After a period of relative calm, an upsurge of crises is testing the international system, pitting major powers and regional players against one another and highlighting the weaknesses of preventive diplomacy. Governments and international organisations were taken by surprise by the Arab uprisings in 2011 and slow to react to crises in South Sudan and the Central African Republic (CAR) in the years that followed. Global and regional rivalries have weakened diplomacy over Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea. Policymakers, stretched by the symptoms of this wave of instability, including mass displacement and the spread of transnational terrorism, struggle to focus on conflict prevention.
Yet, preventive diplomacy is not necessarily dead. The Iranian nuclear deal, progress toward peace in Colombia and the high-level push to avoid election-related chaos in Nigeria in 2015 have been reminders of what intensive international engagement can deliver. If politicians, diplomats and international officials invest in key dimensions of early warning and early action – analysing conflict dynamics closely, building sensitive political relationships in troubled countries and undertaking complex “framework diplomacy” with other powers to create political space for crisis management – they still have a chance to avert or mitigate looming conflicts and ease existing wars.
This report, drawing on Crisis Group’s field-centred analysis and policy recommendations from the past five years, sets out a broad strategic framework for preventive diplomacy. Its primary focus is on conflicts, like those in Ukraine and Syria, which directly involve outside powers. While classical inter-state conflicts remain rare, internationalised civil wars are a leading source of regional and global frictions. Building frameworks to address both the internal and external tensions that shape them is likely to be a recurrent challenge for big powers, regional players and multilateral organisations in the years ahead.
The first half of this report focuses on the internal drivers of recent and current crises. It argues that while it is exceedingly hard to identify specific triggers of future conflicts, it is possible to identify likely threats to peace and work out how they may play out if left unaddressed. It emphasises the need to understand the political dimensions of conflicts and, especially, the leaders and elites whose choices for or against violence are pivotal. Grasping how such leaders make these decisions is essential for effective early warning, but it must be buttressed by much broader political analysis covering, inter alia, the dynamics of ruling parties, opposition groups and civil society, not just at the national but at all levels of society.
Building anticipatory relations with all these actors constitutes a bedrock for effective early action by outside partners, once a crisis looks set to break. It is important, too, to grasp the politics and strategies of militaries and internal security forces in cases such as Egypt, or of non-state armed groups in chaotic environments like Libya. The report also highlights the sources of many conflicts in countries’ marginalised peripheral regions. Local rebellions in Yemen, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Pakistan and CAR, to name a few, have expanded unexpectedly and exponentially, causing widespread violence and overthrowing a number of governments.
A focus on the internal players in countries at risk must be complemented by efforts to engage and balance the interests of external actors, while recognising that the distinction between “internal” and “external” actors is moot in many crises. In the Middle East and Central and West Africa, conflicts frequently flow across borders, and regional powers simultaneously fuel conflicts and position themselves as peacemakers. Ethnic groups such as the Kurds in the Middle East straddle multiple countries, while organised criminal networks and transnational extremist groups are not restricted to individual states. This means that experts engaged in early warning and early action must treat regional and wider international factors as integral to their conflict analysis and development of appropriate policy.
The report goes on to look more closely at the varieties of “framework diplomacy” that can facilitate the requisite engagement. In many crises it is necessary to look beyond established multilateral frameworks – important though these can be – and pull together case-specific groupings of states and institutions to manage a problem, or at least minimise frictions. Sometimes neither formal nor ad hoc inter-governmental arrangements will be suitable: back-channel diplomacy led by local “insider mediators”, specialised international NGOs or other actors may be the best initial way to handle looming tensions.
The remainder of the report reviews the means available for directly engaging in conflicts as they escalate or in anticipation of their outbreak. It emphasises the need for inclusive approaches to political dialogue, meaning not only outreach to civil society, women’s groups and other constructive forces, but also marginalised minorities and armed groups – including some highly controversial actors such as Islamist extremists. In addition to mediation and other diplomatic options such as deploying high-level envoys, tools include a range of coercive measures and incentives for peace. Coercive tools include diplomatic “naming and shaming”, threats of international legal action in response to atrocities and the use of sanctions. All have significant limitations and can worsen rather than alleviate crises if not well coordinated and aligned to a broader political strategy.
At least equal caution should be applied to the use of force. As the Arab intervention in Yemen has underlined, like many interventions before it, military action can prove costly and counterproductive. This caution also applies to deployments of military peace operations, which have become a standard part of international crisis management (especially in Africa) and increasingly tend toward more robust forms of peace enforcement. While such missions can and do save lives, they can also become entangled in local conflicts, get bogged down in situations from which they have no exit strategy and become overly aligned with governments that do not always enjoy much popular support.
Whatever direct or indirect means of engagement states use, they should set explicit and limited political goals and communicate these clearly to other actors (including their opponents) to avoid violence spiralling beyond control. While coercion may have a role to play in management of a specific crisis, it should be balanced with clear incentives for leaders, elites and their supporters to follow paths away from violence. These may include aid for post-crisis demobilisation, governance reforms and reconstruction.
More strategically, the best peace incentives that outsiders may be able to offer are ideas and advice to actors in a crisis on how to structure mutually-beneficial arrangements to share power and resources. In Libya, for example, the interest all sides ultimately have in a functioning energy sector could be a point of consensus even while political disputes create friction.
No one group of analysts and forecasters is consistently right in its early warnings (Crisis Group included), and no early action strategy is foolproof. Tackling conflicts as they emerge and develop is an inherently chancy business, and governments and international organisations that engage in it inevitably risk failure. Nevertheless, early, strategic, well-designed engagement predicated on the discipline of close analysis, development of anticipatory relationships and framework diplomacy may help prevent conflict or limit its escalation. To the extent that their resources permit, governments, regional bodies and international organisations should invest in four key areas:
Knowledge and relationships. Policymakers, working directly or through others, should develop the closest possible knowledge of troubled countries’ political systems and cultivate channels for frank discussions with leaders, elites, security forces and civil society over the risks of crisis. “Early warning” should, in sum, rest not only on economic and other indicators of danger (although these are useful), but also on in-depth political links with crucial actors.
Framework diplomacy. Given the dangers of international and regional tensions exacerbating a crisis, policymakers should make early and concerted efforts to bring international players to the table to assess their interests, hear their analyses and develop common positions on how to act. This can take place in formal multilateral settings or ad hoc, but it is essential to choose mechanisms that enable real bargaining, resulting in frameworks for handling a conflict, rather than formal exchanges or public recriminations.
Strategic planning and communication. It is easy for policymakers to stumble into crises without a clear grasp of what they aim to achieve. The constant need to make statements, launch initiatives and satisfy calls for action makes strategic thinking and planning difficult. It is crucial that governments and international organisations invest in laying out clear overall goals for engaging in crises and communicate these clearly both to the players involved in a conflict and other international actors with interests at stake.
Creating pathways to peace. The ultimate goal of all this relationship-building, framework diplomacy and strategic planning is not simply to guide early action, but to signal to the parties at the centre of a conflict that they can take paths to peace rather than wade into violence. Outside actors can rarely compel leaders and factions on the brink of conflict to step back. But if they are able to engage in well-informed political and diplomatic work and sketch out ideas for lasting peaceful solutions to a conflict, they may persuade their interlocutors to pause before escalating – and perhaps follow an alternative political route that avoids, or at least limits, all-out violence.
Five years ago, the Arab uprisings exposed the weaknesses of existing models of early warning and early action in response to political crises. While many analysts were aware of the political, social and economic factors that led to the uprisings in early 2011, few if any foresaw the wave of disorder that spread across North Africa and the Middle East. Governments and international organisations resorted to a variety of policy tools – ranging from offers of mediation to economic sanctions and threats of international prosecution – that frequently failed to alter the calculations of embattled political elites. In many cases, their efforts backfired badly.
While the United Nations (UN) Security Council mandated military action in Libya to protect civilians in March 2011, the uprising against Muammar Qadhafi resulted in a fractured state that slid into chaos while outside powers focused elsewhere. In Yemen, an initially successful UN mediation ran out of steam, paving the way for the Saudi-led intervention in 2015. Arguments over these crises also fuelled geopolitical confrontations, variously involving the West, Russia, China, and Arab and African powers, that have severely complicated later attempts at conflict management. Doubts about international crisis response have since been compounded, as conflicts have escalated from South Sudan to eastern Ukraine. In some cases, such as Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR), analysts and officials saw crises escalate but did not react promptly or decisively. In others, as in Ukraine, the pace of events appeared to take outside actors by surprise.
By 2014, the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) has calculated, there were some 40 conflicts worldwide, eleven involving over 1,000 battle deaths a year: “the highest number of conflicts since 1999”. Many governments and international organisations focus on managing the fallout from these conflicts. Donors have had to repurpose funds to handle the record numbers of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs). International coalitions are trying to contain and rollback violent Islamist extremist groups in the Middle East and North Africa with a mix of military aid to both state and non-state actors, covert operations and airstrikes. These measures crowd out discussion of long-term conflict prevention and resolution.
This is short-sighted. As UN officials have recently emphasised, the key to stemming the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East is not only to increase funding to aid agencies, but also to resolve the conflicts there. Crisis Group has argued that vital to countering the influence of groups like the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda is to ratchet down regional confrontations, in particular the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran; redouble efforts to contain (if not immediately resolve) the conflicts these groups exploit; and work toward local solutions based on the inclusion, rather than alienation of vulnerable communities. Panels convened by the UN and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have underscored the need to focus on politics and diplomacy in addressing conflicts.
The strategic case for effective early warning tools and early action mechanisms to avert potential conflicts, or at least stop them from escalating and spreading into broader confrontations, seems clear enough.
Even if governments pay lip service to such notions, many have resorted to covert or overt military actions to manage crises: examples range from Russia in Ukraine and Saudi Arabia and its allies in Yemen to Uganda and Sudan in South Sudan. While the bulk of current conflicts are intra-state wars, at least a third are internationalised – with foreign forces from one or more other countries in the fight – exacerbating regional and wider international tensions and rendering conflict resolution significantly more complex. This report thus pays most attention to internationalised intra-state conflicts, but also draws lessons from other flashpoints, like the South China Sea.
The strategic case for effective early warning tools and early action mechanisms to avert potential conflicts, or at least stop them from escalating and spreading into broader confrontations, seems clear enough. Yet, there is a daunting mix of obstacles to effective early international response. These range from understanding the implications of political frictions in peripheral areas of weak states, such as Mali, to the diplomatic challenges of forging international frameworks to handle cases like Syria. Few if any of these challenges are unprecedented – for examples of the problems of volatile peripheral areas, one can go back to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire a century ago – but addressing them requires sharp political insight, judgment and action that still often elude policymakers.
In parallel with the deterioration of particular conflicts, the norms that have underpinned much post-Cold War thinking on conflict prevention and resolution are in flux. Russia, China and other non-Western powers argue that NATO abused the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) during the Libyan crisis in 2011. Even if political pluralism and representative government still offer the best hope of stability in most countries, the difficulties of democratisation are obvious.