Managing Civil Wars: An Evaluation of Conflict-Prevention Strategies in Africa

By De Maio, Jennifer | World Affairs, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview
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Managing Civil Wars: An Evaluation of Conflict-Prevention Strategies in Africa

De Maio, Jennifer, World Affairs

Could the massive genocide in Rwanda have been prevented? Could the bloodshed in Somalia, Kosovo, and Bosnia have been avoided? Even the slight possibility that the answer could be "yes" warrants an investigation into what actions could have been taken to preclude the outbreak or escalation of violence. Although many are the examples of devastating civil war, there is evidence that preventive diplomacy can and has averted conflict. If preventive diplomacy has proven effective in at least one case, then defining the conditions for its success becomes a critical exercise for any scholar of conflict prevention and resolution.

This article attempts to assess critically when and why preventive diplomacy succeeds and when it fails in an effort to develop a response-oriented framework that will address how the international response system can be redesigned to act quickly to prevent or limit the escalation of violent conflict. My purpose is threefold: first, to define preventive diplomacy in a post--cold war context; second, to engage in a comparative case study to identify factors that seem to explain why conflict prevention is successful in some instances and not in others; and third, to develop a guideline of conditions that must be present for preventive diplomacy to work.

In the aftermath of the cold war, intrastate conflicts have become the dominant form of contemporary violence. Groups that have historically interacted peacefully can be mobilized against each other as the result of fundamental conflicts of interest arising from processes of modernization, fears of group extinction, and political dynamics that produce extremist leaders. Domestic conflicts can also become transnationalized (Keller 1997, 1998) and threaten regional stability and security. The dynamics of these conflicts and methods of preventing them do not follow the rules of cold war engagement. As a result, policymakers and scholars are faced with the challenge of developing new ways to deal with such conflicts before they erupt into large-scale violence. The pervasiveness of intrastate conflict has generated a number of studies on the causes of, consequences from, and strategies for managing intrastate conflict. It has also generated prescriptive essays on how third parties might successfully intervene to prevent the outbreak or escalation of violence (Jentleson 1998, 2000; Lurid 1996; Davies and Gurr 1998; Boutros-Ghali 1992; Alker, Gurr, and Rupesinghe 2001). Few studies, however, have systematically examined the conditions for successful preventive diplomacy.

The present discussion will address these conditions in a manner that should: (a) give a better understanding of when and why certain conflict prevention strategies succeed and (b) develop an integrated, policy-operations framework that can be adapted to individual conflicts. The article is divided into four main sections. I begin my analysis by defining the concept of preventive diplomacy in the post--cold war context; I then consider the relevant literature on intervention and examine various types of preventive diplomacy with an emphasis on early warning systems. In the second section, I apply my analysis to a comparative study of conflicts in Somalia, Rwanda, and KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, focusing on how preventive diplomacy failed to thwart bloodshed in the former two cases and succeeded in precluding the escalation of violence in the latter. In the third section, I make causal inferences based on the case-study evidence and posit that where conflict prevention worked, it was the result of informed analysis and understanding of the situation; where it failed, there was a lack of political will and an analytical framework. Based on this assessment, in the final section I propose conditions that when present increase the likelihood of successful conflict prevention.


The term preventive diplomacy is defined here as political, economic, and/or military intervention by external parties to contain intrastate tensions before they erupt into large-scale violence.

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Managing Civil Wars: An Evaluation of Conflict-Prevention Strategies in Africa


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