Conflict prevention: Taming the dogs of war

We can prevent minor disagreements from becoming major conflicts with top-down stability measures and grassroots ‘peace structures’ , say Mariano Aguirre and Patricia Lewis

The World Today
Published 1 April 2022 Updated 10 November 2022 5 minute READ

Europe finds itself confronted by something many thought would never be seen again: a war. Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has seen millions of people become refugees, fleeing to Poland, Hungary, Germany, Moldova and Romania, and all within a matter of days.

For many, this level of overwhelming aggression and firepower, along with the dangerous, illegal attacks on civil nuclear power stations, the use of cluster munitions, landmines and the threatened use of nuclear weapons has come as an enormous shock. 

But for those living in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Tigray, to name just a few current conflicts, it may not come as a surprise. 

War dramatically spills over into neighbouring territories and beyond. Consequences include the growth of illicit economies that undermine governance, the generation of refugees, the destruction of towns and villages, damage to the environment and more.

Modern armed conflicts are increasingly destructive and complex to solve and, as a result, the number of peace agreements has decreased dramatically in the past decade.

An unacceptable practice

Warfare has been part of social and political relations throughout history to the point of glorification. The preparation for war – usually couched as deterring war by military means – is part of our political and state-building culture, representing $1,981 billion in global military spending in 2020, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Violent conflict is a dangerous spectrum, that can shift in many dimensions, for instance from local to regional to global, or from conventional to nuclear war. It represents failure – of conflict prevention to begin with or conflict resolution once it has begun.

Other forms of human activities have been roundly rejected for being inhumane, such as slavery, gender inequality and child labour. Organized violence could join this list of unacceptable practices. 

Indeed, the United Nations Charter is quite clear in this ambition, requiring that all member states settle their international disputes by peaceful means and refrain from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state. 

Yet, 77 years after it was signed, here we are. After a gradual decline, the number of armed conflicts began to rise again in 2010. Some 35 are currently ongoing in the world. 

Over the past decade, many conflicts have been waged between non-state actors, such as political militias, national and international criminal organizations, and international terrorist groups. 

Although most of the conflicts are internal, we see increased internationalization and third-party interventions in conflicts. This is seen in the terrorist activities by the Islamic State in Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, Libya and other countries.

Other contributing factors to this rise in conflicts include the breakdown in the rule of law, weak state institutions and the growth of illicit economies. The scarcity of resources exacerbated by climate change, and intercommunal and identity-based violence are also dominant drivers of conflict. 

Prevention is possible 

Conflict prevention is not an isolated or idealistic policy but part of comprehensive societal systems that promote wellbeing, peace and security, both domestically and internationally. Prevention should address the roots of state fragility in their economic, environmental, political, security and societal dimensions.

There are two main approaches to prevent violent conflict. One is to address the causes of conflict, particularly the complexity of its roots and dynamics. This is called structural prevention. 

The other, operational prevention, works to strengthen the diplomatic, security and political mechanisms to avoid an imminent outbreak of violence in the broader context of international cooperation and respect for international law.  

Conflicts occur and will continue to occur, but if action is taken within this broad framework, using operational and structural prevention strategies, particularly by influential states and multilateral organizations, the escalation of many conflicts could be prevented.

After September 11, 2001, the war on terror thwarted conflict prevention efforts, displacing our post-Cold War understanding of peace dividends

Since the 1990s, intellectual efforts have focused on prevention, as a result of the relative failure of peace and state-building policies in fragile states and the continuing reluctance of states to get involved in peacekeeping operations. 

This research has built on studies, such as the reports of the Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflicts, that were too readily shelved after September 11, 2001. The war on terror thwarted conflict prevention efforts, while our post-Cold War understanding of peace dividends was displaced.

On a multilateral level, António Guterres, the UN Secretary-General, has promoted a vision for comprehensive conflict prevention since coming to office in 2017. This combines human rights, humanitarian action, economic and social development, and conflict resolution and mediation. 

A resource resulting from his efforts is the joint World Bank-United Nations report Pathways for Peace. When launched it was predicted that by 2030 more than half of the world’s poorest people would be living in countries greatly affected by violence. 

Last year, Guterres added Our Common Agenda report, in which he set out a ‘new agenda for peace’ with global solidarity and cooperation at its heart. 

It addresses a combination of factors aimed at promoting peace structures and addressing current wars: from strengthening international foresight, to placing women at the centre of security policy, to ensuring the peaceful, secure and sustainable use of outer space and much more in between. 

Some states and development agencies approach conflict prevention from different perspectives. Some concentrate on justice and human rights; others on inequality and poverty, gender, harmful use of the environment and promoting inclusive governance. Regional prevention is also tracked, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, as analysed by Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies’ expert Laurie Nathan. And prevention is connected to diplomacy and stability. 

Implementing preventive mechanisms does not ensure success, but it is a substantive advance compared with solely military approaches based on the ‘realist balance of forces’. An interesting example is the series of confidence-building measures adopted among South and Central American countries between 1980 and 2000 that configured an effective military and diplomatic prevention system. This region is now free of war between states. 

The public health analogy

There is a strong analogy between the use of prevention in global public health crises and in wars between and within states. Medicine shifted its orientation from reactive responses to preventive measures between the 19th and 21st centuries. This evolution in public health benefited from a sustained policy approach, rapid scientific advances, better urban and rural social organization and education, and the application of public health models.

A similar evolution is possible to prevent organized violence but such a strategy has been less visible.

Prevention is not news when it succeeds. The absence of war is assumed to be ‘normal’. Mobilizing diplomatic, political and economic resources to prevent conflicts from breaking out has been developed and practised over time, but most governments do not prioritize or invest in long-term preventive measures. 

Conflict prevention suffers from a lack of irrefutable evidence. ‘It might not have happened anyway,’ is the mantra for those who are unsure of the effectiveness of such measures. The same mantra is heard when it comes to natural disasters, industrial accidents and the effects of climate change. It is only after the calamity, after the inquiry, that the question is raised why wasn’t more done to prevent it occurring.

Public health has developed ways of testing which preventive strategies work and which don’t.

Creating peace structures – using the experiences and expertise of local people to combat conflict – generates inputs for sustainable economic development 

The task is not simple. Measuring success is not easy, particularly when practitioners and academics clash over the roots of a given conflict. But by using the complexity theory approach, advances have been made in measuring peacebuilding and conflict analysis. For example, Richard Caplan in his book, Measuring Peace: Principles, Practices, and Politics, delivers an evidence-based policy approach to enhance peacebuilding efforts. 

Several studies have indicated that, as with public health, investing in prevention has significant advantages. The same applies to climate change. Studies show that measures to protect the environment could have avoided the threat of non-reversible levels of environmental destruction, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Creating peace structures – using the experiences and expertise of local people to combat conflict, as recommended by Conciliation Resources, the peacebuilding organization – generates inputs for sustainable economic development. 

In contrast, war sets back the development of the affected countries for decades, as well as costing lives and destroying social capital. 

A false dichotomy 

Violent conflict, like all intractable problems, is complex.

When trying to prevent conflict, it is important to avoid getting caught between the false dichotomy of short-term measures, such as early warning systems, and plans to fully change the structures that generate armed conflicts, such as inequality, poverty, weak states, social exclusion and illicit economies. 

Both perspectives are necessary and must be integrated into a comprehensive, complex framework. 

Top-down stability measures work hand-in-glove with bottom-up peacebuilding linked to conflict resolution among communities with different identities and interests. These should never be pitted against each other in a ‘choose one over the other’ argument. 

This dual approach can lead to success as seen through the results of the Smart Peace initiative, led by Conciliation Resources with the participation of Chatham House. This programme developed targeted and adaptive conflict resolution initiatives that were responsive to changing local peace priorities, building ‘live learning’ into peace practice to reduce violence and build peace.

A framework for peace

At the heart of a peaceful and thriving society is planning, preparedness and resilience. For the European Union, which has a peacebuilding and security strategy centred on resilience, this approach addresses both the symptoms and the root causes of crisis while creating opportunities for cross-policy action.

A comprehensive prevention framework includes multi-level diplomacy, with both quick and longer-term actions. Such a framework should comprise strengthening agreements and treaties on arms control and security, international law and human rights. 

It must rely on civil society to provide space for dialogue and mediation as well as speedy, responsive humanitarian action and the strategic use of international and regional cooperation. The latter would aim to generate inclusive social and economic structures, integrate post-conflict countries fairly into the global market and support the creation of social pacts. 

Politicians and governments must be encouraged to invest political and financial capital in conflicts in distant countries, even if this does not guarantee short-term results 

The resistance of politicians and governments must be overcome to invest political and financial capital in conflicts that occur in distant countries, even if this does not guarantee short-term results. The conflicts in Ukraine, Libya and Syria show that thinking wars are far away is a serious mistake.

The terrible wars raging today will have something to teach us. Evidence and understanding must drive resilience in conflict prevention strategies. These strategies in turn must be at the centre of short and long-term planning for states, multilateral and security organizations, as well as for academics, journalists and civil society. 

The wars in Syria and Iraq have affected geopolitics involving the Middle East, the United States, Russia and Europe. And, as the 2008 Russian military action in Georgia and the Russian invasion of Ukraine now reveal, even when violence is on Europe’s doorstep, we tend to pretend war is unlikely until it happens. This must change. 

Our planet is small, and we are all connected. Hardly any wars can be dismissed as too distant to matter or too small to count. Political pragmatism dictates the need to consider preventive policies. If we get through this terrible conflict in Ukraine without it escalating, we must remember how close we came and how we must take conflict prevention seriously.