Alchemy for a New World Order: Overselling Preventive Diplomacy

The tasks of preventive diplomacy and conflict prevention are neither self-evident nor value-neutral, as some of their proponents seem to believe. Diplomacy that aims to resolve long-standing conflicts may have to take sides and coerce powerful parties into concessions. Diplomacy that aims to manage conflict so that it does not become violent may have to sacrifice a quest for justice in deference to the powerful. Prevention might conflict with important national and even global interests. If, as President Clinton has suggested many times, the primary American interest in Bosnia is thwarting the spread of the war, then the arms embargo has been an unqualified success. If, however, the primary American and global interest has been denying Serbian aggression and upholding the principle of Bosnian sovereignty, then the embargo has failed.

A focus on prevention ignores the role that conflict plays in driving political change in societies. For grievances to be redressed, they must be vocalized. If they are vocalized, those with a stake in the status quo will attempt to suppress them. Often the balance of change depends on the ability of the grieved to amplify the conflict to increase their support. If we have learned anything from the disparate cases of conflict resolution in recent decades -- the civil rights movement in the United States, the fight for human rights in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the fight for national self-determination in the Middle East, the fight against apartheid in South Africa -- it is that some conflicts must be intensified before they are resolved.

Preventive diplomacy and conflict prevention do not lessen the difficulty of choices for leaders, nor do they really lessen costs. For either to succeed, policymakers must still spell out their interests, set priorities among cases, and balance goals with resources. The president will still need to educate the American people about the rationale behind a policy and convince them of the need for action. Absent well-defined interests, clear goals, and prudent judgment about acceptable costs and risks, policies of preventive diplomacy and conflict prevention simply mean that one founders early in a crisis instead of later.