Seizing the Moment: From Early Warning to Early Action


Executive Summary

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.

I.Introduction

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. Conflict prevention specialists are now as likely to emphasise the dangers associated with elections in fragile states as their advantages. The post-Cold War trend toward strengthening international justice, symbolised by the International Criminal Court, is also encountering increasing pushback. Yet, the last quarter century’s ideals still have some purchase. In Africa in particular, the African Union (AU) and sub-regional bodies repeatedly, if inconsistently, cite human security, prevention of mass atrocities and defence of legitimate governments to justify interventions. Rather than rising or declining linearly, these norms ebb and flow on a case-by-case basis.

This report maps out how governments and multilateral organisations can best respond to looming crises in this uneasy international environment. It begins by asking how relevant existing thinking about early warning and early action is today. It then explores recent lessons about drivers of conflict, including elite decision-making, localised violence and regional political factors. Finally, it turns to the diplomatic tools, coercive measures and incentives typically available to policymakers trying to address crises and the strategic and diplomatic frameworks needed to put these tools to use. It is necessary to be realistic about the chances of halting fast-moving crises, but effective and rapid action is often possible.

II.Early Warning and Early Action: In Search of Political Strategies

“Early warning” and “early action” are phrases open to multiple definitions. This report concentrates on early warnings of violent conflict and strategies of early action that external actors may take to address those risks. There is a perennial debate about what “early” means: should it include long-range indicators of instability and long-term actions, such as economic assistance, that may alleviate them? While acknowledging the value of long-term warnings, this paper takes a narrower view and focuses on medium- and short-term warnings and responses to political dynamics that have a clear potential to lead to violence. This encompasses imminent threats and risks that may require some years to come to fruition. The precise timeline is less important than the presence of signs that leaders, political factions or other armed groups are taking steps that could ultimately lead to conflict.

This focus on looming conflicts requires three qualifications. The first is that poli­tical analysis should identify not only threats, but also actors who favour peace and unexpected opportunities for settling disputes. As noted in Section III below, officials and analysts should build relationships with political figures, civil society members and others who can promote non-violent solutions to a crisis.

The second qualification is that, while this report largely discusses emerging and escalating crises, it is essential to keep watch for unexpected developments in active and ongoing conflicts. Events such as the rise of IS in Syria in 2014 or the upsurge of violence in Ukraine in early 2015 can fundamentally transform the dynamics of an existing war. The detailed political and security analysis promoted below can and must continue even after a conflict explodes.

Thirdly, it is necessary to ask who is best-placed to conduct this analysis and direct early action. This report does not focus on the early warning and early action mech­anisms of any one government or international organisation. The lessons and advice it offers are designed to apply to a wide range of governments and other bodies concerned with international security; generic references to “outsiders” and “policymakers” are deliberately non-specific.

As Section IV emphasises, who does early warning and early action is increasingly complicated and contentious. When Crisis Group launched in the mid-1990s, the U.S., its allies and the UN appeared to dominate the field. Today, a diverse array of often mutually mistrustful states, organisations and non-governmental groups are engaged. The exact mix of relevant players differs from case to case. Complex “framework diplomacy” – painstaking efforts to establish case-specific diplomatic mechanisms for analysing, managing and mediating conflicts – is frequently required to bring them together, or at least limit friction. By taking a broad view of who can deal with crises and how, this paper points to some principles for such cooperation.

A.What Can “Early Warning” Do?

A focus on political actors and analysis is in line with earlier studies that argued early engagement in crises must rest on an understanding of political dynamics. The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict concluded in 1997 that “mass violence invariably results from the deliberately violent response of determined leaders and their groups to a wide range of social, economic and political conditions that … usually do not independently spawn violence”. Although political scientists and forecasters search for statistically verifiable causes of conflict, such as economic factors, many are giving more weight to leaders and political factors as creators of violence. Whereas researchers once claimed that ethnic cleavages were an innate cause of conflicts, analysts now emphasise that leaders’ deliberate use of ethnically-loaded rhetoric plays a crucial part in dividing and radicalising communities. Recent work on climate change and environmental degradation, for example, indicates that these “only trigger violence if the social and political context of a country are particularly disadvantageous”.

This basic assumption about the importance of political factors has long underpinned policy thinking on early crisis response, with a focus on developing strategies to shape crucial elites’ decision-making. If diplomats or international officials want to engage in a country on the verge of conflict, they need not only to develop a sense of its underlying problems, but also to have a working knowledge of the interests and political calculations of the leaders, parties and factions involved.

Experts on early warning are often rightly wary of quantifying these issues: “the exact degree to which elites are in harmony or conflict, to which opposition movements have popular support, or to which the ruler is supported by neighbouring or foreign states, is not always easy to pin down”. It is arguably even harder to anticipate the precise trains of events that lead to specific acts of violence. Some potential flashpoints, such as divisive elections or the death of an authoritarian leader, may have a high chance of engendering instability. Nonetheless, “long term trends (‘causes’) are often clear enough, but not the proximate causes, or triggers…. What precipitates a conflict may be a sudden, unforeseen event: an accident, misreading or miscalculation, or a temperamental leader’s flash of hubris”.

We can, however, still identify and assess the political factors that make a crisis more or less likely and explore how that crisis might play out. Through detailed information gathering and analysis, it is possible to show how the policies and strategies of leaders and other power-brokers are liable to raise tensions, destabilise societies and initiate conflicts. It is feasible to foresee the political dividing lines that might emerge at trigger moments in the future. In some cases, this information also allows observers to estimate how the ensuing confrontations could unfold, if often only roughly, offering a spectrum of possible developments. A review of Crisis Group reports demonstrates the potential of such analysis to flag looming risks, even if it cannot identify precise triggers.

A good example of a medium-term warning comes from Crisis Group’s work on Iraq. In August 2013, it published a report highlighting sectarian tensions and that “Prime Minister al-Maliki has implemented a divide-and-conquer strategy that has neutered any credible Sunni Arab leadership”. The report warned that many Sunni Iraqis now felt that their “only realistic option is a violent conflict increasingly framed in confessional terms”. While noting the increased activism of the “newly minted” IS, it did not foresee the speed and scale of the group’s offensive in northern Iraq the following year. But in identifying the poisonous effects of Maliki’s political strategy, its impact on Sunni opinion and the probability of armed conflict, it did diagnose many of the drivers of the 2014 crisis. At a time when the U.S. was keen to put the Iraq war behind it, and its allies had disengaged, however, the warning went largely unheeded.

Crisis Group similarly laid out well in advance the dynamics that led to the recent crisis in Burundi, highlighting President Nkurunziza’s strategy of centralising as much power in his hands as possible. Crisis Group insisted in 2012 that the country was “regressing” toward a “one party system characterised by the end of dialogue between the opposition and the ruling party, the government’s authoritarian drift and the resumption of political violence”. Nonetheless, international actors with a stake in Burundi’s stability largely attempted to work with the government rather than confront it: the EU increased aid, while the UN cut back its political presence, even as warning signs grew stronger.

Crisis Group was, for example, one of the first to recognise how the growing power of the Huthis in Yemen could upset the country’s fragile peace.

These two cases show how focusing on the strategies and behaviour of leaders can help identify impending crises, even if those strategies and behaviours are informed by deeper contextual factors. Where conflicts intensify, analysts may also be able to identify how short-term political developments may create instability and potentially reshape dynamics. Crisis Group was, for example, one of the first to recognise how the growing power of the Huthis in Yemen could upset the country’s fragile peace. The group did not initially appear to be a major spoiler, but military success turned it into a significant and ambitious political force in 2013-2014. In February 2014, a Crisis Group Conflict Alert raised the possibility it would try to take the capital, Sanaa. Yet, many outsiders, keen to see Yemen as a success story, focused on UN-led efforts to consolidate a new political settlement and played down the threat until the Huthis did indeed enter Sanaa that September.

Elsewhere, early warnings have more successfully led to early action. In late 2014, Crisis Group was among organisations that emphasised signs Nigeria’s 2015 presidential elections could lead to large-scale violence. Signals included increasing low-level sectarian attacks and local politicians arming followers in anticipation of worse to come. Crisis Group advocated a high-level international push to persuade President Goodluck Jonathan and his opponent, Muhammadu Buhari, to renounce violence. Following intensive personal diplomacy by luminaries such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, coupled with pressure by domestic powerbrokers, Jonathan accepted his eventual defeat gracefully. Research in the Niger Delta, a centre of his support, suggests that local leaders had been ready for violence.

Analysts with a good grasp of the political dynamics can also make credible (if inher­ently probabilistic) assessments of how events will unfold. In late 2011, for example, Crisis Group assessed the increasingly chaotic security picture in Syria and identified factors that have since come to characterise the conflict, including the prevalence of “sectarian retribution and criminal activity” and the mounting risks of “foreign intrusion”.

Crisis Group certainly does not always foresee future developments accurately: it did no better than others in forecasting the 2011 Arab uprisings and gave no advance alert of South Sudan’s collapse or the Ukrainian crisis. At best, analysts work with partial information and have to make judgment calls about which risks are most pressing. If policymakers are sometimes inclined to discount warning signs, there is a parallel danger of “over warning”, of perceiving every fresh political twist as a harbinger of inevitable conflict.Nonetheless, good analysis-based early warning can identify not only the underlying risks of future conflicts, but also (i) how political actors are exacerbating the dangers of a crisis through their medium-term strategies; (ii) how shorter-term tactical developments may accelerate tensions; and (iii) what possible paths a conflict could take if not controlled. The goal of early action is then to determine how to persuade or push actors to pursue alternative courses that avert or minimise violence, or, where the internationalisation of a conflict is a risk, at least contain it.

B.The Complexities of Early Action

Early action “tools” fall into three broad categories: (i) facilitative (high-level diplomacy, mediation and confidence-building measures); (ii) coercive (diplomatic penalties, sanctions, threats of international justice and, ultimately, use of force); and (iii) incentives (such as financial aid, security guarantees and institutional support for new power- and resource-sharing arrangements). While it is important to understand the strengths and weaknesses of specific tools, they can only rarely be utilised in isolation from each other.

It remains true, as argued in a 2000 essay on early action, that “preventive diplomacy will usually require ‘mixed strategies’ combining coercive elements capable of posing a credible deterrent, and inducements and other reassurances that provide positive incentives for cooperation”. Optimally, such strategies should include a concept of a peaceful end-state to a crisis that all major players can buy into. “In even the most terrible of civil wars, for some there is always a threat more terrifying than the war itself”, noted a former UN official, namely, “the wrong peace”. Parties to a conflict may ignore both coercion and incentives if they believe they will lose fundamentally from a final political settlement. This long-term view must be factored into early action where possible, even if there is inevitably always a short-term focus on averting an immediate crisis.

This is all hard. Devising and applying “mixed strategies” to manage emerging or ongoing crises typically involves bringing together not only the tools available to a single government or international organisation, but also pooling the influence and resources of multiple actors, who often have very different short- and long-term perspectives. Even where concerned international actors have roughly similar strategic goals, it can be hard to match up their strategies. In 2015, for example, Crisis Group warned that the Security Council risked undermining regional peace-making in South Sudan by threatening sanctions on six generals who actually favoured a settlement (two were sanctioned, duly creating resentment).

More daunting still, it is sometimes necessary to coordinate strategies with actors with deeply opposed views, as in recent efforts involving regional powers, Russia and the West in Syria. In such cases, it is impossible to distinguish neatly between mediators and parties to the conflict and strategic competitors and diplomatic collaborators. As Crisis Group President Jean-Marie Guéhenno has argued, such situations demand a “multi-layered” response with wider international, regional, national and local diplomatic efforts continuing in parallel.

III.Identifying Dangerous Political Dynamics

If diplomats, analysts and international officials want to recognise warning signs of political dynamics that are liable to lead to violence, what should they look for? It is necessary to nod to the cliché that all politics is local, and no two crises play out precisely the same way. Nevertheless, Crisis Group reports highlight four recurrent sets of warning signs: (i) evidence that leaders and elites are adopting political strategies conducive to conflict, or signs of breakdowns in the bargains that hold leaders and elites together; (ii) evidence of discontent or political radicalisation among militaries and security forces; (iii) violence in “peripheral” areas with potentially broader implications; and (iv) signals that outside actors are engaging in an “internal” conflict, or spillover effects from such a conflict. This section concludes with thoughts on how policymakers can use knowledge of such warning signs to build “anticipatory relationships” and take very early preventive action.

A.Leaders and Elites

Some observers argue that there is an “end of leadership” globally, as transnational communications and organisations gain influence at the expense of national figures. Where a leader such as Nigeria’s President Jonathan is willing to release his grip on power, however, underlying political and social tensions can be eased, while a recalcitrant chief can have the reverse effect. As Crisis Group observed in 2011, the initial protests in Syria, having created an “unprecedented sense of awareness, solidarity and responsibility among large segments of the population”, had the potential to engender peaceful change, but President Bashar al-Assad guaranteed wider violence by whipping up the fears of his base, especially in the Alawite community, and signalling his intention to “go down fighting”.

It is essential to understand not only individual leaders but also t