Developing an Alternative to War: Peaceful Prevention of Deadly Conflict

June 5th, 2003 - by admin

by Friends Committee on National Legislation –


In the fall of 2002, the Bush Administration enshrined in US policy a unilateral right to take military action against “emerging threats before they are fully formed.1 Months later, in March 2003, against widespread global protest and without UN Security Council authorization, the Administration put its new policy of preventive war into practice by invading and occupying Iraq. The costs of the war, the path of fractured alliances left in its wake, the ongoing crisis with North Korea, and the growing realization that the war may have fueled the very threats it was intended to thwart, have demonstrated that the Bush Doctrine is far from a complete success in forging peace and security. In fact, military force and unilateralism are tragically ineffective instruments against the current threats facing the US and the global community. But, if war is not the answer, then what is?

A 21st Century Program for Peace and Security

The Administration’s focus on earlier response to emerging threats is an important and necessary step in US policy. For too long, the world has responded too late to escalating conflicts, genocide, gross human rights abuses, failing states, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Since the early 1990’s, the international community has been facing up to and striving to overcome this “culture of reaction” by moving toward a “culture of prevention.” Unfortunately, the Administration’s emphasis on US military and economic dominance and the use of force as its main instrument of foreign policy diverges drastically from the international community’s deepened understanding of how to effectively reduce conflict and prevent war.

A growing body of research is contributing to a global movement for the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict. The publishing of the report of the Carnegie Commission on the Prevention of Deadly Conflict in 1998 (2), followed three years later by the release of the Secretary-General’s Report on the Prevention of Armed Conflict (3) and the report on the “Responsibility to Protect” by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (4) marked important steps in the world community’s effort to better understand, predict, and prevent the outbreak of violent conflict.

In 2001, Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for the development of new capacities within national governments, multilateral regional organizations, civil society, and the UN to undertake genuinely “preventative” actions in all stages of conflict – from latent tensions to hot wars to post-conflict peacebuilding. Such preventative actions include developing early warning systems and enhanced preventive diplomacy capacities, strengthening international law and good governance, reducing the proliferation of weapons and protecting human rights, supporting sustainable development and the fair distribution of resources, ending poverty, tackling HIV/AIDS and other public health crises, reducing ethnic tensions, building strong institutions of global civil society, and ensuring basic human security for all the world’s people.

Many in the international community are already making progress to develop and implement policies of peaceful prevention. The European Union, African Union, and other multilateral organizations are working to develop new mechanisms for regional conflict prevention. Sweden has created a national policy for the prevention of violent conflict. The UN Development Program, World Bank, and national development agencies including the US Agency for International Development are exploring methods of integrating conflict prevention into their program work in countries worldwide. Non-governmental agencies working in humanitarian assistance, development, and peacebuilding are exploring their role in the prevention of violent conflict.

The UN’s agenda for the peaceful prevention of armed conflict originally grew out of the recognized failure of the international community in the post-Cold War world to adequately prevent mass humanitarian crises, including the Rwandan genocide and mass slaughter in Srebrenica. The world, including the US, was growing tired of reacting too little, too late to humanitarian crises, ethnic conflicts, and failed states that might have been prevented. A paradigm shift away from 11th hour response to a model of early prevention was needed. In the summer of 2001, the UN Security Council, with the Bush Administration representing the US, passed a resolution pledging to “enhance the effectiveness of the United Nations in addressing conflict at all stages, from prevention to settlement to post-conflict peacebuilding.”5 Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged the global community “to make prevention the cornerstone of collective security in the twenty-first century.”

Just months later, the attacks of September 11, 2001, highlighted the importance of a security agenda that could better predict emerging threats, prevent their outbreak into violence, diffuse current disputes, and address the root causes of violent conflict. Rather than applying the lessons of peaceful prevention that the international community had been gathering, though, the US reverted to the outdated tools of unilateralism and overwhelming military force – instruments which promised to fuel the threats of weapons of mass destruction and terrorist attacks. Military action may stamp out some elements of a threat, but it cannot remove the roots of conflict and may instead deepen their reach.

A New National Security Strategy
A more effective, less costly path to national and global security is available.

Some years ago, the New York City fire department made a fundamental paradigm shift away from fire emergency response toward fire prevention. The department changed the way it approached its job and turned more energy and resources into public education, early detection systems, better building codes, and addressing some of the most persistent causes of fire. They saved lives and, over a few short years, began fighting fewer and less devastating fires. Prevention works.

The US needs to make a similar paradigm and policy shift in its approach to security. The threats of weapons of mass destruction, terrorist networks, oppressive regimes, ethnic conflict, failed states, and devastating poverty and disease can be diminished through policies and programs designed to peacefully prevent the outbreak of violence and address the root causes of conflict. Such a US policy framework would build on the efforts already underway at the UN, among European allies, in regional organizations, and among civil society groups to develop stronger capacities for early warning, early response, and addressing root causes. It would replace the policy of preventive war with one of war prevention.

End Notes

1. The National Security Strategy is a document published by every Administration, sometimes annually, and required by Congress. It outlines the basic policy framework for US security policy under the authoring Administration. The 2002 National Security Strategy has received considerable criticism in the US and abroad for its emphasis on US global military dominance and declaration of a unilateral right to take “preemptive” action against emerging threats. The document text and analysis from FCNL is available at

2. In 1998, the Carnegie Commission on the Prevention of Violent Conflict published a hallmark report that helped create the language and theoretical framework of peaceful prevention. The report described preventive activity in terms of operational (late-term preventive actions that address the proximate causes of conflict as it is unfolding; examples include mediation, arms embargoes, and peacekeeping operations) and structural (early preventive actions that address the underlying structural causes of conflict, examples include preventive development programs, interreligious or interethnic peacebuilding, and democratic institution building). Following its 1998 report, the commission published a series of other studies on prevention, all available at

3. In June 2001, at the request of the UN Security Council, the Secretary-General published a Report on the Prevention of Armed Conflict. The report outlines actions, roles, and recommendations for the international community in the prevention of armed conflict. The report was well-received by UN Member States, and the theme of conflict prevention was anticipated to be a major topic in the opening speeches of th 56th General Assembly. However, the attacks of September 11, 2001, coming just before the UN session opening, eclipsed other topics and became the central focus. Work to implement the recommendations of the report at the UN level, among regional organizations, at the country level, and among civil society groups has continued. The report is available at

4. The International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty was established by the Canadian government to lead an international consultation process on the issue of international intervention in interstate conflict or humanitarian crises. Rather than focusing on the international community’s right to intervene, the report emphasized the responsibility of every state to protect its people and prevent violent conflict. The report is available at

5. See UN Security Council Resolution 1366, available at

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