Preventing War and Disorder: "Preventive Diplomacy" Emulates Public-Health Strategies

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"Preventive diplomacy" emulates public-health strategies.

Diplomacy, like health care, is focusing increasingly on prevention rather than treatment. The diplomats want to stop violent conflicts before they start.

The end of the Cold War may have encouraged ethnic uprisings, but it has also enabled the international community to act collectively, according to the contributors to a new book, Preventive Diplomacy, edited by Kevin M. Cahill, a physician and medical consultant to the United Nations. Preventive diplomacy seeks to address the root causes of conflicts rather than wait until violence erupts and peacekeepers need to be sent in.

The book, based on papers presented at a United Nations symposium, offers the model of public health as a new organizing principle for diplomacy. The hope is that great successes of the international community in improving public health, such as the eradication of smallpox, can be adapted by diplomats. Prevention's proactive nature differentiates it from traditional diplomacy, which reacts to problems after they arise. Cahill and his colleagues argue that detection and early intervention to prevent conflicts and crises should be as honored in international relations as crisis management and political negotiation.

Cahill writes that "the sources of human stress, community breakdown, and group violence are far too diverse and too deeply embedded in social change to be consigned to the windowless compartments of conventional diplomacy." The diverse sources require help from many different disciplines, including medicine, so that prevention calls for a "symphony" of actions by including statesmen, businessmen, journalists, international organizations, bankers, nongovernmental organizations, and so on - rather than a solo performance by traditional diplomacy.

The United Nations is the logical "conductor" of the symphony, but it needs a great deal of help. International support is justified not only on moral grounds, but on economic ones: Preventive diplomacy would be cheaper than peacekeeping, whose annual cost is soaring, up 12-fold between 1986 and 1993.

"Preventing conflict requires different skills from resolving conflict," notes Cahill's colleague, Lord David Owen, a former Minister of Health and Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom. …