Preventive Diplomacy: Invest in the Skills of Frontline Diplomats

In conflict-prone countries, diplomats must employ a special skill-set that allows them to escape from biased conventional wisdoms and balance the personal and the professional in negotiations. Ministries and international organizations should foster mechanisms such as structured spaces for reflection and frequent exchange with fellow diplomats from relevant missions in the region.

This post summarizing some key insights from my PhD thesis was first published on the PeaceLab Blog on 4 July 2019.

European diplomats visiting Abyei, May 2019. Source: https://twitter.com/SWalshEU/media.

Conflict prevention is an important objective for international organizations as well as in many countries’ foreign policies. However, engaging in state-society conflicts presents a fundamental challenge for diplomats and United Nations (UN) officials posted in “at risk” countries – those on the precipice of violence. State-society conflicts are defined as those relating to the distribution of power between and within societal groups as well as their respective access to state resources; in other words, nothing could be more political. Diplomats, however, are supposed to refrain – by law and convention – from meddling in another country’s domestic affairs. At the same time, for a reform process to be credible and sustainable, it ultimately needs to be driven by local actors – not outsiders. In short: diplomats are caught in a conundrum of seemingly contradictory conventions and political objectives.

So, how do frontline diplomatic actors handle this fundamental challenge on a practical level? This question was central to my PhD research, in which I found that such situations require careful balancing acts. Engaging in state-society conflicts is always marred by trade-offs, e.g. between inclusion and exclusion or legitimacy and effectiveness. There is hardly ever a perfect combination of international objectives. It often falls to frontline diplomats posted in countries experiencing such conflicts to balance the trade-offs presented by those objectives. Trying to influence state-society relations also involves balancing the level of coerciveness and the level of intrusion in diplomatic interventions. Fostering this duality in a competent manner requires closer attention to the ways in which frontline diplomats make sense of conflicts, interact with national stakeholders, and coordinate with their diplomatic peers.

This analysis is based on an empirical analysis of diplomacy in South Sudan since independence as well as in post-war Sri Lanka, where I interrogated the views and everyday practices of frontline diplomats. In total, I conducted 165 semi-structured interviews with diplomats, UN officials, civil society representatives, policymakers, and experts.

Prevention needs to balance actors and structures

As the American academic Barnett Rubin poignantly observed in 2002, “all prevention is political”: Constraining the repertoire of elite actions is inherently disruptive. Preventive action rests on a forward-looking, proactive and conflict-sensitive attitude, requiring courage and close interaction with people in the target society. International influence, though, is heavily circumscribed, and may be subject to geopolitical interests, regional rivalries, economic priorities, and divergent political preferences of local elites. Prevention is also disruptive within bureaucratic organizations, as it often entails questioning established relationships and accepted analyses in addition to imagining scenarios and new ways of engaging. In short: Prevention is not a separate activity, but rather a normative objective that affects diplomatic interactions across conflict stages.

Politics in countries at risk of armed conflict is often highly personal and informal. A thorough understanding of the nature of elite bargains by national stakeholders must incorporate both psychological factors and an analysis of a conflict’s political economy. Leaders in state-society conflicts may be geared more towards immediate political survival than reputational concerns, which has consequences for preventive diplomacy. Standard diplomatic appeals to leaders’ legacy or long-term interests may thus be ineffective. Diplomats need to balance the respective roles of structures and actors operating within them. In my research, I discuss how they do so across three levels of the diplomatic process at the country level: Knowledge production, political engagement, and international coordination.

Frontline diplomats are exposed to cognitive short cuts

When analyzing the politics of their host countries, frontline diplomats are exposed to cognitive shortcuts. Knowledge production involves balancing countervailing interpretations. Organizational rules and professional conventions dispose frontline diplomats towards a bias favoring the legitimacy held by formal state institutions. Even beyond the state, external actors easily assume a strong link between national stakeholders and local sources of power, and patron-client relations are often difficult to identify for outsiders. Diplomats need to reconcile structural forces such as ethnicity, religion, economic inequality, and ideology with the agency of their local interlocutors: Is their behavior an aberration or an expression of the governing political economy? Diplomats with long-term expertise are often more adept at recognizing such structural forces – but may also fail to update their beliefs and perceptions with changing elite incentives. This was the case following the independence of South Sudan in 2011, when many long-term observers struggled to recognize how the creation of the state had exacerbated internal tensions in the ruling elite. Such changes can be difficult to identify in bureaucratic systems that talk to each other mainly in writing, and that value conformity over questioning an internal consensus.

Diplomatic engagement with national stakeholders is often most effective when it is based on dialogue and clear principles. Mediating the intra-party dispute in South Sudan before the start of the war, a seasoned diplomat insisted, was essential – but it was absolutely integral to ensure transparency and avoid even the impression of favoring one contestant over the other. When domestic leaders find themselves in a hole, external actors need to hand them a ladder to climb out rather than a shovel to dig deeper. If nationalist leaders insulate themselves, working through interlocutors can help to create space for constructive dialogue. At the same time, the risk of constructive engagement is abuse and impunity that normalizes extra-legal methods in political competition. Following the protocol of state-to-state relations is thereby no longer neutral, but may end up legitimizing the concentration of power in a central government. Informal politics often require personal engagement, using institutional networks and individual experience to gain access to key people and facts. When diplomats engage on a personal level, they may increase their risk of being dragged into domestic political fights.

Diplomatic coordination can provide the political cover for preventive diplomacy and reduce the exposure of informal engagement. This often poses a dilemma for principled engagement: Those international actors with the most influence may not be those with the most transformative approach. The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-led mediation in South Sudan was a prime example of this phenomenon, with its member states deeply divided and opposed to freezing the assets of certain South Sudanese elites. At the same time, international pressure is more effective when there exists a broad consensus. Shifting geopolitical power structures mean that alternative sources of legitimacy are readily available, as China’s role in Sri Lanka and its close support for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa demonstrates. International organizations such as a UN Country Team may convene a range of diplomats, and maintain a long-term knowledge base of international engagement – if diplomats regularly share and reflect upon their experiences.

Promoting skills to balance trade-offs and creating spaces for reflection

As my research project demonstrates, the individuals engaged in preventive diplomacy matter. Governments and the UN, which have both committed themselves to conflict prevention, should promote mechanisms, policies, and skill-sets that foster diplomats’ ability to make judgements about balancing trade-offs, weighing countervailing interpretations, savvy engagement, and efficient coordination.

Bureaucratic organizations should establish mechanisms to regularly reflect on the disruptive nature of threats and preventive possibilities. Escaping conventional wisdom requires structured spaces for reflection within missions and across government and international organizations. Too often, missions and regional desks are too thinly stretched to be able to conduct structured conflict analyses regularly. External expertise, regular facilitation, and dedicated support mechanisms from capital/HQ can help overcome the limited capacity of missions in at-risk countries.

In situations with strong regional dimensions such as South Sudan, diplomats from all relevant missions in the region should hold frequent videoconferences and meet for internal workshops. Bureaucracies would do well to revamp human resources practices to ensure that diplomats with appropriate experience and skills are deployed where they are needed. At least for heads of missions, experience in a similar context and some basic country training should be compulsory. Top policymakers must give more weight to principled engagement in at-risk countries and foster an organizational culture that encourages individual responsibility, accepts risks, and allows dissent.

Frontline diplomats, in turn, can benefit from maintaining a detailed overview of national stakeholders, including possible agents of change and spoilers. They need to be prepared to combine personal and professional interactions, based on consistency, integrity, and transparency. For them, what matters is a clear-eyed awareness of risks and benefits, and the readiness to seize opportunities where they arise.

Author: Gerrit Kurtz

Researcher working on conflict prevention, diplomacy, peacekeeping and the United Nations, with a focus on South Sudan and Sri Lanka. Research Fellow, German Council on Foreign Relations, Berlin.

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