People and Politics: Fostering the Art of Conflict Prevention

This post first appeared on the “Strength through Peace” blog of the Council on Foreign Relations. I co-authored it with Christoph O. Meyer.

The centenary of the armistice that ended the First World War last week brought the destructive impact of war again to the attention of world leaders and people across the world. Since it was signed in Compiègne, some commentators maintain, we have learned a lot about how to prevent conflict. That may be true, but research and practice of conflict prevention today remain heavily biased towards technocracy and wishful thinking. Instead, both researchers and practitioners should pay greater attention to individual, informal, and reflexive forms of knowledge. We call it the art of prevention.

As we argue in a recent journal article for Global Affairs, there are three main conceptual approaches to the study and practice of prevention: science, craft, and art. Importantly, despite the labels, all three approaches form part of social sciences. Science and craft approaches are most widespread, but on they often display unacknowledged shortcomings and blind spots.

By science, we refer to an approach that essentially sees conflict like a disease and prevention like a medical intervention that can spot its signs early on to avoid its outbreak in society. Mainly using econometric models, such approaches aim for the probabilistic modelling of events. They are particularly prevalent in forecasting organized violence and often produce watch lists of “at risk” countries. However, decision-makers are frequently skeptical about the value of such rankings and look for more specific, actionable information about the nature, timing and scale of the expected harm than just in which country the next large-scale conflict might occur.

By craft, we mean the tendency among those in think tanks, NGOs and government to talk about the “tool box” of conflict engagement and organizational solutions to overcome the oft-cited gap between early warning and early action. This approach risks treating society like a broken car that needs the right spare parts and tools to fix it. What was required, authors in this tradition argue, is for the right instruments (such as targeted sanctions or the withdrawal of aid) to be applied in a coordinated fashion at the appropriate stage of a conflict. Officials are part of a political and organizational process, however. Certain career incentives (for identifying foreign policy “success stories,” for example) affect their approach to problem-solving. Getting to the heart of a conflict often requires difficult trade-offs  that cannot simply be “fixed”.

What is required, therefore, is closer attention to the agency of the people involved in prevention. How do their career incentives impact their approach to domestic politics? Diplomats and UN officials craft specific policies, but they operate in an environment of compromise and uncertainty. Their own experiences, skills, and personalities matter in systems that are characterized by personalized networks and dysfunctional institutions.

This is what we mean by the art of prevention. Such an approach encourages reflecting on one’s own impact, weighing consequences, and constantly recalibrating strategies. Instead of pretending that “all good things come together” in prevention (as well as in peacebuilding), it embraces the explicitly political nature of prevention. The power-sharing strategy required to persuade an authoritarian leader to relinquish power in the wake of large-scale protests may hinder the transformation of the political system in the long term, and sow the seeds for renewed conflict. Stopping a leader from repressing dissent involves acknowledging legitimate grievances. Preventive diplomacy needs to seek face-saving ways for leaders to step down from the ladder of escalation.

What does this involve in practice? It means taking the political choices that external actors and national stakeholders make seriously. The recent UN and World Bank report on prevention is a welcome step in that direction. Moreover, an artful approach to prevention focuses on the human beings at the center of conflict politics—and the ways in which external actors can have an impact on them: their motivations, personality, interests, and capabilities. It also means that citizens need to hold their governments accountable in the way they translate their lofty commitments of “never again” into practice. It is a task for all of us.

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Author: Gerrit Kurtz

PhD student at King's College London working on conflict prevention, diplomacy, peacekeeping and foreign policy, with a focus on South Sudan and Sri Lanka.

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