No one cares until it's war: Conflict prevention is fine in theory. But the West cannot make it work, says Jonathan Eyal

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THE CURRENT issue of Atlantic Monthly, an influential US publication, is almost entirely devoted to a preview of the 21st century. Its main contributor, Robert Kaplan, depicts a world devoured by anarchy, with nations breaking up, borders crumbling and bands of marauders roaming free.

The euphoria generated by the end of the Cold War is over, and America's intellectuals are now consumed by a sense of foreboding. The carnage of Yugoslavia, the disaster of Somalia and the open sore of Haiti: all are regarded as manifestations of a global meltdown. Yet, unlike the chattering classes, politicians cannot simply plead that they are powerless to change the world; humbled by the debacle of Yugoslavia, every Western leader claims that, from now on, conflict prevention is the answer.

The proposition is compelling: preventing a war from erupting is clearly preferable to trying to douse the flames. Engagement at an early stage harnesses the cumulative might of international institutions, is considerably cheaper than tackling real wars and can save lives. That, anyway, is the theory, which is all that currently exists of elaborate conflict-prevention mechanisms. But the theory is based on a fundamental misconception about how governments work, coupled with a mythical belief in the notion of world 'stability'.

In his Agenda for Peace, a blueprint for the United Nations published in April 1992, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary- General, gave conflict prevention top priority. Britain and France have eagerly collaborated in fleshing out this proposal; both are scheduled to launch a series of initiatives at the UN fairly soon.

This approach is spreading. In Cairo last December the Organisation of African Unity adopted a mechanism for handling impending conflicts. In November 1990 the Conference on Security and Co- operation in Europe (CSCE) created its own Conflict Prevention Centre as part of a 'charter' hailed by British diplomats as a Magna Carta for the Continent.

Although the CSCE eventually gave it some communications equipment and drew up a list of 'eminent persons' who could be relied upon to mediate in any impending conflict, the centre was initially charged with nothing more than supervising the exchange of military information between former enemies. The Conflict Prevention Centre remains more of an unemployment prevention centre for international bureaucrats. Most Europeans would be hard-pressed even to identify its location (Vienna).

The CSCE did better in its creation of a High Commissioner for National Minorites. The commissioner has worked assiduously, particularly on the problem of ethnic Russians in the Baltic republics. But during his first year in office, he had to rely on the charity of the Dutch for an office, and exhausted his miserly budget on phone calls and sparse visits to Europe's ethnic trouble spots. His erudite reports and patient mediation have had no effect on Russia's threats against the Baltic states; still every Western government insists that he has not failed - he has merely not succeeded yet.

All these efforts implicitly assume that early identification of a conflict is crucial to its prevention. Yet experience since the fall of Communism indicates that there is no lack of awareness of impending crises. The Yugoslav conflict was the most predictable war in modern history. Six months before it broke out, Western intelligence services pinpointed not only the week in which Yugoslavia would start tearing itself apart, but also outlined with chilling accuracy Belgrade's expected tactics. The reasons why these reports were ignored provide an indication of just how ephemeral efforts at conflict prevention are likely to remain.

Today's conflicts are generated either by the break-up of existing states or their destabilisation from within. Yet international security mechanisms are still predicated on a world in which governments exercise control over their territory and interference in a country's internal affairs is considered an exception to the rule. It is not easy to decide when to ignore an existing central authority in order to start dealing with the real protagonists in a crisis. Governments will always be tempted to uphold a country's existing leaders, partly because they represent known quantities and partly because abandoning a state's central authority too soon can precipitate the very disintegration everyone is seeking to avoid.

The gravest threat to European security today may come from the prospect of violence in Ukraine. At what stage should the West start discussing directly with the secessionist Russian leaders in Crimea? No conflict prevention centre, however well informed, can ever provide an answer to this essentially political question.

Sad as it may be, the notion of conflict prevention does not square with the nature of Western democracy. Foreign policy issues are usually viewed by electorates as a diversion from government's real task of improving economic wealth; they only assume importance once a crisis is acute. No politician has won votes by claiming to have prevented a conflict which, by definition, never existed because it was prevented. In electoral terms, convincing politicians to invest in conflict prevention is like asking a teenager to save for a pension.

Leaving such matters to expert mediators may seem a satisfactory compromise, but it remains an illusory one. In order to pledge peace- keeping troops, aid or security guarantees (the main instruments of conflict prevention) governments must generate a domestic political consensus. Yet conflict-prevention measures require secret and often intricate negotiations - making the early creation of such a public consensus difficult.

Even if governments are persuaded that conflict prevention is politically feasible, grave obstacles remain. In the early stages of any crisis, when an array of options from mediation to the introduction of troops exists, the natural tendency of most governments is to opt for the lowest possible commitment. Furthermore, almost any action is likely to take place on a multilateral basis, either within the European Union or Nato, where compromise is the name of the game. Britain dropped its opposition to recognising Croatia and Slovenia's independence as part of a deal which included some German concessions on the Maastricht treaty and, although this experience need not be repeated, the chances are that it will be.

However, even if all the objections are correct, is it not better that governments are at least trying to stop conflicts from blowing up? The deployment of US soldiers in the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia has been heralded as a novelty: a preventive use of force in order to stop the Yugoslav war from spreading. But the reality is quite different: the US forces can do little to avert an uprising from the republic's ethnic Albanians, which is Macedonia's gravest danger today.

The problem is that most of the West's efforts today lack conviction. They are not concerned with preventing conflicts as such. Rather, they are schemes intended to minimise Western involvement - confections intended to do something without doing anything in particular. Democracies are strong when challenged directly; they remain awful at preparing for impending crises.

The writer is director of studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London.

(Photograph omitted)