Everything you always wanted to know about ‘preventive diplomacy’’: how it differs from other forms of diplomacy – and why it could be a defining concept for the future of diplomacy. By Andreas Müllerleile

What is preventive diplomacy?

Preventive diplomacy is modern diplomacy with a twist. A basic definition describes it as “the most desirable and efficient employment of diplomacy is to ease tensions before they result in conflict” The idea is simple: use different diplomatic tools to prevent disputes from arising - or to prevent existing disputes from escalating into violent conflicts. Preventive diplomacy can take on many different forms including fact finding missions, early warning based on big data analysis, legal advice, negotiations or other diplomatic exchanges.

Preventive diplomacy is flexible. It’s the diplomatic equivalent to what architects know as ‘form follows function’. The intended diplomatic outcome defines the scope of how to engage in preventive diplomacy.

But what is *so* special about preventive diplomacy?

Prevention is better than cure. It’s usually much cheaper to prevent conflicts than to pay for post-war reconstruction or invest in several years of peacebuilding. Preventive diplomacy can also reduce the need for military interventions. This is why the UN described it as one of the most efficient ways to engage in diplomacy.

This sounds a bit abstract…

Yes, let’s look at a few examples. We know that rigged elections often trigger violent clashes after polling day. But election fraud is usually well documented and problematic issues are often known to all involved parties. The aim of preventive diplomacy would be to make sure elections are carried out without massive fraud - or to help different parties to deal with the outcomes in a peaceful way.

Or look at refugees. Slow but steady increases of refugees from a certain country is usually an indicator that something is not quite right. A similar example could be the state of minority rights. Bad treatment of minorities is often a first sign that a conflict is about to break out. Would it be possible to solve these issues at the local or national level before the situation escalates?

Another example: We know that simmering disputes about territories or access to resources can easily escalate into violent conflicts. Would it be possible to identify not only the ‘root causes’ but also the degree of escalation? Based on such an exercise it may be possible to deal with the problem before a violent conflict breaks out. Or look at demographic changes in some countries. A youth bulge in places with high levels of unemployment is likely to cause some problems at some point.

OK, but we can’t predict the future…

We may not be able to predict the future but with the help of various early warning systems we can identify risk factors that may result in violent conflicts. It’s true, preventive diplomacy - like all conflict prevention - is uncertain. But with a combination of sophisticated intelligence gathering and solid early warning systems we may be able to identify when and how to engage.

So how is this different from traditional diplomacy?

Diplomacy is an all-encompassing concept that is about managing international relations. Prevention is part of diplomacy. However, traditional modes of diplomacy are used to build stable relationship between state actors or engage in multilateral and bilateral diplomatic exchanges. In other words, diplomacy takes time and perseverance. Preventive diplomacy, on the other hand, is a more disruptive version of diplomacy. It does not replace other forms of diplomacy but it can be more targeted and less formalised. Preventive diplomacy is about this one well-timed initiative that can make a real difference.

Who does ‘preventive diplomacy’?

Preventive diplomacy is carried out by states, international organisations, NGOs, foundations and other non-state actors. Especially the UN have been a promoter of preventive diplomacy (see for example the 1992 UN Agenda for Peace or this Secretary General report from 2011) The European Union also started getting involved in preventive actions through various political initiatives and large funding programmes. However, large institutions - foreign ministries, international organisations etc - often struggle to develop an effective preventive diplomatic strategy as bureaucracies are not necessarily well equipped to deal with uncertain and risky scenarios.

So, there are quite a few obstacles? 

Yes, we often find it difficult to build a conflict prevention strategy despite having a good understanding of the root causes of a conflictual situation. We also struggle to measure stages of conflict escalation. Plus, preventive diplomacy can be politically sensitive, it is often perceived as an abstract concept or an ill-defined strategy. Practitioners have not developed a common understanding on how to measure the success of preventive diplomacy. Another obstacle is political: Building a consensus around it can be challenging as preventive action never considered to be a priority for policymakers. And last but not least, the ‘international community’ is also not known to be a proactive force when it comes to dealing with conflicts.

Ok, but is this really the future of diplomacy?

Well, it may be. Politicians want to tackle the ‘root causes’ of conflicts – but unfortunately there is little investment in early warning systems or preventive diplomacy. At the same time the nature of conflicts is changing. New types of conflicts emerge and they tend to spread more rapidly. Everyone agrees that we do need new innovative diplomatic approaches to deal with these conflicts – so why not give ‘preventive diplomacy’ a chance?