The Prevention of Violent Conflict

Contributors: Edward Canfor-Dumas and Thomas Boehlke

 Introduction to the 3 part series

This week The Wavell Room is hosting 3 articles, condensing the work of Thomas Boehlke and Edward Canfor-Dumas on the contribution the military can make to the prevention of violent conflict.  The Understand to Prevent (U2P) project focuses on how the military can contribute to the prevention of violent conflict as part of a comprehensive approach.  It has arisen from the changing nature of armed conflict, which is prompting NATO forces to adapt to new challenges.  U2P argues that military effort must shift away from crisis response and towards persistent, modulated engagement that seeks to manage conflict, prevent violence and build peace. Key is the need for military actors to develop a common understanding with others working towards the same ends and, where possible, to design with them complementary preventive actions and structures.  To apply this new approach, it is argued that military actors must extend their competences to become capable in the non­violent management of conflict as well as war­fighting.  The article was originally published HERE and we would like to thank the authors for giving us permission to serialise and re-publish.

Part 1 of 3

Realities of Contemporary Conflicts and Hybrid Threats

Contemporary violent conflicts display a high level of complexity. Most are intra­state conflicts with ambiguous causes that make any resolution challenging.  Most are waged by multiple belligerent groups, with no clear frontlines (e.g. Syria), and often civilians are not just affected by hostilities but the deliberate targets of violence.  The term three block war[1] has been coined to describe this complex, rapidly evolving conflict environment, which might simultaneously comprise elements of intense fighting, peacekeeping and humanitarian relief activities.  An additional sphere that increasingly impacts conflicts is the information domain; three blocks has become four blocks, thus further expanding the complexity of what General Sir Rupert Smith has called ‘war amongst the people’.[2]

The emergence of hybrid threats[3] has added yet more layers to contemporary conflict. Although there is no generally accepted definition, hybrid threat refers to the convergence and interconnection of different elements used by a state to achieve its strategic ends.  The following descriptions reveal some of the inherent challenges:

  • Hybrid conflict is a situation in which parties refrain from the overt use of armed force against each other, relying instead on a combination of military intimidation (falling short of an attack), exploitation of economic and political vulnerabilities, and diplomatic or technological means to pursue their objectives.
  • Hybrid war is a situation in which a country resorts to overt use of armed force against another country or a non­state actor, in addition to a mix of other means (e.g. economic, political, and diplomatic).[4]

Hybridity is well-suited to many contemporary violent conflicts because their root causes are often to be found within the political, social and economic conditions determining the conflict affected area i.e. grievances have accumulated over time to form protracted social conflicts.[5] Typically, these are enduring ethno political conflicts between identity groups, of which at least one party feels that its basic needs for political participation, economic wealth sharing, security and equality are not respected.  The insurgent party often strives to redress the balance by gaining access to state related power.

There is general agreement that there is no purely military solution to such conflicts.  The complexity and nature of the root causes call for a comprehensive approach i.e. a ‘joined­up’ political social­ economic military response that sees civilian and military actors and agencies working together.  For this to be effective, achieving a unity of purpose – and a complementarity of effort – is paramount.

U2P suggests that a starting point for forging this unity and complementarity is to understand how conflict can escalate into violence through action­reaction­counteraction, gathering momentum to pass from a latent to a manifest and, finally, a violent form.

How does this momentum develop?  According to William Felstiner[6], a social or political grievance that is previously not recognized becomes apparent (it can be named).  The next step is transforming this realization into an accusation (somebody can be blamed for it).  Finally, the discontent will be voiced and a remedy will be claimed from someone (person or institution).   This progressive transformation is true for all social conflicts and does not necessarily lead to physical violence, but once a certain threshold is crossed it is very difficult to turn back.  At this point fighting becomes the fourth sequential element, which is the common characteristic of an insurgency, rebellion or internal war.  This will inevitably see the deployment of military forces.

Such protracted social conflicts do not start overnight.[7]   Rather, perceived grievances might spark a dispute that slowly escalates and eventually leads to violence.  However, as this is a process and not a sudden outburst, there are opportunities for constructive intervention.  Kriesberg and Dayton[8] provide further encouragement with five core ideas about social conflicts:

  • Social conflicts are universal, and can be beneficial (if they stay non-violent)
  • Social conflicts are waged with varying destructiveness
  • Social conflicts entail social constructions
  • Social conflicts are dynamic and tend to move through stages
  • All social conflicts can be transformed

Understanding that the dynamics that transform a dispute seem to progress principally towards escalation – unless prevented by conciliation or intervention – the objective for military actors is to provide for conditions that encourage a peaceful settlement of the conflict through negotiation and dialogue.  The aim is to remove the element of fighting from the escalatory sequence of naming-blaming-claiming; for example, by delineating where military contingents and police forces would be employed to end hostilities and prevent a resumption of fighting.  Maintaining a cease fire (including through coercive means) provides the opportunity for the belligerents to enter dialogue and transform violent (or potentially violent) conflicts into non­violent processes of social and political change.

A word of caution, however: the military represents a state’s claimed monopoly of the use of force.  The legal and legitimate application of military force must be a last resort but, in the context of the prevention of violent conflict, it can sometimes seem to be the first resort. Whenever the military is called in, its mere existence will have an effect on the conflict environment.  The challenge for military planners and operators alike is to find appropriate ways to make it an effective element of violence prevention and conflict resolution, rather than adding fuel to the flames.

[1] A term coined by US Marine Corps General Charles Krulak to describe the spectrum of complex challenges Marines face in contemporary operations (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Block_War).

[2] Smith, Rupert.  The Utility of Force – the Art of War in the Modern World. Penguin Books, 2005., p. 266 ff.

[3] Pawlak, Patryk. “Understanding Hybrid Threats.” 2015, https://epthinktank.eu/2015/06/24/understanding­hybrid­threats

[4] Ibid

[5] Conflict theory developed by Edward Azar ident es the deprivation of human needs as source of protracted social conflicts and are usually expressed collectively. It is the prolonged and often violent struggle by communal groups for such basic needs as security, recognition, and acceptance, fair access to political institutions and economic participation.  See Ramsbotham, Woodhouse and Miall 2016, p. 115 ff.

[6] See Felstiner, William L.F et al. “The Emergence and Transformation of Disputes Naming, Blaming, Claiming…” Law and Society Review, vol. 15, no. 3­4, 1980­81, pp. 631­654.

[7] Ibid

[8]  Kriesberg, Louis and Bruce W. Dayton. Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. 4th edition, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2012.


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