Reassessing Conflict Prevention in an Increasingly Turbulent World
Professor David Connolly is Practitioner Chair in the Senator George J. Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice (Queen's University Belfast).
Three weeks in and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already sent several powerful messages. First, least surprisingly, war has an immediately devastating and far-reaching impact. Several hundred civilians have been killed, more than 2.5m people have become refugees, and we are beginning to see profound economic disruption and fall-out. Second, despite initial optimism that the COVID-19 pandemic would rally states to create new alliances and forms of cooperation, deep geopolitical divisions persist as the main threats to global peace and security. Third, the war was preventable. The annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 made clear that Russia was a global player, and this should have been a wake-up call for NATO and the European Union.
Looking to Ukraine and beyond, this article pinpoints three main challenges to conflict prevention, and argues for fresh thinking and new approaches to prevention. The challenges together reveal the need to learn from past mistakes and to track how we adapt to a fast-moving global order. To start though, it is important to outline the main contours of ‘conflict prevention’, which contrast sharply with the turbulent dynamics of our contemporary global context.
Conflict prevention, in its more expansive sense, refers to measures not only to stop the initial outbreak of violence, but also to limit its escalation and spread, and further still, to avoid a relapse. Its practice through bilateral and multilateral means has remained steady and largely marginalized over the last two decades. Official approaches include early warning systems, confidence-building measures, sanctions, and the deployment of or peacekeeping forces. Non-official approaches, for example, may seek to strengthen the role of civil society. Preventive diplomacy, more specifically, is used to avert or mitigate disputes, and to limit the drivers and impact of violent conflict.
By contrast, the global patterns of violent conflict over the last two decades have proven unpredictable and complex. Notably: the number of violent conflicts worldwide has increased by 88 per cent, and they are more internationalized. State-based conflicts are at a historic high. Violent conflict and fragility have become increasingly intertwined. Along with an estimated global economic impact of violence of $14.4 trillion in 2021, it is staggering that the international commitment and capabilities to prevent violent conflict have remained stunted. Why is that?
Three Challenges to Prevention
First – the burden of proof - justifications for prevention have become mired in the difficult question of measuring its value and proving that it works. Although understanding the costs of war has been a valuable addition to the academic and policy debates, we have been slow to embrace the business case for peace.
Second, international conflict prevention, has been premised on multilateralism and the pursuit of shared security agendas. The shift to a multipolar world over the last decade, however, has introduced a crisis of global power. International society is more complex and fragmented, and the crisis has encouraged national self-interest, political short-sightedness, and deep divisions in values and beliefs. As demonstrated by the continuation of war in Syria and Yemen, and the haphazard withdrawal from Afghanistan, there is limited international will and capability to build peace and security. The response by many western states to COVID-19 has exacerbated the dysconnectivity and sense of isolation.
Third, linked to the above, the operational tools and instruments for conflict prevention have been neglected and are not fit for purpose. International law has failed to prevent or hold to account the use of chemical weapons. Foreign policy, despite strong ambitions, has struggled to protect civilians from mass atrocities. The current war in Ukraine exemplifies the difficulties in ‘applying the brake’. In 2014, reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch about the Ukrainian armed forces committing war crimes did not trigger public condemnation by European leaders. The near-unanimous support for economic sanctions is compelling in response to the current crisis, but the evidence overall that sanctions achieve their intended outcomes remains weak. They tend to ratchet up, rather than de-escalate, the conflict dynamics. Zooming out, it is unsurprising that “more violent conflicts are starting than are ending” in recent years.
Meeting the Moment
Making conflict prevention more effective is a tall order. Nevertheless, in understanding the challenges we can begin to identify possible ways forward.
First, we need to deepen the evidence base for conflict prevention to capture the perspectives of practitioner experts whose insights have largely been neglected and may make the business case for building peace more impactful. States must be confronted with the long-term effects of engaging in violent conflict.
Second, organizations and networks that seek to prevent conflict cannot wait for a levelling out of global power. The system of global order remains in flux. Our era is clearly one of great power competition on top of continued state fragility. Organizations and networks must take this new complexity into consideration and find ways to adapt. The emerging uptake in multitrack diplomacy by a diverse range of governmental and nongovernmental actors is an instructive example.
Last, much has been learnt at the policy and practitioner levels over the last three decades in preventing conflict in fragile states that has significant potential but requires implementation. For instance, the Global Fragility Act (GFA) requires all parts of the United States government to coordinate strategies to prevent violence and extremism and to focus foreign assistance on averting conflict in fragile countries. The act also dedicates $1.15bn over the next five years for conflict prevention and peacebuilding in at-risk nations and simultaneously seeks to leverage and coordinate public and private funds in that effort.
Overall, the proposed ways forward and the forward-leaning examples above all recognize the need to prioritize prevention, learn from practice, and encourage fresh thinking.
Image credit: Humphrey Muleba, Unsplash.