Contributors: Edward Canfor-Dumas and Thomas Boehlke

Part 3 of 3

The final instalment of Thomas Boehlke and Edward Cantor-Dumas work 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.

Understand to Prevent (U2P) – a ‘Tiered’ Approach

Recognizing that the military contribution is only one element of a comprehensive approach, the U2P process also offers a simple ‘tiered’ model for improved communication and collaboration between actors seeking to prevent violent conflict.

Such a model is necessary because the persistent challenge of a comprehensive approach is how to achieve commonality of purpose and effort among a range of actors who do not acknowledge a commonly agreed authority, let alone a single chain of command. On the military side, most Western forces and their allies share joint processes that are alien to most non-military actors, who can also often find it hard to coordinate with other civilians, even in the same field.

In addition, the actions of various non-military actors can be determined by internal mandates that set strict limits on the degree to which they can interact with other organizations, especially the military. Humanitarian, development and peacebuilding NGOs also operate according to different cultures. Taken together, these factors mean that there is no one-size-fits-all model that will deliver a truly comprehensive approach to prevention.

Even so, to maximize their effectiveness it is imperative that military and non-military actors seek to develop a common understanding of the conflict they are considering and, on this basis, forge complementary approaches to prevention.

While this might be achieved through ad hoc or informal arrangements – which could be all that is possible in certain circumstances – the U2P process proposes a more structured, ‘tiered’ approach that seeks to balance inclusiveness, flexibility and effectiveness. This offers three broad tiers of engagement between military and non-military actors, both within and beyond the conflict affected space – namely Integration, Cooperation and Sharing.

These three tiers are part of a spectrum, so the exact boundary between them is less important than the key characteristic of each tier.

  • Tier 1: Integration is for those actors who are willing to plan and operate as part of an integrated effort under a commonly recognized authority.
  • Tier 2: Cooperation is for those actors who wish to negotiate some complementarity in their actions. This can range from developing common goals to some degree of co­planning and action. The actors retain full autonomy, however.
  • Tier 3: Sharing aims simply for everyone to know (as far as possible) what everyone else is doing, through the sharing of information.

Crucially, each actor decides at which level they wish to interact, if at all. The intention is to establish a flexible and creative approach to interaction that supports the development of a common understanding of a conflict, and complementary approaches towards it.

Individual and Collective Competence of the Military

Military competence is understood to be the disposition of a person to think, organize and act in new, complex and/or uncertain situations of conflict prevention in a self-organized manner. It should be distinguished from skills, which nevertheless are part of the individual’s competence.[1] Prevention and peacebuilding competence is made up of four base competences[2], which may be further specified according to the relevant objectives of the military’s role in this activity:

Competencies of a military peacebuilder[3]

Personal competence Credibility

Holistic thinking



Competence of activity and decision-making Decision-making ability


Ability to act/execute

Professional and methodological competence Analytical skills


Social communicative competence Ability to solve conflicts

Ability to solve problems

Ability to understand others’ perspectives

Ability to work in a team

Communication skills


Sense of duty


Competence is a disposition – the various elements of the required individual’s competence for prevention and peace­building therefore need to be fostered through training and education and will only be developed over time.

The competent military actor, having developed his or her ability to resolve conflict, has been described as follows[4]:

  • Recognizes conflicts of interest with or between others and knows her/ his own position.
  • Is aware of potential (local) sources of conflict and able to recognize conflict dynamics and respective actors.
  • Has the insight and willingness/ tolerance required to con­ sider other interests objectively (avoiding bias) and critically challenge her/his own.
  • Reaches out to stakeholders in community, fellow soldiers or local leaders sensitively (empathy) and can deal with conflicts.
  • Exercises impartiality in addressing and / or resolving conflict issues. Has persuasive power; resolves resistance and obstruction by asserting both sides’ interests convincingly; inspires trust and emanates confidence; resolves conflicts to the conflicting parties’ advantage, in a way that increases their personal responsibility, creativity and social communication; is therefore sought as a mediator in cases of conflict.

Since contemporary conflicts drag military actors into the social dynamics of conflict affected communities, modern soldiery involves tasks that require military actors to expand their individual competence beyond war­fighting. Military operators will require competence in prevention at all levels of command. At the operational and strategic level, the general understanding of the conflict and its dynamics is required to delineate appropriate approaches to conflict transformation; while at the tactical (grassroots) level, soldiers face local communities with various stakeholders directly involved in conflict.

In short, there needs to be a collective competence of the military institution to understand and deal with the destructive escalation of social conflicts, and to come up with operational ideas for constructive conflict transformation.

Collective competence is a demanding task for professional military education and training. It will need to be an integral part of training and education in military staff colleges and schools. It will also need to be embedded in a common doctrinal basis to inform the collective mind-set of the military and guide military operations planning and operational conduct in this sphere.


What is the way ahead for U2P? The first step is to disseminate the concept. No MCDC nation or organization is under any obligation to adopt any of its products, and so it is with U2P. So the U2P Handbook and concept note will be circulated widely throughout various institutions embraced by the MCDC community – defence academies, staff colleges, concept and training centres etc. – the aim being to start a broad conversation on the suggestions they contain.

At the same time, it is hoped that some specialist military units – for example, the UK’s 77th Brigade, but also operational level headquarters – might start to use elements of the U2P process in their operational planning. The results can then be fed into the wider conversation and, where they are beneficial, be further developed in training, education and use elsewhere. To state it again – U2P is an iterative process, not just in its focused use but as a broad, evolving concept.

U2P may be seen as an approach to help develop responses to NATO’s strategic challenges presented by hybrid threats. It complements the established crisis response planning process with practical tools for military staffs for an in-depth analysis of conflict dynamics and stakeholder engagement.

NATO is the largest and most powerful military alliance in the world. It was designed for crisis management, which means it takes a crisis to spur it to action. But this also means that for the majority of the time it is on standby. Whether the next alliance wide crisis response is triggered by Article 5, and whether it is in area or expeditionary, U2P offers a strategy persistent modulated engagement – to use NATO assets more imaginatively, more creatively and more consistently over time.  Indeed, were it to become part of NATO doctrine, its application would then be open to each member and partner country operating independently or bilaterally. Currently, elements of the handbook are contributing to the development of new NATO doctrine on the Protection of Civilians.[5]  In this way, U2P would be able to prove its worth in a wide variety of situations, at various levels.

[1] Rychen, Dominique Simone and Laura Hersh Salganik, editors. Key Competencies for a Successful Life and a Well-Functioning Society. Hogrefe Publishing, 2003. A definition offered: “A competence is de ned as the ability to successfully meet complex demands in a particular context. Competent performance or effective action implies the mobilization of knowledge, cognitive and practical skills, as well as social and behaviour components such as attitudes, emotions, and values and motivations. A competence – a holistic notion – is therefore not reducible to its cognitive dimensions, and thus the terms competence and skills are not synonymous” (OECD 2003).

[2] Reference: Heyse, Volker and John Erpenbeck, (Hrsg.). Kompetenzmanagement – Methoden, Vorgehen, Kode(R) Und Kode(R)X Im Praxistest. Waxmann Verlag GmbH, 2007.

[3] Outcome of focus group discussions with civil society organisations and officers and non-commissioned officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Mindanao (2014) facilitated by T. Boehlke.

[4] Outcome of focus group discussion with staff of 6th Infantry Division (AFP), Awang, Cotabato City (Mindanao/Philippines), July 2014.

[5] NATO SACT Protection of Civilians concept development workshop, Shrivenham, February 2017

The views expressed within individual posts and media are those of the author and do not reflect any official position or that of the author’s employees or employer. Concerns regarding content should be addressed to

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