter. Egypt and Sudan accused Ethiopia of acting unilaterally with negative downstream consequences.
Reality check for water diplomacy
In the last decade, water diplomacy has been projected as a game-changer for resolving transboundary water conflicts, but with frustratingly limited success. Diplomacy initiatives, often supported by European countries, avoid power dynamics related to sovereignty claims or geopolitical ambitions between the riparian states. For instance, the entire focus of mediators to resolve GERD conflicts between Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan is on trying to bring the states to an agreement. Negotiations failed to address essential details about hegemony and geopolitics in the region. In the Nile Basin, Egypt has held more power than its upstream neighbors. Ethiopia’s position upstream and changes in its developmental capacity is leading to it challenging that order. These power issues were excluded from negotiations to avoid stalemate, leaving the critical issues unaddressed.
Such a power-shy approach to water diplomacy ignores the insights from realism and could therefore eventually perpetuate frozen water conflicts (a situation of no war, but no peace either) and destructive cooperation (where the peace settlement is damaging to at least one of the parties involved). GERD construction and operation has been mired in a frozen conflict with destructive cooperation since 2011. Ethiopia’s and Sudan’s mixed reactions on the Declaration of Principles (2015) led to the eruption of disputes on GERD in 2019. This remains the case despite the Nile Basin Initiative’s efforts to show the advantages of regional integration and potential for shared benefits in the Nile Basin.
The United Nations, World Bank, and other multilateral organizations with an interest or mandate to promote cooperation would better meet their diplomacy objectives by investing more time and resources in processes that include non-state actors. These institutions often doggedly focus on track 1 diplomacy which is only between states. Water cooperation will need to put more effort into track 2 (informal interaction between members of adversary groups or nations, but when the members of the group are not high-ranking officials), and track 3 (people-to-people diplomacy for encouraging interaction and understanding between hostile communities). Widening the diversity of types of actors through tracks 2 and 3 helps ensure a broader focus beyond treating water narrowly as a national interest. It can create linkages to non-water issues and keep water issues a low-politics affair rather than turning them into intractable political issues.
The South Asia Water Initiative and IHE Delft Water and Development Partnership Program’s support for the Brahmaputra Dialogue are great examples of including non-state actors in water diplomacy. These track 2 and 3 initiatives aimed to build trust among journalists, academics, water bureaucrats, and civil society actors from China, India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. The South Asia Water Initiative also supported the Indus Dialogue Forum, bringing together researchers, government officials, and development practitioners from Afghanistan, China, India, and Pakistan. However, such dialogue platforms fizzle out due to lack of financial resources and subdued interest among actors pushing the agenda of water diplomacy in an alpha-male dominated environment.
Multi-track initiatives—when tracks 1, 2, and 3 are pursued in parallel with one another—can further shed light on complexities of power asymmetry. They have a better possibility of finding solutions and pathways of diplomacy. Multi-track water diplomacy allows communication to remain open, even when official negotiations fail. Investing more time and other resources on tracks 2 and 3 can eventually lead to developing cooperative tactics and strategies for sensitive issues under dispute. For instance, the Mekong Basin has multiple tracks of water diplomacy. The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, Mekong Institute and ASEAN are able to discuss sensitive issues which the Mekong River Commission is not yet able to resolve due to the geopolitical complexities in the region.
A realist understanding can help water diplomacy lead to peace and security
Water diplomacy is closely connected to a state’s foreign policy, especially for nations sharing waters. Learning from foreign policy practices and principles—especially realism—is a prerequisite for understanding complex water issues like demand-supply and access. Grasping water issues at multiple levels and scales will open doors for possible solutions. Additionally, water diplomacy cannot avoid sensitive power dynamics and domestic socio-economic trends (such as how population growth interacts with water, food and energy demand). Though not solely a water issue, they are salient.
Water politics has become more complex in a multipolar world, with several countries in transboundary river basins attempting to control water by coercion and knowledge construction. Nations should invest more in diplomacy research for understanding interlinkages between international relations and water resources. Investing more in diplomacy research could help generate knowledge about culture, water-society relations, and countries’ power dynamics. China has been investing in diplomacy ever since a policy decision in the mid-2000s, which included foreign-educated Chinese scholars in its foreign policy circles to understand different paradigms of culture and relevant socio-political knowledge of neighboring countries, especially India. To strengthen its foreign policy portfolio, China has invested in its academia to help build knowledge on a global outlook to its version of diplomacy, inviting Chinese-origin doctorates and professionals studying in the west and the east. These changes have successfully expanded Chinese economic and military influence across the South Asian region and beyond. Other nations should also invest in long-term diplomacy research and resource diplomacy initiatives.
To acknowledge that the world of hydro-politics may be more realist than we think doesn’t mean it’s the only answer to complex water diplomacy processes. Realism cannot explain every nuance of water diplomacy. We need to apply various international relations theories to understand current diplomacy trends. However, realist ideas in water diplomacy can help explain actors’ motivation, particularly those promoting the status quo or fostering hegemony and water conflicts. A healthy dose of realism can also benefit scholars to apply a better understanding of shifting power relations to make track 2 and 3 dialogues more power-sensitive, promote trust-building in water diplomacy initiatives, and support conflict resolution mechanisms.
Sumit Vij is a Senior Researcher at the Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva. His research focuses on questions of power interplay and transboundary water politics in South Asia.
Jeroen Warner is an Associate Professor of Crisis and Disaster Studies at Wageningen University and Research. His main research foci are transboundary water politics and disaster governance.
Christian Bréthaut is an Assistant Professor in Water Governance at the Institute of Environmental Sciences of the University of Geneva. His research interests are in cross-border water governance, water-food-energy nexus, governance of commons, and legal pluralism.
Mark Zeitoun is the Director General of the Geneva Water Hub. His research focuses on transboundary water conflict and cooperation, the influence of armed conflict on water services, and the links between water and health.
Sources: Al Jazeera Media Network, Anadolu Agency, ASEAN Secretariat, Atlantic Council, Autonomous Nonprofit Organization “TV-Novosti”, British Broadcasting Corporation, Cambridge University Press, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Chinese Political Science Review, Climate Diplomacy, CLINGENDAEL, CSCAP, DiploFoundation, Diplomat Media INC, East Asia Foundation, Environmental Science & Policy, Foreign Policy Magazine, German Institute of Development and Sustainability, Institute for Cultural Relations Policy , International Journal of Political Science and Development, International Water Management Institute, Nature, New York Times, Nile Basin Initiative, Open Society Foundations, Politico, Reuters, Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, The Africa Report, The Atlantic, The Brookings Institution, The Guardian News, “The Long Game” by Vijay Gokhale, The Print Media, The Washington Post, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, United States Department of State, Wageningen University & Research, Water International, World Bank Group, World Trade Organization, and Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik
Photo Credit: A wide view of the UNSC as Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, briefs the Council meeting on peace and security in Africa, particularly on an ongoing disagreement regarding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), courtesy of the United Nations.