Modern Diplomacy as a Tool for Conflict Prevention?

The international community has struggled to prevent, resolve and in some cases even to respond to violent conflict in recent decades. The changing and unpredictable nature of violent conflict provides one explanation. In particular, the frequency of violence between sovereign states has significantly diminished and been replaced by a surge in non-conventional conflicts, where one or more of the belligerents is a non-state actor and driven by diverse though interconnected and structurally embedded factors.

The Global Peace Index (2014) estimates that in 2013 the economic cost of dealing with conflict-related violence was US$9.8 trillion, which is 11.3 per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product. In Syria alone, the United Nations (UN) estimates that between March 2011 and April 2014, more than 191,000 people were killed due to the ongoing conflict. The humanitarian and economic impacts demonstrate that now, more than ever, the international community must prevent the outbreak, escalation and re-occurrence of conflict. To this end, this commentary reflects critically on the role of diplomacy, as the primary bilateral and multilateral tool for conflict prevention, by identifying three common challenges to policy and practice. Arguing that diplomacy remains central to conflict prevention, two main options for reform are then considered and assessed.

Diplomacy has been utilized for centuries and continues to be the main way for states to conduct their international affairs. Towards preventing violent conflict, states can use diplomacy to undertake mediation, facilitation, fact-finding, consultations and monitoring, among other initiatives. Due to the growing cost of conflict in the 21stcentury, governments appear to be becoming less inclined to respond with large-scale military interventions, thereby in principle at least increasing the space for preventive diplomacy. However, as the protracted and devastating conflicts in Somalia, Israel/Palestine and Syria demonstrate, diplomacy is in practice failing to prevent the outbreak, escalation and re-occurrence of conflict.

In understanding the challenges, it needs to be appreciated that diplomacy has evolved even if we consider the last decade. Important institutional reforms have taken place at the multilateral level, for example, the appointment of former UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan as the Joint Special Envoy of the United Nations and the League of Arab States on the Syrian crisis, a position designed to provide good offices to bring the conflict to an end. A further example, at the regional level, is the establishment of the EU’s European External Action Service (EEAS) in 2009, which includes the Conflict prevention, Peace building and Mediation Instruments Division. At the bilateral level, many of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countrieshave attempted to strengthen their preventive response. For instance, the Building Stability Overseas Strategy (2011) by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence, aimed to implement a consolidated approach that integrates diplomacy, defense and development.

The academic and policy-oriented literature has attempted to keep up with the attempts to reform. At the more skeptical end of the spectrum, for example the founder of Independent Diplomat and former British diplomat, Carne Ross (2007: 204-205), contends that the “diplomatic machinery and modes of thinking about international relations have hardly changed at all” and that “what is very odd about our globalized world of the twenty-first century is that we still use nineteenth and twentieth-century ways of arbitrating it.”

On why diplomacy has struggled to evolve, Dr. Simon Adams, Executive Director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, stated that “without the upheaval of revolution or the catastrophe of war, diplomatic institutions always lag behind changes in the “real world.” They are by their very nature institutionally conservative” (author’s consultation, 25th November 2014). This claim is supported by an internal report on the UK FCO which determined that “the FCO was excessively risk-averse and timid” (Cooper, Heine and Thakur, 2014: 15). For some, diplomacy remains an elitist field, shrouded in secrecy and governed by protocol and prestige (Ross, 2007: 206-208). It is difficult to see how such a ‘risk-averse’ and inflexible approach to diplomacy can respond effectively to the menacing, fast-paced and complex nature of contemporary conflict.

As a second factor or explanation, the literature reveals that the weakened capabilities and influence of diplomatic institutions has become a significant constraint. Cooper et al (2014: 16) argue that, as a general trend, “[t]he foreign ministry and minister have lost influence to other government departments, to centralizing prime ministers who assert direct control over affairs of the state”. At the same time, it is claimed that diplomatic institutions are also challenged to deal with an insurmountable number of tasks while “foreign ministries are being cut, diplomatic missions are being closed or downsized and foreign services are losing staff” (Copeland, 2014).

Third, as noted by Nikola Dimitrov, Distinguished Fellow at the Hague Institute, foreign ministries are also being pushed to deliver results in other areas – such as trade and investment (author’s consultation, 31st October 2014). In a highly capitalized, inter-dependent and competitive world, states are devoting substantial resources to economic diplomacy, which may dilute the political will and support for conflict prevention. Further, with increasing focus on demonstrating results, attribution and accountability, it can be difficult to measure or even gauge the impact of diplomacy on the mitigation and de-escalation of violent conflict and in determining the tangible value for states in engaging in this field.

Despite these challenges and the skepticism, other commentators and experts caution that we cannot simply discount diplomacy as a tool for conflict prevention. As Paul Meerts (2014: 311) argues, although “[d]iplomats have lost their monopoly of diplomacy…at the same time they are needed more urgently than ever”. Therefore, the need to appreciate and build on the evolving nature of diplomacy should be at the forefront of the international agenda in its attempts to strengthen conflict prevention. Although there is no universally accepted definition of ‘diplomacy’ and on the nature of any future reform, this does not mean that recommendations cannot be discussed and proposed.

As one model of reform, former Canadian diplomat, Daryl Copeland (2014) argues that “the epicenter of enlightened diplomatic practice must be public-creative, interactive and transparent; smarter, faster and lighter”. In order to realize this change, states would need to reinvest in their institutions of diplomacy. At a time when the economic and human costs of engaging militarily in conflict are so high, making practical and capital investments in preventive diplomacy has the potential to be more cost effective and to alleviate some of the institutional capacity and funding challenges currently faced by diplomatic institutions.

Additionally, in involving other departments in initiatives that were traditionally the domain of foreign ministries it is essential for governments to put in place concerted and effective strategies. Initiatives such as the UK’s BSOS should be monitored closely to determine the benefits and where improvements can be made to this whole of government strategy.

Ross (2007) and Copeland (2009) offer contrasting models of reform. Ross (2007: 217-218), acknowledging the radical nature of his approach, argues that diplomats should be abolished and for diplomatic action to be undertaken via a “coalition of actors – the private sector, civil society and government”. In this way, “the practice and process of diplomacy, then, needs to change into something much more diverse and eclectic, such that we perhaps shouldn’t give it a collective name- such as diplomacy– at all. Copeland (2009: 11) proposes the more moderate model of ‘guerilla diplomacy’ whereby diplomats take into greater consideration “the role of communications, culture, non-state actors” and with “special attention dedicated to the relationship between development and security”.

Although these two models of reform among others deserve greater attention, it seems too drastic to try to abolish diplomats altogether, given they remain the primary conduit through which states conduct their international affairs. As Simon Adams commented above, states and their diplomatic institutions are more likely to experience incremental change. Therefore, Copeland’s ‘guerilla diplomacy’ appears to be the more viable framework under which diplomatic institutions should evolve and its emphasis on strengthening the links to ‘’communication, culture and non-state actors’’ may specifically improve the ability of diplomats and their institutions at all levels to be proactive in responding to the complexities of contemporary violent conflict.

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