The importance of conflict prevention needs no demonstration. As we have written before, the number of active civil wars increased almost threefold between 2007 and 2014, following two decades of consistent decline. And the numbers have not really improved since 2014. So, why does it seem so difficult to get preventive diplomacy right? And why are many countries still reluctant to invest adequately in conflict prevention, even in the face of compelling evidence of its potential? We put these and other questions to Richard Gowan, the lead contributor to the recent International Crisis Group report “Seizing the Moment: From Early Warning to Early Action”. Mr. Gowan is a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and teaches conflict resolution at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
Politically Speaking: The difficulty of moving from early warning to early action has long been recognized, and international policymakers, to varying degrees, are already guided by the four key areas you identify (knowledge and relationships, framework diplomacy, strategic planning and communication, creating pathways to peace). How does this study propose to address this seemingly perennial gap?
Richard Gowan: We know quite a lot about how to prevent conflicts in theory, but we do not apply this in practice. The UN and other organizations have, for example, grown considerably better at spotting warning signs of looming crises over the last two decades. But when a crisis really escalates, we are still caught off-guard.
There are a number of reasons for that. Some are bureaucratic. The UN and other crisis management organizations are already overloaded, tracking multiple complex conflicts. So when signs of one more crisis start to emerge, officials often overlook them or downplay them until it is too late. That, broadly speaking, was the story of the international failure to respond to the collapse of the Central African Republic a few years ago.
Then there are political obstacles. As we saw over Syria in the Security Council in 2011, it is very hard to get big powers to agree on conflict management strategies early and rapidly. This is one reason that our report emphasizes “framework diplomacy” (efforts to build an international consensus over how to manage a crisis early on) as a priority for preventive diplomacy. In an increasingly complex international environment, diplomats need to spend more time trying to build consensus around crisis management.
Finally, we often do not have the right relationships in countries at risk of conflict to make a political difference. When a crisis is spiraling out of control, diplomats or multilateral officials need to be able to talk directly and frankly to the political or military leaders that are at the center of the crisis. We very often discover that we simply have not cultivated the right people, or that we lack leverage over the most important decision makers. This is why our report places such a strong focus on the old-fashioned and time consuming art of building up political relationships with the decisive actors in potential future crises.
Are there examples of effective preventive action based on, more or less, the areas you lay out?
A great example of effective personal diplomacy involving leaders in a country at risk of conflict was the push by big names such as John Kerry and Kofi Annan to persuade the main contenders in last year’s Nigerian elections to stop their followers resorting to violence. Annan, Kerry and others succeeded in persuading President Goodluck Jonathan to stand down gracefully when he lost, sparing a lot of lives.
I would also point to Chancellor Merkel’s efforts to handle the Ukrainian crisis with Vladimir Putin as an important case study of political relationship management at the highest level, avoiding a total meltdown.
If you want an effective model for framework diplomacy, you only need to look at Iran. The EU3 (Britain, France and Germany) played a crucial role in building a framework for dealing with Tehran in the mid-2000s, offering a platform for the Obama administration to move towards last year’s nuclear agreement.
Conversely, can you point to cases that demonstrate the price of missed or botched opportunities to use preventive diplomacy?
There are a depressing number – too many to list in full here! If you look at how violence developed fairly gradually in Syria through 2011, it is hard to believe that Russia, the West and Iran could not have found some sort of bargain to end the crisis if they had shared the political will to do so. In Africa, there were very clear signs of the pending Burundi crisis well before last year, but nobody moved to avert it in time.
Perhaps even more strikingly, we have seen a series of cases where the UN and other actors have significant political or military presences on the ground topple into violence in recent years: Libya, parts of the DRC and South Sudan are all obvious examples. This raises some hard questions about why the UN struggles to deliver early action where we already have a clear role and should have some leverage. Is it because officials are too scared of offending the leaders and elites that they are deployed to assist by raising warning signs? Is it because the Security Council and regional powers often fail to back the UN up?
Is there a time for policymakers to acknowledge that, despite the best preparation, a prevention strategy has not worked? If so, what should happen then?
I would put this in slightly different terms. Of course prevention often fails. It is not a science, and sometimes the forces driving a conflict are simply too strong to rein in. But in such cases, we often shift towards conflict mitigation strategies – the delivery of humanitarian aid or even military deployments – without really having a clear vision of what the long-term strategy is.
The UN has invested a huge amount of effort in getting humanitarian assistance into Syria, for example, but while that is morally essential it has also turned aid convoys and UN agencies into pawns in a much bigger political game. In Darfur and Mali, we have peacekeepers on the ground who in many cases appear unable to project security, and are often targets themselves. I wonder whether we should not be more blunt in our assessments of how our conflict mitigation strategies fail. Are we sometimes prolonging conflict rather than resolving it? Do peacekeepers sometimes act as alibis for inaction? These are not new questions. But they are becoming increasingly urgent as we face a period of international tensions.
Title picture: UN-mediated Intra-Syrian Talks in Geneva. UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré