Peace through pieces and the Grain Deal: Can functionalism help end the war in Ukraine?

“The historical task of our time is not to keep the nations peacefully apart but to bring them actively together through the continuous development of common activities and interests across them.”

There has been new-found optimism in Geneva, although fleeting, about the war in Ukraine, and not because of the results of the US midterm elections. “The resumption of the talks on a memorandum between Russia and the UN on the export of grain and fertilizer is another positive development for International Geneva,” wrote Philippe Mottaz in last week's G|O Briefing.

While the resumption of talks was declared a “modest” step forward in returning Russian and Ukrainian grain and fertilizer to the world, according to Mottaz, it may have been a harbinger of larger and more needed talks about stopping the war in Ukraine. The underlying premise of Mottaz’s optimism was that by providing a space for dialogue, the grain talks could lead to future peace talks and settlement.

“Peace through pieces” was an important contribution to understanding mediating differences, conceived by the political theorist David Mittrany in the mid-20th century. Mittrany argued for an issue-specific strategy for solving larger problems. “The historical task of our time is not to keep the nations peacefully apart but to bring them actively together,” Mittrany wrote, “through the continuous development of common activities and interests across them.”

Closer interaction because of global interdependence, Mittrany postulated, would lead to closer cooperation and peaceful co-existence, a concept known in international relations as Functionalism. Many of Mittrany’s proposals were used in the establishment of the specialized agencies of the United Nations.

A recent example of his theory that peace would come from common rules and technical cooperation would be the admission of Russia to the World Trade Organization in 2011. By including Russia in a rules-based institution, it was assumed larger cooperation, based on the institution’s rules, would follow; a sort of socialization of the Russian Federation, at least in trade. Mottaz’s optimism—“Geneva remains the city where the possibility of achieving ‘peace by pieces’ can be imagined”—should be seen in the context that no formal peace talks have taken place between Russia and Ukraine and the fact that President Putin did not attend the G20 summit. (The director of the C.I.A., William Burns, recently met with his Russian counterpart. The New York Times reported that: “U.S. officials insisted that the sit-down was not for negotiations or to discuss any peace talks or truce.”)

Mittrany would have argued that the grain and fertilizer talks between Russia and the UN were a very small step in the right direction toward peace. How small were the steps? The grain talks can be seen as only discussions about freeing Ukrainian and Russian cereals to a world suffering from the lack of their usual sources of food. Instead of the highest-level Biden/Putin summit in Geneva on June 16, 2021, the November 11 Geneva meeting between the Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Serguei Vershinin, the UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths, and the UN trade and development agency head Rebeca Grynspan merely focused on “steps taken to facilitate payments, shipping insurance, and access to EU ports for grains and fertilizer.”

Very small steps, it could be argued, in terms of the death and destruction of the war. David Mittrany’s Functionalism has had a significant impact on the importance of rules-based institutions. Geneva is home to numerous issue-specific UN agencies like the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization. They are all confronted with the problem of what to do with a Russia that continues to violate basic international law. Should Russia be expelled or suspended from these organizations because of its violations of fundamental norms in its aggression? It has been suspended from the UN Human Rights Council and there have been suggestions of expelling or suspending it from the Security Council. (A crucial issue in the grain negotiations is whether feeding the world, especially impoverished countries, is worth helping Russia’s economy.)

Mittrany’s theory would say that continuing issue-specific cooperation will lead to settlements on larger issues such as war and peace. The talks are a reminder of the power of Mittrany’s ideas and the potential for specialized agencies to have an impact when larger institutions, like the Security Council, cannot guarantee peace and security. The success of the grain talks are a barometer of Mittrany’s Functionalism. Their success or failure warrants close attention.