Preventive diplomacy can stop armed conflicts before they escalate. However, we lack real innovation as funders and international organisations tend to avoid anything that turns out to be speculative and risky. By Martin Griffiths

Europe’s foreign policy is stumbling from one crisis to another. The ‘refugee crisis’ is just the latest in a series of events in which Europe did ‘too little, too late’. Ukraine, Syria, Libya have all become synonyms for the ‘failure of diplomacy’. The challenge for the coming years is to reinvent how we do diplomacy and how we respond to conflicts around the world. A promising way to do this is to think more seriously about ‘preventive diplomacy’ initiatives.

The failure of diplomacy is often a result of an alarming gap between words and action. Politicians tend to talk about the necessity to prevent conflicts, to ‘tackle root causes’ but not much is happening after all those diner speeches and government statements. Why is this the case?

Addressing the funding gap

The problem is simple: preventive actions are, by their very nature, speculative. They are a gamble, a piece of intelligent guesswork, identifying one or more acts which will reduce or indeed prevent the likelihood of the feared outcome. But there are no certainties in this business. And so most plans for prevention fall at the first hurdle: Funding  

If you look for funding in conflict prevention the big donors have a tendency to come up with a list of complex requirements for 'deliverables'‎, all predicated on a predictable process. But prevention is a shot in the dark, maybe well calculated but still at best a sensible guess. And even if funding is secured the proposal is unlikely to pass the second: the dictatorship of the immediate.

Overcoming short-termism

The attention span of the politicians is short and driven by factors not always aligned to the needs of the people. The media are interested in drama, conflicts and crisis reporting responding to the needs of a 24h news cycle. Social media seems to accelerate this trend. This creates a political atmosphere that leaves little room for long term thinking and preventive diplomacy. Or to put it differently: A crisis only exists if it is on TV. This makes it incredibly difficult to get a new crisis onto the international agenda, let alone a crisis that has not yet happened.

The politics of preventive actions

Preventive diplomacy is also political which adds another layer of complexity. I remember some years ago when‎ I was a humanitarian official in the Geneva office of the United Nations. One of my tasks was to run a committee of UN Agency officials who had the privilege of overseeing the world's response to disasters and emergencies. We dutifully developed lists of crises needing priority attention, we even drew up lists of places that might become crises and would benefit from some....yes, ‘preventive action’. Just before we were about to publish this list, we had a quick meeting and my exalted senior from New York looked at me aghast. "You put Sierra Leone on that list?" he asked me. "Of course" I replied naively, as Sierra Leone was at that time about to dive back into crisis." And what do you think the Ambassador of Sierra Leone will say to the UN Secretary General when he hears that the UN considers his country to be at the brink of a complex emergency?" "Ah" I replied. And that was the end of this list that was to supposed to define - and launch a strategy for ‘preventive actions’.

A bureaucratic culture clash

Another stumbling block on the road to build effective preventive diplomacy projects is the international bureaucratic culture that tends to block speculative, creative or controversial actions. I have worked in the UN system before starting my job in Brussels – and I can see some striking similarities when it comes bureaucratic cultures. The aversion to risk, lack of creative thinking and a particular project management mindset makes it almost impossible to do meaningful preventive diplomacy within big bureaucratic structures.

How to develop innovative ‘preventive diplomacy’ initiatives?

I write all this for a reason. At the end of the last century when I was began working as a mediator, the business of mediation was seen as specialised, inimical to the prerogatives of sovereignty, and certainly not something to risk a flutter. Today, twenty years later, the business is recognised and flourishing because of to the unsung gambles of some key donors and some enterprising mediators.

The same is not (yet) true for ‘preventive diplomacy’. And I think it is time to change that. We can learn from the way in which mediation made it into international acceptance. Preventive diplomacy needs the same sort of revolution. Here is what we need to do:

  • Funding We need to mobilise venture capital‎ and create a set of creative interventions that we can use as examples in the future. In terms of project design we need to reduce the speculative ratio by building practical evidence of what ‘preventive actions’ could look like, how they work and what can be achieved. Interestingly, we did this with ‘mediation’. We found some venture capital in Norway and Switzerland and showed how it can make a difference. 
  • Convene practitioners. In any new venture the pioneers will be few and probably competitive. We should try hard to avoid the competitive instincts and reward the desire to share.
  • Work with the donors to develop different project frameworks with a focus on flexibility. The nature of ‘preventive actions’ requires us to think about how it differs from other diplomacy projects and what sort of funding schemes would make sense for both practitioners and donors.