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

Context and research objectives

Conflict prevention is a practically universally popular objective of international peace and security policy. This also applies to the prevention of civil wars through diplomacy. We know too little, however, about the factors that shape international preventive action in (post-)conflict countries themselves, away from the capitals of member states and the headquarters of international organizations. Bureaucratic rules, informal practices, and the sensitive nature of analysis and engagement often obscure under which conditions international actors pursue prevention.

This is where this research project comes in. It asks: How, if at all, does preventive diplomacy work in practice?

Preventive action rests on a forward-looking and proactive attitude. It requires courage and a close interaction with people. International influence is often heavily circumscribed, and may be subject to geopolitical interests, regional rivalries, economic priorities, and divergent political preferences of local elites. Proving the success of individual preventive practices is always counterfactual and often difficult to pin down. The project therefore concentrates on the beliefs and practices of diplomats and UN officials based in a conflict country, as well as their institutional and national counterparts. It studies three social processes of preventive action: how institutional environments shape attitudes for prevention, how knowledge about conflicts is produced and shared, and how diplomats and UN officials interact with local stakeholders and with each other to discuss, raise and change issues that they have identified to be sensitive for the conflict.


The project studies international preventive engagement in two distinct locations, South Sudan and Sri Lanka. In both countries, the nature of the state vis-à-vis a population characterized by ethnic diversity and historic marginalization is a key issue of the conflict, with elites fighting over the power to control the state and its resources. For South Sudan, I look at the run-up to the outbreak of the civil war in December 2013 and the implementation of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan since 2015. For Sri Lanka, I look at the presidential elections in January 2015 that resulted in a change in government and the subsequent transition process, including the transitional justice and constitutional reform processes. Research includes in-depth interviews with international diplomatic actors (member states and UN) based in the two countries, special envoys as well as civil society and other national stakeholders. In each country, I aim to speak with a representative sample of the diplomatic community that covers all major actors.

Expected results

The empirical research will result in a fine-grained mapping of international practices of preventive diplomacy and the factors that shape their performance. Theoretically, I hope to contribute to a practice-based understanding of conflict prevention that connects organizational with political processes.