Preventive diplomacy has been a popular item on the political agenda but policymakers struggle to make sense of its speculative nature. Making preventive diplomacy work requires us to rethink how we measure its impact and how we identify political openings. Using mediation in a preventive context can be the missing link. By Stine Lehmann-Larsen

What is preventive diplomacy?

That prevention is better than cure is a well-used dictum; it is an unassailable logic that needs no further explanation. Prevention can take place at different phases of the conflict cycle: it covers efforts to stop violent conflict from breaking out, avoid its escalation when it does and avert its deterioration after a settlement. The benefits of preventing conflict are of course numerous, but crucially include the saving of lives, the avoidance of painful societal breakdowns that take years to heal, not to mention averting the financial cost associated with war. In plain economical terms, preventive action can be an incredibly cost-effective instrument. Yet, conflict prevention has proven tremendously arduous to achieve in practice 

Preventive diplomacy, understood as ‘the […] employment of diplomacy to ease tensions before they result in conflict’, has long been recognised, in the words of the United Nations’ Agenda for Peace as, “the most desirable and efficient employment of diplomacy [...] to ease tensions before they result in conflict – or, if conflict breaks out, to act swiftly to contain it and resolve its underlying causes”.

The past few decades have seen great intensity of effort in the area of preventive diplomacy. The normative framework for preventive diplomacy has been strengthened at the regional and global levels. Regional organisations are actively engaged in preventive diplomacy and are improving their own capacity to respond early. A wide-ranging set of instruments is now available for preventive action, including military deployments, economic measures and sanctions, as well as the political approaches of preventive diplomacy. Analytical capacities have also been improved with the development of comprehensive early warning systems. 

It is time to mobilise preventive efforts

Although preventive diplomacy has been the subject of a series of major studies, impact is hard to prove, and its application faces inevitable constraints. All prevention remains a sort of hypothesis; a speculative venture with no guaranteed return on investment. At the same time it might be perceived as interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. Both factors limit official appetite for preventive diplomacy, while not dimming the demand for rhetorical attention to such work. Thus, the response mechanisms and conflict prevention actors continue to be challenged by political blockages, funding constraints, or bureaucratic impediments.

The UN SG recently acknowledged that there is still a need for ‘much greater political support for, and investment in, preventive efforts’. The High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations also came to the conclusion that ‘the international community is failing at conflict prevention’. In an attempt to address this failure, the United Nations and regional bodies are calling for the consent of their member states, stronger international unity, as well as sufficient resources to further strengthen preventive efforts.

Mediation as a preventive instrument

The political approaches of preventive diplomacy include dialogue facilitation, exposure to comparative experiences, shuttle diplomacy, sensitivity techniques, dispute resolution structures etc.

Mediation is an important instrument among these, which can be applied when third parties assist a process of negotiation between different stakeholders. The prerequisite conditions for conducting mediation sets it apart from the other preventive instruments, making it a particularly interesting point of departure for challenging current practices within preventive diplomacy. Mediation is by its very definition only applied in escalated situations – otherwise it could be replaced with a less charged preventive instrument. At the same time, the very possibility of mediation is, theoretically, a concrete sign that effective preventive action is possible.

Dialogue facilitation, exposure to comparative experiences and shuttle diplomacy are crucial steps for dissipating tension or making parties more receptive to each other’s concerns. But our ability to apply them does not necessarily indicate anything regarding the level of tension or the possibility to improve the situation. By contrast, the application of mediation invariably signals a possibility to solve a threatening situation.  

Since the potential outcomes of mediation are relatively tangible, it may be a less speculative venture than the application of other preventive instruments. As a consequence, mobilising political support for it could potentially be more straightforward than for other preventive instruments. Moreover, many of the other preventive instruments at hand are necessary building blocks to reach a situation where mediation can be applied. These factors taken together makes mediation a natural focus for improving the practice of preventive diplomacy. 

Understanding the use of mediation in a preventive context

To challenge and improve the current practice of how mediation is used preventively, it is vital to consider how it is situated within the preventive context as compared to ‘conventional’ mediation. This is linked with assessing the spectrum of preventive diplomacy instruments available: in what settings are they best used, and how do they interplay with other preventive instruments, such as, importantly, mediation? This requires examining past (successful or not) preventive engagements, from which we can draw valuable lessons on both the nature of mediation in a preventive setting, and when/how it can be used most effectively.  

An analysis of the nature of mediation in preventive diplomacy needs to touch upon the preventive context, timing and interlinkage with other preventive instruments.

Firstly, while the basic components of mediation such as the need to build trust among the parties, inclusion of relevant actors, and the challenges of maintaining mediator impartiality remain the same, the preventive context presents a different set of challenges. The pressure to achieve results urgently may be higher, the level of actors different, the scope of issues narrower, and trust and leverage plays a different role.

Secondly, and directly related to the previous point, aspects of timing may be different in a preventive setting, with a tendency to be shorter. Understanding how this plays in is crucial for grasping the preventive context.

Thirdly, the nature of mediation in a preventive setting is affected by its interplay with other preventive instruments, the use of which are often necessary to arrive at a situation where mediation can be applied.

This leads on to the next challenge.  

The preventive instruments and their respective best application need to be assessed. The wide range of different instruments available can be used in a myriad of ways. Mastering them requires understanding the instruments’ effect on other preventive actions, as well as how and in which contexts they are most efficiently applied.

For example, in what context is mediation the appropriate response, and when is it not? How might community dialogue facilitation about resource X, prepare the ground for subsequent mediation over key resource Y?

Understanding their optimal use and how they interplay is a prerequisite for devising clear preventive diplomacy strategies, making the way for early action conducted in an effective and systematic rather than ad-hoc manner. 

Finally, the preventive diplomacy currently taking place usually goes unnoticed and consequently lessons learned are lost. Due to this lack of reflection on how and when to apply preventive diplomacy, the approaches are out-dated and under-utilised. Preventive diplomacy is left for the few, applied in an ad-hoc manner depending on the actors’ ability and interest in responding, and rarely systematically reviewed. Instead, the international community remains stuck in the past, focusing on responsive approaches such as crisis diplomacy, peace making and post-conflict peace building, rather than preventive approaches addressing signs of conflict earlier in the conflict cycle.

But today’s conflicts cannot be solved with yesterday’s methods. There is therefore a need to look critically at relevant experiences of acting in the early phase of conflicts. What lessons can be learned from successful mediation as part of preventive engagements? How can we renew our approaches and include more - and alternative – mediation at an early stage? And how can these approaches be successfully applied in practice?