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"Preventing Deadly Conflict and the Problem of Political Will"

2002 Montague Burton Professor of International Relations Lecture by Gareth Evans


I. The Challenge of Deadly Conflict

The 20th century was by far the bloodiest in human history, and as the 21st begins we cannot have much confidence that we will do any better. Despite all the hopes we have been nurturing since the end of the Cold War more than a decade ago, the international community has been, with not very many exceptions, spectacularly unsuccessful in preventing mass killing and resolving deadly conflict within and between states.

The genocidal atrocities in Srebrenica and Rwanda in the mid-1990s, the horror of September 11 – and now October 12 in Bali – and the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict are just the more obvious examples. Chechnya remains ugly; Zimbabwe is disintegrating; Nepal is being torn apart; Kashmir, and the India-Pakistan hostility which keeps it aflame, is alarmingly close to the nuclear brink; the ongoing Colombian war is in danger of spilling over to the wider region; West Africa is in deep trouble; and even the peace making and peace building processes now under way in Afghanistan, Sudan, Congo, Sri Lanka and the Balkans are very fragile, very incomplete or both.

Wars between states are much less common than they used to be, but cannot be discounted. The state of play between India and Pakistan remains extraordinarily fragile, with a huge risk of nuclear miscalculation on both sides; the Korean Peninsula is back on the brink; the Taiwan Strait is quiet for the moment, but will need much effort to remain so; and tensions between many states in Africa remain very close to the surface. And if the US finally decides to go to war unilaterally against Iraq – arguing pre-emptive self-defence but unable to persuade the wider international community of the imminence of a grave threat to its security – it may not be easy to remain as confident as we have become about the wholly exceptional character of interstate conflict.

Wars or conflicts within states nonetheless remain overwhelmingly the most likely cause of continuing disturbance and suffering. In the last decade 53 of the 56 major armed conflicts were of this kind – whether driven by grievance, greed, state failure or all of the above. From Colombia to Zimbabwe to Somalia to Macedonia to the Caucasus to Central and South Asia to Indonesia and parts of the South Pacific, and many places in between, there is a very real risk of major conflict breaking out, or escalating, or recurring or continuing.

The security challenge on which the world has focused most since 11 September 2001 has been wars on states. This is hardly a new phenomenon – terror has been used as a weapon by the weak against the strong since time immemorial – but on 9/11 the notion of ‘asymmetric’ security threats moved in an instant from abstraction to alarming reality, and just a few days ago – on 10/12 in Indonesia – all our fears about the capacity of terrorists to strike anywhere at any time were horrifyingly reinforced.

II. The Task: Prevention, Reaction and Rebuilding

At least we know by now in general terms what we have to do as an international community to deal with mass violence and deadly conflict – before it breaks out, while it is happening and after peace is somehow restored. We know that, in a depressingly long list of places around the world, there is a cycle of conflict which is capable of endlessly repeating itself unless we

- start with effective prevention, addressing both underlying and immediate causes;
- respond when prevention fails with effective reaction, preferably by non-coercive means but ultimately if necessary by military force; then
- follow that up with effective post conflict peace building – which is itself a conflict prevention measure, crucially necessary if the whole horrible cycle is not to start again.

The trouble is that we know very well what works, but over and again we just don’t do it. Let me give you a number of examples – from which hopefully we can draw some policy lessons – from several different areas of conflict prevention and management.

Conflict Prevention

Arms control and disarmament regimes. International legal regimes generally, and arms control treaties in particular, play a critical stabilising role in the international community. Few have been more important or effective than the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which has confounded predictions in the 1960s that there would be by now 20-30 nuclear weapons states. One of the most dispiriting features of the unilateralist mindset of the present Washington administration is the way in which the US has walked away not only from the International Criminal Court and international environmental treaties, but from a whole series of new or continuing arms control agreements, leading by example in the worst possible way.

After playing an important leadership role a decade ago in securing a tough international inspection regime for chemical weapons, the most recent contributions of the US have been to scuttle a draft protocol seeking a similar enforcement mechanism for biological weapons; have the Senate vote down ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and assert the US right to develop a new generation of nuclear weapons; withdraw unilaterally from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty (which has, however relaxed Russia may be, huge implications for strategic stability in North East Asia); and diluting almost to the point of meaninglessness the UN plan for dealing with illegal trafficking in small arms.

One thing that is unequivocally not on the US agenda – nor, as a result, anyone else’s – is any kind of serious commitment to the ultimate absolute elimination of nuclear weapons. But this is the only serious policy goal for nuclear, just as much as with all other kinds of, weapons of mass destruction. So long as any state has them, others will want them, and as long as anyone has them there is a fair probability that they will eventually be used, by accident or design, to catastrophic effect. It’s not a very good argument that you need to retain some nuclear – or chemical or biological – weapons to deter rogue states producing or using them, when current generation conventional weapons give all the deterrent or retaliatory muscle that could ever possibly be required.

Early Warning. Everyone who writes about conflict prevention emphasises the importance of effective early warning and risk analysis. That’s hardly the end of the story – one must then have a toolbox of appropriate measures available (political/diplomatic, legal, economic and military) and the will to apply them – but it’s certainly the beginning. Governments (with the help, I think it is fair to say, of NGOs like ours) have become better at recognising this, and doing something to lift their internal performance, but there is still a lamentable shortage of capacity in many places where it matters.

The UN itself is a classic example. The Brahimi Panel on UN Peace Operations recommended two years ago the creation of a new Information and Strategic Analysis Secretariat (EISAS), with a staff of over 50, to bring a strong new focus and professional competence to this task. But essentially because of member states’ anxieties about the secretariat becoming too competent in its receipt and handling of sensitive intelligence, the proposal was drastically watered down, and has still not been implemented even in its diluted form.

Underlying Causes of Conflict. Again it is a commonplace in discussions of conflict prevention these days that a basic distinction needs to be drawn between, on the one hand, proximate, immediate or short term causes of conflict (and the direct or operational preventive measures that are needed to respond to them), and on the other hand the underlying, structural or longer term causes (and the more structural or indirect preventive measures that are needed to address them).

There is no doubt that the rising tide of globalisation has not raised all the boats: wealth overall has increased, but so has inequality – dramatically – and with it grievance. There are many situations where the risk of conflict would be much reduced by generous and well targeted financial assistance. Countries in many volatile parts of the world are crying out for support for governance and capacity building, for economic development and assistance to redress inequalities. But they are simply not getting anything like the support they need.

Although the recent Monterrey Conference did something to turn around the trend, the unhappy truth is that aid from rich countries has been significantly falling as a proportion of their GNP throughout the 1990s – from an average 0.33 per cent in 1990 to 0.22 in 2000. This is in a decade in which one-third of the world’s countries had lower per-capita incomes than they did at the beginning. Total official development assistance from the industrialised countries currently totals around $56 billion, and this needs to double if internationally agreed policy goals in health and education and development generally are to be met. It is worth noting in this context that the amount the US is preparing to spend in going to war against Iraq is of the order of $100 billion, nearly twice what is needed to bridge the global aid gap next year, ten times Washington’s own current annual aid expenditure, and 100 times the $1 billion the US is offering each year to fight the global scourge of AIDS - which is causing deaths on the scale of two-and-a-half 911s every day.

It is inevitable that any discussion of expenditure priorities should home in on the US. It is the second largest aid donor in dollar terms, after Japan, but the least generous of all donors when assistance is measured as a proportion of GNP (and even when the additional 50 per cent – or $5 billion – increase announced by the Bush administration cuts in, bringing the US percentage to around 0.15, that will still be at or close to the bottom of the donors list). But what makes the argument particularly telling is the hugely disproportionate US spending on defence. Whereas the average industrial country spends $7 on its military for every $1 devoted to aid, for the US the ratio is closer to 38:1.

It is not as though the US is under any immediately obvious pressure. The US defence budget next year, at nearly $400 billion, will be over 40 per cent of the world’s total – higher than the combined total of the seven ‘rogue states’ identified by the Pentagon as its most likely adversaries (Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Cuba), plus China, plus Russia – and plus its eighteen NATO allies as well!

Terrorism. When it comes to preventing terrorist violence, it seems to me unanswerable that measures have to be pursued at five different levels simultaneously: homeland defence; pursuit and punishment of known perpetrators; building frontline defences in the countries of origin of the terrorists themselves, by building in turn the capacity and will of those countries to act both internally and in cooperation with the wider international community; addressing the conflicts and policy issues that generate grievance; and addressing the underlying social, economic and cultural issues that generate grievance. In all these respects the performance of the international community has left something to be desired.

The crucial strategy is the third in this list, and the last two are linked with it. As Tom Friedman recently said in The New York Times: “In the end, the only people who can stop suicide bombers are those in the community they come from. Only if their political and spiritual leaders delegitimise suicide bombing, only if their security forces are mobilised to prevent it, can it really be stopped. Israel…could never penetrate Palestinian society the way Palestinians could.” He could make the same point about the governments of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan and now Indonesia. But if the active and enthusiastic cooperation of those governments and authorities is to be achieved, they have to have the capacity and will to act – and that means not buying or pressuring their support, but making a serious effort to address the grievances, certainly including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that play so heavily with those governments, and with the people in their streets – and with those governments precisely because of the way they are reading their domestic constituencies. And it certainly does not make much sense, from the point of view of effectively prosecuting the war on terror, to be generating new grievances unless there is an absolutely overwhelming need to take that risk: I will come back later to the subject of Iraq.

Conflict Management

“Humanitarian Intervention”. The dilemma of “humanitarian intervention” has been overtaken since 911 with other preoccupations, but it not been resolved and it has not gone away. When, if ever, is it appropriate for states, individually or collectively, to take coercive action, and in particular military action, against another state – not for the purpose of self defence, and not in order to address some larger threat to international peace and security as traditionally understood, but for the purpose of protecting people at risk within that state?

The issue was the subject of countless debates through the 1990s. The main cases – ones both when intervention happened, and when it didn’t – are burnished in our memory. None of them were well or confidently handled: the debacle of the international intervention in Somalia in 1993; the pathetically inadequate response to genocide in Rwanda in 1994; the utter inability of the UN presence to prevent murderous ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995; and then NATO’s intervention, without Security Council approval, in Kosovo in 1999.

The issue was the subject of countless debates through the 1990s. The main cases – ones both when intervention happened, and when it didn’t – are burnished in our memory. None of them were well or confidently handled: the debacle of the international intervention in Somalia in 1993; the pathetically inadequate response to genocide in Rwanda in 1994; the utter inability of the UN presence to prevent murderous ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica in Bosnia in 1995; and then NATO’s intervention, without Security Council approval, in Kosovo in 1999.

The new century began with intense disagreement persisting as to whether there is a right of intervention, how and when it should be exercised, and under whose authority. But it is critical that some consensus be achieved, because it is only a matter of time before – somewhere in the world – some harrowing new man-made catastrophe happens once again. My own fear, after canvassing this issue extensively with UN diplomats at the time last year of renewed fears of the eruption of genocidal conflict in Burundi, is that faced with another situation even as bad as Rwanda in 1994, it would be very hard to mobilise the international community in an immediate and effective reaction.

A major effort has now been made to create a basis for that consensus, in the report last December of the Canadian-sponsored International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, which I co-chaired with Mohamed Sahnoun, Kofi Annan’s special adviser on Africa. We found that very broad agreement could be reached around the notion that there was not so much a ‘right to intervene’ as a ‘responsibility to protect’, which fell to the international community – and in particular the Security Council – when state governments were unable or unwilling to protect their own citizens from mortal peril. We identified precise criteria that would justify, in extreme cases, military intervention, and spelt out the processes that should be followed to authorise and implement such action. That report has been debated privately by the Security Council, and will hopefully shortly be before the General Assembly for the adoption of a declaratory recommendation based on its recommendations.

So the groundwork has been laid to solve, at least in principle one of the most difficult conflict and violence management problems of them all, and the one that troubled us more than any other before 911. But all this effort will be academic, if – when the call next goes out to the community of states for action – that call is not answered. There remains a big question mark as to whether the political will in fact will be there, and while our conscience cries out that “There must be no more Rwandas”, we simply cannot assume that there won’t be.

The Peacekeeping Deficit. One of the major problems which states say they have in responding to calls for intervention for human protection purposes, or for more familiar peacekeeping tasks of the kind now being performed in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Congo, is that they simply don’t have the resources available – either the manpower or, what is often more acutely needed in international peace operations, the necessary support equipment. It is true that, given the magnitude of continuing operations in the Balkans (more than 47,000 troops still committed), as well as the shrinking military budgets of most countries in the post-Cold War era, there are real constraints on how much spare capacity exists to take on additional burdens. UN peacekeeping may have peaked in 1993 at 78,000. But today, if both NATO and other multinational force operations (eg in Aghanistan) are included along with UN missions, the number of soldiers in international peace operations has grown by about 45 per cent, to 113 000.

All that acknowledged, it should hardly be beyond the capability of the major Western players to keep the Balkans supplied with the stabilising troop presence it still needs in Bosnia, Kosovo and (at least for a few more months) Macedonia, particularly when less than 15 per cent of the present 47 000 troops are American. It should not be beyond their capacity to increase, as is desperately required, the size and geographical coverage of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan – from the 5000 (non-American) troops now on the ground around Kabul, to the 10 – 12 000 required. And it should certainly not be beyond their capacity to supply with transport and other necessary equipment the 5 500 personnel required to make the MONUC monitoring operation in the Congo fully effective: something that was much concerning Security Council ambassadors in New York last week.

It may be that, as commentators like Robert Kagan – and this week UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw – have been calling for, the European countries do need to lift their defence expenditure levels beyond their current levels of around 2 per cent of GDP (as compared to the US 3 per cent). But again, it does not seem unthinkable that the US should revise the prioritisation of some of its own massive defence expenditure, and make a little more available for peacekeeping - and peace building – tasks. There is legitimate concern that US troops tend to be much more targeted than others, and are therefore particularly vulnerable in community policing-type situations. But it cannot be right to assert, as a number of US commentators (including the aptly named Mr Krauthammer) are wont to do, that “No one can fight wars like us: anyone can peace keep”.

The Arab-Israeli Conflict. In terms of my general theme – we know what we have to do when it comes to the conflict prevention and management cycle, but we just don’t do it – no conflict situation is more depressing than that between the Israelis and Palestinians:

- We know by now that the incremental approach at the heart of the Oslo process is irretrievably dead – the intended process by which a secure environment is first established, trust is gradually built layer by layer, and the difficult final status political issues (including borders, Jerusalem and refugee return) are saved up to be dealt with last.
- We know that the mistrust and hatred between the present Palestinian and Israeli leaderships is such that it is almost impossible to ever contemplate them being able to reach agreement, and that there needs to be a fundamental change in the political dynamic operating on both sides.
- We know that, intellectually, there is now – unlike a decade ago – very widespread agreement among moderates on both sides and in the wider international community about what a final settlement on all the hard political issues would actually look like.
- And we know that while public opinion polls on both sides tell us that while around 70 per cent of each supports the most extreme measures being taken against the other, similar majorities support a two-state solution being negotiated and implemented as soon as possible.

My own organisation, ICG, has been arguing for months that the only constructive way forward in these circumstances is for the international community, led by the US, to put on the table right now – not waiting for security or institutional reform or other conditions to be satisfied – a very detailed ‘endgame’ blueprint, setting out the kind of term of a final political settlement that are considered fair and reasonable, and on which negotiations should commence immediately, in parallel with the security and other tracks. The argument is that this would create a whole new political dynamic, giving moderates on both Israeli and Palestinian sides the confidence and capacity to forge a settlement that would be acceptable to majorities on both sides. There is strong support for this among the moderate Arab countries, who have made their own substantial contribution this year to creating the conditions for peace. And there is strong support in Europe, with Tony Blair arguing again very recently for a major peace conference to be held as soon as possible, at which such a plan should be put on the table.

But nothing continues to happen, other than more deadly carnage, week by week. And it doesn’t happen because the present US administration is not persuaded that any change of policy is necessary or desirable. The will is just not there to take the risks that are going to have to be taken eventually if this awful deadlock – with all its debilitating consequences for the ongoing struggle against terrorism – is ever to be broken.

III. The Problem of Missing Political Will

The explanation for the failure of states and intergovernmental organisations to effectively maintain, restore and rebuild peace, repeated over and again in the terms I have just been using to describe the Middle East peace process, is ‘lack of political will’. But said without more, this is simply to restate the problem, not provide an explanation or any kind of strategy for change. The difficulty with most discussions of political will is that we spend more time lamenting its absence than analysing what it means. We tend to talk about it as a single missing ingredient - the gelatine without which the dish won’t set. But the trouble with this metaphor or any other way of thinking about “political will” as a single, simple factor in the equation is that it understates the sheer complexity of what is involved. To mobilize political will doesn’t mean just finding that elusive packet of gelatine, but rather working your way through a whole cupboard-full of further ingredients. What then are those ingredients?

In the first place, some of them are institutional. There is a great deal to be said, in any organisational setting, actually to have some organisation - i.e. in this context, some institutionalisation and routinisation of conflict prevention, someone or some group within the system whose responsibility it is to think about prevention, and devise and recommend up the decision-making food chain appropriate policy responses. Another way of putting it is in terms of deliberately trying to build, through more focused arrangements of this kind, a "culture of prevention" , or more trendily, to “mainstream prevention” .There have been some encouraging recent developments of this kind in a number of foreign affairs and development bureaucracies, including in Britain.

Other more substantial organisational innovations are possible, especially involving the strengthening of regional security organisations. Probably the most successful example of the approach of creating a new organisation on the principle that there is thereby a better chance of its functions being employed, has been the OSCE's appointment of a High Commissioner on National Minorities. Max Van der Stoel's full time application over many years to the task of devising and encouraging preventive measures to stop ethnic communities tearing at each other's throats in many parts of Europe – work now being continued by Rolf Ekeus – has been hugely more effective than a series of case-by-case diplomatic excursions is likely to have been.

While there are some institutional changes that can help things along, the key thing is to have the right arguments being directed to the right people. From my own experience both in government and beating on the doors of government, you just have to recognise that there are key individuals at or near the top of the food chains, and you have to at the end of the day find good arguments that will appeal to them. Someone, somewhere has to pick up the case and run with it, and you have to give him or her the means to do so. The well-equipped political- will- mobiliser needs to be equipped, as I see it, with four different kinds of argument in favour of action.

Moral Argument. However base and self-interested their actual motives may be, governments always like to be seen – both internally and internationally – as acting from higher motives. Preventing human suffering, and all the catastrophic loss and misery associated with deadly conflict, can act as both an inspiring and a legitimising motive in almost any political context. Getting this moral motive to bite means, however, being able to convey a sense of urgency and reality about the threat to human life involved in a particular situation – always difficult when you are at the pure prevention stage of the conflict cycle and there’s no blood or amputees for CNN to film.

Financial Argument. The best financial argument for preventive action is that it is likely to be cheaper, by many orders of magnitude, than responding after the event - whether through military action, humanitarian relief assistance, post-conflict reconstruction, or all three. This is not a hard argument to establish. For example, when I was Australian Foreign Minister, I tasked my Department after the Gulf War to assess the cost to the allies of waging it, as compared with what the cost would have been in setting up a credible worldwide system of preventive diplomacy centres, staffed by professionals, which might conceivably have averted Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait – still generally acknowledged to be one of history’s best examples of missed opportunities for such diplomacy. The result? Cost of establishing the centres $21 million; material cost to the allies of fighting the war - not to Iraq, and leaving aside any calculation of human cost - $70 billion.

UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw made exactly the same point in a speech last month with some revealing figures about the Balkans: “Early treatment of some ugly symptoms in Macedonia was highly effective last year in stopping a slide into failure and preventing the re-emergence of chaos in the Balkans. Sorting out Bosnia cost the British taxpayer at least £1.5 billion. Kosovo cost £200 million. Macedonia cost just £14 million.”

I think it can also be assumed in relation to Iraq now that effective diplomacy through the Security Council, backed by a strong inspection regime (albeit with the threat of force if there is non-compliance being there as a necessary ingredient in the mix) could deliver disarmament at a rather cheaper cost than the $100 billion or so Congress estimates it will cost to see through a war. It’s an interesting thought also in this respect that the US will be spending more next year on its unproven and still highly controversial missile defence program than it will be on the entire State Department.

National Interest Argument. It is not hard to argue that preventive action can often serve a country’s national interests as very narrowly and traditionally defined in security and economic terms. Avoiding the disintegration of a neighbour, with the refugee outflows and general regional security destabilization associated with it can be a compelling motive in many contexts. National economic interests can often be equally well served - by keeping resource supply lines, trade routes and markets undisrupted. Whatever may have been the case in the past, these days peace is generally regarded as much better for business than war.

But there is another dimension of the national interest which is highly relevant here. It is every country's national interest in being, and being seen to be, a good international citizen. There is a lot of direct reciprocal benefit to be gained in an interdependent, globalised world where nobody can solve all their own problems: my assistance for you today in solving your drugs and terrorism problem might reasonably lead you to be more willing to help solve my environmental problem tomorrow. The interest in being seen to be a good international citizen is simply the reputational benefit that a country can win for itself, over time, by being regularly willing to pitch into international tasks for motives that appear to be relatively self-less.

This is part of what in the US is often called ‘soft power’ – the power of values and ideals to inspire, rather than of force to coerce. Tony Judt put it well when he wrote recently: “US power is rooted in the belief that it really does stand for a better world and is the best hope of those who seek it. What gives the US its formidable influence is not its unequalled capacity for war, but the trust of others in its good intentions.” It is not obvious, unfortunately, that this argument has much appeal for the present administration. It should.

Domestic Politics Argument. Making an argument that will address domestic political concerns is a subtler business than just calculating what the majority reaction will be. Governments - even those directly dependent for their support on the ballot box - often do things without knowing what is the majority view, and even when they know that the majority sentiment might be against the proposed action. What matters more is that they have arguments that will appeal to, or at least not alienate, their own political support base; and that they have arguments that they can use to deflate, or at least defend against, the attacks of their political opponents.

There are interesting examples in the US at the moment of very partisan considerations being hitched simultaneously to both good conflict prevention and resolution practice, and less good. The Christian right, though not in the mainstream of national opinion, is an acknowledged strong influence on the present Bush administration. In the Sudan, that influence is being exercised very positively insofar as, motivated by concerns about religious freedom and slavery, it has led the US to play a very active and positive role in the peace process now under way. But in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it has been rather less positive to the extent that – motivated by the belief that biblical prophecies are coming true, heralding an apocalypse in which Jews will either die or accept Jesus – it has encouraged an extremely one-sided approach by the administration.

International Political Will
I have been focusing on domestic political dynamics because there is no doubt that the key to mobilizing international support is to mobilize domestic support, or at least neutralize domestic opposition. But that is only part of the story. International political will is more than just the sum of attitudes and policies of individual countries. What happens between states and their representatives in bilateral and multilateral contacts, and within intergovernmental organizations, is obviously also crucial. To get the right words uttered, and to turn them into deeds, requires – at international as at domestic level – the same kind of commitment and leadership, and the same kind of constant campaigning. The biggest constituency is always for inaction. It is just as important in the international arena as it is in the domestic to be able to produce arguments appealing to morality, resource concerns, institutional interests and political interests. Two of the most crucial roles in any such campaigning are played by the media, and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

As to the media, there is no question that good reporting, well-argued opinion pieces and in particular real-time transmission of images of suffering do generate both domestic and international pressure to act. The “CNN effect” can be almost irresistible, unbalanced in its impact though it may be, with similarly troubling crises not always receiving similar attention. On the other hand, by focusing attention on human suffering, media attention sometimes tends to divert policy-makers from hard diplomatic and military decisions, with time pressures sometimes pushing them to become involved before serious analysis and planning can occur. That is a lesser sin than those of total inertia or excessive delay, but it can create problems nonetheless.

International NGOs, much empowered by the information revolution, are becoming far more important players than they have been in the past in conflict prevention and resolution, as in so many other policy areas, though with some 29 000 operating internationally at last count, it is clear that not all have the same degree of influence. The influence they do exert is not without its critics, who focus on the lack of democratic accountability and transparency that is often a characteristic: our cause was not helped by the American official who recently described al-Qaeda as ‘the ultimate NGO’.

My own NGO, the International Crisis Group, has a rather unique role in the scheme of things and I hope you’ll forgive me taking just a few moments to describe what we’re doing to try to mobilise exactly the political will that this talk has been about. We were founded in 1995, essentially as a response to the disastrous policy failures of Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda; we are a wholly independent, multinational organisation with now over 80 full-time staff on five continents; our mission is the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict; our methodology is field based analysis, policy prescription and high level advocacy; our annual budget is around $9 million, provided by foundations, governments and private individuals; and our essential role in life is to make governments and intergovernmental organisations think about things they don’t want to think about, and do things they don’t want to do.

Operating from eleven country or regional offices, we are present on the ground in more than 30 conflict-affected countries in Africa, Asia, the Balkans, Latin America and the Middle East (from Algeria to Iran). We have, in addition, headquarters and advocacy operations in Brussels, Washington DC, New York, Paris and London.

Over the past year alone, ICG has published over 80 detailed reports and briefing papers, each of which has gone to over 10,000 senior government decision-makers and those who influence them. Our website is now attracting some 800 000 visitors a year, and our public profile – while always destined to be lower than groups engaged in more glamorous activity than conflict prevention – is rapidly growing: for example, we have just participated in a photo-shoot for a forthcoming Vanity Fair “Hall of Fame” spread, in which we are identified as one of the world’s top NGOs, along with Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, OSI, CARE, Oxfam and other household names. We are constantly approached by the international media for information and interviews, and ICG is quoted or discussed in the major papers and electronic media around the world almost every day.

Some of our more noticed policy contributions have been to help mobilise and stiffen international resolve to intervene in Kosovo in 1999 and, more recently, in Macedonia; to make major inputs into the peace processes now under way in Congo, Burundi and Sudan; to help set the international conflict prevention and peace building agendas in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Serbia and Bosnia; to help move international, if not local, policy in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Myanmar and Indonesia; and to bring to centre stage the need for a new political-settlement-first approach to the resolution of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Our policy views may not always prevail, particularly in the short term, but we are unquestionably listened to: we get a lot of nice feedback from everyone from Kofi Annan to Tony Blair to Colin Powell to the French and Chinese Ambassadors to the UN.

Some of our more noticed policy contributions have been to help mobilise and stiffen international resolve to intervene in Kosovo in 1999 and, more recently, in Macedonia; to make major inputs into the peace processes now under way in Congo, Burundi and Sudan; to help set the international conflict prevention and peace building agendas in Central Asia, Afghanistan, Serbia and Bosnia; to help move international, if not local, policy in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, Myanmar and Indonesia; and to bring to centre stage the need for a new political-settlement-first approach to the resolution of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Our policy views may not always prevail, particularly in the short term, but we are unquestionably listened to: we get a lot of nice feedback from everyone from Kofi Annan to Tony Blair to Colin Powell to the French and Chinese Ambassadors to the UN.

When you are primarily in the conflict prevention business – so that you most succeed when nothing happens – it’s not easy to prove that you’ve ever actually made the crucial difference. But the stakes are so high in terms of human lives and misery in all these cases, it’s enough of a reward to know that, whether anyone has noticed or not, we just might have.

IV. The Problem of Misdirected Political Will

There’s a well known saying to the effect that “Be careful or you might get what you asked for”. Before I conclude, the point certainly needs to be made that when it comes to conflict prevention and resolution, the problem of political will can on occasion be not so much its absence as its over-exuberant presence.

The issue has arisen in very stark terms in recent months in the context of US foreign policy: first, in the general enunciation of a doctrine of US global supremacy and right to take pre-emptive action; and secondly, in the specific context of a threatened unilateral war on Iraq. Both show no shortage of political will, but they do raise – in the eyes of the rest of the world – some fundamental questions about judgement and commitment to international process.

US National Security Strategy

The US National Security Strategy, released by the White House in September, is about much more than just the doctrine of pre-emption. It calls for nothing less than a permanent policy of maintaining US military hegemony: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States.” As the Wall Street Journal’s Max Boot has noted, this is even stronger language than used by Paul Wolfowitz ( now No. 2 but then No. 3 in the Defense Department) in a planning document in 1992, which an embarrassed Bush Senior administration withdrew after it was attacked by Senator Alan Cranston as proposing to make the US ‘the global Big Enchilada’.

In the hothouse atmosphere now prevailing, nobody in the US seems to be very troubled by the Big Enchilada strategy, even though it involves some rather breathtaking elements: maintaining a unipolar world; claiming an unconstrained right to eliminate and not merely deter new security threats; treating as outdated established international rules limiting the scope of self-defence; downplaying the relevance and utility of treaties and international institutions; and placing little value on international stability.

The trouble with all of this is that it seems – at least in the eyes of most of the rest of the world – to be unworkable, unsustainable, incomplete and counterproductive. Unworkable, because other countries are not likely to accept the discipline of treaty constraints and demonstrable- imminent-risk-before-strike if the US will not. Unsustainable, because of the burdens and commitments that will pile up after every major military action to the point eventually of overstretch. Incomplete, because the strategy simply does not acknowledge the necessity of international cooperation if national interests in relation to terrorism, international crime, environmental protection, trade and so on are to be realised. And counterproductive, because if there is one way the hegemon is likely to ultimately find itself encircled, it is when every other significant power has been systematically alienated by its throwing its weight around.

Iraq

US Iraq policy has looked like all these abstractions made real, at least in the way it was first formulated, with its emphasis on the US right to make its own judgement about the degree of threat it faced; to take unilateral military action if it so chose irrespective of whether it could establish that any such threat, to the US or the world at large or Iraq’s own people, was imminent; and to take such action whatever the potentially destabilising consequences elsewhere. While there are views at either end of the spectrum, the balance of opinion – certainly outside the US, and to an increasing extent I think inside – has come down in favour of what I would regard as three perfectly defensible propositions:

- Disarmament, not regime change, is the issue, and the relevant risks are those posed to international, not internal, peace and security;
- It is appropriate for the UN Security Council to adopt a very tough position on the inspection and destruction regime necessary to ensure it. A uniquely tough resolution is appropriate because Iraq is uniquely dangerous as a result of its combination of not only WMD capability and breach of UN resolutions (in neither of which is it unique) but also its demonstrated record of use of such weapons (both against its own people and an external enemy) and its demonstrated support for non-state actors perpetrating violence.
- It is important that SC maintain control of the follow through process – so that the question does not even arise of resort to unilateral action. This control of future military action should involve not only assessing compliance, but evaluating the larger costs and benefits of military action versus inaction. But the Security Council should not shrink from taking military action if this is absolutely necessary to remove a threat to international peace and security, and maintain the authority and credibility of international institutional process.

In this context, the Congressional resolution authorising military action by the President should be seen not so much as a rush to unilateral judgement, but a recognition of the utility –in terms of persuading the Security Council to do what it should – of having an 800 lb US gorilla out there, visibly prepared to go it alone if the international process is not vigorously pursued.

There are some significant signs of evolution in the US administration’s position, with the Powell music and Cheney words, very different at the outset, sounding progressively more harmonious (although one suspects the gap between the two main camps within the US administration remains wider than that between any of the Permanent Five members of the Security Council). Public opinion, always more sensible – and principled – than most political leaderships in most countries give it credit for, seems to have played its part, becoming ever more cautious and sceptical as the war drums have sounded louder. The bottom line perception that seems to be taking hold is that war of any kind is really an ugly, awful business, and that if we are about preventing deadly conflicts, it is quite a good idea not to start new ones – unless the case for doing so is overwhelming, and the means chosen are absolutely responsible.

V. The Bottom Line: Responsible Leadership

So what is the bottom line more generally? What, in broad terms, has to be done if we are to deal more rationally and effectively with deadly conflict in the future? My own three-point checklist for governments and intergovernmental organisations is straightforward enough. First, act comprehensively, which in the case of security problems means addressing them in a way that recognises they are not one-dimensional, and that social, economic and cultural factors can be at least as important as political and military ones in explaining why people and governments act as they do, and in persuading them to act otherwise.

Secondly, act cooperatively, which means recognising that in the real contemporary world, however big a country may be, most international problems are only solvable with the help of others. In the case of security threats it means recognising that acting together rather than in splendid isolation is also what for the most part is required by the UN Charter – the only dominant system of security law that we have, and which we would have to invent if it didn’t exist.

And thirdly, act intelligently, which means acting comprehensively and cooperatively, but more than just that. Before the event, it means acting preventively – on the basis that nothing is so cost effective in terms of dollars, lives, property destruction and misery. During the event, in reacting to deadly conflict or the prospect of mass violence, it means acting productively rather than counterproductively: for example, not solving one problem by creating others – as may happen if Saddam’s regime is eliminated at the price of inflaming the whole Arab-Islamic world and multiplying the grievances that contribute to the terrorist threat. After the event, it means acting sustainably – being prepared to devote as many resources to post-conflict reconstruction and peacebuilding as to the initial intervention. There is a real danger, despite all the rhetoric, of this not happening in Afghanistan.

Effective conflict prevention and resolution requires understanding of what is at stake, imagination in crafting solutions, institutions able to translate ideas into action, and above all strong leadership to mobilise the necessary will and resources. Supply on all these fronts has been long short of need, and it is a challenge for every actor on the international stage to find ways of bridging the gap.

Good leadership really is the bottom line. In all my years of engagement in public policy, both domestically and internationally, I have never ceased to be amazed at the capacity of individuals to make a difference, for better or for worse – whatever the cherished views of analysts and historians about deeper underlying currents and causes, and the ultimate insignificance of individuals in the real scheme of things. The capacity of individual leaders to choose cynicism over statesmanship, and votes over principles, is notorious enough, but just as common is the capacity, against the run of the logical play, to miss opportunities or to otherwise create havoc, in ways that are absolutely critical to outcomes.

So much seems to depend just on the luck of the draw: whether at a time of fragility and transition you get a Mandela or a Milosevic, a Rabin or a Sharon, an Arafat or an Ataturk, an Obasanjo or a Mugabe. That has always been so, and I suspect it always will be. Looking around the world at those individuals who currently matter most, let’s just hope it’s the case that even if leaders are not always born, they can be made.



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Latest Reports
"The Responsibility to Protect"
Article by Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun in Foreign Affairs (November/December)

Comment
1 November 2002

"Preventing Deadly Conflict and the Problem of Political Will"

2002 Montague Burton Professor of International Relations Lecture by Gareth Evans

Comment
17 October 2002

"Common Commitment": Moderator's Conclusions Remarks by Gareth Evans at "Partners in Prevention" Conference
Comment
30 August 2002

"The Impact of September 11 on Security in Asia"
Keynote Address by Gareth Evans to Monash Asia Institute Security Roundtable, Prato, Italy

Comment
17 May 2002

"World Tensions and Their Impact on Business: the Costs of Neglect".
Notes for Presentation by Gareth Evans to ICC 34th World Congress, Denver

Comment
7 May 2002