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.


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.


The term "preventive diplomacy" refers to actions or institutions that are used to keep the political disputes that arise between or within nations from escalating into armed force. These efforts are needed when and where existing international relations or national politics appear unable to manage tensions without violence erupting. They come into play before a point of confrontation, sustained violence, or military action is reached. In many places and on many issues, preventive diplomacy is already practiced, although not always under that label. Recent examples include the U.S. negotiations with Russia and Ukraine over dismantling their nuclear weapons, U.S. and European pressure on Zaire's President Mobutu to step down, and the Middle East multi-lateral talks over water resource issues.

Stedman claims that while we know the societal conditions that increase the chances of war or state collapse (e.g., poverty, environmental degradation, ethnic and economic divisions, and repressive and corrupt regimes, and so on), murky individual and group decisions make it impossible to predict exactly when and where violence will erupt. But just because political forecasting is not a hard science does not make it a crapshoot. Sudden covert acts, such as a military coup or a terrorist bombing, are very difficult to forecast. But early-warning specialists are making progress in pinning down the probable precipitants of more gradual, public phenomena such as ethnic warfare, genocide, and the breakdown of states. Demonstrations, repressive measures, hate rhetoric, arms buildups, separatist communities forming parallel institutions: these signs one ignores at one's peril.

In Estonia, for example, restrictive citizenship and language laws adopted in 1993 by the newly independent government were perceived by resident Russian speakers--then a third of Estonia's population--as discriminatory and threatening. In view of this group's powerful patron next door, the High Commissioner on National Minorities of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) and other governmental and private actors acted preventively to reduce tensions, then and there.


Stedman points out the difficulty of knowing what actions to take. But preventive strategy is not the stab in the dark that he implies. His blanket view that post--Cold War ethnic tensions uniformly lead to intractable conflicts is based on a few recent instances where efforts were made to avoid violence yet war ensued: Croatia, Bosnia, Somalia, and Rwanda. One should look at the numerous ethnic and national disputes judged to be potentially destabilizing and violent that were managed in relative peace: Russia and Ukraine over Crimea, the breakup of the Czech and Slovak Republics, Congo's transition from autocracy, Zambia's nonviolent shift toward democracy, and Hungary's moderated relations with its neighbors, among others. Such success stories are virtually ignored in the press, and apparently by academics, too.

Stedman imagines only two policy options, "little more than talking" or armed force, whereas governments and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have used a gamut of measures to influence parties in disputes. Such instruments include unofficial ("track two") or grass-roots dialogues, human rights and other observer missions, targeted economic aid, confidence-building exercises, membership in international organizations, peacekeeping missions, democracy-building, official good offices or mediation, sanctions, big-power pressures, war crimes tribunals, and others. A mix is needed to allay mistrust, butress the local forces and institutions of accommodation, keep negotiation channels open, control imminent violence, propose settlements, and so on.

Third-party involvement in brewing disputes has certain advantages. For example, the preservation of Macedonia as a fragile new multiethnic Balkan state may be explained in part by the U.N. preventive peacekeeping force, the CSCE observer mission, U.S. warnings to Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, NGO dialogues, and other activities that have helped so far to keep external pressures, internal tensions, and local episodes of violence from escalating. Overt, direct U.S. involvement in such initiatives is not always necessary, nor even desirable, but quiet U.S. backing of the efforts of regional bodies like the CSCE, the Organizaton of African Unity, and private entities has been important. Overt or tacit U.S. backing of a party in a dispute can intensify a conflict, such as when the United States initially indicated it would tolerate Russia's recent handling of Chechnya or when it remained silent after the Algerian military canceled elections in 1992. Even vague messages promoting valid general principles such as territorial integrity or democratic rights can be interpreted as partiality and thus encourage one of the parties to use violence or armed coercion to advance its aims. What seems paramount is that the demeanor and actions of the United States can weigh heavily on behalf of a process of peaceful resolution of disputes.


One can be skeptical, with Stedman, that preventive action would always save more lives, cost less, and obviate the need for humanitarian intervention. But one need not follow him to the opposite extreme, wherein the financial and political cost of preventing such crises is prohibitive. The logic of conflict escalation is prima facie support for the view that less violent and short-lived disputes offer much greater opportunities for peaceful management by mediators. Issues in those types of disputes tend to be simple and singular rather than complex and multiple, disputants are less rigidly polarized and politically mobilized, fatalities and thus passions are low, and communications and common institutions may still exist. Other states or external groups are less likely to have joined one side or another and may even share an interest in keeping local disputes from escalating.

The calculus of deciding whether preventive diplomacy is worth the price must include the costs of alternatives such as mid-conflict intervention and noninvolvement. That includes not only lives lost and injuries but also the price of humanitarian relief, refugee aid, and peacekeeping, if done. It should also include the cost of losses in health, education, infrastructure, trade and investment opportunities, and natural resources. Bosnia, Chechnya, Chiapas, and Turkey's conflict with the Kurds are reminders of the huge political costs that nasty little wars that seem remote and minor at first can nevertheless wreak on U.S. foreign policy goals.


Stedman thinks that the public will not endorse preventive diplomacy's risks and costs, but the considerations described above put the overstated issue of "political will" in a different light. Preventive efforts are often much less challenging and more prosaic than cases in which a U.S. president must try to rouse the country to send American boys into possible danger. For example, the dispatch of 500 American soldiers to join the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Macedonia was hardly noticed. Preventive efforts may entail nothing more than making adjustments in regulations and procedures developed by the vertically structured, Cold War--era international bureaucracies of the United States. Ambassadors and U.S. field-level staffs may need revised job descriptions and performance criteria, for example, to encourage work with their counterparts in host governments, regional organizations, NGOs, and other countries in more proactive responses to the first local signs of potential crises. Effective preventive diplomacy means incipient conflicts would not even reach the desks of the National Security Council, the State Department's upper echelons, and the Pentagon.


Rather than ignore many potential post--Cold War crises and threats out of some unexamined theory of their imagined "intractability," U.S. and other policymakers might prudently assign a few staff members at various agency levels to track emerging post--Cold War political disputes around the world and to develop policy options for addressing them sooner rather than later. This would enable U.S. decision-makers to better assess whether the United States should act, when, with what means, and with whom. As successes mount, the burden of proof will shift to those who would still defend the notion that current wait-and-see policies and practices are in the U.S. national interest. At any rate, the stakes in these potential crises seem too high to approach them with cavalier analyses of a few frustrating experiences.

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  • Michael S. Lund, a Senior Scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, is researching the requisites of effective post-Cold War preventive diplomacy.
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