PhD: The role of frontline diplomats in the prevention of civil wars

The art of balancing

Frontline diplomatic practices and preventive action in state-society conflicts

Abstract of my thesis submitted in May 2019 (defended July 2019)

You can also find a blog post exploring some of these themes here.

This thesis investigates the practices of diplomats based in countries experiencing state-society conflicts, and their impact on conflict prevention. It proposes a new analytical framework of preventive diplomacy centred around the agency of frontline diplomats that builds on a novel combination of practice theory and political settlement research.

In contrast to special envoys and high-level capital or summit diplomacy, frontline diplomats rarely feature in prevention research. This gap exists despite their privileged position in following and reacting to events as they unfold, maintaining relationships with key national stakeholders, and coordinating with their peers in the host country. Frontline diplomats need to figure out how to handle the central tension in external efforts of prevention between respect and influence. As a profession based on sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of states, diplomacy sits uneasily with the strong normative commitments to human rights, accountability, and global solidarity associated with prevention. The frontline diplomacy of conflict prevention largely eschews the warning-response gap identified by the literature, and specifies how “mixed measures” combining coercion and dialogue can look like.

This thesis therefore focuses on the agency and everyday practices of frontline diplomats as external actors in conflict prevention. It finds that the macro practice of balancing objectives, ways, and means is a core preoccupation of diplomacy. Balancing is the agency counterpart to the trade-offs, tensions and dilemmas identified by prevention and political settlements research. The thesis identifies six types of balancing acts across three types of diplomatic behaviour: knowledge production, engaging stakeholders, and coordinating with peers. Frontline diplomats need to balance their interpretations of the conflict’s driving factors, including treating events as aberration or expression of the prevailing socio-political system. Diplomats oscillate between personal and impersonal relationships, trust and distrust, as well as pressure and respect in their engagement. Finally, in coordinating with their peers, diplomats balance the need for a broad consensus with their ambition and desired speed, and flexibility of meetings with their reliability.  By conceptualizing frontline preventive diplomacy as shaped by political economy and social practices, I put it on the same theoretical level as the state-society relations themselves, which are often characterized by informal and personalized processes.

The findings are based on 165 semi-structured interviews with diplomats and their national counterparts in two contexts marked by state-society conflicts: South Sudan since independence and post-war Sri Lanka. The thesis employs an abductive research approach that includes a close dialogue between the views of practitioners and theoretical concepts.