Courtesy Reuters

Underrating Preventive Diplomacy

The malaise of U.S. foreign policy is such that academic gadflies now debunk any proposal that sounds suspiciously positive. This knee-jerk negativism infects Stephen John Stedman's superficial critique of "preventive diplomacy," an approach that finds early international responses to avoid potential crises easier than more belated interventions ("Alchemy for a New World Order: Overselling 'Preventive Diplomacy,'" May/June 1995). Stedman charges that proponents of preventive diplomacy oversell its potential and naive policymakers are taking the bait. He argues that problems of prescience, policy prescription, and political support mean the "intractable" conflicts "endemic" to the post--Cold War period cannot be averted unless major resources are invested in "situations where risks are high and success is in doubt." Preventive diplomacy, he contends, merely means that "one founders early in a crisis instead of later."

But Stedman caricatures what proponents of preventive diplomacy are saying and exaggerates the extent to which governments are adopting the methods of preventive diplomacy. His selective analysis of worst-case scenarios leads him to misunderstand and thus overestimate the obstacles to implementing it.

HYPE AND HYPOTHESIS

Stedman conjures up a nightmare in which zealous purveyors of preventive diplomacy mesmerize unwitting policymakers into buying a discount antidote for local quagmires that has little potency and hidden side effects. But responsible proponents of preventive diplomacy obviously do not presume "easy solutions to such disasters can be found," advise key players to "do something, anything!" in dealing with incipient conflicts, tout preventive diplomacy as a cure-all with no cost or risk, or assume no value judgments need be made. Stedman not only distorts the views being expressed, he insults policymakers by implying they would fall for such policy nostrums.

Stedman has confused advocacy of a policy slogan with adoption of the substance behind it. Just because "preventive diplomacy" is an inside-the-Beltway buzzword of foreign policy does not mean that early warning and conflict prevention have become official doctrine or standard operating procedure.

WHAT PREVENTIVE DIPLOMACY MEANS

The term "preventive diplomacy" refers to

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