04 December 1998 - 06 December 1998

Preventative Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution

Chair: Dr David A Hamburg

Our conference – enriched by the opportunity to draw on the work of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict – recognised the long-term importance of structural, cause-removing approaches to averting conflict;  but our prime focus was upon the operational aspects of prevention and limitation when outbreak loomed or happened.  Our discussion mostly concentrated, moreover, upon the intra-state category of conflict which had increasingly commanded public attention in the post-Cold-War years.  We nevertheless accepted salutary reminder both that the inter-intra distinction was sometimes blurred, and that classical inter-state disputes and consequent risks of war, even if general reasons could be discerned for their diminishing incidence, had by no means dependably disappeared from the scene, and so must continue to engage preventive attention.

The past decade had seen both successes and failures in prevention.  We were uncomfortably aware that the former were both harder to prove and less able to command media attention, and we wondered inconclusively whether more might be done – for example in the UN setting – to note and celebrate them;  reward in some currency attractive to political leaders might be a valuable stimulus.  But inescapably the failures and their costs would still make the big headlines.

The theme of early action resonated through our discussions.  Delay raised costs of almost every sort;  it made eventual rebuilding and reconciliation harder;  it increased the risk that as conflict deepened extremist leaders – for whom conflict or stark victory/defeat choice was almost a raison d’être – would come to the fore and would prove to be the only available interlocutors.  We noted, too, the unwisdom of regarding military action as a last resort to be tried when everything else had failed;  for all that this fitted the diplomatic mindset of many UN members, it risked under-using a valuable pre-emptive instrument and condemning armed forces to operate too often in near-desperate situations where the concrete and realistic objectives their exploitation needed were hard to formulate in adequate operational terms.

But we acknowledged that it was easier to call for early action in general terms than to embark upon it in particular situations.  Good and timely information was a cardinal need, and more might be done to acquire and disseminate it – for example, nations might be encouraged to pass intelligence more fully and systematically to the United Nations, which might itself extend its fact-finding efforts;  and it might be possible to draw more extensively on the observation and experience of non-governmental organisations, who often had local access which governments could not readily match.  Even where conflict-risk situations had longstanding structural roots, there were often specific indicators that could be looked for and detected, such as the mobilising of combative public opinion through deliberate choice by leaders, or the amassing of arms.  The assembly of information had however to be partnered by proper capability to analyse and understand it in what were often complicated settings remote from the ordinary understanding of “Western” governments;  the bull-in-a-china-shop risk was real, as more than one recent experience suggested.

It was moreover one thing to have a strong and well-founded sense that there was trouble ahead, and often quite another to have evidence in a form and of a status adequate to trigger action by outside governments which, whether for good reasons or bad, usually felt a strong initial inclination against intervening.  Usable early warning had to relate to action practically desirable or feasible.  That consideration illustrated the limitations of over-reliance on the undoubted assets of NGOs – they were of varied purpose, skill and accountability;  by no means all would welcome any role alongside governments;  and they could not always be free from distorting motivation.  Decisions on intervention, and on what information might justify it, must ultimately lie with governments.

The reluctance of governments engaged us recurrently.  Some of us were sceptical of the concept of “political will” as a distinct commodity;  the key factors were perhaps the early recognition of strong interest in preventing or confining a particular conflict, and leadership in conveying that recognition to publics and parliaments.  We recognised however that there were importance resource constraints both in the UN and in many nations – not just in the availability of money or matériel, but also for example in the ability to devote high-level attention and to cope with simultaneous demands.

The concept of legitimacy in intervention much exercised us, in respect both of the basis for action and of who should undertake it.  As to the basis, there was a continual tension between the concept of national sovereignty and that of universal human rights, and some key countries had reasons of their own for not wanting to see the balance swing generally from the former towards the latter.  But there had in practice been a tilt in recent years, as instances and informal case-law accumulated, with an undercurrent towards a sense of global community, universal standards and world-wide jurisdiction – symbolised for some by recent developments on an International Criminal Court, though we heard comment that the impact of that might prove more positive in preventing (by deterrence) than in resolving conflict.  (This last point reflected an issue remaining contentious in our debate – the question whether, as arguably in South Africa and Northern Ireland, there might in the ending of conflicts have to be some trade-off between peace and perfect justice.)  Some participants hoped that the content of international law could be deepened in regard to the protection and collective rights of minorities, so often a prime issue in conflict-risk settings.

Who had the right to act?  The United Nations, for preference, most of us thought, even though we acknowledged the awkwardness that the United States – much the best-endowed and most effective actor – harboured more reservations than most about any wholesale dependence on the UN  either to authorise or to lead action.  The drawbacks of bureaucratic rivalry and complexity still beset the UN in some degree, but competence, coordination and confidence were improving.  We were reminded of the limitations (albeit sometimes overstressed) arising from veto power in the Security Council;  there were avenues around this, but they were not always readily open.  Both for this and for more positive subsidiarity-type reasons the capability of regional organisations to act should be respected and, where it was weak, fostered.

We talked in broad terms about strategies for preventive action – beginning with a salutary reminder that solutions had to be particular and tailor-made;  one-size-fits-all, or the overneat application of perceived analogies from the past elsewhere, were recipes for disaster. Effective strategies would usually need to be multi-faceted, combining both coercion – almost always an unavoidable aspect, if only in potential – and reassurance.  Key elements would often include interrupting cycles of violence, establishing firebreaks, and filling spaces and intervals with positive remedial activity, preferably involving indigenous and not just external participation and solution-finding responsibility.  We heard, partnering all this, vigorous criticism of the search for pre-determined (and, still worse, pre-timetabled) “exit strategies”;  intervention, whatever its form, must be prepared for patience and endurance.

The instruments potentially available were of diverse kinds.  Political action, even if it might seem to lack concrete leverage, could often play a part;  though media attention sometimes concentrated upon the imperviously intransigent, many states – or communities within them – minded about lack of recognition, ostracism, condemnation or exclusion from desired associations (like the Council of Europe, the Organisation of American States or the Commonwealth).  Such associations, at least where (as was not always the case) they were built on some substantial commonality of interest and values, could have useful leverage, and it would be advantageous wherever practicable to systematise – even perhaps make in some degree routine and automatic – their monitoring of conflict-threatening features.  The surveillance and contact work of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, despite its resource limitations, offered an encouraging illustration of what might be done.

We touched more briefly upon economic and military instruments.  The effect of economic sanctions was often hard to predict or to measure and their humanitarian cost worrying, but they were sometimes an unavoidable component of pressure.  More positively, the international financial institutions could sometimes contribute valuably, for example by making grants or loans for development conditional upon collaboration between adversaries.  On the military side, we recalled the need, if international cooperative effort in intervention was to be effective, for common standards in training, equipment, procedures and – crucially but not always readily – rules of engagement and command channels.  We observed with some unease the practical difficulty – alongside the obvious desirability of broad participation – of adequate burden-sharing when key elements of military power were in the hands of relatively few countries (and those not always among those most disposed towards international engagement, or historically most acceptable in the relevant theatres).  Enhanced or better-directed effort on a wider basis, to reduce the world’s dependence and demands upon the United States, seemed necessary;  but it was not clear, in political realism, how it would be forthcoming.  We were uncomfortable about the apparently-growing use of mercenaries;  they could be useful, no doubt, and might even in some settings be the only force available, but it was then essential that they be still subject ultimately to public authority, politically accountable.

The problem of legitimacy, earlier noted, beset not only the matter of who could intervene but also with whom they could do so – who were valid parties to solution-seeking?  In many intra-state problems the recognition of minorities as entitled to a distinct voice was – at least for the governing majority – precisely what was in dispute, and intervening mediation, however sincerely pacific its intent, could not appear wholly neutral.  The management of minority-related conflict bulked large throughout our discussions, for scarcely any trigger of conflict was more powerful than a sense among a significant minority, whether ethnic or religious, that they were being discriminated against or denied identity.  Outside efforts towards reconciliation could sometimes contribute usefully by placing before disputants – and, importantly, involving them as fully as possible in pursuing – a wider, more flexible and more need-specific range of options, constitutional or cultural, than such black-and-white outcomes as capitulation, secession or subordination.

We should have liked to find more time to discuss the contribution of religious and business leaders – respectively, sometimes valuable and usually thin, said brief observations – and the role of the media;  as to that, references to their possible effect as intensifiers or even precipitators of crisis were balanced by comment that the “CNN” factor was usually overrated and that to cast the media in any role other than that of providing public information would be misconceived.

Our conference overall renewed our awareness of the acute difficulty of many conflict situations – key actors might not truly want any resolution, or key populations might simply have lost any desire to live together, for example.  But there nevertheless came through our discussions a sense of widening recognition of global interest and responsibility in reducing conflict, matched by a gradual increase in the understanding of instruments available and in readiness and competence to use them.  We doubted whether it would be practicable to formalise any official list of “at-risk” situations to help focus and prioritise international action, but timely sensitivity to them was improving;  and we were sure that heightened effort both to monitor the present and to understand and disseminate the lessons of the past would reap dividends in the future.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Dr David A Hamburg
President Emeritus, Carnegie Corporation of New York


General John de Chastelain
Chairman, Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, Northern Ireland;  formerly Chief of the Defence Staff
Mr John G Cockell
Associate, Conflict Analysis and Development Unit, Department of International Relations, London School of Economics and Political Science.
Mr David M Malone
President, International Peace Academy

Monsieur Jean-Marie Guéhenno
Cour des Comptes;  formerly Ambassador to WEU
Dr Dominique Moïsi
Deputy Director, IFRI

Ambassador Dr Hansjörg Eiff
Formerly Permanent Representative to OSCE
Professor Dr Helmut Hubel
Chair, Foreign Policy and International Relations, Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena
Dr Winrich Kühne
Director, Research Institute for International Affairs, SWP

Lieutenant General Sir Mike Jackson KCB CBE
Commander, NATO ACE Rapid Reaction Corps

Dr Kennedy Graham
Director, Planning and Coordination, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Stockholm

HE Mr Jan Eliasson
Permanent Under Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs

Sir Leonard Appleyard KCMG
Senior Adviser, Barclays Capital;  formerly Ambassador to China
Mr Anthony R Brenton
Director, Global Issues, FCO
Dr Edgar Buckley
Assistant Under Secretary (Home and Overseas), Ministry of Defence
Dr Andrew Cottey
Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford
Mr Simon Fuller CMG
Head, UK Delegation to OSCE
Mr Nik Gowing
Main TV presenter/anchor, BBC World
Mr Peter Hawkins
Policy and Practice Adviser on Emergencies, Save The Children Fund
Dr Rosalind Marsden
Head, United Nations Department, FCO
Ms Sally Morphet
Global Issues Research Group, FCO
Dr Oliver Ramsbotham
Director, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford
Mr Roland Smith CMG
Ambassador-designate to Ukraine;  formerly Director, International Security, FCO
Mr Nick Stockton
Emergencies Director, OXFAM
Dr Michael C Williams
Senior Consultant, Office of the High Commission, UNHCR

Dr Jane E Holl
Executive Director, Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict
Professor Bruce W Jentleson
Program of Political Science, University of California, Davis, Washington Center
Mrs Wendy W Luers
President, The Foundation for a Civil Society
The Honorable William H Luers
President-designate, US United Nations Association
The Honorable Stanley O Roth
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, United States Department of State
Professor Barnett R Rubin
Director, Center for Preventive Action, Council on Foreign Relations
The Honorable Cyrus R Vance KBE
Formerly Secretary of State
Dr I William Zartman
Director, African Studies and Conflict Management Programs, Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies